When Gene Wilder taps his cane and dances down the steps in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, singing “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” the wide-eyed children following him take him at his word. They believe they have been given special privilege into a fantastical world of all-you-can-eat sweets. What they don’t know is that they are in fact being tested - studied for purity of heart and moral fortitude against the temptations of greed and over-consumption.
When Fiona Apple sings the same song as part of a wildly popular animated short for Chipotle, called The Scarecrow, we believe the greed is that of evil factory farms pumping out “beef-ish” meat made from imprisoned and injected animals.
But what if - like the golden ticket holders in Willy Wonka - the problem is within us?
Admittedly, Chipotle’s collaboration with the Academy-Award winning Moonbot Studios harvests bountiful beauty from an otherwise burnt-over field of crass, dumbed-down marketing. Yet not everyone thinks the animated advertisement is beautiful. The proprietors of family-owned farms in particular have criticized Chipotle’s use of a sweet Scarecrow and a cow with sad eyes to emotionally manipulate consumers under the guise of food education.
Is it possible that we only responded to the ad - clicking on it and liking it and linking to it - because we’ve been manipulated? It might be a little bit true, but I think there’s more to it. I think we know that all is not right with the state of food and business. We want to be able to trust that the food we put on our tables and feed our children will nourish rather than harm us. Yet we want all that and we want it to be simple. We want to believe there are good guys we can trust and bad guys we can boycott. The problem is that the issue of feeding our society is more complex than a conveyor belt of evil-looking goo. And no matter how much we’d like to believe it to be true, it’s more complicated than growing vegetables inside our picket fences. Especially for those who do not own a picket fence.
What if the problem is within us?
In the last scene of the ad, we see a printed banner unfurl over the now-hopeful scarecrow offering subversive sustenance to the unthinking masses. Cultivate A Better World, it reads.
Is this where we respond? We wake up our own dulled imaginations, grab a garden hoe and change the world? Maybe. And if a nostalgic song and gorgeous animation rouses the uninformed and status quo, then, thank you, Chipotle.
Here’s what I wonder, though. Chipotle’s spokespeople say they created the ad because they want to educate us about food using a marketing campaign that their millennial target audience would respect. What I really wonder, though, is if their ad - rather than educate the uninformed - doesn’t instead preach to the choir?
I worry that those of us who call ourselves Christians may be flirting with the mentality Paul warned against in the first century, when food and its preparation was used as both a divider of classes and an indicator of spirituality. I worry we’ve misplaced pure imaginations with food idolatry.
I seriously hope cultivating a better world means more than feeding my family grass-fed beef burritos from the neighborhood Chipotle. I hope cultivating a better world means a form of hospitality that aggressively resists food pretensions, that shows hospitality to the widow, the prisoner, the stranger and the orphan living off hot dogs and boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
I’d like to think the best piece of beauty we who follow the Gospel of Jesus might ingest from Chipotle’s ad would be a greater resistance to consumption - organic or otherwise - and a more robust imagination formed by the beautiful bounty of an ever-creating Creator.