I can’t believe it’s been over 25 years since Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall teamed up in the movie Coming to America. Murphy plays an African prince who divests himself of his royal prerogatives and moves to Queens to find a bride that would accept him for who he is and who he can respect for her strength, intelligence and independence. It’s Murphy and Hall in their prime and it’s worth watching again just for the barber shop scene.

With the  move back to the States after eight years of living in Grand Cayman, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a blog called “Coming (Back) to America.” I daydreamed about writing lots of posts full of Bill Bryson-style insight and humor about what America is like (or I’m like) after eight years in another culture. Alas… I’m not that creative or observant. So rather than a blog, I’ll try my hand at a couple of posts sprinkled here and there.

Here’s the first thing I notice about living in the States again: commercials. Well, truthfully, I didn’t notice them. My seven year old son Titus noticed them. All of them!

Here’s the thing: In Cayman we never had cable or watched network television. We relied on DVDs, Netflix, or something on Apple TV. This meant commercials never interrupted our programming–not even during the annual commercial feast called the Super Bowl. Since Titus was born in Cayman, his entire seven years of life have been lived in our commercial-free Siberia.

But coming back to America means he has a Saturday full of commercials! He’s exposed constantly to product pitches and appeals.

I wondered why all of a sudden he kept insisting that we “had to have” a new mop with “hurricane spin.” Or, why he began asking me for just $14.95 plus shipping and handling. Today. Right now. Or else we might miss out!

Of all the shots he’d taken during his rounds of immunization and well-baby screenings, he’d never been inoculated against American-styled commercialism. Most of us get that shot as we grow up. So we learn to tune out commercials–mostly. We develop radar for various kinds of sales pitches–soft sale, hard sale, bait and switch. Samples lose their appeal–unless it’s the bourbon chicken samples in mall food courts. We swim in a sea of advertisements never feeling wet by all the enticements. We feel accustomed to it and so hardly notice, until a 30-second ad interrupts our favorite shows at the wrong time. But Titus sat wide-eyed at the wonder of toys and gadgets he’d never heard of and now suddenly couldn’t live without.

After a couple of weeks, Titus doesn’t fall for all the commercials. He’s learned that “they’re just trying to get our money.” But I wonder if that only strengthens his resolve to have those few products that do pass his defenses. Funny how saying “no” to ourselves in many areas make us prone to shout “yes!” in areas of keen interest (read, advertising vulnerability).

Truthfully, now that I think about it, even if we’ve lived in America all our lives, we’re not too unlike Titus. We may be older, slightly wiser fish, but we still get hooked from time to time. Why do you think companies continue to pour billions into advertising? Advertising works. Corporations and ad firms have mastered the art of appealing to our flesh and our worldly instincts. They’ve studied us and they stalk us. They create desires where once none existed, then they satisfy those desires with their products.

I notice that I’m more conscious now about how I dress. Not that my dress has gotten any better; I’m just more aware. Why? It seems I’m in an advertising culture that places far more stress on the right look, the right clothes, and the perfect accessories. When you’re on an island and most people around you are wearing flip flops,beach shorts and a Cuban shirt (or want to be wearing those things), you tend to think “dressing up” is unnecessary. When you’re now on Capitol Hill, which is also the capitol of seersucker suits and Jimmy Choos, then swag gets more of your attention.

Or take the car I’m now shopping for. Yes, the family needs a car. But driving my sister-in-law’s BMW X5 kinda makes me snooty toward “domestic” vehicles. We peep the sleek new styles–far more styles, colors and choices than we’d ever see on the island–and some consumeristic grows in my heart. Basically, my commercials differ from Titus’, but I’m still susceptible to them. I still have a flesh that desires and live in a world that tempts and teases. We all do. And what coming back to America teaches me is that I’d better raise the guard on my heart and teach Titus the same. Self-control will be the watch word–for all of us.

