“More Than Whatever”
AU Methodist-Protestant Community
October 19, 2014
AU Methodist-Protestant Community
October 19, 2014
I. “Up For Whatever”
This summer, the Anheuser-Busch company – producers of Bud Light, a beverage which I understand purports to be beer – launched an ad campaign called “Up For Whatever.” The company somehow managed to get permission to take over the entire town of Crested Butte, Colorado; re-dubbed the town “Whatever, USA”; and then held a competition in which contestants sought to prove that they were “up-for-whatever”-enough to win a spot in the town for a weekend-long party
The party featured – and I quote – “so much spontaneous never-thought-I’d-be-doing this awesomeness that it’s hard to believe that we actually pulled it off…body bowling, roller disco, Bud Light, tiny cars, tiny horses, big celebrities, Bud Light, dancing, karaoke, Bud Light, whatever that is, this guy, this girl, O my, wow look at that, Bud Lite, then put it on the internet for everyone to see.”[i]
The ads plugged Bud Light as “the perfect beer for whatever happened” and encouraged the use of the hashtag #upforwhatever.
Take a quick look at the ads on YouTube, and you’ll quickly realize that the target demographic of this campaign is, well, y’all – “21” to 30 year olds, young people, exciting people, attractive people, the type of people who are UP FOR WHATEVER! Woooo! Constant party! One online recap of the weekend claimed breathlessly that “Life will never be the same after #WhateverUSA”![ii] You hear that? Transformative! Drink our beer! Life Changing! Drink more beer! Be fun and spontaneous and extraordinary! Drink our beer!
It was actually Monica who pointed this ad out to me after she had to watch it in one of her classes. She wrote me a rather scathing review of the ad, which she’s kindly given me permission to quote from. Monica says:
“Apparently Bud Light thinks what I want is a non-stop party of thrills, surprises, jocularity, one hit wonders, laser shows, confetti cannons, driving bass lines, and adrenaline rushes. And to be honest, yea, parts of the advertisement are really cool. But if I don't want that, then Bud Light is telling me that I should. This should be my goal. Come to where the pretty people are, come to where the beer flows freely, come to where we jump from thrill to thrill -- barely leaving time to breathe. I watched that video and wondered who thought of these events, who put it together, how much it must have cost, and how totally exhausted I would've been if I were there. How out of place I would've felt. Not pretty, not "whatever" enough.”[iii]
This is what advertisers think of our generation. We want a non-stop party fueled by cheap beer.
And the folks of Anheuser-Busch aren’t the only ones who think that the ideal of young adulthood is a constant party. Take a glance at almost any pop culture depiction of college life, and you’ll see keg stands, spring break orgies, and random hookups galore. Animal House, Old School, 22 Jump Street…heck, even the Disney Pixar animated film Monsters University features a dueling fraternity story line, red solo cups, and at least one beer pong reference.
II. Purity Culture vs. Party Culture
Of course, not everybody’s buying it. There’s an alternative cultural trend that is also on the rise across the country. Rather than “up for whatever,” its slogan would probably be more like the old DARE education motto, “Just Say No!” It’s based on a culture of abstinence – particularly abstinence from sex and alcohol. It tends to be particularly strong in Christian subcultures on campus. It’s a culture based on purity and on clear rules: there are right things and wrong things, and what it means to be a good person is to do the right things and not do the wrong things.
These two dueling ideas – “up for whatever” and “just say no” – are, I think, based on two different worldviews, in particular two different ways of understanding ethical decision-making in a world awash with options. When faced with the many difficult choices that mark the transition into adulthood, these two worldviews present two clashing methods of discernment. One, as declared by the backing-soundtrack of the Bud Light ads, believes that “the world is our playground,”[iv] and thus the right choice is the fun and exciting choice. As long as nobody gets hurt -- and maybe even then! – you should do the thing that makes you feel good. The other sees the world as filled with hostile threats, and thus the right choice is the safe choice. As long as purity is upheld, as long as you follow the rules and avoid the bad things that you need to avoid, then you are ok. It’s a fight, you see: a sort of cosmic struggle between purity culture and party culture.
III. An Old Story
It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t find either of these modes of decision-making particularly helpful. I think they both tend to contribute to the objectification of people, to rampant individualism, and to unhealthy and even abusive views about sex and the body.
