Friday, June 20, 2008

Babies, babies, babies. . . .

Big news in the world of babies this week. Or more specifically, what some people have labeled as “babies having babies.” Britney’s little sister Jamie Lynn had her baby this week. Reports are that the new mother is not only living with her boyfriend, but she’ll most likely score a cool million from whichever magazine she decides to bless with the baby’s first photos. If you weren’t aware, Jamie Lynn is a celebrity beloved by young girls. . . . and she’s only 17-years-old herself.

Then there’s the rapidly unfolding story of what’s happening with the girls at Gloucester High School just north of Boston (Remember the film and story of The Perfect Storm? That all happened in Gloucester). Just in case you’re one of the few who hasn’t already heard, the 1200 student school saw a marked spike in the pregnancy rate over the course of the last year. This year, 17 girls – at least the 17 girls that the school is aware of – got pregnant. That’s more than quadruple the school’s average of four pregnancies a year.

Baffled by the high rate, school officials investigated. What they’ve discovered may seem unbelievable. But then again, in our current cultural climate, I’m not too sure any of us should be very surprised. It seems that at least half of these girls – all under the age of 16 – had entered into a pact to get pregnant, give birth, and then raise their babies together. The school reports that several of the girls kept coming into the school’s clinic to get pregnancy tests. They were hoping they were pregnant. When the tests came back positive, girls were seen high-fiving each other and excitedly making plans for baby showers. Other girls, finding out they weren’t pregnant, were disappointed. Nobody knows for sure how many other girls were part of the agreement. In addition, there are questions about who fathered the children, along with legal ramifications in cases of statutory rape. It’s reported that at least one of the babies was fathered by a 24-year-old homeless man.

Following these stories this week, I couldn’t help but think about the end of the film Lord of the Flies. Remember the story? A group of boys create their own society void of adults while castaways on an island. At the end of the film, the first adult to encounter the boys and their self-made culture is troubled and confused by the unorthodoxy of their ways. He looks at the boys and asks, “What are you boys doing?” The more time passes and the more our culture evolves – or devolves – we are left asking the same. . . . like this week.

A few weeks ago in our Sunday School class we were talking about teenagers. One of our pastors reminded us that no matter what the sociologists say about the lists of issues facing kids, the number one most basic problem they all face is the problem we all face. . . that is, sin. So true. This week’s news offers more evidence of that fact. The world is broken, and that brokenness is seen in the multiplicity of factors that have combined in a perfect storm that leads to things like teen pregnancy pacts. There are declining moral standards, celebrity role models, girls starved for father-love who look for love in all the wrong places, the equation of “love” with sex, a desire for relational intimacy, absent or disengaged parents, guys who are all too ready to prove their masculinity by fathering children, etc. In the end, confused kids lead and guide other confused kids. Then, we adults wind up arriving with befuddled looks while asking, “What are you kids doing?”

Here’s a thought – perhaps we should be so attuned to the culture and what’s going on with the kids that we look in the mirror to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to and for the kids?”

Friday, June 13, 2008

Girls kissing girls. . . .

A few weeks ago, CPYU’s Chris Wagner gave me a heads-up about a new artist he thought was positioned to land very, very soon on the landscape of today’s youth culture in a big, loud way. He emailed me a link to the video “I Kissed a Girl” on Katy Perry’s website. The site touts Perry’s upcoming album, One of the Boys, which will be released this coming Tuesday.

Anticipating a big splash, I decided to view Perry’s song and video through the “3D” evaluation tool we use and promote here at CPYU. Two weeks ago I wrapped up my evaluation of “I Kissed a Girl” and sent it off to the editor for inclusion in the Summer 2008 edition of ENGAGE (which will be out next week by the way). During the research process, I learned that Perry – real name Katy Hudson and the daughter of two conservative church pastors – is really not a newcomer to the music scene. In fact, she released a self-titled debut album, Katy Hudson, in 2001. At that time, she was pursuing a career in contemporary Christian music (you can read Christianity Today magazine’s review of that album here).

Katy Perry is one to watch. I think she offers us an interesting and sad case study in youth ministry, faith development, and contemporary adolescent values, attitudes, and behaviors. Since Chris sparked my interest in Perrry, I’ve had numerous culture-watching friends email (Josh Keller, among others) or call (thanks David Fraze!) to ask if she’s on our radar and if we're going to post something. The answer is “yes.” Because there’s such interest and because her album hits stores next Tuesday, I’ve decided to pop the lid off of the “3D” review that will appear in the Summer 2008 edition of ENGAGE, and give it to you here in its entirety (below). This is an artist and song you must talk about with your kids.

