Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thinking Pink. . . .

Last Thursday Alecia Moore hit #1 on the charts with her latest single, “So What.” I’ve always found the singer known as Pink to be quite intriguing. For one, she and I share the same geographic roots, both of us growing up in the Philly suburbs. But even more than that, it’s her story that’s grabbed me the most. A child of brokenness, her music has consistently reflected her battle to come to terms with her past while taking control of her present and future.

But “So What” was occasioned by even more brokenness. This time, it was her separation and divorce from motocrosser Carey Hart, the man this seemingly strong and assertive woman proposed to and eventually married in January of 2006. I spent some time watching and re-watching the clip last Thursday. Then, I took the time to write a 3D review of the song and video that we’ve posted on our site (hand it on to parents and be sure to discuss it with your kids).

I went back and read an article I had written on Pink in 2002 as she was bursting onto the music scene. Knowing her story and watching it continue to unfold is a helpful exercise in understanding today’s youth culture. She’s a map for our vulnerable young kids, telling them what to think and how to live. She’s a mirror for those of us who love and minister to kids, providing us insights into where our culture’s at, and where it’s headed.

Since watching Pink’s “So What” last week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the map she’s drawing and the images of culture that she and her music reflect. For what it’s worth, consider these thoughts. . . .

First, brokenness runs deep and wide. Okay, so most adults will watch the video and get mad at Pink simply because she’s mad. Get over it. That’s what happens when creation and fall are experienced without going any further into redemption. Genesis 3:6 is where most people spin their wheels and live. Being broken hurts until it all gets fixed. We can’t expect the unfixed to act fixed. In reality, Pink does us a favor by putting an easily understood face on the brokenness that’s out there. We can choose to pass by on the other side, or stop and help. . . no matter what the cost to us. Remember that story?

Second, this is where our girls are going. Pink dresses raw. She speaks raw. She sings raw. She looks raw. Some would say she is raw. This is the new and evolving face of what it means to be a lady in our culture. Much of it is rooted in the brokenness they’ve experienced at the hands of the men in their lives. . . . and they’re resigned to an “I’m not taking it anymore!” approach to life. It’s increasingly taking the form of the sexy tough girl. Again, we might not like it. As a result, we might do all we can to convince our girls to act like a lady. But it’s only when the inside-stuff from which the outside-stuff flows is transformed, that the outside-stuff is an indicator of inward transformation.

Third, try as hard as we like, we can’t redeem ourselves. In a way, Pink’s no different than the rest of us. Things have fallen apart and we try hard to fix it through diversion, attitude, or just toughing it out. Reality is, it never works. When things slow down and we’re alone with ourselves, we realize the gnawing just continues.

Finally, healing is needed. Remember the old Sunday School song “Deep and Wide?” The “fountain flowing deep and wide” is the only place to go to drink of the life-giving “Living Water.” That should make us all the more eager to turn “So What” on, and then to respond with the love and grace of Christ.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Beautiful Mind. . . .

If I were to ever write a memoir (and I’m not planning on it, by the way), there would be two chapters devoted to two of the most significant experiences and periods of my life.

First was my time spent working as an MHT (Mental Health Technician) on the adolescent ward of a private psychiatric hospital outside of Philadelphia. It was the mid-1970’s and the mental health profession was dangling on the tail end of its “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” period in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Patients were labeled, largely misunderstood, locked away, drugged, and monitored. I remember my time spent working with schizophrenic, manic-depressive, and psychotic teenagers as one largely void of hope. The fact that a sedated existence was the best scenario for a group of kids almost my age did a real number on me. I loved my job. I loved loving these kids. But there was no love at all between me and the reality I faced for eight hours a day in that dark place. In fact, the experience was so void of hope that during my second summer as an MHT, I spent my days fighting a growing stomach-ache that had me spending many of my hours at home doubled up in bed. My nerve and stress-induced gastritis went away when I returned to school in the fall, but the memories of what I saw and experienced have never left.

