"He Gets Us" Isn't Offensive. It's Just More of the Same.
It's a mistake to confuse attention for belief.
If you’ve watched any televised football over the past 6 months, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of these ads. It would be tiresome to “dissect” any one of these. The premise of all of them is the same: Jesus is more like us than unlike us, despite the church-ified picture you may have gotten of him. Of course, it’s one thing to piously say this. It’s another thing to show a picture of a tattooed Hell’s Angel, or a refugee family, or homeless people on the screen, and narrate how Jesus lived this kind of life too. It’s effective in its element of surprise. The average American probably thinks of Jesus as either a ghost or a priest, not the downtrodden or outcast a few doors down. The phrase “He gets us” summarizes an entire evangelistic invitation. You can trust Jesus. He won’t judge where you come from, cause you and him come from the same kind of place.
There’s nothing aggressively wrong with the ads. They’re not overtly theological in nature; they’re too short to really confuse anybody; and all in all, their premise is true. Jesus “knows what is in man” (John 2:24) and he is sympathetic to the struggles and sins of his people (Heb. 4:14). Further, the idea that Jesus has more in common with a person we’d rather not look at than one we would is entirely biblical (Is. 53:2). The ads can be a bit glib, overstating the continuity between, for example, Jesus’ indictment of the unbelief and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and a leather-wearing counterculture. But that’s a distinctly American Christian mistake to make, and in the end, they do reflect a reverence and affection for Jesus.
But I get why some people are uncomfortable with them. Personally, I could do without a mass media campaign like this. I think the bottom line is that these ads are inoffensive, but that’s mostly because they’re forgettable. They don’t do anything more than put the name “Jesus” into living rooms. What’s more, they seem to establish Jesus’ goodness as a measure of how “seen” by him we feel.
Scripturally, you can’t divide Jesus’ sympathy for us from our plight as sinners. He “gets us” not because we ourselves are close to what he’s like, but because we are far away. That Jesus gets us is a profound act of mercy, not coolness. The ads do not communicate this, and that’s not really their goal. A recent endorsement I heard about the ad campaign says that it exists to “increase respect and relevance for Jesus.” This is the kind of personal-brand, PR campaign language that evangelicals have been trying to disentangle from for decades now. The writers of the ads proceed from the assumption that if people think Jesus is more like them than unlike them, they will be intrigued to come to him in faith. That could happen, of course (Lord, let it happen!). But it’s just as plausible—perhaps even more plausible—that the ads set up most people to project onto Jesus their own psychology, their own definitions of happiness and meaning, and their own expectations for their lives. A truncated message that says “Jesus gets you” could easily be taken to mean, “Jesus is you.”
There are two broader dynamics at work here. One is the fact that evangelical Protestants in particular are always tempted to capture attention at the cost of content. Look at the displays of opulent pageantry in many megachurches, or the hokey (and often offensive) ways that some teachers cynically co-opt sexualized or hip-cool references. The defense of these methods never changes: “Well, we got the audience to listen!” To which the answer should always be, “Listen to what?” It is a profound mistake to confuse attention for belief, and attention-grabbing devices for evangelism. Yes, it is good that there will be commercials during the Super Bowl that talk of Jesus sympathetically. But a large audience is not the ultimate good. If we frame the gospel in an unclear or untrue way, our audience capture will be a measure of how much we have failed, not succeeded.
The second dynamic is that Christian evangelism and apologetics should always proceed with a culture’s besetting sins and resistances in mind. My concern about “He Gets Us” is that it seems like the kind of message that is best used for people who have already accepted their need for a savior, and need assurance that nothing they’ve done or been can cause Jesus to cast them out (John 6:37). In terms of a mass audience whose cultural religion is most likely expressive individualism and a buffered self, however, “He Gets Us” sounds like a mantra that reinforces the primacy of the first-person view. It sounds like a mentality that keeps my personal psychology at the center, so that the question that really matters is not “What must I do to be saved” but “What must you do to affirm me?” Note again that there is nothing untrue about the phrase, “He gets us.” He does! He gets us more than we get ourselves. On the other side of a confrontation with our sin and helplessness, this is the most calming, most liberating message we can hear. Before that confrontation, though, it is unclear as a standalone dogma.
Some will ask, “Why criticize people who will be getting an evangelistic message out to hundreds of millions?” Well, I hope this post doesn’t come across as glib condemnation. It’s not. I won’t lose sleep over “He Gets Us.” I hope a multitude of people hear the ad and follow the gospel breadcrumbs all the way to the Lamb’s table. But there are reasons to not do stuff like this, too. And in a cultural context like ours, there are levels of discipleship and spiritual formation that might come harder for those whose first encounter with Jesus was based on a roundabout self-actualization.