So God Made a Farmer? and other things that are kinda true

Not feeling so well, I watched the Superbowl alone. When the commercial came on that featured Paul Harvey reading his ‘so God made a farmer’ piece, I thought “nice tribute” - and nothing more.paul-harvey-so-god-made-a-farmer

I woke up this morning to find a buzz surrounding the spot – both good and bad. Some are claiming it the winner of the prestigious ‘best SuperBowl add’ and others are decrying it as a rip off and an overly sentimentalized piece of blatantly romanticized platitude.

I am fascinated with the power of words and specifically how, in our culture, there seems to be no understanding OF language and examination of its use. We act like words are just what the appear to be – but don’t look at how the function to re-present (or signify) a greater reality to us.

Yesterday at church we had a major conversation about masculine pronouns for god and use of the word Satan. We are going through the book StoryLine by Donald Miller and not only does Miller only refer to god as ‘He’, but god only has classically masculine attributes. I got taken to task for selecting the book as our new year reading.

My defense is that ‘it’s just language’. So while it may not be the best language, I never thought that we would swallow it whole – hook, line, and sinker.
When it comes to the ‘Satan’ thing, yes – I wish that Miller had used ‘the devil’ or ‘our enemy’ or ‘evil’ or ‘darkness’.  I assumed that we all knew it was a kind of personification. Maybe I am just secure in second naiveté for my own good. I didn’t know that we still had to clarify that we don’t believe in an actual ancient cosmic bad guy but that it was a way for us to talk about forces that hurt us and others and destroys the good that God has called us to.

 

Earlier in our gathering we sang the song “How can I keep for singing your praise” and it has the line “I am loved by the King, it makes my heart want to sing.”    It’s how language works! It is an analogy. It is comparison. It is not exacting or mathematical.  No – I don’t think that god is literally a King. The age of monarchs is over … it is just a classical way to conceptualize. It’s poetic.

 

Side Note: I have been clear that language about god is not univocal. It is not a 1:1 equation. I have also talked openly about female pronouns for god (in God never changes, or does She?So-God-Made-A-Farmer

 

Which brings us back to Paul Harvey’s “so God made a farmer”. Of course god didn’t make a farmer – it is being poetic.  Someone might say “well God did make Adam to care for the garden and to work the soil.” Which is a fair enough point … but in saying that, we are not saying that God made a modern farmer who uses double-axled combines and herbicides made in laboratories.

I am suspicious that the reason that we would either get so excited or so upset is if we were lacking a theory about how language works.  Then I have to remind myself, we are the same country where a lot of people try to read the book of Revelation as literal – a completely novel way to read the Bible that has sprung up in the just the past 200 years.

So maybe that explains both  the accolades and the criticism of the ‘So God Made a Farmer’ ad. If you don’t get imagery, poetry, analogy … and think that language represents exactly what it signifies … then I suppose this one would be worth getting all fired up about.

When we say that God created a farmer – we don’t mean that God literally created a farmer. It is a poetic tribute. Noting more. Not worth getting fired up by or upset about. It’s just nice language.

 

________________

One of my projects for the next decade is to take some of the theories of structuralism, and post-structuralism – mix them in with some Lindbeck style analysis and figure out how we are gunna help initiate folks who have never considered this stuff before. 

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23 comments
amaryahshaye
amaryahshaye

As a black person who has farming in my family, I was primarily frustrated at the erasure of black and brown folks as farmers. One black person in the whole commercial just contributed to the idea that only white folks are rural and farmers. Um, hello, migrant labor is a huge reason our agriculture is possible today and then the government has had quite a way of discriminating against and squeezing out black farmers. It was sad, to say the least and I know many other black folks on my social media were upset by that, too. So, if God made a farmer is another way of saying " God made mostly white dudes really awesome at embodying nostalgic rural America" then I'll pass.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

While it aired, I enjoyed the poem. What struck me negatively was that they used it to say "God made a farmer... So go buy a dodge, because God wants you to buy a Dodge". We can't ignore the implication that God specifically made a farmer as described. But even sorting the language as it functions, it probably wasn't the best thing to air to a nation that takes thing so rigidly literal.

ReneeGoodwin
ReneeGoodwin

I don't suppose anyone asked the farmers... Now that I'm living in farm country again I'm becoming more sensitive to the way rural folks are marginalized by mainstream American culture.

