Influencing People

It probably will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I did not watch MTV’s Video Music Awards on Sunday. Actually, I have never watched the VMAs. However, as someone who seems to get the majority of news online these days it would have been impossible for me to miss the hubbub about the Miley Cyrus performance. In fact, commentary on the performance seems to be so ubiquitous that I was tempted to skip it altogether in this space. As you can see, though, I decided not to do that.

I should probably state right up front, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have never been a big fan of Miley Cyrus. That is not to say that I had anything against her in her Hannah Montana days, it’s just that for all intents and purposes I ignored her. Neither her show nor her music were of interest to me, and what little I saw of the show neither gave me cause for alarm nor prompted me to want to pay more attention. However, I can be counted among the number of those who have been both concerned and disappointed by the kind of attention Ms. Cyrus seems to be seeking, and receiving, in recent years. I was disappointed by her Vanity Fair cover shoot, but I have been just as disappointed by other magazine covers she has had since, specifically the March 2013 Cosmopolitan cover. (There may well be more, but this is the only one I recall).

So what have I seen and read since Sunday’s performance? Well, first I had to go to Google to learn a new word, as I had no idea what “twerking” meant. It is a word that has not made it to yet, but Wikipedia was helpful. Apparently twerking is “a dance move that involves a person, usually a woman, shaking her hips in an up-and-down bouncing motion, causing the dancer to shake, ‘wobble’ and ‘jiggle.’ According to the Oxford Dictionary Online to twerk is ‘to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.'” Okay…I probably did not really need to add that word to my vocabulary, but at least now I know.

On Mr.Conservative I read a post that started this way: “On Monday, people were abuzz about Miley Cyrus’s staggeringly vulgar performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards show. For almost six minutes, she twerked with teddy bears and Robin Thicke, used a giant foam finger to simulate sex, snaked her long tongue in and out of her mouth, and generally shocked even the jaded entertainment world.” The post included a video clip of the performance, which I watched enough of to get the gist and to see why the performance was all over the Internet. Now, I watched it without sound so perhaps the words would have given some needed context, but I certainly did not understand the teddy bears. Given that teddy bears are most commonly associated with children, though, it seems questionable at best to include them in the kind of performance Cyrus gave. It did not take long, though, to realize that Cyrus’s performance was very sexual in nature. But Cyrus is certainly not the only young female pop artist to incorporate explicitly sexual behavior in her performances, so why does this one seem to be raising more ire?

First, because Cyrus came to fame as a child actress, starring in a show made for children by the preeminent family-friendly brand, Disney. There is no way to expect that child actors will retain the same appeal and innocence as adults as they had as children, but Cyrus seems to be flaunting the fact that she is going as far in the other direction as she can. Just today ran an article entitled “Miley Cyrus moves on with new racy photos,” describing a series of pictures she tweeted on Monday “in provocative poses, all showing her backside.”

Second, Miley Cyrus is the daughter of country music singer and actor Billy Ray Cyrus who both sits on the advisory board of the Parents Television Council and has been vocal about his Christian faith. The PTC, according to its own web site, exists to advocate responsible entertainment. More specifically, “The PTC works with the entertainment industry to stem the flow of harmful and negative messages targeted to children and presses elected and appointed government officials to enforce broadcast decency standards.” The PTC press release condemning the VMAs said in part, “MTV has once again succeeded in marketing sexually charged messages to young children using former child stars and condom commercials — while falsely rating this program as appropriate for kids as young as 14. This is unacceptable.” I would agree with that statement, and I think that the rating systems for both television and movies are often ignored or, shall we say, creatively enforced in order to permit content that clearly violates the content standards that have been established.

At the same time, the PTC press release asks, “How is this image of former child star Miley Cyrus appropriate for 14-year-olds?” referring to her “‘twerking’ in a nude-colored bikini.” Again, I would agree with their conclusion, but I would have to suggest that it has nothing to do with the fact that Cyrus is a “former child star.” If the behavior is inappropriate for children it is inappropriate whether the one perpetrating the behavior is a former child star or was never seen on the public stage until well into adulthood. Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich wrote, “It seems like the core of the anti-Miley brigade is the idea that she’s a former child star who is now, terrifyingly, a sexual human being. This strikes me as a mixture of nostalgic nonsense and puritanical nonsense.” I may not agree with him completely, but I agree with him that the fact that Cyrus was a child star on Disney isn’t really the point.

