jasonbwatson

March 21, 2017

March Movie Madness

There has been plenty of attention paid to Disney’s release of a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, the well-known “tale as old as time” in which peasant girl Belle falls in love with a beast that was in fact a man, transformed to a beast as a result of a spell cast on him due to his own unkindness. The movie is the latest in Disney’s recent line of live adaptations of its classic animated films, this one the update to 1991’s smash version of the same name.

Much of the attention this movie has been receiving, however, is due to the inclusion of a gay character in the live-action version, Gaston’s doltish sidekick LeFou. Social media has been abuzz with articles calling out Disney for its decision to include what TIME repeatedly reported as Disney’s first gay character. As a result of this inclusion many Christians and social conservatives have both criticized Disney and vowed not to see the film. Others have cautioned parents to use discernment in taking their children to see it. I have been engaged in some of these online discussions and my position has been—and is—that I will not go see the movie in the theater because I do not want to use my dollars to express support or approval for this kind of character inclusion. I likely will see the film eventually though and, depending on the scene, may or may not let my children watch it. From what I have been reading lately I suspect I may let them see it. Why? Because, according to those who have seen it and have shared their thoughts on it, the character is little different from the same character in the animated version and the “exclusively gay moment” is rather quick and insignificant and, unless you are looking for it or expecting it, not likely to be seen as a specifically gay scene at all. This is confirmed by a story in the March 20 USA TODAY story headlined “Beauty and the Beast’s ‘gay moment’ may have been much ado about nothing.” According to that story, the scene in question is “a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the film’s final seconds.”

So how did this scene become such a big deal? The film’s director, Bill Condon, chose to make it one. In an interview he did with Attitude magazine Condon said,

LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.

Others involved in the film confirmed this statement. Ewan McGregor said, on The Late Show, that LeFou is a “gay character.” He even emphasized the fact that opposition to the inclusion of such a character is ridiculous in the day and age in which we live, saying, that people need to get over their objections because “It’s 2017. For f**k’s sake.” So the point is that the director of the movie, if not Disney itself, intentionally set out to make a point of the character’s sexuality. If he would not have said anything then some people may have picked up on it or wondered about it when they saw the film, but he/they chose to make it an issue. In other words, they have only themselves to blame that some people are now making an issue of it. Of course once a theater in the south announced it would not show the movie because of the gay character, Russia changed the film’s rating and Malaysia said the film would not be shown there at all, the director and others tried to backpedal.

Incidentally, Condon’s remark really served more than anything to create for him, Disney and the film itself a lose/lose situation. Some, as already described, are unhappy about the announced gay character. Others, on the LGBT side of the debate, took the opposite approach, saying, according to the same USA TODAY article, “the representation of a gay character did not go far enough.” Yet again, had Condon never said anything about the character being gay this likely would never have been an issue.

A few people in discussions I have been part of suggested that the LeFou in the live-action version is no different at all than the LeFou in the 1991 animated version. If so that serves only to reinforce my point that Condon created this storm with his comments. Absolutely no one would have thought in 1991 that Disney would include a homosexual character in an animated film marketed primarily to children. That was six years before Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian (April 1997). Not only did she come out personally, but her character on her television show Ellen came out as well. Biographer Lisa Iannucci told Biography.com, “[T]here was concern over not only how the audience would react, but how the advertisers would react.” So it is absurd to think that it would have seriously crossed anyone’s mind six years before that that Disney, the company that was built completely around wholesome children’s entertainment, would include a homosexual character.

I have had people challenge me on why the gay character is an issue but the inclusion of bestiality and magic/witchcraft is not. The bestiality question is an absurd one. Belle falls in love with the beast, yes, but he is not a true animal–he speaks, walks on two legs, has emotions, etc.–and they never consummate their relationship while he is in beast form. Bestiality refers to sexual intercourse between a human and an animal. Accordingly, I do not think this even warrants further comment.

