Burning Bushes

When it comes to attention-getting spectacles, God is no longer the only game in town.

Amy Martin

Let us turn now to Exodus, chapter 3, verse 2. In the preceding verses we've learned that Moses killed a stranger, skipped town because of it, stumbled upon seven sisters watering their father's flocks, was given one of the sisters as a wife, and had a child with her. (Things happen fast in the Bible.) The narrative then slows down, however, to deliver one of the Bible's most indelible images: watching over his father-in-law's flock near the mountain of Horeb, Moses notices something odd: “And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.'” When he investigates, it turns out the great sight is there because God has a couple things he wants to say. First, take your shoes off, Moses, you're on holy ground. Second, the Egyptians are mistreating the Israelites, so I want you to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Now.

Anyone who had a childhood filled with church and Sunday school knows biblical passages like these possess much that can be unpacked, interpreted, disputed, reinterpreted, set to song, or adapted for the stage as an awkward children's play. This passage, though, is particularly challenging. Why does God not appear to care that Moses killed a man? How does an unpunished murderer still get to be a hero of the Bible? Moses argues, at length, that he's not the right man for this job. Why does he get to question God? And there is, of course, the question most people wonder about first: Why a burning bush? And not just why a bush rather than a tree or a waterfall, but why communicate this way at all? The burning bush doesn't solve a problem or crisis. It's not consuming an obstacle or warming anyone who is freezing. It is, strangely, pure spectacle: its sole purpose is to attract Moses's attention and then, through the awe-inspiring nature of the spectacle, to convince Moses he should follow the dictates of the entity responsible for this miraculous sight.

This is uncomfortable, because the strategy behind this kind of communication—Look at this! Isn't this amazing? Now do what I say!—is exactly the strategy we usually ascribe to what we call “big media,” and which most media critics describe as bombastic, manipulative, and deliberately opposed to the development of critical thinking. In other words, it's advertising. And a God who feels the need to run an advertisement for Himself is, at some level, suggesting He's not omnipotent. He's worried the primary demographic for His message isn't paying attention, so He cooks up a little razzle-dazzle. Mono-gods have, by definition, a monopoly. They shouldn't have to advertise.

If Moses thought it was interesting the burning bush wasn't consumed by its flames, he would be knocked senseless by our current society. Like the bush, television and the Internet—they are the same thing, really, except that a fading stigma still vaguely attaches to consumption of the former—burn constantly, but are never consumed. We are entirely surrounded by burning bushes these days, in the form of flickering screens that, like the bush, are not consumed by their glowing and shifting. They flash nonstop, always requesting our attention, and once we grant that attention, they try to get us to follow whatever personality, show, or network is supposedly behind their fantastic images. We have hundreds of channels of burning bush, and an Internet full of posts about or videos of burning bush, beneath which people comment about how lame those particular flames were (burnFAIL!), or post links to where we can see more burning bushes, super hot bushes, too hot to see here! It's traditional to claim that it's only the first season of _Burning Bush_—the one with Moses on the mountain—that was good, and all subsequent seasons or spinoffs are of decreasing quality. This is the Judeo-Christian reading of spectacle, which suggests that spectacle originally existed to announce the presence of divine power and all other uses are the mischief of false idols. To suggest that the original instances of spectacle signaled the presence of the divine is to ignore the fact that, really originally, it probably didn't. There were burning bushes before the Burning Bush, and they were undoubtedly spectacular, because they were part of a forest that was actually on fire. What these spectacles signaled to the hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the Earth at the time was that everyone needed to get away from there.