Here’s one other thing I see again for the first time: American Christians are pretty consumeristic with their churches and spiritual habits. We’re not just consumeristic; we also want it custom made to suit us. That’s no new revelation. I’m simply seeing it again. And I’m wondering if we ever see how deep a root it has in us if we never get outside our context. And if we never see how strongly our desires–often unspoken or unconscious–affect us, might this be a “silent killer”? Might worldliness, expressing itself in quiet unchecked consumption,be the besetting sin of the church?

I don’t know. But I suspect my vulnerability to Madison Avenue affects my walk with the Lord far more than I’m aware. And, worse, if left unchecked, I suspect swimming again in the familiar advertising waters in which I was raised will slowly dull my senses and draw me away with the school of other consumer fish swept in the currents. How about you? Swimming with or against the commercial currents of your setting?

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10 thoughts on “Coming (Back) to America: Coming Back to Commercials”

  1. Todd Wilkinson says:

    HE GOT HIS OWN MONEY!!!!! lol!!

    Only thing this post was missing was a reference to soul glo and she is your queen to be!!! LOL!!! Welcome back pastor. Interesting post. As far as your question goes I have a couple of comments and a question.
    Swimming with or against the commercial currents of your setting?

    As far as our present church culture goes as African Americans our church is swimming against some current cultural trends. We mostly sing hymns. Not that we are against what is classified as “gospel” music (some is good; some is not; like any other genre within Christianity) but Pastor has challenged us not to be handcuffed to our preferences. The rhythmic pace of most hymns, more so than the words themselves, are an adjustment. It has been an excellent challenge to sing songs that you would not be inclined too in any other setting. Helps to get out of yourself. At least for me it does.

    As far as swimming with the culture…… I must confess, I’m all in on the gadgets. I currently have too many laptops and tablets. The Lord’s words about “the lust of other things” in Mark is chastening me in this matter.

    Allow me to preference my question. Our pastor has been preaching through Revelation recently and he noted that throughout church history, individuals view on eschatology has adapted to fit what they were facing. For example, the reformers believing that the Pope was the big A antichrist. Or for dispensationalists some 20 to 30 years ago who believed that when the European Union of Countries reached 10 the rapture would happen and the Beast would appear. (By the way, I am in no way mocking or belittling any dispensationalist. To this day, the majority of my favorite commentators are dispensationalists. Matter of fact I only know of this position because I am well read in their books)

    My question pastor T: Have you ever looked back at some of your previous theological leanings and discovered that maybe your culture or setting had more of an influence on your understanding than it should have?

    Thanks

  2. LittleShaun says:

    Fortunately being poor and having four kids to care for helps me keep my eyes on necessity and not so much on luxury. I have to thank the Lord who knows my heart and keeps my priorities in proper order through circumstances. We don’t do cable, because we cannot afford it. We have Netflix, and base grade Fios internet (which is plenty fast for us). But when we let the kids do monitored Youtube, they see more ads than we want… it’s crazy how children are effected by advertisement. My oldest knows all sorts of Lego sets he wants due to the little exposure to ads he gets. I am unaffected by advertising but the Lord blessed me blinders for those things. I definitely swim AGAINST the current in almost everything in our culture. I live in a populated city in the great Pacific Northwest in a lower end apartment and amidst all the Walmart shoppers and fast-food eaters, we are certainly a peculiar people. We eat organic, I ferment my own vegetables, we home school, and drive cheap older vehicles that I can work on. If anything consumerism gets me sometimes, it’s buying theology books, or PC parts (I build my own PCs) and we play video games. But I have been limiting our game time much more, and I try to keep our games on steam (PC platform) because they often run sales for 75% off and I get AAA titles for as low as $5 sometimes. To me American culture is an anti-culture and I look at the example of our native Salmon who fight upstream to spawn after spending time in the ocean. It was always a helpful object lesson for me. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_run

  3. Micah Vanella says:

    I appreciate your observations and agree with all of them.