They are, however, attractive in their simplicity. In a world of complexity, where “adulthood” sometimes seems to be synonymous with confusion and anxiety, party culture and purity culture each offer an easy matrix for discernment. One says, “whatever goes”; the other gives you clearly defined laws of right and wrong.
The thing is, though, that the world has always been a rather complex place, and there have always been people willing to offer simple solutions. Tonight we heard an excerpt from a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a big city, a city with a lot going on, and the church in Corinth reflected that cultural complexity. And, not surprisingly, this complexity was starting to cause a lot of conflict. The church in Corinth has actually written to Paul to get him to weigh in on some of the arguments that are happening in the church. They are trying to make decisions, and they are, understandably, looking for some simple solutions to all of the confusing problems that they are facing.
So 1st Corinthians is Paul’s response to the church. The passage we heard tonight is addressing a particular disagreement that doesn’t cause us many problems in the 21st century – the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. What’s going on here is that the Corinthians, like good followers of Jesus, are eating meals with people who are not part of the Christian community. The problem is that these other people are offering them meat that, in the custom of Corinth, has first been offered to other gods. In fact, the custom of serving meat that has first been sacrificed to the gods of the Roman pantheon is so prevalent in the city that the Corinthian Christians are worried that even buying meat in the market means investing in pagan religion.
Vegetarianism, I should note, was not so in vogue in 1st century Corinth.
So there are two factions in the Corinthian community. One is summarized by Paul in the opening lines of tonight’s reading: “Everything is permitted.” This faction, it seems, argues that since they have become part of the Christian community, the laws and customs that used to bind them no longer have any power. In Christ, they have freedom to do as they please. The other faction, however, sees eating meat sacrificed to other gods as idolatry, and thus absolutely impermissible for the church. Sound a bit familiar? “Nobody’s getting hurt here! Whatever goes!” says one side. “Just say no!” says the other.
It’s an old story
And Paul says, as Paul often does: “Nope.”
IV. Complex Choices in a Complex World
Or, more accurately, Paul says, “Well, yes and no. You’re both a bit right and you’re both a bit wrong. Yes, everything is permitted – the ‘free in Christ group’ is right, in a way. You can buy groceries or eat food offered to you at someone’s house without being consumed with anxiety about it. But on the other hand, not everything is beneficial. Not everything is good. When you make a choice about what you eat, consider the effect it will have on those around you, both fellow believers and also those outside of the Christian community. Consider how your choices are a witness to the beliefs and the values that you hold. Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory.”
So, wait. Dammit Paul, should I eat the meat or not?
Paul doesn’t offer a simple solution to the complexities of being a follower of Jesus in what, for him, was the contemporary world. Instead, he offers a series of guiding values: “Participate with gratitude. Do all for the glory of God. Don’t offend people with different views, but also don’t offend your fellow church members. Don’t look out for your own advantage, but rather pay attention to what builds up and to what grows the love and the faithfulness of the community.”
And the thing about these guidelines is that they aren’t simple. What glorifies God? What’s the line between not offending people but also speaking up when things are harmful? What types of activities build up a community? These are questions that are just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the initial question of what is ok for believers to eat. Discerning what is right is a tough task. In a complex world, decision making is bound to be complex.
V. Waiters, Stewards, and a Whole Lot of Wine
So where does that leave us? How, given the startling array of daily decisions we face, do we discern what is right and what is wrong? As was true for the community of faith in 1st century Corinth, there isn’t one simple answer to the question. But I will propose one answer, one way of thinking about the choices we make as people trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. It’s called stewardship.
Now stewardship is one of those “church words,” one of those bits of insider language that only pastors use. Stewardship is often synonymous with “church fundraising.” We usually use the term during budget season. Many churches have “stewardship series” that are basically the equivalent of NPR pledge drives.
But while the concept of stewardship certainly does have something to do with money, it’s actually much deeper than that. A “steward” is someone who is entrusted with somebody else’s property. They are to responsibly and faithfully manage resources or possessions that belong to someone else.
Take, for example, tonight’s gospel passage.
The scene is a wedding.
It’s quite a party.
And the wine has just run out.
This is a problem.
