Catholic-link.com – Slick cinematic craftsmanship, rapid fire inside-jokes and witty storytelling capture our eyes and imaginations in Follow The Frog. A self-congratulating, sarcastically humorous tone addresses the savvy consumer as a co-conspirator.
The ad is so carefully polished that we might fail to recognize its motive, which is to sell us supposedly rainforest-friendly products. It goes straight to those tempted synapses that fire all kinds of endorphins at once:
Buy me! You’re a good person, and everyone else will see just how good! I taste delicious AND win you eco-conscious social status points!
Follow the Frog would have us accept certain incomplete and/or false premises about man’s needs and merits, the meaning of life, and What is Good:
- You work hard to be a good person, which includes earning an income as a responsible adult.
- You like nice things. (Don’t we all?)
- You deserve (says the universe) those nice things because you do your civic, environmental and family duties conscientiously.
- You can actually do even more to be a good person by buying and enjoying the nice things you already take pleasure in consuming, if you “follow the frog” and buy certain brands.
The world as we know it has become a commodified cosmos. At every turn, we are targeted buyers beset upon by sellers. Everything is branded, and every choice we make as consumers makes a value statement to ourselves and to the world. Many of us are vaguely disturbed by this false construct, but ad execs are always at least one step ahead. We may not be fooled today by a frog stamp, but as long as we’re consuming their messages (if not the products themselves), we remain vulnerable to a distorted reality that disparages our dignity and disquiets the soul.
Consider St. Benedict:
“[In retreating to live in solitude in a cave, St. Benedict] bore and overcame the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the center, the temptation of sensuality, and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge. In fact, Benedict was convinced that only after overcoming these temptations would he be able to say a useful word to others about their own situations of neediness. Thus, having tranquilized his soul, he could be in full control of the drive of his ego and thus create peace around him.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, discussing his namesake, St. Benedict, and his monastic rule)
These three fundamental temptations of man – so succinctly identified by St. Benedict of Nursia, and recalled to us by our pope emeritus – transcend time and place. Today, nearly 1500 years removed from the era of St. Benedict, we enjoy remarkable material comforts, astonishing technological, scientific and medical sophistication at a scope unimaginable to our predecessors. And, yet, we are no less susceptible to the age-old temptations St. Benedict diagnosed, for they speak a truth about our human nature.
The first two, in particular, prey upon us in a most subtle and insidious fashion, the seductions of self-affirmation and of sensuality.
Since the earliest barter economies, men have been tempted by sensuality to acquire desirable goods (that is, “wants,” beyond our basic needs). But a more recent phenomenon induces us to buy not simply to satisfy our taste buds and libidos, but also to quell our uncertainty and spiritual guilt. We are the new consumers of a market economy of virtue.
I’m a good person, see? Partial emissions! 80% post-consumer safety helmet buckled for your good and mine, and the dolphins! Taste our delicious awareness-raising latte!
Consumption has become a two-headed monster of St. Benedict’s fundamental temptations: sensuality AND self-affirmation. The coolest, most calculating brands even play upon our hidden embarrassment over our super-branded lifestyles, manipulating the hipster to into commodifying even his own authenticity. What absurd lengths we’ll go to in attempt to reassure ourselves and others that we are good!
Thinking like an Apostle
These two fundamental temptations distract us from the message of the Gospel – often in ways that disguise them as not merely neutral distractions, but as categorically virtuous – the very opposite of temptations.
The Church offers beautiful, authentic, and even sacramental answers to sensuality, self-affirmation and commodification.
1: Our hearts will never be truly satisfied with self-concocted affirmations of our own goodness (or – worse – corporations’ reassurances to the same effect). If we are honest and sincere, especially as Christians, then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words ring true:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago
But the hope of the Gospel conquers all. It is the infinite price paid by Christ’s sacrifice, and the infinite mercy he gained for us. He offers it to us in every moment, over and over again: a constant proposal of love, patience and forgiveness. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the Church’s most beautiful, most awesome gifts to quell our restless hearts – tailor-made to answer that nagging voice that asks: am I truly good? Ah, but how much more fulfilling than “I’m a good person,” are the words uttered by the priest, acting in persona Christi, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”?
2. For all the branding, the selling and the buying that we can’t seem to escape, there is a different “brand” – the original mark, THE icon of authenticity. It is God’s imprint upon our souls as made in His image and likeness.
We are indeed marked – not by a label, a corporate trademark, a bar code, a tattoo, or a certified green rainforest frog – but as children of God. His is not a world of commodities. His is an economy of souls.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1:5
Each and every human life, sacred in His eyes, is marked by the Imago Dei, while baptized Christians bear yet another, Sacramental imprint:
Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1272)
Ethical business practices, fair trade, moderation and sustainability are certainly desirable and possible within a practical framework. However, we should be wary of corporate, political, and social messages that encourage the commodification of the human mind or body.
Consume consciously – not only your goods, but also your information and your entertainment. Remember that you are so much more than an advertiser’s demographic. You are not defined by what you buy, sell, wear, drive or recycle. God does not chase after your disposable income or your brand loyalty. Before you ever thought of buying anything, before you were knit in your mother’s womb, he loved you. He waits for you, he proposes, he accompanies, he forgives, he welcomes. He LOVES YOU. Whom will you follow?