I’m going to start this off with a couple of Nike commercials that I watch on Youtube when I am trying to motivate myself. No endorsement of Nike (or YouTube) is implied.
This first one has a very slight Mormon connection:
This second one doesn’t (as far as I know), but it is my favorite of the two:
Now, it is patently ridiculous to find commercials, generally speaking the best shorthand for “everything that is wrong with civilization,” inspiring, but I find both of these inspiring. I would go further and argue that I feel the Spirit every time I watch the second and that I get a spiritual ping every time that I see that “Everything you need is already inside you” quote in the first. I sometimes wonder if this actually makes me a shallow, easily manipulated person, but there is already enough evidence of that without adding this to the list.
As was discussed in a recent poll, there is some question regarding what we mean or what we think is happening when we say that we “feel the Spirit.” We are told that the Spirit testifies, comforts, and inspires. But those verbs can mean a lot of different things. I’ve argued in the past that the Spirit mostly gives us insight into the sincerity of the people we are listening to. But commercials are inherently insincere (even those old Joe Isuzu commercials were), so what am I doing feeling the Spirit in these?
For that matter, I’m willing to bet that many of you can watch these commercials and not have what you consider to be a spiritual experience. You may be moved by them. You may be indifferent to them. But, in this case, you wouldn’t have felt the Spirit. But I really think I have. So what is up with that?
I think that there are several different ideas at play in all of this. I think that one of the most important has to do with setting. There are contexts in which we expect to feel the Spirit. We don’t have to feel the Spirit in these contexts, but if we feel it, we recognize it as such because we were expecting the possibility. But in other contexts, it doesn’t make sense. If someone receives inspiration while mud-wrestling or watching commercials (probably morally equivalent), we are skeptical. Why would God choose that person or that setting? It might make us question our presupposed rules for revelation.
Which isn’t to say that I am necessarily right in feeling like I am feeling the Spirit. I am reacting to, primarily, feelings that come to me in watching these commercials. I find them beautifully made and personally inspiring. But I also feel like they speak to me, help me to see things that I otherwise wouldn’t (the beauty in motion itself, that strength comes from failure). The first time I saw them, I had the kind of telescopic settling in my mind that speaks to me of the Spirit. Also, I’ve never bought Nikes, so whatever the message was meant to be, it wasn’t the commercial one that came through.
Now, in the same recent poll, we discussed if the term “feeling the Spirit” can be applied to art. More specifically, if it can be applied to popular art (“movies”). I don’t have a problem with this, because I tend to think art is art, even if it comes in a popular context. But, it might be reasoned, there is a reason why flutes and harps are allowed in Sacrament meetings and guitars and harmonicas are not. Perhaps classical music inherently does more to invite the Spirit (or does less to drive it away). But one wonders, is this religious snobbery disguised as inviting the Spirit?
On the other thread, I stated that the Mission was a movie that I thought was R-rated but where I felt the Spirit. I don’t know if it ever was rated R, but it was a movie and, as such, it was made primarily to turn a profit. Most producers rate improving the world and enlightening the masses lower on their scale of priorities than adding to their paycheck and I don’t blame them for that. So, what am I to do when I feel the Spirit in a commercial endeavor?
One of the reasons I feel the Spirit in the Mission (and one of the reasons why I love the movie) is the story of Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a slave trader and profiteer, working in the recently colonized South American interior. Initially, he is indifferent to the suffering he causes, looking to make a fast buck. But then his brother sleeps with the wrong woman and Mendoza, enraged, kills the one person he truly loves. As a result, he goes to the Jesuits whom he earlier dismissed and seeks to serve his penance. Which leads to the following scene.
Now, I don’t know if you have to see the movie to get that scene. But I love what it teaches me. I feel the Spirit when I think about it. It means something to me. That might be sufficient.
“Feeling the Spirit” can mean a lot of things, but I think that, at its heart, it is always a way for us to distinguish things that are meaningful. “Meaning” itself is a deliberately meaningless term. Meaningful things can tell us who we are, what we believe, how we should act, and why we should act. The Spirit, however it is defined or experienced, offers us the chance to find meaning (God’s or our own) in the world around us. It leads us to find or to see those things which God would have us seek or see. It is the means whereby Angels speak and God communes. So we probably shouldn’t be surprised if we feel it during a commercial or a song that we enjoy. Those sorts of things help us define who we are.
As Mormons, we have several different ideas regarding what constitutes “Mormon-ness.” For instance, there has recently been some online discussion regarding whether the new emphasis at mormon.org actually represents Mormonism (or if it represents the kind of Mormonism that we personally pursue). If some believer approaches Mormonism in a way that differs than us, are they wrong, un-Mormon, a bad representative of the belief, or just a fellow traveler? How do we draw the lines? Ecclesiastical affiliation seems easiest, but surely there are wackos within the church from whom we would like to distance ourselves. Should we ask all contributors to mormon.org to list their top 10 movies? Would that get us closer to defining what Mormonism is?
Whatever else it tells us, the Spirit tells us what we should pay attention to as individuals. Those things we should pay attention to are those things that give us meaning. That meaning, like our salvation, is something that we have to work out with God. If it leads us to search for that which is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy in the midst of pop culture, so be it.