The magic/witchcraft issue is a legitimate one. Just about all of Disney’s fairy tale films include magic/witchcraft/sorcery of some kind and there certainly are some Christians who do not watch or approve of any of the classic Disney movies for that very reason. There are some personal convictions involved here for sure. My position is that the magic is defeated in the end and it is not glorified or taken to an extreme of serving Satan. I have not ever let my children watch The Princess and the Frog though because I think the magic in that movie is too dark and Satanic. Some Christians have no problem with Harry Potter either; I do. The other thing to keep in mind with Beauty and the Beast is the reason behind the beast’s curse. Take this synopsis from IMDb.com:

An old beggar woman arrives at the castle of a French prince. The woman asks for shelter from the cold, and in return, offers the young prince a rose. Repulsed by her appearance, the prince turns her away. The beggar warns him not to judge by appearances, but the Prince ignores her and shuts the door on her. The woman then throws off her disguise, revealing that she is a beautiful enchantress. The Prince tries to apologize, but she has already seen the lack of kindness in his heart. She conjures a powerful curse, transforming him into a hideous beast, his servants into anthropomorphic household items, and the entire castle and all its surroundings into a dark, forbidding place, so that he will learn not to judge by appearances. The curse can only be broken if the Beast learns to love another and receives the other’s love in return before the last petal of the enchantress’s rose withers and falls; if not, he will be doomed to remain a beast forever.

While magic and sorcery are used, the reason for their use is the prince’s selfish, judgmental, arrogant attitude. Once he sees that he could have played host to a beautiful princess he wants a second chance. Too late! To emerge from the curse he must learn both to love and to receive love. Powerful, poignant lessons can be taught from this. Biblical lessons even. So the magic in the film is not much different from the magic in Narnia.

The bottom-line issue for me when it comes to this movie is simply this: Whether through the character himself or simply through the comments of Bill Condon, Ewan McGregor and others, Disney is slowly, perhaps even subtly, pushing the acceptance of homosexuality into the realm of childhood. As an article on the Answers in Genesis web site accurately argues, “Sadly, Disney clearly wants to normalize what God has called sin. …[W]e must strongly caution against Christians exposing children to one more example of society’s acceptance of homosexual behavior, even if it’s just a small part of the film.” I agree with that statement.

The reality is that, for Christians, The Shack should be of greater concern than Beauty and the Beast. The biggest reason for that is simple: Disney is a secular company providing secular entertainment and thus marketed primarily to a secular audience. The Shack, however, is a film based on a book written by a man, William Paul Young, who professes to be a Christian. In his own words (in a recent blog post on his web site) the book “offered alternative ways of thinking about God and humanity that resonated intensely with many, it also challenged deeply held assumptions and embedded paradigms.” In and of itself that may not be a bad thing. All of us can be guilty of getting caught up in tradition or habitual ways of thinking about something and those can actually detract from an accurate or vibrant understanding of the truth. I am sure I am not the only one who has had moments of hearing a Bible passage exposited, or reading the thoughts of a theologian or author and realizing both that I had never thought of it that way before and that this new perspective provided a much-needed clarification or addition to what I had previously been content to think.

Much of the error (which sounds much nicer than saying heresy, doesn’t it?) will be recognizable to those with a solid understanding of Scripture. In the words of Randy Alcorn, “I believe that those who are well grounded in the Word won’t be harmed by the weaknesses and deficiencies of the book.” I agree with that, and I do not feel that my faith was challenged, undermined or weakened by reading the book. If anything, it may have stirred me to firm up some of my beliefs. And the book does contain some merit and value—and surely some elements from which I derived benefit.

Young, however, brings “new” perspectives that are not accurate at all. They serve not to clarify or correct possibly vague or inaccurate understandings of God and Scripture but to corrupt and pervert the truth that Scripture reveals. If nothing else, the fact that Young chose to portray God appearing in the physical form of a woman in the book is cause for concern. When I read the book I almost stopped reading right there. God, of course, has not physical form. He could choose to appear in some physical manner I suppose but He is not a woman, that much is certain. Young explains this in the book by stating that Mack, the book’s main character and the human who interacts with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their physical forms in the literal shack from which the book and film take their title, cannot accept God as a Father because of his own damaged relationship with his physical father. That may be a legitimate obstacle for many people because many people have strained or even dangerously unhealthy relationships with their earthly fathers. That does not, however, allow any of us to change who God is. Our own difficulty or discomfort with God as He has revealed Himself can never be used to justify or excuse our alteration or manipulation of God in order to make Him more palatable or acceptable or comfortable. (This is the same reason why it is not okay for those in some cultures that struggle with the idea of Jesus being God’s Son to change that wording in order to make the Bible more easily accepted in those cultures).

One of the biggest issues for the book and movie is that Young’s main character is God—and God speaks at length. Young is, therefore, literally putting words in God’s mouth through his story. This is a dangerous act, one that the Scripture warns about strictly. This also lends greater weight to the content of the story even if Young insists—as he does—that he was writing a novel not a theology book. Why? Because, in Alcorn’s words, “It’s hard to fall back on ‘Yeah, but it was just one of the characters saying that’ when the character happens to be God. You can’t really say ‘he was having a bad day,’ or ‘he wasn’t familiar with that Scripture.’”

