Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tim Tebow and Symbol Drain

 It's astonishing the ways in which Sports and Faith intertwine.  The Biography section in Lifeway, where I work currently, is stocked full of books about the lives of Tony Dungy, Jeremy Lin, Kurt Warner...etc... These are men who have excelled in the highest levels of athletic competition, and yet they are quick to acknowledge Christ as the source of their strength.  They have tons of admirers, and the countless people who they may have helped convert to Christianity are more important than any championship they may have won. One could easily argue there is no greater symbol of the Christian Faith today, than that of former Florida Gator, and former Denver Bronco Quarterback Tim Tebow. In relation to my previous blog, Tebow has garnered the anti-religious group into a well constructed "symbol drain" to trivialize the praying warrior.

This isn't "Atheists against Tebow." If we are to put a religious context in the fate of Tebow Time, Satan works in subtle ways, as well.  The main threat that Tebow has toward those who are fans of football is that he brings forth numbers that make no sense. He is the opposite of every empirically derived statistic that has been formed about football.  How can a quarterback throw for only 2 passes, and somehow still win the game?  And when he wins his first Playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a game that lasted 3:16, throwing for an amazing 316 yards (think John on this) it's impossible to think that some supernatural force is at work with his gameplay.  Tebow has done this all his playing career, and it will be interesting to see how he manages in New York (the parallel of sending Jonah to Nineveh.) Most sports fans, John Elway probably included, can't understand the skewing of numbers from what is normal to something totally out of the ordinary. It goes against every bit of sports science they knew. In fact, it goes against the idea that science, numbers, technology, is supposed to be the answer for everything. Tebow is a threat to the status quo so anyone who doesn't understand the work of God behind his play, wants to see him fail.

Again, this wasn't done by some direct assault, but rather   through what Neil Postman called Symbol Drain.  I call it "Symbol Inflation," but it's the same thing. You make the target funny, inconsequential, irrelevant.  And there were many ways of doing this. First, and most important, the idea of "Tebow Time," and the man itself must be clearly made into a symbol. Tebow himself gave them the answer as he prayed after each miraculous touchdown. In a pose that is now called "Tebowing," the kneeling stance became a symbol of everything Tebow stood for. But as it became a phenomenon, mostly through the usage of Youtube (one of the most influential Media ever created for instant manipulation of any Message), everyone started Tebowing. It became a fad, like "Planking," to kneel "as if praying" and record it in a photo or a Youtube video. The crucial part of this action, however, is that the meaning of the act, in reverence to God, was totally wiped away. It became just a motion, bereft of any prayerful attitudes. This culminated with the Jimmy Fallon impression of Ziggy Stardust/Tim Tebow singing a parody of "Major Tom". In the end, he sings, "Everyone out there Tebow," and Fallon, as Ziggy Stardust, "Tebows," and the crowd goes crazy. In this act, Tebow is trivialized, as are the principles by which he lives his life. Christianity goes by the wayside.

Fortunately, Tebow has refused to do very many talk shows, probably because he knows that any interview will further trivialize his message. But that doesn't stop the Paparazzi from taking pictures of Tebow whenever they can.  In New York, he was spotted having a manicure, and so they took a picture and spread it far and wide, comparing the new Jets QB to the arrogance of Joe Namath, but without the star playing power.  It will continue to happen, and Tebow will be ridiculed and trivialized all throughout the media. Let us hope that his Message is stronger than their Medium. Since it is God's Message, it has to be.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Jesus Selling Wine: Symbol Drain.

