May 19, 2011
How Coca Cola Replaced God
He introduces the topic with a description of Salman Rushdie’s denial of the sacred (remember, he wrote the Satanic Verses and had a fatwā declared against him for blasphemy). In response to the question, “Is there nothing sacred?” Rushdee answers a most definite “no.” The problem with sacred things is that they only serve to limit and trap you, says Rushdie. His view seems to embody the modern world’s approach to religion and the sacred. On the surface, most people seem to agree with him.
But in the next step Russell-Jones argues against Rushdie and claims that if you know how to look you will find that the sacred is alive and well today; that for vast numbers of modern people there is much that is sacred. Using a visit to the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta as a spring board he shows us his way of finding the sacred in popular culture. He notes how Coke, the most successful advertiser of all time, has mined sacred themes to build its image and has been accepted by the global populace as a kind of replacement for the sacred.
Remember that famous song “I’d like to teach the world to to sing in perfect harmony” that Coke turned into “I’d like to buy the world a coke”? As the lecture points out, this came in the early 70s when global conflict and cultural tension was very pronounced. Coke used pseudo-sacred elements in its self-presentation, specially in the way it the commercial showed young people from all over the world coming together in peace and harmony on a hillside. ”What a world this would be,” promised the ad, “If we could all just drink a Coke together.” All our religious aspirations might be somehow fulfilled. I looked it up on youtube and I found it surprisingly moving and because of that very disturbing as well.
This is no joke. Back in the 70s in Argentina we used to sing that song with Christian lyrics. Something about sharing Jesus with the world. I’m pretty sure there are English versions of that too. Coke isn’t the real thing, Jesus is! The fact that we would think to make that switch is evidence for Russell-Jones’ claims.
Along these lines, last month I was in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras. It is surrounded by hills and about half way up the most prominent hill is a Coca Cola sign. I’m pretty sure it influenced my choice of beverage on one particular 99 degree day. But when I first saw it I remember thinking that in many Latin American cities there is something quite different on the skyline: a cross or a Christ statue. Coincidence? Probably not.
By the way, did you know that it was Coke that defined how Santa looks? According to Russell-Jones that’s the way it went down. It was their advertising that standardized his portrayal.
Russell-Jones gives some other examples as well, but the point here is that people are religious and that they will and do attribute sacredness to something, regardless of what they purportedly believe. Dylan said it already, “You gotta serve somebody.” And before him the corpulent Chesterton similarly quipped that “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” It’s there if you have the eyes to see it.
Hey, I’m convinced!
The third step in the lecture, though, was a bit unexpected and I was very glad to see him head in this direction. Here he noted that his argument with Rushdie was not what you might think. Russell-Jones is not intent on defending the reality or validity of the sacred against the secularizing attacks of Rushdie. Rather, his point is that the sacred is real but problematic, for human attributions of sacredness tend to be dehumanizing. Here he touched on some of the important biblical critiques against ”the sacred.” Like the second commandment, for example, which forbids making sacred images. The Bible’s polemic against idolatry similarly attacks the foundations of the human urge to “the sacred.” The entire Biblical critique against this is that “the sacred” first distorts and dishonors God the creator and that, second, it dehumanizes people and makes them subserviant to forces that do not have their best interests in mind. And of course, modern commercialized sacredness does also have it’s dehumanizing features. From debt enslavement to the manipulation of self image, to abusive labor practices in the developing world.
This is really great stuff. The way forward? As Russell Jones commends: the creation of something new. Something that is neither “the sacred” nor “secularism”. I’d like to hear him develop that idea further!