My prayer is always that I would engage in meaningful reflection on culture that isn't knee-jerk, that is done to the glory of God, that sees culture and people through the lens of Scripture, and that yields a positive response rather than "the world is going to hell in a handbasket" hopelessness. I think we would all agree that if we want to truly represent the Jesus we've been called to follow, well. . . we have to do better than we typically do. That's always been our goal here at CPYU.
As I prepared to watch the VMAs, I kept reminding myself of some core theological truths that are sometimes easy to forget when you are engaging with disturbing cultural artifacts. We need to remember that God is in control, that God is providentially working out His plan, that there is nothing new under the sun, that sin is sin no matter what shape it takes, that I'm the chief among sinners, and that we need to be like the Men of Issachar. . . "who understood the times and knew what Israel should do." (I Chronicles 12:32).
So here's my attempt to make some sense of what happened in Brooklyn on Sunday night. What I offer are some random thoughts and responses that I trust will make sense and that will be helpful. . . .
- There was nothing at all surprising. Not one thing. If you've been watching culture for any length of time it should come as no surprise that what you saw is not only all around us, but it's reflective of who we are. It is the soup that our kids swim in everyday. It shapes their values, their attitudes, and their behaviors. How many young bloggers were protesting yesterday? Why didn't we see any? For most kids, this is normal fare. Nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, it's nuanced in the sense that it has been evolving over the years. Pop culture is always stretching the envelope. Relatively speaking, what you saw on this year's VMAs makes Howard Stern's 1992 appearance as Fart Man (the talk at water coolers the day after back then) seem rather tame. . . maybe even a bit "old-fashioned." Even this year's routine by twenty-year-old Miley Cyrus wasn't shocking in the sense that it could never have been anticipated. We are reaping what we've sown and culture is on a step-by-step progression that is not only still moving in the same direction, but it's moving faster and faster as time passes. Think about this. . . we now live in a world where an out-of-breath Justin Timberlake can look into the camera after 15 minutes of singing and dancing to the glory of whatever, and raise his Video Vanguard Moonman into the air while saying, "This is for you Granny!" . . . while his parents smile proudly from the front row. All that to say, don't be surprised by what you see next year.
- About Miley Cyrus. . . and Selena Gomez. . . and Justin Timberlake. . . again, should we be at all surprised at the visual, lyrical, and lifestyle turns their careers have taken? Several years ago I wrote about "How To Make A Pop Star." The formula is a well-thought out marketing plan that's still being used. It involves a rapid metamorphosis of a young someone-who-will-be-embraced-by-the-gatekeepers-known-as-"mom," to someone who will flat-out "piss the mothers off." This "quick-change" is almost as fast as Lady Gaga's rapid-fire multiple costume-changes during the first five minutes of this year's show. This formula has worked well with Cyrus, Timberlake, Gomez and a host of other former Disney-darlings who are now parading through youth culture as pied pipers with a legion of young followers right behind. . . little and impressionable disciples who are being shown what it is that makes getting out of bed in the morning worthwhile, and how to live their lives for the rest of the day after their feet hit the floor (thanks to Steve Garber for that descriptor of a "worldview").
- There was ample proof of pop culture's amazing power to map out life for our kids. I've been watching culture for several decades now. I more convinced than ever that it's not "just music" like so many think. It maps out life. Add to that the fact that there are now 24/7 delivery systems thanks to technology, and the ante is upped exponentially. The power of music and media to shape kids is even greater where the traditional socializing institutions of family, church, and school are no longer functioning with time, conviction, nurture, and clear ethical directives as they once did. What you saw on Sunday night was this generation's philosophers, trend-setters, preachers, and educators. Think about this. . . most of the performers and presenters were extremely young. What they sing and how they live is evidence of how they have been shaped by those in the industry who exercised a nurturing presence in their lives as they were coming of age. And the beat goes on. . .
- Speaking of nothing new under the sun. . . where has all the creativity gone? Overall, the mainstream music industry is currently being driven by a marketing machine that's turning out cookie cutter stuff from the sound, to the lyrics, to the performers themselves. The formula ran like a thread through almost the entire evening. It's almost as if the mantra for today's performers is "Anything you can sing I am singing too." This should cause us to sit up and take notice at just how powerful marketing is in our lives. Not only should we help our kids learn how to become discerning consumers, but we need to nurture this generation of kids into being creative and original culture-makers.
- Spirituality still holds a prominent place in the pop music world. It's just not as obnoxiously obvious. In years past I would oftentimes lament the habit of thanking God or giving praise to Jesus in an acceptance speech, especially when the awards have been given for artistic expressions that do anything but give glory to God. The total lack of integration was alarming. Even more alarming. . . and even more telling. . . was that for the most part, young viewers couldn't even see the blatant contradictions. So maybe we should be thankful that this year, only one person (that I remember) gave thanks to God during his acceptance speech. That was Austin Mahone. But there's another kind of spirituality working it's way through youth culture, and it's clearly reflective of how spirituality is being embraced by young people. There's Lady Gaga's white clerical robes in the opening seconds of the show. . . setting her up as a kind of high priestess for kids. There's Macklemore and Ryan Lewis chanting familiar scriptures on love that are embedded in a context ("Same Love") that skew faithful exegesis of Scripture and a responsible hermeneutic. And there's Kanye West divinizing himself with his album Yeezus and his introduction by Jared Leto before his on-stage performance. Leto asked for an "Amen," a "Hallelujah," and a "Praise the Lord" from the crowd before asking them to "make some noise for Yeezus himself!" You have to have come a long way as a culture to not even flinch over Leto's directive.
