In my paper “Christ in Hyperreality“, I reiterated the point put forward earlier by William Cavanaugh that we do not live in godless societies strictly speaking. Instead, we live in societies where, in Cavanaugh’s words, the holy has migrated from one place to another.
Whilst one facet of this migration is framed in terms of a shift in devotion to particular artifacts (sports, politics etc), another facet is the incorporation of symbols of the holy into those artifacts. More accurately, they are symbols shorn of their original significations, but retain just enough of it to engulf the artifact with an aura of transcendence.
A couple of my favourite examples include the 2000 Gillette “Venus” ad campaign, which tried to link the act of shaving with the emergence of “the goddess in you”, more specifically, the Roman goddess of love, Venus.
Another, more recent example is the Scottish synth band CHVRCHES and their music video “Miracle“. The invocations of the supernatural come at two levels here. The first is in the use of vocabulary, with references to angels and the search thereof, and the constant references to miracles they are not looking for. Most striking however, is a single piece of iconography, wherein a beating heart is suspended against a lit background, while scenes of violence and mayhem unfold around it. The heart beats vividly but slowly fades into a lifeless piece of fabric. It is a piece of iconography reminiscent of the depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus where, against the turmoil brought about by the popularity of the cold moralism of the Jansenists, Jesus intended to show a love that was not afraid to be sensual, a divine love that is unafraid to be wrapped in muscle and fire.
There are two ways to read this aspect of the migration of the holy. We can dismiss it as so much crass manipulation by essentially secular business interests, or we could treat them as what I think they are, another example of “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12), as cultures that have largely apostasised nonetheless strive for the supernatural promises of the faith they left behind in the only thing they know how to apprehend, the world of things.
Yet another way to read this is the extent to which those who claim not to have apostasised are nonetheless caught up in this process of the emigration of the holy. Augustine did warn in his City of God that everyone on this side of the eschaton will have one foot in both the City of God and the City of Man. As such, Christians who claim the labels of “faithful” and “orthodox” for themselves need to discern the extent to which these labels have undergone the same process of commodification as the signs of used by advertisers, a theme hinted at in Justin Brophy’s excellent article in Church Life Journal.