An Open Letter to Justin Bieber

Dear Justin,

I have no idea what percentage of what I read about you in the news is true, but since I assume at least some of it is, we need to talk.  Allegedly accosting a neighbor who objected to wild driving in your neighborhood, requiring hospitalization after collapsing (we’ve all seen this before with young celebrities; you can bet we’re filling in our own allegations), allegedly cheating (contrary to what you may have heard, cheating does not require full-on intercourse) on young Miss Gomez, allegedly attempting to attack photographers; the list is long, and any one of these alleged indiscretions – if true – would be alarming in any young person.  The real problem, however, arises with other allegations about you: you are alleged to be an evangelical.

When you claim to be one of us, I believe you.  I believe that you love Jesus, and I believe that you want to receive his blessing at the end of your days.  But – real talk – I don’t think you have a clue what to do between now and then.  I’m not trying to call you a hypocrite; you’re young and you appear to be lost.

This wouldn’t be such a problem, you understand, if you’d never made your faith a central portion of your public persona.  But you did, Justin.  You did.  And now you appear to be both the world’s most famous young evangelical (with apologies to Mr. Tebow), and the male Lindsay Lohan.  Which makes your problems a problem for all of us in the evangelical camp, if only because we never hired you to be our spokesperson and consequently have no way to terminate the arrangement.  Since we’re stuck with you, however, I hope you’ll be willing to read some advice (spread across two letters) from an evangelical brother.

Since you’re young, rich, and live in Southern California, I assume your ears are filled with the voices of apologists telling you that nobody can tell you how to live your life.  They say to experiment and experience all that life has to offer while you’re young; that’s part of living life to the fullest.  You have it all, and you should enjoy it.  What’s more, those of us who would presume to advise you about your life don’t know you, don’t understand your life’s pressures and struggles, and can’t see your heart.  Only God can judge you, and since you aren’t hurting anyone, you’ll be fine.

For the record, Justin, the people telling you these things are fools.  Not in the pop-culture sense, mind you.  Real fools.  The type the Bible holds up as the opposite of the wise.  Their advice to you manifests such a complete dearth of understanding about life – both this life and the next – that most of us here in the evangelical community – you know, the people who can’t fire you – are speechless.

There are always two paths before us, Justin, and the man visible in the news stories above (or YouTube videos, for those who don’t mind your pottymouth) is not on the path Jesus would choose.  You see, the difference between the path you appear to be taking and the one you should be taking is vision.  You’ll have to account for what you’ve done with what you’ve been given, and vision is the preparation for that audit.  Unfortunately, at present you’re woefully unprepared, but now isn’t the time to talk about that (we will in the second letter), because you aren’t ready for vision yet.  There are actually four steps that I think you should take in preparation for vision.  Implement this advice, and I promise you vision will come.

Firstly, Justin, choose to be teachable.  The worst people on earth are people who don’t think they have anything to learn from anyone.  The fact is, you do have things to learn.  I don’t know what all of them are (though obviously, I think this letter is a good start), but the important thing is to recognize that you don’t either.  So make the decision that you’re going to learn from the people you meet.  Your money and fame are a unique handicap in this regard; it will be easy to surround yourself with people who want only to take from you rather than give something back into your life.  Find people from whom you can learn, and make sure you do it.

For another thing, go to church.  I’ve seen the interview in which you said you didn’t need to go to church in order to be a Christian, and your logic is total bollocks.  You don’t need to go to church in order to believe in Jesus; you were right about that, and I’m glad you claim to be reading your bible and praying.  But you do need to go to church in order to follow Jesus, because church is where the people who’ve devoted their lives to understanding and following Jesus gather and teach one another.  If you aren’t there, you can’t learn from people who’ve walked with Him for decades, and that’s a handicap that’s almost impossible to overcome.  So after you’ve decided to become teachable, get to the place where you’ll learn the most important things.

Of course going to church will be a challenge, because you’re famous and will attract a crowd that may cheapen your experience and distract from the worship of others.  Even so, stop making excuses.  There’s a church for you somewhere, if you actually want one.  Attending a small church would make it harder for the paparazzi to harass you, plus the small number of members would likely embrace you for you rather than for the status of attending church with Justin Bieber.  That’s just how small churches work.  If that doesn’t work out, however, bear in mind that many solid churches struggle to attract young people.  What that means, Justin, is that there are churches that could enrich your life filled with old people who’ve never heard of you.  Find one and go.