We obviously can't know what our hunter-gatherer ancestors thought or felt—whether they were monotheists, pantheists, or just felt the planet was a strange place where weird things were always happening, and then you died. What is consistent, though, is that something can strike us as spectacular only if we feel there is some kind of awe-inspiring power behind its presence. A burning bush—even if it's not consumed by its flames—is just a burning bush. It's only when in response to it we think, This is the result of powerful forces at work, that it becomes spectacular. That's only the first part of Moses's response, though—it's only the “I will turn aside and see this great sight” moment, in which the spectacular draws his attention away from the mundane, everyday work of flock-watching. The second half of Moses's response—“why the bush is not burnt”—is important, too, because Moses doesn't just recline on a bluff to passively watch and enjoy the burning bush. He investigates why and not only investigates but also upon hearing from God that he is now supposed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, responds with questions. When he gets his audience with Pharaoh, he asks, who is he supposed to say sent him? Why won't Pharaoh just think he's a wacko? This is going to involve a lot of talking, too, which Moses says he's not good at, so why not give this job to someone else? God, testy in the way most directors or CEOs get when their vision is questioned, assures Moses there will be plenty of special effects to convince everyone of the veracity of the whole thing, and that talking won't be a problem, because God will be feeding Moses his lines. Moses takes the job and Exodus proceeds from there, with God pulling out all the stops: massive livestock deaths, rampant disease, plagues of frogs and gnats, etc.

It may seem impertinent of Moses to have questioned God (and if you imagine John C. Reilly as Moses and Will Ferrell as God, the scripture doesn't require any tweaking to play as funny), but any marketing expert will tell you that provoking audience questions about the project behind the spectacle is the whole point of the spectacle. No one thinks something is must-see TV when they've never seen it, so the first step in your journey toward watching a show about drug dealers in Baltimore will have to be you saying, “But why would I want to watch a show about drug dealers in Baltimore?” It's only later—probably after season three—that you will shift not only to no longer questioning the project but also to proselytizing on its behalf.

Spectacle, then, is an invitation to an experience. And just as Moses found the burning bush diverting but had reservations about the experience the bush wanted him to commit to, we, too, know the quality of the advertisement is not necessarily related to the quality of the product it advertises. Our knowledge is more likely the result of learning there can be a world of difference between what exercise equipment looks like in an infomercial and what it looks like in our living room, but Moses's questions are essentially ours, because we know there are pretty much three possibilities. The first is the one that Moses—and we—are most afraid of: we see something spectacular and decide to invest our time and energy in the experience it advertises, but then discover that the experience is kind of dumb. This angers most people, because they then consider the spectacle to have been false advertising—the entity behind the burning bush turns out to be not only far from divine but also in fact totally inept. Sometimes, through some chicanery, an entity's bluff can be maintained from behind the curtain for a while, though this is ultimately more infuriating, since it lures us into becoming even more invested in something that is still going to end in nothing. If we consider the literal use of the word investment, this is the Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. The narrative equivalent is the show whose viewers, to be fair, were warned in the very title what was going to become of the time and emotion they invested: Lost.

There is no reason to associate only negative outcomes with spectacle, however. The opposite—spectacle advertising an experience that, when we sign on and become involved, we actually do experience as powerful and moving—happens all the time, too. A television show advertised as particularly absorbing actually does turn out to be good; an exhibition the museum claims is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity actually does leave us with a sense of expanded possibilities for human expression; a matchup advertised as the “game of the year” does turn out to be enthralling, with incredible plays, reversals of momentum, and moments of suspense; a band profiled in the weekend magazine, chatted with on the radio talk show, and whose images have been splashed across the Internet—an entity who has, via a publicist's crafty timing and the culture industry's constant need for content, set so many bushes to burning that it's impossible we would fail to hear what they have to say—actually does turn out to have recorded an album that transforms the mood and feel of our surroundings as we listen to it over and over again. There are many talented people and compelling events in our world, it turns out, and many of them advertise their existence or arrival via various forms of spectacle.

That, of course, is why what's difficult these days is a problem Moses does not appear to have had: there are just so many entities now setting so many bushes ablaze. It is only the very lucky or the strategically vacationing who find quiet meadows where one can watch one's flock in peace. The rest of us have a bush that burns and chatters on our desk at work, another in our living room at home, one in our car, and yet another in our pocket or purse that shakes and screeches every so often. The sheer amount of smoke that clouds our daily landscape, and the voices shouting over each other from every fire, can quickly have us condemning the entire babbling conflagration and cursing whoever started it all. If you're being biblical about it, of course, it was God Himself, though because I believe it's a sin to curse God, I choose to believe He doesn't exist and that the whole tradition was probably started by a hunter-gatherer who did a short fire dance for the clan one night as a way of advertising that he would be doing another, much bigger fire dance down by the river on the night of the full moon, which you could attend for five shiny stones or the donation of a handful of grain.

