Justin Bieber and the American Dream

So you might have heard that outside of tween girls, not many people like Justin Bieber.  The infamous pop star has been accused of being a blight upon the face of the music industry.  He has been called every dirty name under the sun.  Also Legolas tried to beat him up.

One might ask, does this young Canadian pop star deserve all this hate?  I’m not here to answer that question, but I do want to get to the root of why people despise Justin Bieber so much.  I believe it has less to do with Bieber’s musical abilities and more to do with how we define the American Dream.

The American Dream means different things to different people, but it usually involves three elements:  gaining wealth, creating a legacy, and leaving behind something of worth.  Some people give greater weight to certain elements or the other, but most would agree that successful businessmen like Steve Jobs and inspiring activists like Martin Luther King Jr. lived the American Dream.

However, there are also two underlying assumptions regarding the American Dream.  The first is that the person who achieves it will be a hard worker.  The second is that the person who achieves it will do it through the sweat of his or her brow.

Thus, we come to Bieber.  He appears to be living the American Dream, as he has immense wealth and fame.  But musicians and others despise him, because he did not follow the  underlying assumptions regarding the American Dream.  For one, his success is mostly owed to luck.  Someone noticed him online and believed he was a marketable teen pop star.  Also, Bieber does not appear to be contributing anything of value.  His music is mediocre at best, and many struggling musicians write music vastly better than anything Bieber has produced.

When one thinks of the American Dream, one drinks of an ingenious businessman who produces something of value, not a teen pop singer that everyone save for tween/teen girls believe is terrible.

Justin Bieber is a firm example of why the idea of success being related to superior work ethic, and  general superiority all around is not necessarily true.  This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t work hard or that hard work is never rewarded, but our favorite Canadian pop star shows us that luck and marketing play a rather large role in material success as well.

Also, it is important to remember that material success is not and should not be the only part of the American Dream.  Wealth is both fleeting and corrupting.  Leaving one’s mark, improving the life of others, and lifting someone else up, those are dreams that last.

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Toradora: Faces and Expectations

From the day we are born, there are expectations of us.  Based on how we look, talk, and act, people make judgements about the type of people we are and the type of people we should be.  While we cannot truly change the faces we are born with, we can control the faces we wear.  Toradora presents an interesting examination of faces and expectations.

For the uninitiated Toradora is a anime series which follows a boy named Ryuji and a girl named Taiga who agree to help each other gain the affections of their crushes.  Ryuji is a boy who grew up in a single parent household.  He inherited the aggressive features of his mobster father, so people believe he is angry and violent even though he is a fairly domestic man. He has an obsession with cleaning and cooking.  Taiga on the other hand is a small girl who appears delicate but makes up for it by being an aggressive and angry girl.  This earns her the nickname of the Palmtop Tiger.  Taiga lives by herself in the apartment next to Ryuji due to her differences with her divorced parents.  Her angry aggressive attitude is also a face to disguise her own broken heart over her parents by and large abandoning her.  They meet her financial needs but nothing else,

By the second episode, these two characters have already become inseparable in their own way.  In one particularly powerful scene, Ryuji sees Taiga kicking a poll angrily.  He joins her as well and they both shout about how unfair it is that people judge them.  They also ask what’s so wrong about not being normal in the first place.  Yet, even then, the two characters still put on their faces.  Even as they begin to realize their true feelings for each other, they maintain the face of friends so as not to get in the way of them pursuing their “true crushes.”  Yet these crushes are little more than fantasies.  Both Taiga and Ryuji put their crushes up on pedestals and can barely even talk to them.

Yet another layer of the show are the expectations the parents set for the children.  Ryuji’s mother is rather childish but she still works herself extremely hard with the hope of Ryuji one day going to college even though he doesn’t want to go.  Taiga’s parents also have expectations that she will want to be close to them even though they have broken her heart over and over.

It is only when Ryuji and Taiga acknowledge that they are not necessarily normal people and there’s nothing wrong with that, that they can truly move on and begin to connect with others.

We all learn from birth to put on certain faces in certain circumstances.  In some cultures, such as the Japanese one that Toradora takes place in, this has a far greater emphasis.  In time, we may have difficulty finding out what we truly think or believe because we put on faces for so long.

We try to meet the expectations of others, the expectations of normality.  But in the end for many of us, we only wind up in agony because we cannot accept ourselves.  The Golden Rule implies you have to accept and love yourself first before you can love others like yourself.

Sometimes, our ideas about normality can also be downright dangerous.  Taiga and Ryuji’s notion that normal love is this kind of adolescent worship for an unreachable person is a dangerous idea, but it is one that is normalized through much of culture.  Love isn’t just a feeling, its an action.  CS Lewis once argued that you should never try to like or love your neighbor, because sometimes your neighbor is a complete jerk.  You should simply act in a manner that is loving.  The same goes for romantic relationships, as people much smarter than I have said.