Interestingly, even Entertainment Weekly reported negatively on the VMA performance, with Kyle Anderson writing that Cyrus “masturbated a foam finger in front of millions of people. What we got was a desperate stab at ‘adulthood’ at best and a reasonable exhibit A for strengthening indecency laws at worst.” And Anderson is not exactly a prude; he says of the performance’s use of teddy bears, “the idea of turning pieces of childhood ephemera into hyper-sexualized fetish objects is provocative”–and he meant provocative in a good way. But his conclusion is difficult to argue with: “It came across more as somebody trying to shock with every single element of her performance, rather than someone who has a clear idea of who she is as an artist.” Brooke Shields, who was herself exploited as child star and also played Cyrus’s mother on Hannah Montana spoke on the TODAY Show and said, “I feel like it’s a bit desperate.”

I agree with Anderson and Shields, and that brings me to Point 3. It seems to me that the bulk of Cyrus’s behavior in recent years–perhaps beginning with the Vanity Fair shoot–has been a desperate attempt to shock and, in so doing, to present an image as opposite as possible from the Christian good girl she was marketed as and seemed to embrace at the beginning of her public life. The Christian Post says that Cyrus “was raised as a Christian and was baptized in a Southern Baptist church before she moved to Hollywood in 2005. As a youngster, she regularly attended church and wore a purity ring.” Her interview in the March 2010 issue of PARADE includes this observation about her faith: “Before her family moved to L.A. in 2005, she was baptized in a Southern Baptist church as a kind of spiritual insurance policy against big-city life. Yet she no longer frequents church these days.” A spiritual insurance policy? I am assuming that was the verbage of the article’s author and not of Cyrus, but the idea holds–many people seem to think that if they do the right things–get baptized or go to confession or read their Bible or whatever–it does not really matter what they do with their life.

In the same article Cyrus is quoted saying, “My faith is very important to me. But I don’t necessarily define my faith by going to church every Sunday. Because now when I go to church, I feel like it’s a show. There are always cameras outside. I am very spiritual in my own way. Let me make it clear, though—I am a Christian. Jesus is who saved me. He’s what keeps me full and whole. But everyone is entitled to what they believe and what keeps them full. Hopefully, I can influence people and help them follow the same path I am on, but it is not my job to tell people what they are doing wrong.”

If you are a celebrity who is constantly hounded by the paparazzi I can see how going to church could be a challenge, both for you and the other congregants, but I struggle with Cyrus’s assertion that she wants to influence people to follow the same path she is on.

She continued, “People are always looking for you to do something that is non-Christian. But it’s like, ‘Dude, Christians don’t live in the dark.’ I have to participate in life. If I wear something revealing, they go, ‘Well, that’s not Christian.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to hell because I’m wearing a pair of really short white shorts.’ Suddenly I’m a slut. That’s so old-school.” Cyrus is both right and wrong. We should not–any of us–be bound by what others may think, and there is certainly room for believers to have differences of opinion and conviction over what is and is not acceptable for Christians, what is and is not honoring to the Lord. Anyone who takes a stand as a Christian is opening themselves up to being judged, perhaps unfairly.

At the same time, the New Testament epistle of James says that Christians are to demonstrate their faith through their works. In fact, James says that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Simply professing faith is not sufficient. In fact, in verse 14 of that same chapter James asks what good it is for someone to say they have faith but not to live it out; his implied answer is “no good at all.”

Matthew 5:16 is another passage that points out the importance of the Christian’s behavior. In the Amplified Bible it reads this way: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your moral excellence and your praiseworthy, noble, and good deeds and recognize and honor and praise and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.” It would be a challenge (to put it mildly) to call many of Cyrus’s recent choices “morally excellent,” “praiseworthy” or “noble.”

It turns out I could go on writing about Miley Cyrus for quite a while–far longer than I ever would have thought possible until I set down to pound this out. What it comes down to, though, are these three things:

1. Miley Cyrus has in the past professed to be a Christian, but her actions are not demonstrating that faith, and she is not making many choices that most parents would want their children to emulate.

2. This has nothing to do with the fact that Cyrus was a child star or a Disney star; it has everything to do with the fact that her behavior at the VMAs was tasteless, exploitative and offensive, and was certainly not consistent with one who has claimed to want to influence people for Jesus.

3. Miley Cyrus is a human being with a sin nature, and so are we all. I believe it is a God-given responsibility to evaluate the actions of others and to determine whether they are acting in a manner consistent with His Word, and if I could talk to Miley Cyrus I would lovingly tell her that I do not think God is honored by her “twerking” on national television or posing in explicit and suggestive photographs.

Finally, though, I should point out to you–as I would to Miley–that I make mistakes, too. God is surely not pleased with all of my thoughts, choices or actions, either. Thankfully, my choices are not all broadcast instantly around the world. But the good news is that God loves Miley Cyrus, and He would welcome her back with open arms.

One thought on “Influencing People

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