Sunday, January 15, 2012

Spiritually Edifying and Psychologically Satisfying

The following is a more formal version of my recent sacrament meeting talk:

Films are a passion of mine and have been for some time. One of my earliest movie love affairs (beginning in the sixth grade) was with the James Bond series; a borderline obsession that remains a fairly active movie tradition.[1] Being an avid viewer, I have no qualms making the claim that 2002's Die Another Day is one of the worst in the series, only a slight cut above 1974's awful The Man With the Golden Gun. Ignoring the villain's uninteresting DNA restructuring, Bond's ludicrous invisible Aston Martin, and the ridiculous point at which Bond surfs a man-made tidal wave with the help of car scraps and bad CGI, the film became an annoying vessel of overblown product placement. The twenty-three brands over the course of two hours earned it the nickname Buy Another Day. The overload led to a conscious 33% cut in sponsors for the following film, Casino Royale. A question worth asking is, 'Does product placement actually work?'

Take the example of Steven Spielberg's classic E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial. In order to lure the alien title character, Elliott scatters Reese's Pieces along the forest trail to his house and eventually into his room. Within a week of the film's release, sales of Reese's Pieces tripled (something M&Ms missed out on). Within a couple months, eight hundred cinemas nationwide began stocking the candy for the first time. Ray-Ban sunglasses were struggling in the early 1980s prior to Tom Cruise's rocket to stardom in 1983's Risky Business (famous for Cruise's pantless dance to Bob Segar). After Cruise made the glasses part of his character's look, Ray-Ban sales rose by 50 percent. He did the same for Aviator Ray-Bans by slapping a pair on Maverick in Top Gun. Not only did Ray-Ban see a 40% boost to the bottom line, but Air Force and Navy recruitment increased by 500 percent.

Turning to television, the ever popular American Idol (during the Simon Cowell days) had three main sponsors: Cingular, Coca-Cola, and Ford. Not only did Cingular and Coke run 30-second ads during commercial breaks, but they also had prominent placement during the show itself. The three judges kept the soft drink in front of them as they sat on bottle-shaped furniture. Coke imagery was calculated to be present 60% of the time on Idol. Viewers could dial in or vote via text message from a Cingular Wireless cell phone, which was the only carrier that permitted text message voting. This was always accompanied by Cingular's logo onscreen next to the numbers to dial and text. Ford, on the other hand, simply ran traditional ads during commericals.

Marketing expert Martin Lindstrom has headed some of the largest experiments in the field of neuromarketing (as the word implies, a combination of neuroscience and marketing). One of these studies consisted of four hundred brain-scan subjects viewing an episode of American Idol. What researchers found was that Coke was recalled better than Cingular and far more than Ford. The strategic placing had increased the ability to recall these branded products. On top of this, they found that the potency of these brands actually inhibited and suppressed the memories of brands such as Ford.[2]

Why? Why is it easier to remember Reese's Pieces in E.T., but not the Norelco shaver in Die Another Day? Why Coke over Ford? The reason is that the successful products were integrated into the narrative and experience of the film or show. Elliott did not randomly pop some candy in his mouth in a thoughtless, 5-second scene. It was prominent in the meeting of Elliott and E.T. himself. As for Coca-Cola, the drink was affiliated with "the dreams, aspirations, and starry-eyed fantasies of potential idols...By merely sipping the drink onstage, the three judges forged a powerful association between the drink and the emotions provoked by the show. Similarly, Cingular became associated as the instrument through which contestants can either accomplish their dreams or at the very least become D-list celebrity. Ford...has no such archetypal role whatsoever on American Idol."[3] The brain etches the story-relevant brands into memory, while deleting those that play no role in what is being viewed.[4]

The integrated nature of these brands and their effects on viewers remind me of L. Tom Perry's recent Conference address. He explains,

The growing visibility and reputation of the Church presents some remarkable opportunities to us as its members. We can help “disabuse the public mind” [Joseph Smith's phrase] and correct misinformation when we are portrayed as something we are not. More important, though, we can share who we are.

Elder Perry continues by stating that we must "be bold in our declaration of Jesus Christ." We must also "be righteous examples to others." Finally, we must "speak up about the Church...My recommendation to you is to accept their invitations. Your associates are not inviting you to teach, preach, expound, or exhort. Engage them in a two-way conversation—share something about your religious beliefs but also ask them about their beliefs."

