Toyota, it is not just me.

A little over a week ago, I did a blog post about a Toyota Highlander commercial that I had seen the week before while watching Monday Night Football. A couple of interesting things have happen since that post. First, I found that there are others who are equally disturbed by the content of Toyota’s “lame parents” commercial. This surprises me in some ways because I have grown accustomed to being disturbed by events, ideas and situations that do not seem to bother anyone else while at the same time favoring thoughts, ideas and viewpoints that do not seem popular with very many people. Several bloggers have said very well what I was trying to express in my initial blog. If you have time, read what Barbara Bell, AutoAdOpolis, Time and The Simple Dollar have written.

The other thing that I have discovered in reading what others have written about the “lame parent” commercial is that Toyota is making hay even in the midst of protest. Almost all of the blogs that have advertising on them generate links to Toyota products. Such is the power of the internet. Even in the midst of expressing displeasure, Toyota’s product is still the focus.

A third thing that gives me pause comes from somewhere long ago within or at least alongside my religious experience. Growing up, I remember hearing about churches and preachers that where taught against watching television.  At the time, such an idea seemed downright cruel. I could not imagine why any religion would deprive its adherents of access to The Wonderful World of Disney, Daniel Boone or Hogan’s Heroes. I was thankful that my branch of the Baptist family tree was growing in a more enlightened direction. Now, I wonder. Perhaps Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, knew what he was talking about when he said in 1961:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The current Toyota advertising campaign adds weight to Minow’s conclusion.

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Toyota, Recall This Commercial

The first time I saw the commercial I laughed a little.  Well, I did not laugh out loud, but I did chuckle on the inside.  At first glance, the commercial appeared cute.  Frankly, it would be difficult for a commercial featuring an elementary school-aged boy with shaggy blond hair not to be cute.  Where Toyota messed up was in airing the commercial of their Highlander too many times in one ballgame.  Before Monday Night Football was over, I had seen it four times.  By the fourth time, I was no longer chuckling on the inside.

Four times I had heard the cute little elementary school-aged boy explain that in spite of his low tolerance for “dorkiness” his parents insist on transporting him in a vehicle that screams “geek.”  Four times I watched him climb into the neighbor’s Toyota Highlander, after which he pointed out to his audience that just because you are a parent, does not mean that you have to be lame.  You get the picture.  If your parents will or can not buy a Toyota Highlander, then they are lame, dorky, geeks.

I have seen an untold number of commercials in my lifetime.  Why did this hit me the wrong way?  Maybe it was because our church had just completed our Family Promise host week.  This is a ministry that networks local congregations together to provide shelter for homeless families.  We hosted three families, each with their own stories of how difficult it can be to keep a family together.  When I looked at the parents in those three families, I did not see dorky, lame, geeks, but parents who were working and hoping as hard as they knew how that they would be able to take care of their children.  I saw parents who were facing challenges head on and in need of assistance, not a manipulative commercial designed to make them feel worse than they already did.

In fact, when I see parents doing what they have to do to keep their families together, I don’t see lame, dorky, geeks.  I see heroes.  What the cute little boy in the commercial may not be aware of is that not all parents provide for their children.  For the almost half a million children in the United States who live in foster homes, whatever vehicle their parents could provide for the family would be inconsequential compared to the immense satisfaction of  being able to be with parents who are doing their best to be good parents.

What is glaringly absent from this commercial is civility and gratitude.  The elementary school-aged boy walks out of a house, past a minivan, and at least one of his parents, without a hint of gratitude.  He may not have a Toyota Highlander, but neither does he have any appreciation for what he does have.  While we might be surprised to hear words like lame, dorky, and geek from an elementary school-age boy, their use in this commercial takes on a sinister hue when we realize that they were put in his mouth and directed at his parents by the advertising department of a multinational corporation that usually tries to portray itself as responsible.   Responsible adults should not have to resort to such childish language to sell their products.

The bottom line is that cars don’t make families; time spent together does. Lots of time spent together on special days, and on ordinary days, make families.  In cars and out of them, at home and at parks, families become stronger and richer when parents invest themselves in their children.  That may sound lame, geeky or dorky, but that is what it takes to build strong families.