So I just finished the last book I purchased from Borders as they were slipping into oblivion. Ironically, it was Neil Postman's Technopoly, the last book that he wrote before dying in 2003. Postman shows how technology, and the ways in which we communicate with it, are quickly extinguishing the printed word, and all of the cultural revolutions that came with that invention. It was fitting that I bought this at the last moment, to rescue it from the store's closing, and to see, as usual, so many things that have come true from 2003 to the present. Would that prophets could live to see their statements fulfilled. Roddenberry would be astounded with the communicator style cell-phones that can easily talk to you with a pleasant female voice. Rand would see the steady encroachment of Statism upon the free market. I wish that Postman could have lived to the present day,
to see the ideas he put forth in his books come to pass. I've tried, in past blogs, to bring his ideas forward to the present day, and see how the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc... effect how we communicate, and more importantly, what we communicate. If you wish, my blog series on Neil Postman's work is at this link here. It is seven posts long. Postman often quotes the saying, "The Medium is the Message." Thus, the information relayed by the written word is much different than those of photographs.

Let's take advertisements for wine, for instance (for reasons that will be clear later).  The ad to the left is totally text based.  It tells us that W.A. Jackson has in stock a full-bodied Port, which is recommended for Invalids.  It also has fine "Mellow Whiskies," and received a Gold Medal at the Calcutta Exhibition in 1884 for the "superior excellency of their Ales."  That they have a Liqueur named "Mountain Dew," is interesting.  But the communication is without pictures.  We use reason to ascertain that this merchant is quite an expert on potent potables, and whenever we are in Darlington, UK, we can go to 36 High Row and get Potent Potables (actually, we can't, as the building is still there, but it is now Yorkshire Bank).

Now, let's fast forward to the 20th century, and this ad, which is located on a bottle of wine itself.  It reads "Bottled Romance." There is no reason to suspect that when we buy this "American Grape Wine," that we will be somehow transported to this place which looks nothing like Sandusky, Ohio.  A picture, which has taken the place of a thousand words, relies on emotional response, instant gratification, and instant understanding of the message the advertiser is trying to portray.  This wine is perfect for those candlelight dinners, or reclining in the living room before retiring for a little foreplay.  Looking at the two ads, which one is more effective?

Neil Postman looks at advertising in the modern capitalist society as a mechanism to promote a technological lifestyle.  It rejects reason, preferring instead the instant response given to a 30 second spot on television, or a photo of a scantily clad bikini girl next to a Harley-Davidson motorbike.  Technology worships science, or more precisely, the manipulation of science to presume that whatever numbers are finalized by something that claims to be scientific is exactly the truth.  Technopoly, as Postman calls it, worships numbers, exact figures, whether they are true or not.  It relies on Empirical data, which means that God is no longer relevant to the belief system, as He cannot be proven mathematically. The logic of the theories stated by Apologetic Christians mean nothing, as we cannot sense God with our eyes, cannot calculate Him with our calculators.  The reason I say this is because Christianity cannot be simply sideswiped by another religion, rejected as unneeded.  It is clear from the actions of Communist countries that outlawing religion simply does nothing.  Instead, ideas that do not support a religion of numbers, of technology, must be withered away as unimportant, as trivial.  And there is no better way than to use the services of advertisements to widdle away the meanings of some of our most precious images.  Neil Postman calls this "Symbol Drain."

To me, it is more akin to "Symbol Inflation."  Use emotionally stimulating images to such a degree that we forget the meanings behind them, that they become simply another avenue to sell trinkets on the street.  Let's take the ad above.  The image is of a balcony, overlooking some majestic landscape, obviously European.  At this point, one could imagine Juliet standing on the balcony, wondering about the whereabouts of her lover, Romeo.  Simply one of the most important romances ever told (by Shakespeare, no less), and they have conjured up the meaning to sell cheap American wine.  Another example, take cell phone rings (this, as is obvious, is not an advertisement, but is similar in meaning.)  Beethoven and Mozart would be turning over in their graves if they knew that some of the greatest works of music are currently being used as ring tones for today's cell phones.  It symbolizes something important, even if it is nothing but a cell phone call.  Oh, that some of the cell phones I hear, with their rude speakers answering them, would play the 1812 overture and they would explode upon the striking of the Cannons.