Song/Video: "I Kissed a Girl"
Background/summary: This is the first single release off 23-year-old rising star Katy Perry’s debut album, One of the Boys. Born Katheryn Hudson, she grew up in a Christian home where both of her parents were conservative pastors. She released a Christian album under her real name in 2001. Claiming she was not a good Christian girl during her adolescence, she is pursuing her music career with a new name, new sound, and a new message/worldview. The single was pre-released on April 29, 2008, and quickly rose on the charts. The full album debuted on June 17, 2008. Perry has been dubbed “the next big thing” by Blender magazine, and the “one to watch” by Teen People.

Discover: What is the message/worldview?
• The video for this catchy and musically formulaic pop song opens with a quick image of Perry lying seductively in bed. Images continue to flash across the screen quickly for the video’s duration, showing Perry and numerous other scantily lingerie-clad girls caressing themselves and flirting seductively with the camera while in close proximity to each other.
• While the song’s visual content serves almost as a soft-porn teaser that is sure to be a draw for sexually-curious young male viewers, the song’s title and lyrical content tell Perry’s story of kissing another girl. This is really a video for young girls.
• In the song, Perry says she didn’t plan or intend the kiss. Rather, with a “drink in hand” she lost her discretion and satisfied her curiosity over another girl that had caught her attention.
• After the kiss, she says, “I kissed a girl and I liked it/The taste of her cherry chapstick/I kissed a girl just to try it.”
• As she processes her response to the kiss, she describes how it felt both “so wrong” and “so right.” Still, this “don’t mean I’m in love tonight.”
• The random and boundary-less nature of sexual experimentation in today’s culture is captured in the fact that Perry says she doesn’t even know the girl’s name, and that the girl is her “experimental game.”
• Perry goes on to justify the kiss by describing “us girls” in purely physical terms as “so magical, soft skin, red lips, so kissable, hard to resist so touchable, too good to deny it, ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent.”
• As the video draws to a close Perry says, “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.” The camera draws back and Perry is seen sleeping in bed next to her boyfriend. As she opens her eyes she realizes she’s been dreaming, but the smile on her face as she rests her head back on her pillow indicates that she enjoyed the dream.

Discern: How does it stand in light of the biblical message/worldview?
• The video clearly depicts a current cultural reality related to our fallenness as human beings, particularly how the fall effects our God-given sexuality. The Scriptures tell us that God made all things and pronounced them all “good.” In Genesis 3:6 all things are polluted by sin. "I Kissed a Girl" offers lyrical and visual evidence of this brokenness and how it is being uniquely embraced, expressed, and celebrated in today’s youth culture through distortions of sexuality.
• God’s clear plan for celebrating and experiencing our sexuality in all its glorious fullness invites us into exercising that gift in the context of a committed, life-long, heterosexual marriage. Fornication, adultery, and homosexuality are wrong.
• We all make decisions based on some authority. In this case, Perry opts out of making behavioral choices based on God’s plan as revealed in His Word, instead choosing a personal, feeling-based ethic. She does what she does based solely on feeling and attraction, thereby justifying any of the choices she makes. The Scriptures call us to make our choices and live our lives according to the revealed will of God and to His glory, not our own satisfaction.
• Women are depicted as objects. The Scriptures teach that God looks on the heart, not on outward appearance. In addition, we are to find our identity in who we are in Christ. Not on what we look like on the outside.

Decide: What do I do with it?
• Because it mirrors our culture, "I Kissed a Girl" offers those called to love and lead kids an eye-opening glimpse into several rapidly developing mainstream cultural realities. Homosexuality is no longer stigmatized, but is now accepted and celebrated as normal. Feelings are the guide for life. Girls are taught to assume the role of objectified boy toys. Our teenage boys increasingly enjoy watching girl-on-girl sexual activity. Our teenage girls – even those void of lesbian leanings or feelings – are engaging in what we might call “experimental homosexuality.” While it’s not pretty, these are realities that we must recognize and understand if we hope to address them.
• Because it serves to direct young viewers and listeners, "I Kissed a Girl" is more than a song kids will listen to. It actually serves as a map to life, guiding impressionable kids into accepting and practicing the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are depicted and promoted in the song. This includes a postmodern ethical relativism, and homosexuality.
• The song and video should be played for parents and youth workers. Use it to spark discussion on evolving values, attitudes, and behaviors, along with how to bring the light of God’s Word to bear on those realities in our day to day living with and ministering to kids.
• Since Katy Perry and her music are finding their places in the collective consciousness of today’s youth culture, she and her music are realities that we can’t ignore. Kids are seeing and hearing the music of Katy Perry. We suggest that after securing parental permission, youth workers view the video and deconstruct its message with their middle school and high school students. The exercise will not only offer opportunities to bring the light of God’s Word to bear on the song’s faulty messages, but will serve to teach kids how to think Biblically and Christianly about their media choices.
• Katy Perry’s own personal story and transformation can be used to spark a discussion on the true nature of being a Christ-follower, how to integrate faith into all of life, and how to guard ourselves from falling prey to dominant cultural values that oppose the way and will of God.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Blood Everywhere. . . .

