Preaching to a consumer culture

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Modified: November 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm •  Published: November 15, 2012
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Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name?

The Jesuit didn't allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn't make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.

"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the Saint Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.

The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.

The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter as Kavanaugh, the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance," walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.

Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.

Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers-that-be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."

Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.

In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions to keep its cultural criticism up to date.

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