Of course, since then, new technologies have allowed scientists to map and understand the wonders and complexities of the brain, along with many of the malfunctions that the fingerprint of human depravity have left on this organ that once was all that God intended it to be. In hindsight, I know that my young friends could only be diagnosed and treated based on a limited body of knowledge. In today’s world, those same kids would have the advantage of better diagnosis and treatment. But doing the best with what was known at the time, a small army of adolescents walked back and forth in a locked ward, prisoners to their sickness. . . . with the seen and unseen “locks” of their lives serving as loud and clear cries for the Kingdom of God to come and undo what sin had done.

The second period took place a few years after my time at the psychiatric hospital. Newly married, we had moved to the north shore of Massachusetts to attend Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The combination of academic rigor and the idyllic New England setting served to help me focus on things other than people suffering from mental illness. In many ways they were forgotten. Little did I know that beneath the appearances of a seminary community intent on pursuing a deeper knowledge and understanding of God (ie. It all looked great), there were classmates and even professors who were struggling to keep it all together.

Yesterday I finished reading a brand new book that served to pull the curtain back on a reality that stood in front of us regularly in the seminary classroom, but which we never even knew existed. David Lovelace has written a compelling memoir, Scattershot: My Bipolar Family (Dutton, 2008), that chronicles the deep and debilitating battles with mental illness that four of five members of his immediate family of origin waged back then, and even up to today.

The book caught my eye not so much because of its topic, but because of one of its principal subjects, David’s father Richard. When I arrived on the Gordon-Conwell campus in 1982, Richard Lovelace was one of the most beloved professors and a well-known champion of the truth in evangelical circles. He had written one of the most widely-read and critically-acclaimed books of the late 1970s, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Arriving on campus, we not only looked forward to sitting in his church history classes, but it was a treat to hear the many hilarious stories regarding Dr. Lovelace’s eccentricities and absent-mindedness. Some of them were so incredibly out there that you actually wondered if they were true, or simply legendary.

Reading Scattershot served as a catalyst for the collision of two of my worlds – that suburban Philadelphia psychiatric hospital, and Gordon-Conwell seminary. While he has seemingly turned his back on the faith in response to a combination of his own bipolar battle and the fundamentalism of his childhood, David Lovelace tells the harrowing story of his family with a combination of ugly detail, ongoing love for his parents, and grace. His father is no longer just a professor who stood in front of the class or was seen walking across campus. Scattershot reveals the depth of his humanity and struggle, as David’s writing forces readers to laugh with the family when appropriate (I learned even more about Dr. Lovelace’s experiences and eccentricities), and cry with compassion over the deep darkness of mental illness, especially when viewed from the inside out.

The book features one of those stereotypical early 1970s church directory photos on the cover (can you say “Olan Mills?”). We’ve all seen them, and most of us have been in them. . . . complete with the plaid sport coat. But there was torment lying under the surface of the five smiles, and the words hidden behind the book’s cover lay it all out in ways that will open readers’ eyes to a world that while it lives in our midst, we might never know, inhabit, or even understand.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pop Culture Fun. . . .

So I'm listening to NPR on Saturday while out in the car. A guy comes on and reports on Billboard Magazine's Fiftieth Anniversary of their Hot 100 chart and the special stuff the music rag's doing to commemorate the fact that the chart's a couple of years younger than me. The commentator proceeds to list some of the "all-time" and "most" lists that the magazine has released after tabulating musical chart-dwellers and toppers for the last 50 years. This afternoon I went to Billboard's site and found this great little list of lists!

But here's the one that really got me: It's Billboard's final tally of The All-Time Top 100 Hot Songs. Before the guy on NPR started counting down the top 20, I ran through a list in my own mind. I knew I'd never be able to guess them all, but I did think I could at least get a few. Let me just say. . . I didn't guess any of the songs that finished in the Top 10. Now pause. . . and think about what song's you guess would be up there at the top of the list. . . . and hold that thought for a minute.