Finally, the last preparatory step to acquiring vision is perhaps the most obvious: if you want a vision, ask God for one.  We often lack things because we fail to ask for them, and vision is far too important not to ask for it.  When you ask, I’m confident God will answer.  Not necessarily through an audible voice or an out-of-body experience, understand.  It will probably come, in fact, from something your newly teachable ears hear from someone else – maybe even at church.  As long as you’ve been asking.

There are other things I want to tell you, but to be honest, if you follow these four steps, you won’t need me to.  As for what comes next, I’m putting that in a letter that will follow this one in a few days.

Talk to you soon,

Aaron

The Kingdom of God’s Identity Problem

A people cannot be a people without an identity.  That’s the assumption underlying the American tradition of denouncing things as “un-American.”  Americans disagree mightily on what is and is not un-American, but we all have an intuitive grasp of what fits with our own notions of Americanism, and if the differences between those notions seem like possible threats to a unified identity, we can always fall back on the idea that there are American (and un-American) ways of handling such disagreements.  Which is to say, we don’t all agree on what is un-American, but we do agree that you don’t settle such matters with anarchic violence, political coups, or re-education camps for your enemies, because such things are definitely un-American (at least domestically).

I can’t tell you how you should decide what is or isn’t un-American – to do so would be un-American – but I will tell you that I’ve discovered a conceptual rubric that proves useful for me in most cases.  When I want to decide whether or not something is un-American, I put the person, place, thing, or idea in question (Nouns!  I’m talking about nouns!) to a very simple test: I decide whether or not it seems intuitively un-Texan.  I should clarify that I’ve been to Texas (outside of DFW, may that airport be forever accursed for overflowing toilets and lazy employees) only once, and that for less than 72 hours, but that’s actually neither here nor there.

Hear me out.  First, let’s see if you can tell whether or not a few things are Texan or un-Texan.  New York Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to restrict the size of certain (but not all!) soda sales?  Un-Texan, and therefore un-American.  Kim Kardashian’s surgically enhanced physique and vapid public persona?  Very Texas (I’m looking at you, Dallas), and very American.  Pickup trucks older than a baseball fan?  Very Texan, very American.  Throwing a well-marinated rack of golden retriever ribs on the grill?  Un-Texan.  Un-American.

See what I mean?  It works for me – and for you – because most Americans have a pretty clear idea of Texas – thank the original Dallas and Friday Night Lights for this, as well as President’s Johnson and W, I imagine – irrespective of how much time we’ve spent there.  We know what Texas’ identity is.

The same thought experiment could work for other places, too.  I think most of us know New York well enough to know whether or not something is un-New Yorker, and the same is true for Las Vegas.  Portland would be another strong candidate for this, as might some less celebrated places, like Fargo.  Even California kind of works, with the proviso that only a functioning government and/or calling something un-Californian are truly un-Californian.

My theory, however, is that every person who does think something – anything – can be un-American has a similar rubric by which they determine a noun’s American-i-ness.  For many people, Texas has naught to do with it, while New York is the rubric.  For others, it might not be a place so much as a vision of lifestyle – when I lived in South Africa, everyone assumed Americans were loud, fat, boors, and to be otherwise was un-American to them.  The conceptual rubrics differ, but they exist, which means we can all intuitively differentiate the American from the un-American.

The question which has been flipping through my mind lately, however, is how do I make similar determinations about the Kingdom of God?

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On the one hand, it seems to me that it should be easier to identify that which is Kingdom of God (henceforth ‘Kingdom’) and that which is un-Kingdom than it is to identify American/un-American, since affiliation with the Kingdom is voluntary, but being American is most often the happenstance of birth.  You would think that those people who have voluntarily adopted an identity – i.e. Kingdom – would have more in common than those who had no control over being born into an identity, if for no other reason than that they’re all presumably trying to be like one another (or in this case, like Jesus), right?

