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Apple’s Mother Nature Ad: It’s Protestant Paganism.

You can imagine the pitch: Mother Nature visits Apple HQ to conduct a performance review. In the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live it would gain instant traction: It’s Gaia in the boardroom as a take-no-prisoners businesswoman.

The idea definitely has potential. It’s what comedy does so well—combining unlikely ideas and enjoying the clash. It’s ancient meets modern, the spiritual meets the corporate. It should work.

But when Apple tried to pull it off last week at the launch of their new iPhone 15, it went down like a lead balloon. It was ratioed on X (the website formerly known as Twitter). Apple quickly closed comments on YouTube. The attempt fell flat despite a promising set-up, some sharp lines, and great performances including from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.

Denunciations were swift from the crowd. The ad was deemed cringe, woke, virtue signaling, greenwashing, and much worse. The online response to Apple’s comic conceit was a collective Nope. Why?

One issue is the moralizing. Saturday Night Live could indeed pull off this sketch. But if they did it, Apple bosses would not be the heroes, they would be the butt of the jokes.

This is not just a question of hypocrisy—we’ll get to the hypocrisy allegation—this is simply about the way comedy works. In comedy you don’t take yourself seriously. When moralizing you take yourself very seriously.

And while Apple CEO Tim Cook begins the sketch in comedy mode, anxiously rehearsing his opening line, by the end he has risen from his seat to meet Mother Nature’s eye and proudly declare his environmental righteousness.

It begins as a sketch and ends as a morality tale. That clash produced the cringe. And caught up in the cringe is hypocrisy.

Hiding Behind a Green Mask

Ever since Matthew 23 was written, a culture built by the Scriptures has been sensitive to hypocrisy. Wherever we see whitewash we suspect a tomb is not far beneath it, and the duplicity bothers us greatly.

The slightest possibility of “greenwashing” triggers us. Commenters online were swift to point out Apple’s ongoing carbon footprint (larger than Sri Lanka’s apparently), historical claims about its working conditions in African cobalt mines and Asian sweatshops, suicides in Chinese factories, and the accusations that Apple actively pursues policies of “planned obsolescence.”

Many critics saw an irony in the company’s environmental credentials being trumpeted at the launch of a new iPhone. The question arises: If we’re really concerned for the environmental impact, why keep pushing new phones on us? Why not update the old ones? And why do the new ones become old so quickly?

The accusations of cringe and of hypocrisy bite. But at that point, the video represents one more minor skirmish in the culture wars, with reactions falling along familiar fault lines.

What makes this skirmish a little different is the third major critique that was leveled. Many were struck by the out-and-out paganism of the video. Mother Nature is calling the shots at Apple HQ! We have the video! Is this a “mask slip” moment regarding modern life more generally, or woke capitalism, or modern environmentalism more specifically? Are we seeing a return to ancient paganism?

Modern Paganism

You can understand the fear. The writers of this sketch have done for comic effect what ancient peoples did naturally. They have personified powers in our world in order to grapple with them. We do this to some degree in modern life.

Uncle Sam, for instance, is not a real person, but an embodiment of a nation. That’s similar in one regard. But in ancient paganism you didn’t merely personify the greater reality,—you propitiated it.

And what do we see in the Apple video? Mortals are negotiating with a god and appeasing her—no doubt at some sacrificial cost. And they will have to do the ritual again next year, apparently. No wonder the comparisons with ancient paganism have been made. But there are also great differences.

In the paganism of old, the gods are immanent (they have their own, often nauseating, origin stories), humans are slaves of the gods and fate, and sacrifices are required. Some of these aspects are seen in the Apple video, especially at the start. In the beginning the quaking mortals are waiting for Mother Nature to appear.

One employee notices an office pot plant has died. She hastily hides it while the CEO practices his lame introductory question. When Mother Nature arrives, Tim Cook asks, “How was the weather getting in?” and he’s answered by a rumble of thunder and her deadpan: “The weather was however I wanted it to be.” So far, so pagan.

But from that moment on the tale twists in a decidedly modern direction. Because, of course, you cannot tell a story about Apple’s climate-altering improvements if, after all, the weather is controlled by capricious forces entirely out of our grasp.

In the video, it turns out that the weather is not how Mother Nature wants it to be—the climate, at least, is in our hands. And while Mother Nature begins the video with far superior power and knowledge, she is increasingly shown up by the Apple executives as, frankly, a little clueless about the happenings in her world. In the end she is stared down by the CEO and leaves. If this is paganism, it is a very modern form of it.