Once you look at the list, you might be surprised too. Here's how Billboard describes the selection and ranking process: "The 50th Anniversary Hot 100 Song and Artist charts are based on actual performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100, since the chart's inception in August 1958 through the issue dated July 26, 2008. Songs are ranked based on an inverse point system, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at No. 100 earning the least."

If you can, carve out a little time to go to the Billboard site and look through the list. The've done a great job setting it all up. You can view 10 songs at a time. Each song contains a little written descriptor, and most include a video to watch. It's fun. . . and maybe a little frustating (Are you kidding me?!?!? How did that song ever make the list?!?). Give it a look. . . and if you're feeling especially creative, put together a little quiz to share with the teenagers you know and love. They'll be as surprised as you are at the rankings.

Now just for fun. . . . before you go to the Billboard site. . . . check out this Debby Boone video. . . you know. . . the one that had loads of my college buddies vying for her hand in marriage way back when (in our dreams). . . and then venture a guess on where it finished in the Top 100 (yes, believe it or not, it's in there). Then hunt it down in the list. Stuff like this is fun! .

Now, I've got a question for you. Who would you put as your #1?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin and Culture. . . .

Are you like me? Do you feel like you know her personally already? Two weeks ago right now you could have asked me - for a million dollars - can you name the Governor of Alaska? You'd get to keep your million. You could also have asked me, "Who is Sarah Palin?" Again, I'd have a really stupid and confused look on my face. . . well, more stupid and confused than I normally look. But now a two-week media blitz that began with a well-thought-out political strategy has made Palin's face very, very familiar.

So this, today, isn't at all about politics or my political leanings. Please don't try to read between the lines to figure out if I'm an elephant or a donkey (I've been called both many times!) Rather, it's just some thoughts about Sarah Palin I've had that were prompted by a trip to the grocery store the other day to pick up some creamer for our office coffee.

While standing in line I was scanning the rack of tabloids. I consider it a guilty pleasure for someone like me who is trying to think Biblically and critically about culture. Every now and then, when nobody's looking, I will actually pull a tabloid off the rack and page through it. Because I consider myself to be a somewhat sophisticated guy, I avoid The National Enquirer and go right for my black and white favorite which is also the standard bearer for good and responsible journalism, The Weekly World News. You know, the one that continually runs articles on Bat Boy and things like the time the devil was seen escaping through the smokestacks on an offshore oil rig. That's good stuff. So the other day my eyes were drawn to the latest edition of Us Weekly. There she was on the cover. . . . Sarah Palin. She was holding her infant son, Trig. That got me thinking about what the candidacy of Sarah Palin and the response to it tell us about ourselves.

First, there's our love affair with celebrity. This might be why I increasingly can't stand election years. It's the same old stuff recycled over and over again. Everyone says they've got the cure for what ails us (isn't sin what ails us?), and given four years, they guarantee a fix. . . . the fix being redemption and security through economic prosperity and the elimination of threats to it. I was reminded of this when I watched C-Span the weekend between the two conventions. They ran a series of old nominee acceptance speeches from conventions past. Whether broadcast in black and white or color, it was all the same. Nothing's changed. The only difference is the increased dependence on PR and spin through the years. I think we're seeing that now more than ever with this election. So, since we love celebrities, those who pull the strings need to make celebrities out of the candidates, or perhaps even choose candidates based on their celebrity potential. I was surprised and not surprised to read in the paper this morning that the first magazine interview Sarah Palin granted after being named to the ticket was with People magazine. Are you serious? Don't get me wrong. I think this says more about us and what we're looking for, than it does about Sarah Palin and her advisors.

