Coming (Back) to America: Coming Back to Commercials

Jul 24, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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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Spoken Word Monday: “Predestined” by Fixed Eyes

Jul 07, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Today’s piece celebrates a great and precious truth: the predestination of God’s elect. Fixed Eyes (@_WilliamsWay_) takes us from Genesis to John 6 in celebration of God’s sovereign love and redemption. Enjoy!

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Spoken Word Monday: “Be Present” by Propaganda

Jun 23, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I think this piece has ministered to me and challenged me more than any other spoken word piece I’ve every heard. It brings fresh challenge and opportunity now that we’re on the verge of moving back stateside and starting a new chapter of life. Brothers, let us take this to heart!

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The Problem with Seeking Converts by Saying As Little As Possible

Jun 19, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

“In the twentieth century the church has tried to see how little it could say and still get converts. The assumption has been that a minimal message will conserve our forces, spread the Gospel farther, and, of course, preserve a unity among evangelicals. It has succeeded in spreading the truth so thinly that the world cannot see it. Four facts droned over and over have bored sinners around us and weakened the church as well.”[1]


[1] Walter J. Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1970), p. 45-46.

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Summer Reading for Those Who Love Classic Books and Missions

Jun 18, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Sometimes you have that rare opportunity to combine loves and passions that don’t normally intersect. It’s the cookies-n-cream of life. Pure genius doubled and multiplied.

When I attended the Clarus Conference in New Mexico this year, two of my loves collided: books and missions. I’m not here talking about good books on missions, though that’s always worthwhile. I’m talking about rare and classic books sold in support of missions to the unreached peoples of the world.

That’s Scattering Seed Ministries. From their website:

This is a ministry that auctions edifying and doctrinally sound Christian vintage books with a two fold mission. Our first aim is to send profits to other ministries and missionaries that spread the gospel to the unreached areas of the world. We desire that God’s name be great among the nations (Malachi 1:11) so that from every nation, tribe, and tongue, people will stand before the throne and before the Lamb and cry out with a loud voice saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). We believe that God will use this ministry to play a part in the work that He is already doing to this end. We invite you to be a part of this work by praying for the nations and or buying good vintage works for your edification. Join us to work together to disperse the beautiful message of the gospel to the unreached for God’s glory. 

If you love books and you relish the idea that your next book purchase could help reach the nations, check out Scattering Seeds. Your cookies could meet your cream!

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Spoken Word Monday: Omri’s “Wonderful Complexity”

Jun 16, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Jonathan Edwards once wrote about the “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies” that exist in Christ. I’ve always loved that phrase. It so well captures how Christ holds together in reconciled perfection many things that we difficult to hold together. This spoken word piece from Omri meditates on our Lord’s “Wonderful Complexity.”

It’s complex, but it’s beautiful.

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The “Sacrament” of Suffering

Jun 10, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m a word and sacrament kind of guy. I believe there are two ordinances or sacraments of the church: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. And in those two divinely instituted dramas, we find ourselves brought face-to-face with our sin and face-to-face with the sacrifice of Christ to atone for our sins. The church meeting gets transformed into an amphitheater in which the entire drama of redemption gets replayed for our souls. As we participate by faith, we receive afresh the nourishment of the Lord’s body and blood and appropriate again the grace of God. The sacraments set before us our desperate need along with God’s divine provision in Christ.

Though not a sacrament of the church, our suffering has the same effect. At least that’s how Jesus sees suffering.

Consider the episode recorded for us in Luke 13:1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Two tragedies are featured in this exchange: a brutal murder perpetrated against the people by its leader and crashing tower that killed eighteen. In one action, Pilate profaned everything holy–life and worship. In one crashing tower, everything assumed to be safe and stable proved fatal to the unsuspecting.

The crowd seems to think there’s a connection between tragic suffering and personal sin.  Job’s friends held the same theology. People today often think this way–especially religious people. But our Lord says this is not the case. Sin brought suffering into the world. But not all suffering is a matter of someone being worse sinners than others.

The Lord Jesus helps us see something about ourselves and about our need in the light of tragedy. Tragedy becomes an opportunity to assume–not that the sufferer was a worse sinner–but that we are all alike sinners. We are all alike in danger of perishing in our sin, in a moment, when least expected, tragically. Life is so frail no sinner may presume he or she has time. This is what we need to recognize about ourselves.

But we also need to see a truth about God when tragedy strikes. God means the tragedy to beckon the sinner back home. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God shouts through megaphone in our pain. He shouts, “Come back.” In the words of Jesus, “Repent.” Tragedy and suffering become–like the Lord’s Supper–an interruption to our spiritual sleep and an invitation to come back to God. To seek Him while He may be found. To lay hold of His kindness and love in welcoming with open arms those who had been going their own way. Some invitations come gilded in gold; others come laced with pain.

Any casual viewing of television news programs or online sources would suggest that God is always shouting in tragedy, “Come home.” Consider a sampling:

  • The Malaysian airline
  • The shootings at Univ. of California—Santa Barbara and Seattle Pacific University.
  • The elementary school shooting at Newtown, Ct.
  • The mine explosion in Turkey
  • The migrant boat that capsized and killed 27 in the Mediterranean.
  • The tragedy of the South Korean ferry.
  • The 62 African migrants killed in Yemen when a boat sank
  • The kidnapped girls in Nigeria
  • The wars in Sudan

We receive news of such tragedies everyday. But do we have ears to hear?