Notice the word "conversation." We must be conversant in the gospel. In order to be conversant, we must understand it. It must be a lived experience, integrated into the narrative of our own personal lives. Every month we dedicate a sacrament meeting to the sharing of testimonies, an activity we are consistently implored to do with those not of our faith. It is difficult to testify of things one has not experienced. The gospel is a topic we should be fluent in. When we fail in this, our brief excerpts become as easily forgotten as passive 30-second ads. Modern revelation reads,

Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men. (D&C 11:21)

In his March 1839 letter from Liberty Jail (in a non-canonized paragraph found between the current D&C 121:32 and 33), Joseph Smith penned that "ignorance, superstition and bigotry placing itself where it ought not, is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of this Church."[5] While this is certainly true of outside forces, I am convinced that this applies aptly to those within the Church as well. How destructive is our own ignorance, superstition, and bigotry toward the prosperity of the Church? In his memoirs, President Hugh B. Brown made the following exhortation:

There are altogether too many people in the world [whose] never goes below the surface soil of authority. I plead with everyone I meet that they may drive their faith down through that soil and get hold of the solid truth...Then, and only then, will we be able to defend our religion successfully...We should all be interested in academic research...More thinking is required, and we should all exercise our God-given right to think...The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts.

The humility associated with this way of thinking creates an environment in which the Spirit of truth can flourish. Nonetheless, the gospel should not only be consumed intellectually, but applied daily. If we wish to "be bold in our declaration of Jesus Christ," we need to start acting like Him. This will make us the "righteous examples" Elder Perry urges us to be. President Brown understood this as well when he described the LDS view of religion as "practical," meant to "help us here and now," instead of "wait[ing] until after we are dead to get any benefits." The gospel should make one "a better friend to [his] associates, a better neighbor, a better citizen, a better [spouse and parent], a better [human being]." This Christian way of life should be the most potent and convincing testimony of all. To have the gospel fully integrated into our lives, with the Spirit present the majority of the time, is to offer oneself as evidence of the transforming power of the gospel.

And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good–yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, and to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy. (D&C 11:12-13)

To the ancient Hebrews, this is what "knowing God" was all about. The late biblical scholar John L. McKenzie described the "knowledge of God" in the Hebrew Bible as "a vital union with the traditional morality which qualified the whole human life; one knows this morality by having it, by living it."[6] Elder Perry has called for conversation and Paul wrote to the Philippians that "our conversation is in heaven." (Philippians 3:20) Of course, in 17th-century English, "conversation" had less to do with talking and more to do with community conduct. The Greek word politeuma is more properly translated in modern versions as "citizenship." As renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has pointed out in numerous writings, Philippi was a colony of Rome. Citizenship did not imply that upon retiring, these Roman citizens would return to the overcrowded city. The point of colonization was to bring Roman culture and civilization to other parts of the empire. Likewise, as citizens of heaven, we are not planning on returning to some distant, abstract heavenly realm. Just as the Roman emperors would travel to colonies to deliver their citizens from enemies, so the Lord will eventually return to deliver His creation and His people. Until then, we are meant to bring the civilization of heaven to our own communities.[7] Yet, one cannot accomplish this if one is not accustomed to heavenly culture; not accustomed to godliness.

Bearing testimony goes far beyond catch-phrases like "The Church is true" (a phrase that should be unloaded for both Mormons and non-Mormons). At the same time, we should not expect our personal experience to act as evidence for another. Instead, we should hope that being informed, charitable neighbors to others will raise interest in our beliefs. We should hope that our example causes others to trust our testimony and investigate it more fully. Most important, we should hope that our presence can bring the influence of the Spirit and help others achieve their own personal experience with the Holy Ghost.

We should hope to have that lasting impact on our friends, neighbors, and family.

1. Let it be known that Sean Connery is the best Bond, followed by Daniel Craig with a close third by Pierce Brosnan. Roger Moore is overrated, while George Lazenby (along with his one film) is significantly underrated. Had Lazenby continued the role in Diamonds Are Forever, I am convinced his performance and the film itself would have outdone that of Connery. The first three films of the official series - Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger - are its best and would rival any movie trilogy had they remained one. Craig's Casino Royale, Brosnan's GoldenEye, and Lazenby's On Her Majesty's Secret Service deserve honorable mention.

2. See Martin Lindstrom, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

3. Ibid., 50.

4. Interesting enough, Lindstrom found that fMRI scans revealed neurological reactions to strong brand symbols were almost identical to those associated with religious icons. For more on neuroscience and religious experience, see Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths (New York: Time Books, 2011), Ch. 8; Mario Beauregard, Vincent Paquette, "Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns," Neuroscience Letters 405:3 (2006).

5. Dean C. Jessee, John W. Welch, "Revelations in Context: Joseph Smith's Letter from Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839," BYU Studies 39:3 (2000): 138.

6. McKenzie, "Knowledge of God in Hosea," Journal of Biblical Literature 74:1 (March 1955): 27.

7. See N.T. Wright, "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire," Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2000); "Jerusalem in the New Testament," Jerusalem: Past and Present in the Purposes of God, ed. P.W.L. Walker, 2nd ed. (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1994); "Farewell to the Rapture," Bible Review (Aug. 2001).