    But at least for the commercials on the TV there’s a very very easy fix, and is saves money. Don’t buy an antenna, don’t pay for cable. Or at the very least limit him to public broadcasting, aside from the occasional “Please send us money!” there are no commercials.

    As far as swimming with/against the current, I’ve become so cynical of this culture it can’t be very healthy.

  4. Debby A. says:

    Having just moved “back” to America after living in another country for the last 2 years, I was struck at how just walking around a store, I WANTED stuff. I don’t remember having that feeling where we were living before. The feeling of wanting to buy for the sake of buying actually scared me a little. So I only go to a store when its an absolute necessity. I feel a little like I can’t trust myself quite yet. Our stint in America will be short-lived though, as we are moving to Paraguay as tribal missionaries. But it’s what’s in my heart that concerns me. My constant prayer if that God continues to root out that weed of “stuff-itis”, and replace it with thankfulness and contentment.

  5. george canady says:

    As I was reading this my thoughts were taken over by the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter: “….back here where we need uh….”

  6. Thor Ramsey says:

    That was a wonderful post. As a matter of fact, it should be a book. Call me and we’ll discuss a marketing plan.

    Welcome back.

  7. SK says:

    The most challenging re-entry into US culture question to our family, having had similar observations as you do was; “So how will you keep from getting sucked into the consumerism that is prevalent in the culture & church? ” Pastor if you can figure out the best innoculation, please share. Thanks

  8. Matthew Staggs says:

    This is a convicting post for me. I grew up in a family where practically everything was handed to me, and I was never fully financially independent until I finished my master’s degree. Now that I’ve been unemployed one of those years, and facing another year, I have most definitely gone against American consumeristic culture in some areas, and still hanging onto other areas. But the biggest thing that I have learned is that I don’t need it, and that there are legitimate options to living cheaper but at the same time, better for myself, my family, and my relationship with Christ. I’ve also given some thought to living outside the country. This was a great post, and I look forward to reading more material in the future.

  9. Jayson says:

    Pastor, I appreciate your perspective on Americanism in this post. However, I wonder if you have missed the forest for the trees in your analysis of the content you and your son ingest. The consumerism and competitive nature of American media is really just a small portion of the larger issue, which is the distinct and blatant misrepresentation of human sexuality. As a parent, and as a pastor, I have responsibility to “train up my children in the ways of the Lord”. I don’t believe my children can gain an accurate view of God’s desire for sexual behavior by watching television, especially commercials and their content. If your son is reacting in demonstrable ways to the consumerism, why would it be such that he wouldn’t be responding to the sexual temptation as well? Additionally, your movie reference to begin this blog post suggests that your readers should watch this movie (again) for the barber shop scene. I would suggest that you are leading your readers towards the appreciation of blasphemy, sexual sin, and numerous other sins, instead of pointing them away from it and calling it what it is, sin.
    So, I think your post speaks well to the issue of consumerism and the gluttony of our generation, and maybe that is all you intended, while considering these other issues but not speaking of them. However, as pastors and leaders, we have a responsibility to not lead others into sinful behaviors, or at the very least to the temptation of those behaviors, and I am afraid your post does just that. I would challenge you to reconsider the content, the title, and the message of this post, that despite its insight into consumerism, there may be more harm than good found here.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Jayson,

      Thank you for taking the time to read the post and to leave a comment. I appreciate that you would do that.

      But as your last paragraph states, I was really only reflecting on the particular issue of commercials, consumerism, and worldliness.

      I appreciate the stance you’ve taken for your family. For a season in my family’s life I took a very similar position. But I understand that this is a matter of wisdom and some Christian liberty. I’ll trust persons to work these questions out in the context of their local church, with local accountability and hopefully real knowledge of one another’s lives.

      I pray the Lord’s richest blessings upon you as you seek to live wholly consecrated to His service. Grace and peace,

      T-

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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