jasonbwatson

February 20, 2014

Adjusting Our Focus

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Year” for 2013 was selfie. Familiar with the word? It’s an informal word–I would even go so far as to say slang–for a picture taken of oneself, most often with a smartphone, and usually to be shared on a social media site. If you’re on social media at all you have no doubt seen a selfie. For some time they often involved taking a picture of oneself in a mirror. The now ubiquitous camera feature on cell phones and other mobile devices, however, has led to the all-too-frequent image of people extending one arm out as far from themselves as possible in order to take their own picture with the device. The advent of self-facing camera features now means that smartphone users can see themselves on the screen before taking the picture, presumably making it even easier to take smashing selfies.

If you’re at all like me, you find most selfies to be rather silly. Selfies have replaced the status updates and tweets of old that informed the world of mundane and useless drivel about people’s everyday activities. Remember when people used to post or tweet things like, “Making lunch!” or “Just left the dentist.” Frankly, I don’t really care. Now, however, we do not have to read about it because with selfies we can actually see people engaged in mundane everyday activities. Somehow this doesn’t strike me as progress….

Full disclosure, I have never taken a selfie. I have, however, appeared in one or two with other folks who wanted (believe it or not) to take a picture of themselves with me.

Silly though they may be, however, I would ordinarily resist any temptation to write an entire blog post about the topic of selfies. But there is more to them than just silliness and nonsense, and I want to explore that just a bit. More specifically I want to elaborate on some comments made by Janie B. Cheaney about selfies.

She opines, “Most selfies are arranged to make the subject look good, but not always–the subject can look goofy, slutty, or pie-eyed depending on the photographer’s mood. The unflattering ones mystify: Why would you want to post or send a picture of yourself looking like a goon or a porn star?” Good question. Sadly, I think the answer to that question is the same, or at least has the same root, as the answer to the question of why in the world Miley Cyrus decided to twerk on stage with a big foam finger (Twerk, by the way, being a runner-up for Word of the Year). She wanted to simultaneously demonstrate that she was not bound by anyone else’s expectations of who she is or what she should do and and achieve attention through shock value. Cyrus’s twerking and many people’s, shall we say odd, selfies are both means of announcing to the world that they could care less what anyone else thinks. They will do their own thing, thank you, and if you don’t like it you can take a hike. In other words, if you’ll pardon the expression, a lot of selfies are the subjects’ 21st-century version of giving everyone else the finger.

Cheaney makes another pertinent observation, too, though. She writes, “The selfie permits posing on a grand scale, and every tweeted image seeks an audience among our peeps: Here’s me. How do I look? What do you think?” For every person who posts selfies in order to tell the rest of the world to shove it there is at least one more who posts selfies in order to ask the rest of the world for approval and praise. The selfies become a by-the-photo meter of acceptance.

Cheaney wraps up her column by bringing God’s plan into the discussion. “God made our eyes to look outward,” she writes, “but our vision boomeranged when we took our eyes off Him.” Selfies, in other words, have become for many the modern equivalent of the pond in which Narcissus gazed at his own reflection. So enamored was he with his own reflection that he eventually died. So fixated are many today on showing off their whatever to the rest of the world that they fail to even notice the rest of the world. They are quite wrapped up in their own little world, and the universe, they think, revolves around it. As sad as that skewed focus is, far sadder is the fact that they also fail to notice the Creator of the world, the One who spoke it into existence and who keeps it spinning in place. The One who gave His only Son to die in their place so that their identity could be found in Him. It’s time we pry our focus off of ourselves, and cast our eyes on Him.

January 30, 2014

Miley was just the beginning

Not all that long ago everyone was all riled up over the lewd performance of Miley Cyrus at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The outcry against the performance came from all sectors, including Cyrus’s peers and other industry insiders. The mother of Cyrus’s partner in that performance, Robin Thicke, called her performance “misbegotten” and “not beneficial.” Lance Bass said he suspected that Cyrus shocked a lot of her fans, and commented that he had not expected to have to warn his nieces and nephews who tuned in to watch him perform on the VMAs that Cyrus would be “naked and humping a finger.” Cyndi Lauper called the performance “so sad, so sad” and said that it was “really raunchy. It wasn’t even art. It was raunch.” Given that those were the comments from others in the industry, you can imagine the responses from conservative groups like the Parent’s Television Council.

The VMAs were in September, though, so why am I bringing this up again now? Simple. The Grammys were just a few days ago, and that ceremony was proof positive that what got everyone so worked up in September has since become more acceptable. The sad truth is that–as with so many other things in culture–what was initially shocking gradually becomes less so and soon what once shocked becomes common place.

On Sunday night the 56th annual Grammy Awards ceremony was held, ostensibly to recognize outstanding achievement in the music industry. As Melissa Locker noted in her column for TIME‘s Entertainment section, however, the show “has become less about the awards and more about the eclectic and outlandish performances.” I did not watch the Grammys, so I am using news reports as the basis for my comments here, but it would seem that “eclectic and outlandish” might be putting it mildly. Those reports make it all the more confusing that the Washington Post‘s Alexandra Petri would have started her Monday column (the day after the Grammys) with this statement: “The Grammys were remarkably incident free.”