I say this to introduce the television commercial as a proponent of "symbol inflation." Imagine if you will, (and this example appears in Postman's Technopoly, so this is his, not mine) a camera coming down upon a beach someplace in the Caribbean Sea.  A "man" is there, in Ancient Israeli clothes, and He is holding a bottle of wine.  As the camera gets close enough, it is obvious that this man is Jesus Christ.  He holds up the bottle, and says, "When I turned water into wine, I was thinking of this delicious California Chardonnay" Now, obviously, this wouldn't happen, as advertisers are very aware of the Religious impact of using Jesus to sell wine.  It would be...unfortunate.   But the message is clear.  It would only take seconds to introduce the idea that Chardonnay would be the wine that Jesus prefers. And if this is something that is done enough, Jesus ceases to be the Son of God, our Lord who saved us from our sins so that we might have everlasting life, but rather a dude who is trying to sell wine.  This has already happened to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, who is routinely used to sell furniture on President's Day.  And Santa Claus has almost no meaning now, as there are so many all over the place, and the reasoning behind his flight to every child in the world is faulty.  Further concepts must be employed to keep children behaving, and thus, receiving gifts that are simply bribes to keep the kids behaving all year long. 

Another example, one that I find personally very annoying.  One of the greatest symbols of the United States is our National Flag.  The Stars and Stripes hang above virtually every business, and of course given the myriad of rules on the care of those flags, which should be followed with great respect, sometimes the flags are mistreated by weather and neglect.  I've seen flags torn, stuck in the branches of trees, almost to the point of me wanting to boycott those businesses just because they don't take care of the flag.  But the problem that I see that relates to "Symbol Inflation," is the occasions of putting the flag at half-staff.  It is an act that is emotionally powerful, to see the flag in morning of some great leader lost, or in remembrance of September 11th.  Even on a local level, when a police officer dies or a local representative, it works really well, to let the world know that there was someone great lost.  But it must be used sparingly, so that the half-staff flag doesn't become something we look at and then look away without thinking anything of it.  We should not trivialize our nation's symbols.

The idea of symbol inflation doesn't have to be something physical either.  Let's take the word "Fuck," for instance.  Remember when you first heard it, when your parents first said it was a word you should never use?  How powerful that word was, because you could never say it (even if you did or didn't know what it meant.  I didn't, when I first heard it, which was, by the way, when I was at least 10.)  And then you heard it in a movie, perhaps one you shouldn't be watching, or saw the act itself as a woman or guy said the word over and over in ecstasy (Pornography is also a symbol that is way overused, if seen on the Internet.  The act of sex becomes a physical act, like watching a ball game, and not something special that is tied with love, marriage, and the morality of the past.  Those that controlled Huxley's Brave New World would be proud.).  But now, you say the word if you drop your pen and can't quite get it off the floor, or if the light turns red right when you pull up to the intersection.  It becomes easy to say, bereft of meaning or passion.  Which is why, if anyone ever heard me say, "Fuck," would, after regaining consciousness from passing out in shock, would automatically know that something was terribly wrong.

Technology has replaced the symbol of knowledge in a very few years.  In 1953, Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, a warning to the preservation of books.  In it, fire fighters would go about burning books, and thus, the ideas inside them.  And if was easy to believe, in those days, that with Communism still alive and well, and with Big Brother a real possibility, that the censorship of books was a real possibility.  But now, Postman's Technopoly has done to books far worse than what Ray Bradbury could possible imagine.  Books, as a symbol, are now being replaced by the computer as the archetype of knowledge.  The Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia. And the reliability of the information, the truth within the symbol, has been greatly reduced.  Reduced, but not recognized by a large portion of the population.  For the print online, the entries on Wikipedia (which can be made by anyone) are taken as absolute truth, without training in school to realize what is truth and what isn't.  It's in a computer, so it must be true. This is the deification of technology as the Medium and the Message.  When the Bible has ceased to be printed, and it appears on everyone's cell phones as a free app, it will signal the end of Christianity as we know it, and the start of worshiping the Computer, or rather, the information it possesses.  And Christ will be on the television, selling the iPad as the latest miracle device.