Opinion | The Real Problem With the ‘He Gets Us’ Ads

About a year ago, I noticed a “He Gets Us” ad on a billboard. I gathered that the “he” in “He Gets Us” referred to Jesus, but beyond that I didn’t pay it a lot of attention.

Since then, I’ve distantly followed the ad campaign, which features television commercials, online ads and billboards, and which Christianity Today described in 2022 as targeting “millennials and Gen Z with a carefully crafted, exhaustively researched, and market-tested message about Jesus Christ.” In the ads, Jesus is portrayed as an impoverished refugee, an immigrant and a radical revolutionary committed to justice and love.

“He Gets Us” commercials ran during the broadcasts of several high visibility events in the past several months: the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, the Grammys and, of course, the Super Bowl. The Times described the campaign’s videos as connecting “Jesus to contemporary issues like immigration, artificial intelligence and activism.” Jason Vanderground’s, the president of Haven, the agency behind the ads, hopes that the campaign increases “the relevance of Jesus in American culture.” The billboards and commercials invite viewers to visit the “He Gets Us” website to learn more.

As a Christian and a pastor, I care deeply about religious discourse in America, but to be honest, it’s hard for me to care much about the “He Gets Us” ads, not primarily because of any problem I have with their content (though I may quibble here and there), but because, by their very nature as commercials and billboards, they tend toward the trivial.

Christianity is a 2,000-year-old global faith that is complex and perplexing. People misunderstand, scapegoat, co-opt, debate and believe it deeply. People live and die for it. To reduce its message to 30-second clips sandwiched between ads for snack foods, S.U.V.s and beer will inevitably be reductive. How can it not be?

God can make use of whatever God wants to, but I don’t think many people’s lives will be transformed by a TV commercial. I think this campaign will be largely forgotten in a year or two. Mostly, I think the “He Gets Us” campaign is a huge waste of money. The billion dollars that the campaign says it will spend in the next three years could be used to fund schools, reduce poverty and homelessness, plant churches, end diseases, or build other healthy faith-based institutions that could transform lives and that would more profoundly increase the perceived “relevance of Jesus in American culture.”

What I am interested in, however, is the public responses to the ads, which often reveal something far more destructive in our culture than the ads could ever be.

The online reaction to “He Gets Us” after the Super Bowl, for instance, was intense. The Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Something tells me Jesus would not spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads to make fascism look benign.”

Countless articles sprung up on the internet discussing the anonymous funders behind the ads and their beliefs. Some of these pieces reminded me of those yarn maps conspiracy theorists have on their wall in movies, connecting these ads to a vast network of evangelical politics. But they mostly amounted to saying, “People I don’t agree with are funding an ad campaign, and I’m suspicious.” What they are funding — the ads themselves — are fairly harmless.

I’m not sure what fascism Ocasio-Cortez is referring to. There’s nothing fascist about the content of the commercials, many of which promote ways of seeing Jesus that fit nicely into progressive priorities. My guess is that she was expressing outrage over this marketing campaign being funded by the Servant Foundation, which is largely supported by wealthy evangelical donors, including the founder of Hobby Lobby, and which has also donated to conservative causes like religious liberty and anti-abortion efforts. (The Servant Foundation has also funded causes progressives would likely support, like food banks and community development initiatives.) While white evangelicalism certainly deserves a lot of critique, it is hyperbolic to the point of dishonesty to equate it to fascism. It is, however, also an easy target on social media, where outrage costs little and generates a big response.

Not to be outdone, many on the far right were equally outraged. Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing campus group Turning Point USA, said the campaign was “one of the worst services to Christianity in the modern era,” calling the ads’ producers “woke tricksters.”

In his newsletter, the legal scholar John Inazu explained the partisan response to these ads as “a combination of deeply entrenched echo chambers and the quick attribution of guilt by association.”

While the ads themselves may be trivial, this sort of public discourse about religion — our unhinged responses, our intentional escalation, our narcissistic and performative outrage — trivializes us, as people, as a society, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians, as a church. This is caustic to the soul.

To maintain sanity and depth as a person of faith in America today, I have to tune out a lot of noise — including this ad campaign and the brief-lived outrage about it. This is not to say that we should be passive about things that really matter. We need to speak and act in ways that bring renewal, redemption and hope.

Yet we also need perspective. American Christianity is large and varied enough that someone is always saying or doing something we think is wrong or misguided. But we need to resist the attention-getting brawls that won’t actually help anyone. In short, if the “He Gets Us” ads tell us we need childlike faith, our reaction to it reminds me that we need more adults in the room.

A friend of mine, an older Anglican priest, often tells me that the time between an event and our response to it is where wisdom grows. If this is true, then the way of wisdom and the path to success as an online influencer point in nearly opposite directions. Wisdom requires slowness, stillness, focus, patience and withdrawal from some of the heated demands and controversies of the moment. Online influence often requires one to speak out on each new topic as loudly, quickly and simplistically as possible.

Quick reactions; playing to our base; grandstanding and point scoring; shallow engagement; pettiness; and focusing on denouncement rather than repair and construction will leave us all less joyful, wise and discerning. There is a drive for relevance that keeps us hooked on spectacle and immediacy, but we need discipline to resist the shiny objects of daily culture warring and online debate and instead seek depth — depth of faith, depth of questioning and depth of understanding.

Nearly 20 years ago, in my first class on my first day of seminary, my professor paraphrased Simone Weil: “To be always relevant, we must speak eternal things.”

To this day, I regularly think about this simple yet arduous commission he gave to his students. What our society and our souls need most is not the roaring noise of trending topics or fleeting debates. We need the slow wisdom of eternal things that, though always relevant, are often overlooked, yet still quietly seed the world with redemption.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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