Jan 31, 2013

American Stuff: Can That Be Sacred Too?

A few years ago, the History Channel performed a major overhaul on its show lineup. That overhaul introduced me to what have become two of my favorite TV shows: "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers." As it turns out, I’m not the only one who likes them. In fact, I’m surprised at how many my age (38) or younger watch them with devotion.  

When my friend and I discussed the shows a few months ago, he joked, “They’re all about, you know, stuff.” Not far from the truth, really. Both shows follow Americans and the things they own—from obscure guns to a well-known issue of Spider-man. It’s fascinating, what turns up.

I’m even more fascinated by people's reactions to their “stuff.” It's those reactions that have helped me think deeper about the connection between us and what we own.

While "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers" are both about people selling their belongings, the attitudes often differ between programs. "Pawn Stars," for example, follows the story of a pawnshop owned by the Harrison family in Las Vegas. The Old Man (Grandfather Harrison), Rick (his son), Cory (Rick’s son), and Chumley (a family friend) spend their days buying and selling with clients who enter the store.

Some folks come to sell their stuff for great reasons. On one particular episode, a man wanted to start a college fund for his newly born daughter, so he sold his vast toy collection.

Yet, as the show is set in Las Vegas, most people come to the shop so they can get money to “have a good time.” One man sold his grandfather’s World War II Bombardier jacket in order to gamble. As I watch patrons like him, it’s evident they consider their belongings disposable. When a thing grows old, it just “takes up room around the house.” In many ways, we all have a bit of this American attitude.

Rick Harrison writes in his book, License to Pawn, “I always shake my head at what people sell.” He’s amazed at how they hold family items in such low esteem.  

"American Pickers," on the other hand, reveals a more interesting side to our obsession with stuff. The show follows Mike Wolfe and his sidekick, Frank Fritz, as they travel the country’s back roads looking for what they call “rusty gold.” Along the way, they encounter every kind of person—from the upscale collector in California to a hermit in the mountains of West Virginia.

Mike and Frank discover many interesting stories that connect people to their stuff. One particular man broke down in tears as he told Mike and Frank about how much his stuff meant. At first, it seemed like a strange reaction to a barn full of junk. The man went on to explain how either he or his dad had touched everything in sight. They used to travel and collect together. The man pointed out that “the stuff is fun, but it’s just stuff. What means more is how all this connects me with my dad.” After he sold items to Mike and Frank, he made them promise that the stuff would “find a good home with someone who would appreciate it.”

The man's sincerity made me weep. I could tell the stuff in and of itself meant little to him. However, when it served as a “sacrament” of the love between him and his dad, even an old Amoco gas station sign became profound. The contrast between the Vegas gamblers and this man couldn't have been more startling.

As I've pondered these television shows, I realize how the sacramental side of "American Pickers" brings out the beauty in my own stuff. I realize much of what I own has a deeper story, a deeper meaning. Whether it’s a piece of the original Bush Stadium or a book that once sat on my grandfather's shelf, I’m reminded of the deep connection I have with my family’s past.

I think God uses creation as a whole in the same way. He takes the concrete realities of the world around us—a river or a glass of wine—and uses them to connect us with Himself. I need to remember this. My stuff shouldn’t possess me, but it should remind me of the profound links I have with God and with others.

This is what makes TV worth watching.

Image Tim Miller. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post written by Jonathan Ryan. Jonathan is the author of the upcoming Urban Fantasy novel, 3 Gates of the Dead. He can be found on Twitter at @authorjryan.

Reader Comment