In the 2013 movie, “And Now a Word from Our Sponsor,” the CEO of a major advertising agency wakes up in a hospital, but can speak only in advertising slogans. It has been said that this “word,” in a title that has become a household cliché, is the longest “word” in the language. It may be that, but it also may be the barest. Advertising slogans are not intended to elicit a response. In fact, they usually fail to elicit even an idea. Consequently, they do not invite dialogue. “Reach out and touch someone,” if taken literally, might get someone arrested. “You deserve a break today”; but what about tomorrow? “Just do it” is devoid of context and barren of thought. Does L’Oreal’s slogan, “because you’re worth it” epitomize anything other than narcissism and the illusion that loveliness can be acquired by means of a credit card?
Marshall McLuhan, who spent the better part of his life studying advertising gimmicks, once said that “The business of the advertiser is to see that we go about our business with some magic spell or tune or slogan throbbing quietly in the background of our minds.” The slogan can be intoxicating, even if it is not persuasive on a rational level.
Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” provided a compelling symbol by which we could understand a larger, cultural problem; namely, that people wear masks to conceal their true identities. The advertising executive who speaks only in slogans may very well represent our own cultural tendency to spout things we do not mean to people we do not know for reasons we do not fully understand. Thus, human relations are supplanted by product purchases. The buyer and the commodity replace the person and his neighbor. The “I-Thou” relationship yields to that of “I-It.”
At the polar opposite of the slogan is the prayer. And the whole point of prayer is to establish a dialogue with God. Prayer should never be a monologue. Most assuredly, the purpose of prayer is not to tell God what He must to do for us. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “It is clear that he does not pray, who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that God shall lower himself to him, and who resorts to prayer not to stir the man in us to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills.”
Let us suppose that one night we are watching television and our program is interrupted by the words, “And now, a word from our Creator.”
What would we do? Would we change the channel? Or simply turn the TV off? Or would we wait in terror? We might turn from the word of God because we fear that it does not coincide with our wants. But God, being God, knows what we need better than we do ourselves. And what we need is usually better than what we want. In prayer, then, we must be open to surprises. We speak to God, and He speaks to us. His will is usually not in our script. But he is Our Father, after all, and wasn’t that the way he told people how to pray?
Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his marvelous book that bears the simple title, “Prayer,” reminds us that “The Word of God may well require of me today something it had not demanded yesterday; consequently, in order to perceive this demand, I must, in the depth of my being, be open and attentive to the word. No relationship is closer, more rooted in being itself, than that between the man in grace and the Lord who gives grace.”
In the dialogue of prayer, God invites us to do something that speaks to the core of our being. We should be more trustful to the God who created us than to the advertising agent who deceives us. Prayer, then, is an engagement with the being who created us, knows us and loves us, and urges us to awake to being the best person it is possible for us to be.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International.