- Sex is redemptive. . . or at least that's what we're told. If the music if formulaic and it all sounds alike, then there is also a lyrical thread that runs through the great majority of today's popular music. At the VMAs, it was abundantly clear that sex is sacred. . . not in it's divinely created and intended way as one man and one woman to express love/commitment, experience deep physical/emotional pleasure and bonding, and as the path to procreation. . . but in a self-serving and almost animalistic way. The message came through loud and clear both visually and lyrically. . . from start to finish. Miley Cyrus offered us a show and tell about her body, her heart, and our collective cultural beliefs in her performance with Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar. When it comes to sex, "it's our party and we can do what we want" and - as the song's title says, "We Can't Stop." She brought Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" lyrics to life on stage as Thicke sang, "you're an animal baby, it's in your nature. Just let me liberate you." And she did what she did as Thicke ended the medley with "Give It To You" (lyrics here). With our culture and kids developing a deeper sensitivity to sexual trafficking, why do we celebrate culture-makers who traffic themselves and each other on-stage?
- The social issue of the day is homosexuality. It's a good thing that the VMAs now include a category for "Best Video With A Social Message." Service is at the heart of the Gospel. In the on-stage dialogue during this segment, viewers heard that "videos do change the way we see things." That's the power of music that I was mentioning before. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's award-winner "Same Love" is worthy of our attention as it not only indicts us for our failures to love the homosexual, but offers an example of how our culture is skewing God's design and shalom for our sexuality. It's a video we need to reckon with because it is changing the way we see things. If you want to know more about "Same Love" and how to talk about it with kids, here's a little 3(D) guide on the song that we put together last year.
What are the "take-aways" from this year's VMAs? There are many. Here's what I'm walking away with at this point. . .
- Youth culture is spiritually hungry. Augustine said that "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." The VMAs were like a cultural ultra-sound that allow us to see just how restless the heart of youth culture really is. There is a spiritual hunger that screamed out through the TV screen on Sunday night. Sadly, most Christians choose to respond by screaming right back. In reality, we should be grieving. . . and praying. . . and showing. . . and telling. Our response serves as our spiritual ultra-sound that offers a peek into our own hearts. Is what we see the compassionate heart of Christ? Or, is it the heartless response that brings great joy to the enemy?
- Idolatry is a dead-end street. Yes, we've all been made to worship our Creator. When we choose to not worship our Creator, we do not choose to not worship. We simply worship something else. In today's culture we worship all kinds of things including consumerism, ourselves, a growing following, and even sex. Idolatry is the making of good things into ultimate things. It is taking what God has made with a purpose and draining it of it's purpose while hoping that it will do for us what only God can do. G.K. Chesterton once said that "the man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God." When Miley Cyrus was twerking, she was looking for God. On Sunday night there was a lot of door-knocking going on. The knocking only continues. . .
- We need to realize just how counter-cultural the Gospel is. . . and how counter to the Gospel our culture can be. Now is not the time to sit around and wallow in despair as we lament the state of our culture. If we do that, then we are playing right into the hands of the enemy. Paralysis brings the enemy great joy and gives him days off. I am convinced that parents and youth workers are so very, very important and influential. As parents and youth workers, we need to know the truth, live the truth, and tell the truth. But we need to do more than that. We need to love those who don't know the truth, live the truth with mercy and grace in the midst of those who don't know the truth, and tell the truth to those who have no idea what the truth really is. The table has been set and a hungry culture is seated and waiting for the Gospel to be served. It's not about a culture war. It's about engaging with and loving individuals.
- We need to be talking about what we see and hear in the culture. Again, this is where our kids are swimming every minute of every day. They have no idea what the water looks like and how the water is shaping them. We need to take a cue from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He would examine and know the water, then state the obvious cultural beliefs ("You have heard it said that. . . "), and then he would turn that accepted norm upside down by laying out his will and his way (". . . but I tell you. . . . "). We must do the same.
I found the last two live performances of the VMAs to be especially interesting. I saw a contrast that I think is helpful. The very talented performer Bruno Mars performed his new single, "Gorilla." As I listened, I realized that the song was simply laying out a worldview regarding sexuality that was more of the same. I quickly Googled the lyrics for "Gorilla". The song, quite simply, is about a lusty drunken and drug-induced journey into "making love like gorillas." I sadly wondered, "Is that the best that we can give our kids?" You and I both know the answer to that question.
Then, the evening ended with Katy Perry singing "Roar" from beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. In the song's opening verse Perry sings, "I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath, scared to rock the boat and make a mess. So I sat quietly, agreed politely. I guess I forgot I had a choice. I let you push me past the breaking point. I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything."
As parents, youth workers, pastors, grandparents, teachers, etc. . . . let's remember that we are called to live and teach the truth of the Gospel. The Gospel gives kids something to stand for. The Gospel will keep them - and us - from falling for everything.
To watch the VMAs in their entirety or to watch selected segments, click here.