Second, we just love scandal, don't we? We've become a nation of voyuers. The cover of Us Weekly serves as Exhibit A. . . "Babies, Lies, and Scandal." The TLC reality show filmed in my neighborhood serves as Exhibit B. Everywhere I go I hear more and more people talking about their fascination with this show about nothing. What's the draw? They tell me they love watching these bickering parents and their eight children, especially when the children bicker as well. Maybe it all makes us feel better about ourselves, allowing us to look at and justify the bad things in our own lives, because, after all, it's not as bad as what the media gives us 24/7. Brett Michael's promiscuous dating life. Who cares? We do. Gene Simmons' family. Who cares? We do. Hulk Hogan. Who cares? We do. If we'd stop watching and reading this stuff, the media might offer up some more positive fare.

Third, why the fuss about the babies? Because as a culture - on both sides - we fuss about the babies. In the conservative church we've been outspoken about premarital sex. If we're going to be true to the One who's called us to come and follow, we need to challenge our culture's sexual standards. But when one of our own falls, we oftentimes resort to crucifixion rather than loving discipline, restoration, nurture. . . and rejoicing over a new life. We do the same when one who's not our own falls. . . and we gloat with a Phariseeical pride because "that's what they deserve," and then we shun them as well. Shame on us. For those of you who are theological conservatives like me, don't be surprised when Palin's political and ideological detractors point out how quickly we've embraced Bristol Palin and her parents' positive response to her pregnancy. Gracious we must be, no doubt. But I do think the grace needs to be dispensed evenly, especially to those who have yet to experience any grace from God's people. And then there's baby Trig. The Palins did what was right and just, and I'm guessing there never was question in their minds. That little boy will bring great joy to many, many people over the course of his life as he lives out the image of God that's stamped in, on, and through him. How have we ever gotten to the point where we treat pregnancies as we do cleaning out the attic. . . deciding what's worth keeping and what to discard. I love my Down's Syndrome friends. Every Sunday I get to see my little friend Andrew. His smile and joy are infectious. Last night I went and watched my friend Teddy play soccer under the lights with his Special Olympics teammates. I never in my life remember seeing a game where the players enjoyed themselves more!

Finally, we're more about image than we are about substance - and please don't think that I think Palin is all image and no substance - I don't. But I'm guessing that since more and more voters have been raised on a constant media diet, eating all that stuff will inform the foundation on which they will cast their vote. It's not so much about what a candidate believes anymore, as it is about what they look like, or how well they can communicate, or how well they can come off when the cameras are on. Perhaps nothing I've seen in the last two weeks captures this more than the online collection of shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers featuring Sarah Palin that look like they've been created and manufactured by frat boys somewhere. There's Palin's smiling face alongside the acronym, V.P.I.L.F. It's plausible that a segment of the population might wind up pulling a lever for President based not on well-thought-out convictions, but on the sex-appeal of a Vice-Presidential candidate.

Oh, one more thing. . . . you can put some of this to the test at 11:30pm eastern time on Saturday night. It's the season premier of Saturday Night Live. I'm sure alot of this same stuff will get lampooned in true SNL fashion. And I can't wait to see what they do with personality-filled little Piper Palin.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Random thoughts on the VMAs. . . Britney's Back . . . What did you think?

So what did MTV have up its VMA sleeve this year? . . especially after last year’s experiment in format change? I watched, as I hope you did too, looking to see what I could see in the map and mirror of the 25th Anniversary version of the VMAs as the show offers a peek into where the map of youth culture is sending our kids telling them the way the world should be, and what the mirror can tell us about what the world is and how to bring the light of God’s Word to bear on the reality of where our kids are at.

This year we sent out a reminder to watch along with a list of questions to get you thinking about and processing the show and what we can learn that might further our understanding of kids, touchpoints for communicating the truths of the Gospel, and even thoughts on how to best do ministry to kids. I hope you’ll use the comment area of this blog and the discussion spot on our CPYU Facebook page to post your thoughts. We’d love you to share your insights. We’re depending on you.

Here are some of my random initial observations and thoughts regarding this year’s VMAs. . . in no particular order.