During my college years I had a summer job that was very eye-opening. I worked as a Mental Health Technician in a private psychiatric hospital that was in the middle of shifting from an old school sanitarium for chronic cases (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to a more modern facility that was focused on treatment and cure. Having grown up near the hospital’s property I had heard, believed, and spread many of the myths and legends about what went on deep into the grounds of the old stone estate that lay at the end of the long, long tree-lined driveway. To put it bluntly, the place was scary. I learned much about the old ways of treating mental illness, along with the emerging new treatments that were rapidly unfolding.

It was the mid-70s. And lost in the transition of what was really going on at least several times a week on the 20-bed adolescent ward that I helped manage during the afternoons and evenings, was a frightening regular occurrence. A not-so-unusual and all-too-frequent behavior we encountered was self-inflected cuts – usually on the arms and wrists – among our population of young patients. Because we were in supervisory roles, we worked with the nurses and doctors as part of the mental health team to record behaviors and enact treatment plans. I distinctly remember – most likely because it was happening regularly – that we were instructed to first seek medical attention for the bleeder, and then to make a chart entry indicating a “suicidal gesture” or “attempted suicide.” Based on what we know now, we were totally missing it.

Some 20 years later – back in the early 90’s – I received a letter from a local woman whose two teenaged children were attending a local Christian high school here in Lancaster County. The woman described some strange behavior her two kids were encountering among a growing number of their friends at the Christian school. They were cutting themselves. I embarked on a mission to get more information, knowing that there had been some significant developments in our understanding of this behavior. I went to the medical library at the local Penn State University teaching hospital in Hershey, and began my search. I found very little in the journals. In fact, the other day I pulled out the file and saw just how little there was. . . . not just in volume, but in understanding. Researchers at that time knew this much: it was happening more, it was happening mostly among young teenage girls, it was largely hidden and not discussed, those who did it were finding emotional relief, there seemed to be a common-thread of sexual abuse victimization in the past history of cutters, and there was a desperate need to do more research in order to gain understanding.

Fortunately, we have been learning more. Unfortunately, more and more kids are cutting and they are doing so with greater frequency and intensity. If you know anything at all about youth culture, you know that cutting is far more common and widespread in today’s world. Just this last week I spoke with another group of Christian college administrators and faculty who say that on their campus – like all other Christian college campuses – cutting and disordered eating continue to populate female dorms at epidemic levels.

This is one of those trends that we cannot ignore. My good friend Marv Penner has been counseling and working with cutters for years. He continues to research the problem and his understanding runs deep. I’m on a mission to get the word out to every youth worker, pastor, and parent about Marv’s new book, Hope and Healing for Kids Who Cut: Learning to Understand and Help Those Who Self-Injure. Each of us plays a vital role in identifying, helping, and referring cutters so that they might find the healing that comes not through the shedding of their own blood, but through the bloody wounds of the one who heals all wounds.

Several years ago I was speaking to a group of youth workers from a large national youth organization. I consider them to be some of the best at reaching kids. After I spoke, I had some great conversations with stragglers. I had difficulty listening to what one straggler was asking me. His arms interrupted my ability to listen. From his wrists all the way up to where his arms disappeared underneath his sleeves, every bit of his skin was covered by horizontal scars. It looked like scars on scars. He didn’t cower from my question nor did he think it rude when I asked, “Would you tell me about your arms?” I learned a lot more about cutting that day. I learned a lot about that young youth workers life and his past struggles. I learned about the redemption he had experienced. I saw why he was so effective in his ministry with kids who cut. This is stuff we all need to learn.