It's common for parents to have media-consumption rules for their kids—they're only allowed two hours a day of chatting with burning bushes, the bushes are filtered so that the content of their babbling remains age-appropriate, all burning bushes must be extinguished after 8:00 p.m., etc.—but we should probably apply these rules to ourselves, as well. Everyone talks about limiting media consumption because the culture industry's unceasing sale of instant gratification via cheap thrills or (what is probably worse) banal, dependably marketable clichés of “serious thinking” (political talk shows, “historical” Hollywood movies, “insightful” TED talks, etc.) render our responses to the world first predictable, then rigid, and eventually devoid of any thought at all. That may or may not be true. In defense of mass media—it's vain to suggest mass media even needs or requires a defense from me, since these words are no more than a puff of smoke that will shortly disappear, but nevertheless—it's not as if thoughtless, rigid, or reflexive thinking arose only post-WWII. I am, after all, supposedly still talking about the situation in which some entity actually delivers on the promise made by its burning bush or bushes. So why not acknowledge that it's entirely possible, as some bestselling nonfiction writers have argued in their easily consumable, single-idea, bestselling nonfiction books whose sales were boosted when Terry Gross interviewed them and Costco decided to carry the titles, that despite the mind-numbingly repetitive banality of our mass media, the sheer volume of ideas and attitudes we are asked to consider and possibly “like” every day—the sheer number of bushes ablaze beside every path we walk—is somehow instructive. Am I a smarter person for having watched, out of order and at random between the ages of six and sixteen, probably every episode of I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and M*A*S*H, among other shows? Or were the five times I watched Psy's “Gangnam Style” video last fall actually more beneficial, cerebrally, since the YouTube sensation challenged my mind by sharing zero of my cultural assumptions about what is “good” or “makes sense”? They say it's possible.

That's what I heard, at least—I didn't have time to actually read those books. Which is why a better reason for limiting the number of burning bushes we investigate may have nothing to do with whether the bushes are offering smart or dumb experiences. There are fancier terms for what I'm referring to here, but I'll just go with the first that occurs to me: world-weariness. In other words, attempting to live while constantly surrounded by spectacle is not a quality problem, it's a quantity problem. I know Terry Gross is smart, a good interviewer, and a valued figure in the media landscape; I'm also tired of her, because she has been chattering for years. How am I to reconcile that I like and respect her and also wouldn't mind if I never heard her voice again? Life as navigation of truly unceasing spectacular intervention is a recent experience—some may feel spectacle's victory was only just completed with the advent of “smart” phones—so it's tough to know if we're going to get stupider or, if smart phones are just palm televisions and the “TV is good for you” theorists are right, just that much smarter. Either way, the dynamic under consideration here didn't used to be social, but was instead primarily personal. In other words, the voice we love and value but nevertheless become sick to death of is supposed to be our own voice. I like myself, but there are also moments when I would like to dig my fingers into my skull, rip out my intellect, and dash it upon the rocks, because I am simply tired of hearing both my external and internal responses. Like other tiresome phenomena—gravity, Lady Gaga—they are predictable and follow me everywhere.

Moses, though, does not express fatigue at the sight of the burning bush. The whole point is that he has never seen something like this before. That he finds it novel is clear; we could speculate that it's also perhaps a welcome relief from repetitive thoughts about flock-watching or guilty thoughts about the homicide he committed. The burning bush, in other words, is both legitimate—it actually is a message from God—and something Moses is interested in investigating. It's the second half of that equation—having the time and energy to actually want to investigate something—that a landscape of constant spectacle risks bludgeoning out of us. It's traditional to ascribe low voter turnout to apathy or ignorance. We have now entered an era in which political campaigns become so protracted, the televised debates so silly, and the Internet so full of breathless babbling about them that people consider skipping voting not out of apathy, but because they have become so sick to death of every single political narrative, spin, counter spin, posture, and calculated “non-posture” that they suffer what campaign managers and analysts call “voter fatigue”: they just don't want to be a part of it anymore. It's a bit like the parents who spend so many years arguing with each other over whether Jenny should go to Swarthmore or Princeton that Jenny, when she comes of age, teaches them both a lesson by going to (shudder) a state school. This kind of response may be healthy for Jenny's psychological development in regard to her relationship with her parents. Whether that state school will actually provide a superior education is another matter—and it's another matter because in a condition of message fatigue, which is increasingly the condition we spend our everyday life in, a desire to search for and discover “quality” is no longer the point. The point is a desire for a sense of autonomy. If the only way for Jenny to feel a sense of autonomy is through deliberately screwing up her education by attending (shudder) a state school, then she may say to herself: So be it. Likewise, if there are one thousand channels of Internet and each is streaming mobile updates to my buzzphone, even if only fifty of the channels have webisodes that are “liked” and #ActuallyGood, that's forty-nine more Kindles on-demand than I can watch at one time, asshole. Moses saw one burning bush, was intrigued, and led the Israelites to freedom. We may be human beings who, because we suffer a plague of burning bushes, consider it a point of pride that we put fires out. What are the bushes saying to us? Who knows? We douse the bushes and move on. #OneLessBush

