Snake oil

Spend any significant time browsing the Internet, and you will be bombarded with clickbait — text and images designed to capture your attention and tempt you to click over to their site, whether out of desire or curiosity. Many of these are pop-up ads making outlandish health claims. Have you dieted for years to no avail? Not to worry: this one simple trick will melt the pounds away…

Marketers prey on your sense of need to part you from your money. And if the need isn’t already there, they know how to create one, to make you want something that you didn’t even know existed a minute ago.

Here’s a classic example. Would you rinse your mouth with floor cleaner? Obviously not.

But have you ever used Listerine?

Listerine was invented as an antiseptic to be used for sterilizing surgical implements. Seeking a larger market, it was also promoted as a floor cleaner. But it didn’t reach national prominence until a clever ad campaign created demand for Listerine by making it the solution to a problem you didn’t even know you had: bad breath, or the more scientific sounding “halitosis.” Advertisements suggested that people might be offended by your stinky breath. They probably wouldn’t tell you, but they would talk about you behind your back. Oh, the shame of it! Better use Listerine everyday, just in case!

At least Listerine has legitimate uses; the same can’t be said of the various other bogus cures sold by so-called “snake oil salesmen” over the years. The term goes back to Clark Stanley, who in the late 1800s stood in front of a booth at the World’s Fair hawking his patented miracle elixir. He would literally take a live snake and drop it into boiling water; when the fat rose to the surface, he’d mix the oil into a liniment and tell his audience it would cure whatever ailed them.

Today, we fall prey to any number of marketing schemes, believing claims that have little if any real substance to them. The products may not do what they say. Even if they do, we might not really need them. Or even if we need them, they may not be any better than similar products costing half as much. Marketers routinely try to convince us otherwise by using fancy and impressive-sounding language like “halitosis.” One of my favorite examples is a commercial for an expensive moisturizing cream containing “targeted hydrating liposomes.” That’s nothing more than ad-speak for “fat.” You could use the same language for someone slathering their face with Crisco.

Nobody’s selling actual snake oil anymore. But the outlandish claims of snake oil salesmen may go all the way back to biblical times.

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, reprimands his readers for the boastful way they speak of their business plans. Again, it’s not that making business plans is a bad thing in itself, but people were apparently bragging about how they were going to make a killing in the market. And reading his words in the context of the rest of the letter, this boastful behavior probably stemmed from their desire for higher social status, exacerbating the tension between the rich and poor.

Here again are James’ words, this time from the updated edition of the New Revised Version:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, NRSVUE)

“You boast in your arrogance,” James says. The word translated as “arrogance” is an interesting and seldom used one; it’s only used twice in the New Testament. At root, the word derives from a verb meaning to wander or roam, and some scholars have suggested that it points to — you guessed it — a traveling salesman, peddling the ancient equivalent of snake oil and making grand and empty boasts.

If that interpretation is correct, note what it does to James’ meaning. It’s not just that people are making sound business plans and trumpeting their cleverness every chance they get. The boasters are windbags, making exaggerated claims. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because they feel the pinch of inadequacy compared to others, and feel compelled to say something to make themselves seem more impressive, even if it isn’t true.

You know, like what we do on social media.

Nobody likes to feel left out or less than. But the solution is not to play the social games of impression management and one-upsmanship. The solution is to become a community that truly understands all the things James is trying to teach. All of us, rich or poor, impressive or not, are created in the image of God. In our lives together, we seek God’s will, living under the umbrella of his providence, and following the royal law of love.

It’s not just that people in such a community don’t boast in their plans and accomplishments. It’s that they don’t need to. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

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