In her review of the film, Sophia Lee writes that “Papa” in the film (which is a term Mack’s wife uses for God and the manner in which Mack addresses God throughout the book—which is only one more reason why depicting God as a woman is problematic) is “a god who is far removed from the God of the Bible.” Why? One example she notes is Mack asking Papa about his wrath, to which Papa responds, “My what? You lost me there.” That is a real problem. An incredibly significant problem. Indeed there could be no greater problem. Why? Simply this: if we deny or ignore the wrath of God then we are necessarily denying or ignoring the holiness and justice of God, which requires denying or ignoring both that humans fall short of that holiness in and of themselves and are therefore deserving of punishment and separation from God. If we ignore or deny that then we are ignoring or denying the fundamental truth of the Bible, the very heart of the gospel message, the very reason why Jesus Christ came to earth, lived a perfect life and died to pay the penalty owed by humans so that those who accept His sacrifice on their behalf might receive the forgiveness of God.

Let me be clear here: I am not asserting something that Young himself does not make clear. Young has said that he does not believe in penal substitution. He said he believes in the wrath of God and he believes there is no hope for human beings apart from the cross but he says Christ became sin for humans, not that human sin was punished through the death of Christ. In fact, he said, “I don’t see that it is necessary to have the Father punish the Son.” (To hear this for yourself you can listen to a lengthy 2009 interview with Young here; this specific conversation takes place over six or seven minutes starting around minute 16 of the recording).

Young’s most recent book is titled Lies We Believe About God. One of the “lies” Young addresses in the book is “The Cross was God’s idea,” the book’s seventeenth chapter. There he writes,

Who originated the Cross?

If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner. Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense. And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one.

You can read that for yourself on page 149 of the book if you want to ensure that I am quoting Young accurately. He goes on to write that the Cross (he capitalizes it) was the idea of humans, that the cross is a “deviant device” that is “the iconic manifestation of our blind commitment to darkness. … It is the ultimate fist raised against God.” There is some truth there, but Young goes own, saying that God responded to this “profound brokenness” by submitting to it. But Young does not mean that Jesus submitted to the will of the Father by giving up His life to pay the penalty of sin that is justly demanded by a holy and righteous God. Rather, Young says, “God climbed willingly onto our torture device and met us at the deepest and darkest place of our diabolical imprisonment to our own lies, and by submitting once and for all, God destroyed its power” (p 150). At first that sounds good but consider carefully what Young is asserting here: he is saying that God submitted Himself willingly to man—and man’s lies, darkness and brokenness specifically. He is saying that God freed humankind from our own darkness and lies by submitting to that same darkness and allowing man to execute Christ on the cross and thereby free humanity from its own “blind commitment to darkness.”

The reality, however, is that man’s “commitment to darkness” and “profound brokenness” is a result of the fall. Sin entered the world through Adam and Eve but it is has infected every human being since. As a result, “we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23, NLT). God did not submit Himself to our darkness to free us from it. That would ultimately mean that God submitted Himself to sin—to Satan. Far from it! God did not submit to Satan at all—ever. God the Son (Jesus) yielded Himself to God the Father, willingly putting Himself in the position to take the place of every human being who has ever lived by paying the rightful penalty of sin on their behalf. All who accept that Christ did that, and accept that He is their Savior and the only way to heaven, will have their sins forgiven and will spend eternity in the presence of God rather than eternity separated from God in hell. That, by the way, is another of the “lies” that Young addresses in his recent book. He says hell is neither separation from God nor conscious torment, but Scripture makes clear that it is indeed both.

In the book’s introduction, quoted on its back cover, Young writes,

This book is not a presentation of certainty. … You may identify with some topics and not with others. You might agree or disagree with my conclusions. Some of these ideas may be deeply challenging, while others may seem naïve and thoughtless. That is the wonder and uniqueness of our journeys and the beauty of dialogue and relationship.

Actually, Mr. Young, that is a bunch of fluff and stuff. It is utter nonsense. It is relativism at its core, postmodernism at its finest. Allaboutphilosophy.org states, “Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist.” That is what Young is celebrating! He is openly declaring that he is unsure of what he writes in his book—but one cannot be unsure of that which is absolute truth. In other words, Young can only be uncertain of God’s wrath, man’s sinfulness, the existence of eternal suffering in hell and the atonement for sin on the cross through the death of Christ because he is uncertain of the Truth of the Bible. That we can be uncertain of these things, and disagree on them, is neither wonderful nor unique. It is the gateway to straying from the Bible and from God. He has communicated these things clearly in His Word; uncertainty can only come from an unwillingness to accept and believe it.