In a hospitality culture, such as Jewish culture in 1st century Palestine, such a shortage would be a cause of shame for the host family. Jesus’ mom, who apparently knows a little bit about how to throw a party, has picked up on this problem, and, using her mom superpowers, gets Jesus to do something about it without ever actually asking him directly.
Perhaps what Jesus’ mom meant was, “Jesus, go buy more booze.” After all, up to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has displayed no miraculous powers. But Jesus, who is all about destabilizing and disrupting expectations, does something spectacular instead. He gets the servants to fill six stone jars up with an absurd amount of water and turns it all into really fantastic wine.
About 180 gallons of really fantastic wine.
So what does this have to do with stewardship? Well, what Jesus tells the servants to do with all that wine is to take it to “the headwaiter.” In other translations, that word is “chief steward.” It’s the person who is in charge of the wedding logistics so that the party can go off without a hitch.[v] The chief steward is like the stage manager for the wedding – entrusted with the details by the host family.
So in sending the wine to the chief steward, Jesus does something really important. If the host family found out that the wine had run out, thus casting them in a shameful light, who do you think they’re going to take it out on? The chief steward should have managed the wine stores properly! Jesus not only saves the family from disgrace; he also probably saves the chief steward’s job.
The story has some obvious commentary on the clash between party culture and purity culture. On the one hand, Jesus – at the urging of his mother – does his first miraculous action: he keeps the party going. What’s more, the storyteller informs us that the water-turned-to-wine was intended for a purification ritual, thus seeming to represent a rather literal victory for party-over-purity.
But on the other hand, Jesus and Mom aren’t just keeping the party going for the sake of the party. They’re saving the family and the steward from shame. What’s more, the story concludes by telling us that this is “the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs.” In John’s gospel, “sign” doesn’t just mean miracle; it means something that points to the glory of God. Specifically, Jesus’ signs point to the cross and to the resurrection, to the way that Christ stands in solidarity with the suffering of humanity and declares the decisive victory of life over death; love over hate; peace over violence. The party at Cana, in other words, doesn’t exist just for itself. There is a depth dimension to it, one that extends beyond itself to a world and a cosmos marked by redemptive grace. It’s neither purity culture or party culture: it’s something different.
VI. More Than Whatever
“The earth and everything that is in it belong to God,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church, quoting a psalm. Our faith is in the God who created a good world and filled it with good things. A God who creates abundantly and even extravagantly, not just more wine but excellent wine, so that all can have what is needed for a full life. As people of faith, we do not think of ourselves as owners; rather, we have been entrusted as stewards, as faithful managers, of God’s creation. And if God has created plenty for all, then situations of deprivation and scarcity in the world are situations of human injustice, examples of poor stewardship of the world’s resources. Like the chief steward at the Cana party, we ought to be very concerned if it doesn’t seem like there is enough of the good stuff to go around.
So when it comes to making decisions, decisions about our bodies or our money or our time, about what we do or do not eat or drink or watch or do, that’s the lens we look through. Not purity culture or party culture, but rather: a culture of justice. A culture of mercy. A culture of abundant grace.
And the truth is that there will be times we disagree about how to create that culture. There will be times when it just doesn’t seem clear what the right choice is. Stewardship isn’t simple. It requires a lot of us – a discerning mind, a generous heart, and a level of humility about what we do and do not know.
Friends, we’ve been entrusted with God’s party. And if we mess up? If the choices we make end up causing hurt or inequity or deprivation?
If, God forbid, the wine runs out?
Well, that’s when Jesus gets to work, offering the steward grace instead of shame.
Well, that’s when Jesus gets to work, offering the steward grace instead of shame.
That’s the kind of abundant life we’ve been offered – a party where the best wine is served and we get to help out. That, to me, is a way more compelling view of the world than one that says we just have to say no, to avoid the party at all costs. But it is also a much more compelling view of the world than one that says that the right choice is whatever makes me feel good.
So this week, I want to ask all of us to consider: What does it look like to live a life that is about way more than, “Whatever.”
[iii] Monica Nehls, personal correspondence, 15 Oct 2014.
[iv] Vice featuring Mike Taylor, “World Is Our Playground,” Ultra Records LLC, May 2014.
[v] Gail R. O’Day, notes on “The Gospel According to John,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1911.