Christian-ish Sensibilities

The decisive turn in the video mirrors a decisive shift in history. In a profound sense, Western culture can never be pagan again in the sense that ancient Athenian culture was. Something has happened to the world—and that thing is Christianity.

Where paganism saw the gods as immanent and limited, Scripture proclaims a transcendent Source of being. Where paganism considered humanity to be slaves of the gods and of fate, Scripture proclaims the dominion of humans, made in God’s image. Where paganism considers a cyclical history that spirals down from a golden age, Scripture proclaims a golden future. Where paganism centers on the rituals and sacrifices by which the gods are appeased, Scripture centers on the once-for-all atonement of Christ.

Once this revolution is taken seriously, you may step into the world trusting an authority given by God and a victory won by Christ. The principalities and powers are vanquished, the idols are unmasked, and all divine obligations have been satisfied.

It’s the Christian revolution that makes sense of that Apple board room.

It’s the Christian revolution that makes sense of that Apple board room. For all that the nature-gods seem to be in charge, it turns out that humans can take the fate of the world in their hands. It’s not fixed. Unlike paganism, it’s not necessarily tragic.

Everything climaxes with Tim Cook promising to keep covenant—“We will!—and then, with Mother Nature satisfied, the final shot reveals a revived office plant. Resurrection! Life from the dead!

Mixed Messages

This isn’t ancient paganism. But neither is it the fifth Gospel! So what should we call it?

One thing you might call it is hubris! Apple’s chief has raised himself up and proclaims that his oath and his sacrifices will save the day. No wonder a set of Christianized sensibilities have been triggered by this video.

People cry “Cringe!” and “Hypocrisy!” for discernibly Christian reasons. But, on the other hand, the hubris of the video has also developed from Christian foundations. It takes seriously that humans have dominion, the world can be stewarded (and not simply suffered), and there can be a happily ever after.

The story told in the video is not Christian, but neither is it pagan in the ancient sense since, apparently, the story of the world doesn’t have to be a tragedy. Our fate is not fixed. It could yet be a comedy.

There are Christian aspects on all sides. And pagan ones. It’s both.

Welcome to late modernity.

Protestant Paganism

In his new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, Andrew Wilson uses the phrase “Protestant Paganism” to describe the kind of post-Christian spiritual outlook we’ve settled on in the West. (Andrew and I discuss these concepts further in our new podcast, Post-Christianity?)

“Protestant Paganism” combines “a this-worldly sense of ultimacy, happiness and meaning . . . with reformist zeal, moral certainty, commitment to progress, and an inescapably Christian ethical framework” (157). Our Western sensibilities fuse “this-worldliness” (paganism) and “moral certainty” (Protestantism). It’s a heady brew, but this is the Kool-Aid we’re all drinking—on all sides of the culture war.

At Apple HQ there are Christian-ish concerns (even if their Christian origins are hidden). If we try to lay aside all cynicism (a difficult task in a social media age), we might see a concern to steward creation and to exercise humanity’s dominion for compassionate ends. We might also see pagan-ish tendencies, to serve Mammon, to fear the powers, to diminish the human, to bargain with nature and to center our own oaths and sacrifices.

But then the detractors of the video will also be a mixture of Protestant and pagan. On the Christian-ish side of things, they are alive to the dangers of idolatry, pride, hypocrisy, and virtue-signaling. On the pagan-ish side of things, their cynicism about virtue-signaling may amount to a cynicism about virtue itself (with regard to creation care). And with virtue out of the way, exploitation can follow.

Beware Paganism’s Many Forms

There are many ways of being pagan—many ways of worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. One person may worship Gaia, another may serve Mammon. Both are idolaters.

Unmasking the idolatry of the other person does not tear down the idol of my own heart. I might reject the paganism of a Gaia-worshiping environmentalist, but I am not thereby delivered of my own “this-worldliness.”

When it comes to environmental concern, “Protestant Paganism” is at work—as it is everywhere else in Western culture. Some forms of environmentalism are self-confessedly pagan. They can be anti-natal and profoundly anti-human. But some are not. Some take seriously the “image of God” in humanity, our dominion over the earth, the creation mandate, and our glorious resurrection hope.

When seen from this perspective, the Apple video is more than a lightning rod for the culture wars, and our responses should do more than ping-pong between “Woke” and “Anti-woke.”

The line dividing Protestant and pagan runs through every Western heart.

The “Protestant Paganism” at play in the video is at play in all of us. For this reason, cultural analysis is never a mere intellectual exercise or a knee-jerk “like or dislike” online.

What we denounce in the other side may well be present in us. It’s personal since, to repurpose a famous line from Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing Protestant and pagan runs through every Western heart.”

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