Owen Strachan wrote recently wrote the following on The Gospel Coalition web site:

What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture’s stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy, and even dare to correct. We must take care here: to promote the cross without the atonement means we do not promote the cross at all.

I could not agree more with Strachan—and when we allow anyone, including William Paul Young, to suggest that the cross was anything other than the act of a great, loving, merciful, just, holy, righteous God simultaneously demanding and accepting the perfect sacrifice on behalf of fallen man as “the wages of sin” we serve only to repudiate the wonderful truth of the gospel and the indescribable love of God.

I realize that much of what I am criticizing here comes from Lies We Believe About God rather than from The Shack, but one will open the door to the other. The movie will no doubt be seen by people who did not read the book and will prompt many of them to want to explore Young’s ideas further. That will lead them to Lies We Believe About God. In fact, that Lies was released to coincide with the release of the movie is not at all coincidental. Young, and his publisher, are literally banking on the fact that the movie will drive sales of the book. Indeed, one reviewer on Amazon.com, identified only as Lisa, hits the nail on the head when she writes,

This book’s release at the same time as the movie’s release clears up any question out there as to whether the author desires to shape Christian thought and doctrine. Many have questioned over the years whether The Shack should be viewed as only a fiction work – not a doctrinal statement. I bought the Kindle copy yesterday to let the author clear that question up for me himself. Now I know what he believes. His departure from Orthodox theology is quite apparent. If you are a young Christian or non-Christian I encourage you to seek mature godly counsel before you take the ideas of this book as a fact!

So it is entirely fitting to be addressing the false teachings contained in that book while discussing the release of the theatrical version of The Shack. If anything it is even more important, because Young likes insisting that The Shack is a novel. He makes no such disclaimer with Lies We Believe About God, which he does present, as we have seen, as containing uncertainty but definitely not as fiction.

There are several things that we must keep in mind when it comes to The Shack and other erroneous writings and teachings of its ilk. First, popularity does not equal truth. The Shack has sold more than twenty million copies but that does not mean that the ideas it presents are true or even deserving of serious contemplation. It means only that Young tapped into the interests of millions of people. (It is not coincidental either than he did so by presenting a picture of God that is much softer, kinder and gentler than the true God of the Bible). Second, quality production does not equal quality time. Someone said to me the other day of The Shack, “One of my friends saw it and said it was really good.” It might be; the production quality is probably very high. The budget was no doubt healthy and the acting may be very good. None of that means it is a good idea for anyone to spend their time watching it. Playboy is probably a quality product purely from the standpoint of design, printing, photography, writing, etc. and Hugh Hefner is certainly a successful businessman. None of that means it is a good idea to read the magazine. Third, sentiment is no substitute for veracity. We know this in our human relationships. After all, no one would want their spouse to tell them something they want to hear because it will make them feel good rather than tell them truth. No one wants a doctor to tell them they are in perfect health, even though that would be encouraging and result in happiness, if the truth is that they are riddled with deadly cancer. Why not? Simply this—because we have to know the truth in order to effectively and appropriately respond to it. William Paul Young is saying a lot of things that a lot of people want to hear. It makes them feel good—about themselves and about God. Why? Because it lets them shape God in their own image. In the end, that will do them far more harm than good. When they die—and they will—and stand before God—which they will—He will not say, if they died without accepting Christ, that He loved them so much and He is happy to welcome them into heaven. Instead, He will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” To where will they depart? To hell—to be separated eternally from God and to suffer unending torment.

And that’s no work of fiction; it comes straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:23).

March 20, 2015

Cinderella

I do not usually post movie reviews. In fact, I do not think I have ever reviewed a movie in this space, though it is possible that I have forgotten one. In this post, though, I am going to review one, primarily because I find it interesting how different two people can view the same thing.

Last Friday my wife and I went to see Disney’s new live-action movie Cinderella. I was not quite sure what to expect; I was hoping for a well-done film that did not stray too far from the classic storyline or get too “cutesy” in its presentation. I was not disappointed, because Disney and director Kenneth Branagh stayed very true to the storyline we all know. That pleased me. Interestingly enough, it disappointed Jessica Gibson, who reviewed the movie for Christianity Today. I did not read Gibson’s review until the day after I saw the movie, so I was a bit surprised to read the heading on the online version of the review: “When it comes to remaking classics, Disney shouldn’t try so hard.” Gibson opens her review announcing that she is a big believer that the original is almost always better. With that in mind, she said that she has been noncommittal on her opinion about Disney’s plan to make live-action versions of their classic animated versions of fairy tales. “Should Disney mess with success?” Gibson asks, to which she responds, “Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.”