Which brings us to the third possible combination of spectacle and experience, and the one we probably talk about the least: the times we find ourselves involved in a powerful experience despite there having been no spectacle announcing its presence. We see a movie we've never heard of only because the one we wanted to see was sold out, and we love it. Browsing the bookstore's shelves, we see a book with an intriguing title, so we buy it. It turns out to be great, but when we ask our friends about it, none of them have ever heard of it. We experience an oddly moving moment in a play that we didn't expect a moving moment from, because it's a new play in some tiny theater and we went only because a friend dragged us. Or we find ourselves sucked into the drama of a sporting event that becomes, as the game progresses, more and more intense, until the thing becomes a kind of titanic battle of wills in which two teams are giving absolutely everything they have, and it ends in a last-second victory that leaves one side screaming for joy and the other throwing themselves down in tears, and the estimated attendance at the game—the number of fans who leave sweaty and spent and chattering—is no more than twenty-two, because it was a rec-league basketball game played by fifth graders, and one team had only five players, and a lot of friends or parents missed it because they had to work.

Though those examples became a bit lyrical, that's more due to the fact that I coach basketball and less to suggest that this situation—the absence of burning-bush-style spectacle—is somehow preferable. We not only enjoy a life in which flashy advertisements give us something to look forward to but also—because the we I'm using includes all human beings, both the audience for and voices behind our burning bushes—enjoy making spectacles for other people. “Check this out!” is a natural utterance, even when what it often refers to is that we've learned to play the famous lick of a song but not yet the whole thing, or when we've crafted a brief bit of entertainment but not yet the whole program. And if we raise again the idea of spectacle as existing to solicit literal investment, spectacle is pretty much required. No one is going to invest if you can't show them a demo, even if you don't want to or don't yet know how to make the demo. Make a demo of the demo. Get them interested. Wow them, and maybe they'll sign on.

That's all well and good, but one of our original questions remains: why did God need to use the burning bush in the first place? God could solicit Moses's attention via any number of senses or extrasenses, in any number of forms or non-forms. Why this extravagant flaming phenomenon? Why a burning bush? It may be that God Himself is the one who deserves to ask these questions, though—to us. Because, as with Michelangelo's strange statue of Moses with horns, the image of the burning bush is probably the result of a mistranslation. The Hebrew word seneh, which means brambles, is very similar to Sinai, the mountain that elsewhere in the Bible is described as being on fire. That's something most of us have seen: a distant peak aglow in the light at a certain time of day. It's likely that in the original version of the story, then, there was no burning bush at all, no miraculous spectacle meant to distract Moses from his flock. There may simply have been a mountain grown radiant in the golden hour, and Moses somewhere near it, surrounded by peacefully grazing animals. And then he heard a voice. In the air? In his head? That seems hardly to matter. The Old Testament God would probably assure us He can do that whatever way He'd like. But the one thing He didn't do was use a burning bush. It was humans who inserted that into the story—probably because we're the ones so in love with spectacle that we see it even when it isn't there.


Culture, Technology, Media and Journalism, Religion, Literature


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Also in this Issue

Burning Bushes

An Anecdotal Glossary of Spectacle

Fearful Beauty

Rodeo City

Monstrousness of Empathy

In Search of the New