The format change from last years roving Las Vegas party set the show in a more intimate theater setting – a theater set up in Paramount studios - with a smaller live audience than in previous years. The relatively minimalist staging and presentation made it sound and look like a stand-up set. MTV was going for that more intimate feel that they went for last year. The set and the show’s general feel seemed to be an attempt at authenticity (valued by the emerging generations), from the smaller venue, to the amount of live – not lip-synched (sans Christina Aguilera) – performances. Even Rihanna’s more theatrical opener was sung live, unlike many past VMA performances. Extending several performances out to the sets on the studio’s backlots captured the place that music video now holds in pop culture as a form of film that tells stories.

Notoriously absent was the usual pit of screaming "regular people" and fans, as was the balcony or gallery seats loaded with screaming young adolescents who would keep the shrieks of adoration coming regularly throught the broadcast. Instead, a deliberate effort was made by MTV to cater to young viewers with the choice of presenters and performers. . . . including everyone from the cast of High Shool Musical, to Miley Cyrus, to the Jonas Brothers, to Jordin Sparks. With so many media choices facing our kids, MTV knows they've got to get 'em young.

The show kicked off with a little sketch featuring a healthy and happy-looking Britney Spears. She didn't sing or dance (remember last year's fiasco?). She was, however, "there." Was it to be a sign of things to come later in the evening?

The tone of the show was set when host Russell Brand, an English comedian, took the stage and performed a monologue that combined political and sexual humor lambasting George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the Jonas brothers who are outspoken about their Christian commitment and intent to stay sexually chaste until marriage. All media promotes a worldview, teaching impressionable young viewers the values, attitudes, and behaviors they should adopt, live, and celebrate. Brand's comments set the agenda and the tone for an evening where worldviews would collide.

I was especially struck by how so many of the commercials were visually embedded in textual promos reminding viewers to hang in there and keep watching for what’s “coming up in 5 minutes. . . .”, quizzes, teasers, etc. Even MTV is battling to hold the attention of a generation that’s been so media-blitzed they’re having a hard time focusing. I seriously wonder if our ministry attempts to draw them in by providing more entertaining stimulus is a good thing. I don’t think it is. We need to teach kids how to “be still” to listen, hear, and know God.

During the entire show I tried to envision what audience the show was designed to primarily cater to. If you look over the list of nominees and performers, it was weighted heavily on the side of the younger, pop/dance music loving audience. This is the music that’s heavily marketed to the late elementary and middle school screamers. These kids are very, very impressionable. They buy lots and lots of music, and they more easily buy into the message of that music. MTV really went after the Disney Channel crowd.

Lil’ Wayne. . . . I must really be getting old. There’s an entire generation of grandmothers out there who were once mothers themselves. When they were mothers themselves they were constantly telling their boys to “pull up your pants” and “stop scratching yourself in public.” Oh how I hope they weren’t watching!

While all the performers have talent that they’ve been given by God, we have to use a Biblically faithful sense of discernment to evaluate whether or not those who thank God (and there were lots of them this year!) are living a life that is consistently integrated and glorifying to Him. (What did you think when the Pussycat Dolls thanked God so eagerly and sincerely after getting the VMA for Best Dancing In A Video?) Considering that so many of this year’s nominees and performers have found their popularity and success with an increasingly younger and younger music-loving audience, how do the performers’ lifestyles, lyrics, videos, and verbal attributions of thanks to God combine to define the shape of Christian faith for our kids? And you wonder where Christian Smith’s “Moralistic, therapeutic, deism” comes from. Sure, there are a variety of sources. You got to see a big one on the VMAs. On the other hand, there are bands like Paramore and the Jonas Brothers who seem to be succeeding at integration . . . . so far.