Gibson goes on to write, “To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.” What I find so fascinating is that in Gibson’s mind this is a negative, whereas I found it refreshing. Far too often those who remake movies feel the need to put their own unique twist on the story we all know, with the result being that we are not watching the story we expected to see. I never find this satisfying or even enjoyable. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that if I have reviewed a movie here before it was quite possibly to take to task the makers of the most recent Alex Cross movie, based on the novels by James Patterson, since the movie bore almost no resemblance to the book).

Oddly enough, one of the things Gibson complains about (though complain might be too strong a term) is that the Grand Duke in the latest version apparently needed to improvement for his eyesight. Gibson bemoaned the fact that in Branagh’s version the Grand Duke “did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.” This actually struck me too, but only in an “I wonder why they didn’t include that” moment, not because I found it “very wrong.” (And, if I may politely correct Gibson, the Grand Duke in the animated version wore a monocle, not a pince-nez). The other difference that struck me is that Cinderella has no dog in Branagh’s version, meaning there is no Bruno when it comes time to get Cinderella to the ball. The result is that the fairy godmother makes footmen out of two lizards, an odd twist in my opinion. Branagh also makes the Grand Duke a conniver and schemer with his own designs on whom the prince should marry, whereas the original version makes him out as more of a bumbling sycophant.

It turns out that my opinion of the movie was much more in line with that of Emily Whitten, who reviewed it for WORLD. In Whitten’s words, the movie “is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.” Branagh’s Cinderella is, outwardly, incredibly patient and tolerant with her step-mother and step-sisters after the death of her father, yet the film also gives us a glimpse into the struggles she deals with internally (emphasis on the word “glimpse”). Cinderella confronts her step-mother and step-sisters when they destroy her gown before the ball, asking them why they are so mean. She gets no response, but I also thought it interesting that Branagh had the step-mother make the first rip, whereas in the animated version Lady Tremaine slyly points out to the girls that Cinderella’s dress utilizes some things they had discarded and lets them inflict the damage. Equally interesting is that Branagh gives no indication that Cinderella used any of her step-sisters castoffs. The result of Branagh’s approach is, in my mind, the realization that the step-sisters are modeling the behavior they see their mother display, as well as that the behavior of all three is motivated purely by envy, jealousy and fear. Yes, that’s right, fear. Branagh also allows us to see a bit more into the heart of Lady Tremaine and to understand that no small part of her treatment of Cinderella is jealousy and that no small part of her efforts to get her daughters married off to the prince is her fear of having no income and nothing to provide for her and her daughters in the future after the death of Cinderella’s father. (Branagh does not attempt to explain why Conderella’s father would choose Lady Tremaine of all the women in the world he could perhaps have pursued as a second wife, and this is an aspect of the tale that has never made sense to me).

From the time of her mother’s death, Cinderella is driven by her mother’s last instructions, to “have courage and be kind.” These are, even if a bit trite, excellent instructions for all of us, and often easier said than done. When the glass slipper is finally placed on Cinderella’s foot–by the prince himself, in Branagh’s version–following a kingdom-wide search for the slipper’s owner, Cinderella turns to her step-mother for one final remark before leaving for her “happily ever after.” We see Lady Tremaine standing on the staircase, realizing that the one she has so despised is about to get everything she has always wanted for herself or, at the very least, her daughter. Cinderella turns and the two lock eyes–leaving the audience wondering what she is about to say. There are many things that she could say, and no doubt many of them would be deserved and justifiable. Cinderella, though, chooses three simple but incredibly powerful words: “I forgive you.”

I am not suggesting that Branagh intentionally incorporated a biblical worldview into this version, and as Whitten wrote of the movie, “In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own”–and this is perhaps true for much of the film. However, Lady Tremaine did not ask for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she certainly did not deserve it. I find some powerful biblical principles in that, and it is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to use the movie as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their children.

If you want a dramatic remake of the Cinderella story you know so well, you will not find it here. If, instead, you want a well-crafted live-action version of a classic fairy tale, without even a hint of black magic or content otherwise inappropriate for children, then this is the movie for you.

August 28, 2013

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 dictionary.com 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 USAToday.com 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.

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