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

I disagree in two ways :)

 

1. I don't think that any society, at a popular culture level, has ever had or understood a theory of language, and we aren't going to start now. There's a reason that academia happens in special, set-apart times and places, and this is one. People can't make their mortgage payments - proposing a theory of language for popular discourse will have no traction beyond a few interested parties. There's some value in academics (you and me) talking about language and how it functions out loud, or critiquing same, but there isn't a significant "we" that is likely to adopt any theory of language anytime soon. "We" are still very much working on a theory of raising children and paying bills and being part of communities.

 

2. The issue is more who gets to use the language, and how it is used. Special care is appropriate for masculine language or patriarchal/hierarchical language because we live in a misogynistic culture that is patriarchal and hierarchical. It (almost certainly) isn't that literate people don't understand metaphors. It is much more likely that people are tired of hearing metaphors of a certain kind, which reinforce the ways in which they are being dominated, marginalized, dehumanized and harmed.

 

By "special care", I mean, "it is incumbent upon leaders, particularly white male straight Christian leaders, to carefully choose texts that use a variety of non-white, non-male, non-straight images and metaphors." Because we have the privilege of time and training to talk and think about theory of language, we should use that privilege consciously.

willhouk
willhouk

I agree with you here Bo. My main reaction to the commercial came at the end where it read, "To the farmer in all of us." I was annoyed by the blatant pandering of that line. Not to mention "farming" today looks much different than the imagery they were using. Micheal Pollan discusses this in length in his books. But I don't really expect much from corporations advertising to the "Super Bowl" crowd. I do like Paul Harvey though and I liked his poem.

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

When that commercial came on, my thoughts went to Daniel Quinn's books "Ishmael" and "The Story of B" and his negative portrayal of the Agrarian Revolution and thought, "if he's watching this, it must be annoying the crap out of him."

danhauge
danhauge

So as I've followed you on this line of thought over the last couple years, I always have a nagging issue with it. I think I'm starting to know what it is. For people who really do believe that religious language is referential, it actually functions differently than for those who don't. So, for someone who believes 'Satan' does refer to a personal being, that language does not really function in the same way as it does for someone with your perspective. It has a different performative quality. So to say that we can just focus on language as performative, and overlooking how people really are hearing the language differently, will ultimately lead to confusion.

 

When you said, " Maybe I am just too secure in second naiveté for my own good. I didn’t know that we still had to clarify that we don’t believe in an actual ancient cosmic bad guy but that it was a way for us to talk about forces that hurt us and others," were you speaking in the context of your own church? Because that would make some sense, but if you are talking about the wider culture then I would have to say that I am surprised at your surprise. To continue to use the traditional language just assuming that people understand it the same way you do is, to my mind, not going to work very well in the society we live in.

 

I think we will always need to have straight-up conversations about how we are using the language differently, engaging in dialogue about why we think one way is preferable to another, or why we think it is more likely that the biblical writers used language this way, not that way. Simply saying "of course the language doesn't mean this!" isn't going to be persuasive for the thousands of people who really do believe the language refers to attributes of God, or a personal-being Satan, or other such things. It makes it sound like a completely settled conversation, when it's actually not.

 

Also, there is a wide spectrum of understanding of how language works, from "it's a 1:1 correlation", to "it is a poetic way to conceptualize forces in our society". Many may not think that God is literally a king, with a literal enormous crown and literal enormous throne floating around in the galaxy somewhere, but they still believe that 'kingship' refers to a certain kind of divine power, or omnipotence. Others may reject omnipotence but understand the metaphor in yet a different way. So there remains the question "yes it is a metaphor, but what is it a metaphor of?" And how we answer that question makes a difference in how we live, or relate to God.

 

Basically, I'm trying to argue that what we think language is referring to, and how we think language functions and performs, are intertwined.

ngilmour
ngilmour

Should the commercial have said, "So god LURED a farmer?" :)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @willhouk Whoa.  that was intense. Thanks for the heads up!  -Bo 

pas5001
pas5001

 @amaryahshaye My thoughts exactly. Language often goes hand-in-hand with images, and this commercial was remarkable in what and who it DIDN'T show. Watching it, you wouldn't know that Hispanics make up half of the farm labor in this country (according to a 2010 USDA report), or that the "family farm" has been largely replaced by industrialized mega-farms. Despite the use of the relatively broad term "farmer," I think this ad was intended for a very specific audience (white men who watch football).

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @amaryahshaye I wondered about that. SO glad I have friends to explain and clarify for me.   