Unlike past VMAs, this show didn’t present a one-sided message on sexuality. . . . although it looked like it might from the beginning. Between Russell Brand’s mocking commentary on the Jonas Brothers and their Promise Rings, to the overt visual and lyrical titillation of many performances, a do-anything culture was promoted (Kid Rock singing about his own adolescence in northern Michigan). But then there was my favorite moment of the night. . . Jordin Sparks. . . and her brief, unscripted, to the point commentary on Promise Rings and sexuality. Gutsy and great! Our kids desperately need voices that speak God’s wonderful life-giving sexual ethic into the culture. I found it interesting that Russell Brand came out soon after and, well sort-of, issued an apology.

Objectification. . . . that’s what we’re doing with our girls. Modesty was largely absent. Female outfits definitely promoted the stereotype of the boy toy (exhibit A: Pink’s costume; exhibit B: Lindsay Lohan's halter).

The return of Britney, and she’s being reinvented. She was the biggest winner of the night and who would’ve thought it?!? On a personal level, it’s nice to see her at least appearing to be getting her life together. On a PR/marketing level, Britney’s spots on the VMAs were more reminiscent of the relatively innocent 16 year-old version of ten years ago, than the rapidly unfolding trainwreck that’s been getting progressively worse over the years. She came off as one of the most staid, mature, and humble members of the lineup.

Finally, ego and celebrity. . . it drives so many performers and as a result, it’s what so many of our kids aspire to. (Ever see the audition lines for American Idol?). Kanye West has always embodied that. . . . perhaps no more than anyone else who was on the show. Still, I think it was fitting that West and his ego closed out the VMAs.

So, what did you pick up on?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pressure Off. Pressure On.

I thought I'd pass on some brief thoughts on kids and pressure. . . . both of them prompted over the weekend. The first thought was one of many that came during my annual trip to the mall. I don't go to the mall much anymore. Labor Day weekend, however, is another story. With summer's end and the start of my travel season fast approaching, I usually go pick up a new pair or two khaki pants, a couple of shirts, and a new pair of shoes.

Just when I was getting a little tired of being victimized by all the appeals to my wallet and for my allegiance, I started a ride up an escalator that was dumping me off on the second floor of a regional department store known as The Bon-Ton. Don't ask. I have no idea how they came to that name nor do I know what it means. It's just one of those local phrases that becomes so much a part of your vocabulary that there's nothing odd sounding about it at all. . . . until you hear it through the bewildered ears of someone who doesn't live around here at all.

As I got off the escalator I found myself in the department that caters to late elementary and middle-school-aged kids. I was taken back and then pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The Bon-Ton has enlisted the help of a small army of mannequins that are - dare I say - refreshingly and unrealistically. . . . weird. In other words, I don't think there's a kid in the world who would look at these plastic people and feel any pressure at all to conform to what they're seeing. In fact, one look at these things and it doesn't matter who you are. . . . you're thanking God for making you the way He did. So the "pressure's off" award goes to The Bon-Ton. Kids already have enough appearance pressure hammering them from all sides. But that's not happening at the top of the escalator at the Park City Mall!

Kids and pressure Part II. . . . again prompted by something this weekend. This time it's the overwhelming attention given to Sarah Palin's teenage daughter Bristol and her unmarried pregnancy. Yes, these things are worth noticing and talking about. There's a trend afoot that must be addressed. I'm sure Sarah Palin would agree. I wouldn't be surprised if she addresses the trend sometime very, very soon. But it's a shame that the news media is moving beyond using the story solely as a launching point to discuss positive and helpful ways to deal with the crisis of teenage sexuality and pregnancy. Instead, there's a seventeen-year-old-girl getting dragged into the wrestling ring of partisan politics by a media machine that could wind up destroying the poor kid. We need to address the social problem. Not attack the girl. Kudos to Barack Obama for stepping in and asking people to leave her alone. I wonder what Bristol Palin thought about when she went to bed last night? Just four days earlier she was virtually unknown in America. Now, she's a household name and the topic of conversations everywhere. It sounds to me like she's going to get all the support she needs from her family. Let's hope that the pressure put on by the media doesn't do irreparable damage to Bristol Palin.