What I don’t understand is why does Toyota need this sort of manipulative and demeaning advertising?  They make great vehicles that last forever and have great resale value. Why isn’t that enough to sell their product?

Doing Theology in an Economic Downturn

The economy is in the tank or at least that is what we have heard most every day for the last several months. However, the reality of economic hard times is not something we need the newspaper or television to tell us. We know that the economy is bad because we know people who have lost their jobs and we have seen people lose their homes.

The stress and anxiety produced by financial hardships impacts every phase of our lives. We cannot help but worry when our ability to take care of our families and ourselves is impaired by lack of work or rising costs. While economists and commentators discuss the situation in large national and global terms, we experience it in cutting back on what we spend and how often we spend. That is if we are fortunate, for some the situation requires far more than just cutting back and spending less. For them, job hunting, relying on friends and relatives and possibly relocating to a new city in order to find a job are all a part of managing tough economic times.

Why is this happening? The answers that the experts provide for us are not really the answers that we are looking for when we find ourselves facing such difficulties. That is true because our question is usually more pointed. What we really want to know is why this is happening to me? Why this is happening to us? The answers to such questions vary. We may be able to look at some of our decisions and readily see why current economic conditions have had an especially adverse effect on our lives. Our spending practices may not have as wise as they should have been. Our job is in an industry hardest hit by the poor economy. Therefore, it naturally follows that our share of the pain would be greater than those who work in other fields less impacted by economic conditions.

Even those kinds of answers do not get at what we really want to know. Because what we really want to know is not so much why it happened, but why it happened to us? For some, after all the rational and reasonable explanations have been given, the answers can become more personal and painful. This would not have happened to me if I were smarter, if I were a better worker or if I were more likable. These sorts of answers can spiral out of control and result in quiet a beating to ones sense of self worth. There are times when our lives are impacted by events that are far beyond the scope of skills, abilities and choices.

Along the way, it would not be surprising to hear someone say why is God doing this to me? In the midst of difficult times that would not be an unusual question. God, where are you and what are you doing? This sort of question indicates an understanding of God that is magical and mechanistic. That is to say that God operates all the levers of our lives as well as the lives of others and magically bestows good outcomes on those of us who are good while those of us who are bad receive not so good outcomes. The problem with this approach to God is that we all know good people who have received not so good outcomes and we all know not so good people who seem to be doing just fine.

So what is the answer to the question? The answer, at least in part, is that God is incarnational. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It marks for us the beginning of Lent and our journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. We make that journey with Jesus, God incarnate. God, confronted with a broken and rebellious creation, took on flesh and dwelt among us. God, facing God’s greatest dilemma, came to us as one of us. The testimony of scripture tells us that there is no desire in the heart of God greater than God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God, in order to make that kind of relationship possible for each one of us, took on flesh and came to us. As we look forward to Holy week, we are reminded that this action on God’s part is no idle endeavor. The humiliation will be real, the pain real, the nails real and the cross rugged. God with us, Immanuel, endures it for us.

What is this God who takes on flesh doing in these challenging economic times? I think it makes sense to assume that God is doing the same thing now as God did at Calvary. God is being with us and still doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. At the same time, God is calling us to be the Body of Christ. To be the presence of Christ in the lives of people who have been knocked to their knees by economic hard times.

If someone is asking where God is or what God is doing as result of the impact of our nations current economic situation on their lives, that person ought to be able to look to the church and see what God is doing. That person ought to see a church praying for those whose lives have been turned upside down by job loss. That person ought to hear more than just words of encouragement from church members, but also see actions that help that person move from despair to hope, from unemployment to work, from being hungry to being fed and from worrying about family to providing for family.

Whoa! That is a tall order. How can a church be expected to do something like that? Well a church can’t do something like that, except that we embrace the ongoing reality of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. We are the Body of Christ; as such we are called to be the presence of Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves. God calls us and entrusts us with an awesome and enormous task. Namely, that we live our lives in such a way that our very lives answer any questions about where God is or what God is doing.