On the other hand, there’s the question of identity.  Because I had no choice about being American as a child, American culture was engraved into my perspective on everything.  With respect to the Kingdom of God, however, it wasn’t something I experienced every day at school, or saw on the nightly news, or read about in my textbooks, so in spite of the mammoth amount of time I spent in church and with Christians (Remember, I’m a pastor’s kid), I can’t say that I’ve achieved the same familiarity-by-immersion.  In other words, because it’s an identity I’ve assumed rather than one for which I’ve been trained since birth, identifying something as un-Kingdom is less intuitive than identifying something as un-American.

Intuitive or not, however, differentiating that which is un-Kingdom from that which is of the Kingdom is almost certainly more important than determining what is/isn’t un-American.  Denouncing something as un-American is typically nothing more than a playful pejorative; those things which are offensively and genuinely troublingly un-American are usually illegal, and we condemn them as such without broaching the question of American/un-American.  The question of whether or not a thing is un-Kingdom, meanwhile, carries ethical and moral ramifications.  If we ascribe to biblical notions of Christian freedom, than only those things which are clearly wrong can be denounced as un-Kingdom; as such, to call a thing un-Kingdom is effectively to call it sin.  So sin must be the rubric by which I tell the Kingdom from the un-Kingdom, just as Texas is for the American/un-American dichotomy.

Except that it’s not.

Consider, for the sake of argument, gossip.  It’s wrong, so it should be un-Kingdom, right?  But has anyone ever attended a church at which gossip wasn’t at least somewhat of an issue?  As such, logic dictates that inasmuch as the Kingdom of God actually exists as a cultural phenomenon, gossip is endemic to that culture, which in turn makes gossip as Kingdom as Kingdom gets.  See the problem?  Our identity as a people is compromised by our failure to live the way we know we should.

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The distinction, obviously, is one of description vs. prescription.  My understanding of what is American is based on a lifetime of experiences and observations, and declaring something un-American is actually more descriptive than anything.  If I pronounce the need to use facial recognition software in order to make a purchase with my credit card to be un-American, my pronouncement really has more to do with the fact that Americans (and – of course – Texans) do not live this way than it does with my conviction that we should not in the future.  And even though – in this case – I would argue we should not live that way in the future, that argument and understanding are based on my observations of the present and the past.  So the descriptive leads to the prescriptive.

In determining whether or not a noun fits with the Kingdom, in contrast, the difficulty lies in separating the strongly prescriptive notions of the Kingdom contained in scripture from my experiences of the Kingdom as it actually exists in the present.  The Kingdom is not as it should be, which renders it extremely difficult at times to separate my understanding of what is un-Kingdom from what should be un-Kingdom.  I’ve already cited the example of gossip; we could also consider the bizarre notions of Christian leadership prevalent among many present spiritual authorities.  We know that a pastor is to be a servant leader – a washer of feet, if you will – and we know that Jesus is to be the head of the church.  At the same time, however, many pastors (evangelical and otherwise) are dictators who accept (or even expect) a level of servile deference from their flocks which is completely at odds with the New Testament (1 Tim 5, for example).  This contradiction clouds our ability to discern Kingdom models of leadership from un-Kingdom models of leadership in many cases, and it shows that with the Kingdom, the descriptive and the prescriptive are often in opposition to one another.

Such problems – which make it difficult to speak about the Kingdom as one people with one identity – are obviously due to the inescapable nature of sin.

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I’ve already told you that we could also consider whether or not a thing was un-Californian, as long as we acknowledge that only calling something un-Californian is truly un-Californian.  It seems the Kingdom of God must be similar, since only sin is intrinsically un-Kingdom, and yet sin appears to be endemic to the Kingdom.  So I can describe the culture the Kingdom should have, and I can describe the culture the Kingdom does have, but I cannot reconcile the two enough to pronounce many things as unequivocally un-Kingdom.

Confusing?  Yup.  But I guess that’s why the world sees Christians as hypocrites and why Christians can never figure out how faith and culture should fit together: the way things are and the way things should be are so different that we inhabit a Kingdom with an internally contradictory culture.  Which makes for an interesting identity, but is definitely un-Texan.