It was a bad afternoon at the ad agency. I was just finishing up a creative brief for a denture adhesive ad campaign when my boss came by to tell me about a new client, smokeless tobacco from Sweden.
The irony of trying to convince people to buy denture adhesive and smokeless tobacco was not lost on either of us, but it wasn’t for us to make it an issue. This was business. It was our job to marshal all the persuasive power of media technology and marketing to make sure our client sold more product.
This is the nature of life in a society where speed and efficiency reign. There is little time to ask why we do something, only how to do it most efficiently.
Headed home that night, I followed the current of humanity that spilled out of Gateway Center at rush hour in downtown Pittsburgh. When you live in a large city, defined by economic relationships and professional roles, it’s hard to be social. Sometimes you just keep your head down and head back to your domestic cocoon.
But this night was different. I heard someone call after me, “What are you reading!?” I was carrying a copy of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” — my little form of spiritual resistance against the soullessness of the ad agency.
I looked around and then down. That’s where Kevin Lafferty was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk panhandling. What am I reading? That’s a new one, I thought. What happened to, “Do you have a dollar?”
I sat down next to Kevin and talked about Augustine and God and the Irish Republican Army in Ireland where he got caught up in the violence before coming to the U.S. He was deeply spiritual, even if battered by the rough life he had been living. He pointed to the cross on the top of St. Mary’s Church across the street and said, “You see that cross? My life is rooted in that cross.”
Kevin only had a few teeth left in his mouth and they were various shades of brown and black. It made me think of the ads I was creating for denture adhesive — all those smiling seniors who got their smile back by spending a couple bucks on a box of denture glue.
When we were talking about the moment of Augustine’s conversion in the garden, when Augustine heard the children singing, “Take and read!” — Kevin said that he had done that many times before. He opened the Bible and landed on a passage that spoke directly to his heart. He told me to try it that night.
That night in bed, I put down my novel just before turning off the light and opened to a random page in the Bible. The verse I landed on was Proverbs 1:20:
“Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; down the crowded ways she calls out, at the city gates she utters her words: How long, you naive ones, will you love naivete, how long will you turn away at my reproof? (The arrogant delight in their arrogance, and fools hate knowledge.)
“Lo! I will pour out to you my spirit, I will acquaint you with my words: ‘Because I called and you refused, extended my hand and no one took notice.'”
I immediately flashed back to Gateway Center, “the city gates” and the “crowded ways,” where the voice cried out and snatched me out of the simplistic routines of my marketing career.
Working in the digital strategy department meant that we had to try to deliver ads at just the right moment on digital devices to prompt a purchase. We did a lot of work trying to predict when and where the ads would be most effective, making the consumer feel that we knew their needs so well that we could serve them an offer at the precise moment it made the most sense for them to consider it.
In a similar way, God used one of his most effective messengers, not a glowing angel or a bolt from the blue, but a man in the street who called and stretched out his hand to pass along a message at the precise moment it made the most sense for me to consider it.
In the information age it would be good for us to remember that knowledge is more desirable than information and wisdom is something worth loving.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.
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