If we do, then suffering becomes a “sacrament.” It becomes an invitation to sinners to remember their sin and to turn to the only God who forgives through faith in Jesus Christ. And when the sinner turns to God in tragedy, God demonstrates in yet another way the truth of Romans 8:28.

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Spoken Word Monday: “Thank God for Evolution” by Micah Bournes

Jun 09, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I  never thought I’d hear a Christian say, “Thank God for evolution.” But Micah Bournes puts insights and twists into the sentence. Check it out:

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Are Christians Prone to Over-Compensate for Cultural “Losses”?

Jun 04, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Is the state of the culture a report card for the church?

I think I first heard Kevin DeYoung and John Piper ask and answer that question. They both concluded “no.” I think I agree with them. There is no direct relationship between the effectiveness of the church and the broader unbelieving culture.

Yet, it seems most Christians tend to assume a relationship. If the church was doing _____ then the culture wouldn’t ______. Because the church is weak in _____ the society is experiencing ______.

Many Christians too readily draw these kinds of conclusions. I think it’s well-intended. What Christian doesn’t want to see the church have a lasting positive impact on their society?

But I’m concerned that this thinking, especially among preachers and pastors, might be contributing to some unhealthiness in the church. I don’t know if I’m right about this, so you all chime in with your perspective. But it seems to me that some well-meaning leaders who use the state of “the culture” as a report card for the church sometimes end up hurting the church.

The church hurt comes from an overcompensation. My wife has chronic shoulder pain. It probably got started when our children were young and needed rear-facing car seats. She would very often stretch and contort her shoulder to reach and adjust a pacifier or pick up some toy that fell in the back seat. Pretty soon she had sharp pains in her shoulder. Being an excellent doctor but not a very good patient, she refused to go to the doctor and instead compensated by using her opposite shoulder and arm. You can guess what happened next. She developed pain in the “good” shoulder, too. She overcompensated and further hurt herself.

I think something like that happens with our response to some broader cultural “failures” or “threats.” It’s like turning the hot water up too high because the shower doesn’t warm quickly enough.

Let me try a couple examples.

Some leaders see gender roles–and the very idea of gender itself–suffering at the hands of a secular culture bent on redefining gender relationships. They seem to think that an egalitarian impulse in society is a very bad development. Thus far, I’d have a great deal in common with them. But some of my brethren become militant complementarians. Gender roles become an almost cardinal doctrine with them–not in theory but in practice. So they preach against egalitarianism relentlessly. They counsel young men and women toward “complementarian” practices that could hardly be justified with scripture. Those who fail to toe the line get their toes stepped on. They end up creating a culture that stifles, controls and alienates. Healthy relationships become more difficult to form. Social awkwardness increases among young adults trying to figure out how to “date” or “court” according to “biblical rules” they’ve never encountered in their two-years-out-of-the-world lives. The zeal of the leadership for a good thing, dialed up in response to the culture’s downgrade, ends up harming a segment of the church.

Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.

So what am I driving at in all of this? Just a simple question: Are we (Christian leaders) sometimes over-reacting to current cultural issues in ways that actually hurt our churches?

The reality is most pastors have very little influence beyond their local congregations. That’s as it should be in many respects. But this means that the first and perhaps only place that a pastor’s cultural angst gets worked out is in their local congregation. Fear about the culture’s “report card” morphs into “discipleship” pressure inside the body of Christ. Often that pressure is out of keeping with the balance of things in the scripture and more in keeping with the focus of our favorite news outlets.

So, how to avoid this problem? Here are five suggestions:

1. Before you teach that topical series on that pressing social issue, pray and talk about it with the rest of your leadership team. Are they as worked up about it as you? Do they share your concern for the issue’s impact on your particular congregation? Is the issue an issue in your church? Are you agreed on how the issue should be addressed?

2. Wait a while. If it really is a cultural issue that the church is “losing,” that means your actions this week or next week won’t be of much consequence. So take your time. Watch the developments. Don’t just watch the news; watch your congregation, too. Listen to what your members talk about when they idly talk, or what they’re asking questions about when they come to you.

3. Read and talk with other pastors. Spend some time doing some homework. Let us not be uninformed but really thoughtful.

4. With your elders, think through your church’s message. What does the Bible say? Don’t stop with this or that pet passage; seek the whole counsel of God. What do you want the people to learn from the scripture? How should that truth be applied to their lives in their particular setting? If there’s an action to take, what should it be? And is there a way to identify people who may be easily offended so that you can talk through these things with them in more intimate settings? Can you seek them out to help you with your perspective and balance?

5. Do a whole lot of praying. From beginning to end, pray. You’re about to bring a contentious “outside” issue “inside” the church. To some extent, you’re about to let the world set the agenda for your church. Before you do that, pray real hard.

So what do you think? Are we sometimes in danger of over-compensating for cultural “defeats” and hurting the sheep?

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Spoken Word Monday: “I Got Water in My Gospel” by Alan Adorno

Jun 02, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

This one was made for our day and age!

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