Really?

To quote NFL officials after an instant replay look-see, “after review” the ruling by Petri has been overturned. The Grammys were actually incident-full. Kristen Andersen of LifeSiteNews, in her column appearing on MyChristianDaily.com apparently has a very different perspective on what qualifies as an incident. (That, of course, is actually part of the problem–so much of what would have been shocking and entirely unacceptable not all that long ago no longer even rises to the level of an “incident” in the minds of so many). Andersen begins her column like this: “Sunday night’s Grammy Awards show was all about shock value.” I do not know about you, but “incident free” and “shock value” are really not synonymous in my book. So to what was Andersen referring? She continues with this: “Scantily-clad singers, same-sex ‘marriages’ set to anti-Christian lyrics, simulated sex acts and a performance full of demonic imagery by pop star Katy Perry – who used to be Christian artist Katy Hudson – were just a few of the on-stage stunts that seemed custom-designed to offend Christian believers.” Not to put words in Andersen’s pen, but it would seem that such antics would likely offend more than just Christians.

During the Grammys each of the following occurred: Katy Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” included her pole-dancing around an inverted broom while flames and demons danced around her; rap artist Macklemore performed a song entitled “Same Love” while thirty-three couples of all sexual orientations were legally married on stage in a ceremony officiated by Queen Latifah; husband and wife Jay-Z and Beyoncé gave a performance in which Beyoncé “wore little more than a thong leotard and simulated sex acts with a chair, her husband, and herself” (Andersen); and Pink “shock[ed] with a sexy performance outfit” consisting mostly of “a sexy, long-sleeved lace bodysuit that hugged her curves” (Hollywoodlife.com).

The UK’s Daily Mail apparently had a different take on the evening’s activities than did the Washington Post‘s Petri. It’s column on Monday ran under a headline snatched from the Twitter-sphere: “‘It’s a sad day when our kids can’t even watch the Grammys’: Beyoncé slammed by parents after VERY risqué performance.” The column began with the statement that many parents deemed Beyoncé’s performance “too explicit for children to watch.” The column went on to describe Beyoncé’s performance as “both seductive and risqué” and included “moves Miley Cyrus would have been proud of.” Based on the photos included in the Daily Mail column I would have to agree–there is no way to blast Cyrus’s performance as raunchy and inappropriate while also commending Beyoncé for hers.

The Daily Mail column included another interesting observation that provides further evidence of the contradictory responses to Cyrus and Beyoncé. First, the column states, “Beyoncé’s performance comes after she admitted in a recent mini-documentary that she is proud to embrace her sexuality. She said: ‘I don’t have any shame about being sexual. I’m not embarrassed about it. And I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me.'” The column then went on to state that such “embracing” of her sexuality has not stopped President Barack Obama from praising Beyoncé as a role model for children. The column quoted Obama as saying recently, “Beyoncé could not be a better role model for my girls because she carries herself with such class and poise and has so much talent.'” She may have talent, but it is unfathomable to me that any father would encourage his daughters to model themselves after a woman who gave the performance the Beyoncé did on Sunday.

Part of the responsibility of Christians is to shine a light on the darkness in the world. Several Christian artists did that after (and during) the Grammys on Sunday. Natalie Grant tweeted, “We left the Grammys early. I’ve many thoughts, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I’ll say this: I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.” Despite the fact that Grant did not identify any particular performance or indicate when she left the Grammys the backlash came swiftly, with many accusing her of hatred toward homosexuals. Responding on Facebook, Grant wrote that she would much prefer to use her platform to unite rather than divide, but “I do have my own personal convictions that I live by, and I will continue to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord. (Philippians 2:12)”

Grant went to the show and left early. Mandisa opted to not even go–and she won two Grammys on Sunday. She won for “Best Christian Contemporary Music Album” and “Best Contemporary Christian Music Song” but she was not there when her name was announced. Explaining her absence via Facebook, Mandisa wrote, “Both times I have gone to the Grammys I have witnessed performances I wish I could erase from my memory, and yes, I fast forwarded through several performances this year; but my reason is not because of them, it’s because of me. I have been struggling with being in the world, not of it lately. I have fallen prey to the alluring pull of flesh, pride, and selfish desires quite a bit recently. … I knew that submerging myself into an environment that celebrates those things was risky for me at this time. … Perhaps being alone with [Jesus] as my name was announced was protecting myself from where my flesh would have tried to drag me had I been up on that stage.”

If I may, Mr. President, I would like to suggest that Mandisa would be a much better role model for your daughters than Beyoncé.

Bottom line, the performances at the Grammys on Sunday are likely only evidence of what will continue to be; I am afraid things will get worse rather than better. I will leave it to you to prayerfully consider what, if anything, you will do about that, but I would humbly suggest that you consider Ephesians 5:11, which reads, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” That is what I am endeavoring to do here. My purpose is not to chastise or blame Pink, Beyonce, Katy Perry or Macklemore. My point is to expose what happened to expose the serious slide our nation is on away from any modicum of decency in the public arena. Miley was just the beginning….

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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