 

Maybe "God made mostly white dudes really awesome at embodying nostalgic rural America" should have been the title of this post :)   Oh that I had it to do over again!   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @Toy_Adams You make a fantastic point! perhaps in a culture that takes things so rigidly literal ... it is that which wasn't explicitly said that is SO important! 

 

BUY A DODGE is way more concerning that 'God created a farmer'.  Thanks for pointing that out! 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @ReneeAxtell I was sensitive to the issue of 'rural america'  while I was writing this.  I guess I would want to ask you - is this overly romanticized version any better?  I wouldn't think so. 

 

Modern farming is a tough tough life and it has changed much since the iconic days of provincial bliss... 

 

Would love your thoughts!  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @DouglasHagler hmmmm - I don't know.  I am lerry of this line of reasoning for a couple of reasons:

 while the average person does not have time for theories of language - that do have lots of time for facebook, celebrity gossip, reality tv and you tube.  so lets not romanticize that they are tired of being 'put down and limited'.   That just doesn't sit well with me. 

 

I agree about the selection of texts. For instance, if you are a white male teacher putting together a bibliography for your syllabus ... that is an opportunity. 

 

But I don't resonate with you 'oppressed masses' kind of language :(  sorry D.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @willhouk You make so many good points in such a short period of time!

1) 'to the farmer in all of us' is that exact kind of poetic tribute I am talking about!  

2) Modern farming practices ARE very different than those idyllic notions for a provincial era. 

3) Looking into modern food sources (like Micheal Pollan) does make it hard to think "i do have some farmer in me - I should buy a Dodge truck."  

 

great thoughts!  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @Patrick Frownfelter Several commentors have alluded to literary works about farming.  I think you make a GREAT point.  I will have to check out those works.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @danhauge Somehow I knew that this would catch your attention :)  SO glad for your insightful comment!.   Couple points of clarfication: 

 

1) my 'surprise' that surprised you was a little over the top and a little tongue in cheek. When you only have 500 words in a blog post you have to be hyperbolic sometimes. 

 

2) I would agree with you that some folks DO think that langue functions that way. Or they ASSUME that it does - and have NOT thought about it. 

 

3) Here is the irony of the situation: those who think that 'satan' refers to an actual being would be the same people who criticize theological or philosophical language as being speculative. YET - the 'literalist' would have a tough time producing a 'satan'.  

 

I agree with you about the need to examine the metaphorical use of language ... I would just want to make sure that EVERYthing is on the table: antiquated language, revelation, ... everything.   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @ngilmour That is one way to say it :)  Thought certainly not the ONLY way!  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @pas5001  @amaryahshaye YIKES.  and I here I got distracted by male pronouns for god!  sheesh.   

 

Ya know what else I was thinking while reading about the controversy: Paul Harvey was an old white guy when he wrote this... what did you think it would sound like?

 

I have this thing I am working on about everything from technology to christian conference about WHO initially designs it/ controls the finished product.  This helps my theory.  thank you  -Bo  

ReneeGoodwin
ReneeGoodwin

 @BoSanders I haven't talked to any of my friends out here (Meade County, Kansas) since church Sunday morning, but based on my Facebook newsfeed, folks out here loved that commercial. They see it as honoring their heritage and their way of life. There is not a single national chain restaurant or big box store in all of Meade County, so we are never marketed to. Like a neglected child, any attention is good attention. I just want to shake them by the shoulders and say, "Don't you see they're taking advantage of you?!?! They don't care about you. Farmers are such a minuscule percentage of consumers that they certainly don't care whether you buy a Dodge or a Ford. What they're really doing is exploiting you and your blood, sweat, and tears to sell gas guzzling trucks to suburban cubicle dwellers who don't really need them! That endless drought that's turning our beautiful prairie into a desert? It's caused by trucks like that!!!" 

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

 @BoSanders I think you misunderstood me - I don't think I ever said anything like 'oppressed masses' - I think those are oppressed straw masses. My observation is that my (and your) ability to spend time learning a lot about theories of language is a privilege (and it demands more than the time and money that people commonly spend on social media, as I imagine you know, Doctoral student). Demanding that others somehow find a way to have that privilege too seems to ignore the fact that we have that privilege. You might still not resonate - fair enough. I just don't like you or me imposing a theoretical responsibility for everyone else to have the same privilege that we have, rather than just using our privilege for the common good.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @ReneeAxtell :)   so glad you wrote back in.  that was amazing and insightful  (also quite impassioned).   -Bo 

 

 

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