In the end, we must choose whether we are going to live in accordance with expectations or by our true nature.  We must recognize the faces we wear and have the courage to take them off and see what is right in front of us.

In the end, it’s okay not to be normal, because normality is nothing more than faces and expectations.

Or as your parents always said, “Just be yourself.”

The Culture War Part 2

So you might be wondering, what exactly did evangelicals do wrong in this culture war?  Well, there are a multitude of reasons that cannot be adequately explored in one blog post or even one book, so I’ll hit some of the highlights.

Abortion

You can’t both argue against abortion and be against wider use of birth control.  When there is wider use of birth control, there are less unwanted pregnancies which translates to less abortions.   Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelicals were wrong to be pro life.  However, I do fault them for following leaders who were more interested in punishing women for having sex than actually preventing/reducing the number of abortions.  Abortion is a complex issue in which laws rarely do any good and thus requires a broader approach.  For example, how do we deal with poverty in inner cities?  How do we increase access to birth control to reduce abortions?  How do we help often single mothers after they decide to keep the child?  Evangelicals in many ways chose the more simplistic approach of clamoring for laws and pointing fingers.   Abortion is a big issue and thus deserves a more in depth approach rather than using it as a war cry.

 

Homosexuality

Homosexuals were one of the most common targets during the culture war.  Many people made claims about homosexuals.  Some claimed they were all swingers who spread diseases.  Others associated them with pedophiles.  More commonly, people claimed society would collapse if gay marriage was allowed.  Do you see a pattern among these claims?  None of them can be backed up by evidence.

I have said before that I believe you cannot remove faith from public life, and I believe that.  But that does not mean one religion should ever dominate government.  A quick look at Iraq right now with the actions of ISIS should show one the danger of that path.  Also, when one looks at laws, one needs to consider if those laws are to prevent other people from being treated unjustly or if they are simply there to support a prejudice.  There is no proof that gay marriage, or giving gays civil rights hurts others in the slightest(and that doesn’t include feelings).  All it takes is for someone to know a gay person personally to know what evangelicals say about them is false.  There are plenty of good gay people who contribute to society and simply want, like everyone else, to be accepted in society.  Now there are exceptions, there are obnoxious gay people who are looking for control, the same could be said of any group.  But to engage in this pointless war on homosexuals has cost the evangelicals dearly.  There’s a reason people call the church homophobic and it’s not all part of a smear campaign.  People, especially in more conservative churches give more than enough evidence of homophobia on a weekly basis.

Jesus did not feel the need to rant in public about what different people did in their bedrooms, but he did rant about how the religious people behaved in their own little culture war.

Power

I mentioned this briefly in my last part so I’ll expand upon it here.  The goal of the Moral Majority and other groups was to take political power and reshape the United States.  In some cases this was subtle in others it was more direct.  For example, at some home school conferences you will hear people talk about training youth to become leaders and take back the nation.  Power and religion are an immensely dangerous combination and is a recipe for religious hypocrisy.  Think of Ted Haggard, who was very much involved in the culture wars, so much so he was featured in the movie Jesus Camp. Then a few weeks later, he was caught with a gay prostitute.

Yet, power can be damaging in other ways.  Think of Uganda, which is leading a kill the gays campaign as we speak.  Much of their rhetoric came directly from several “Christian” evangelists who were eager to reshape how Uganda dealt with homosexuality.

The Bible warns us constantly about the dangers of power.  Even Samuel warned Israel against getting a king as that king would surely oppress them.  One cannot serve two masters.

 

Alliance to Republicans

Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat, but it would be hard to know that fact if you were in the thick of the culture war.  In many cases, pastors would indirectly or directly push their congregations to vote Republican.  Christians began to adopt not just the socially conservative positions but also the economically conservative positions as well.    Thus, you began to hear Christians make disparaging remarks towards the poor.  You would hear them downright supporting statements that would be more at home in an Ayn Rand novel than in the Bible.

There is an incredible danger in allying to a political party because you allow that party to start to dictate how you interact with people outside the party and what your beliefs are.  For example, think of how little pastors preach on what the Bible has to say on greed and on the rich.  I have heard maybe one such sermon and it ultimately turned into a Dave Ramsey centric sermon. Also think of the prosperity Gospel which argues God wants to make you rich.  When you get right down to it, there is an underlying belief in some evangelical circles that the rich people are just more blessed and better than the poor.  This runs dangerously close to Social Darwinism, which is odd considering that the culture warriors were certainly opposed to evolutionism.

I don’t mean to give Democrats a free pass. God challenges both political parties and so should Christianity.  A blind alliance between religion and politics is always dangerous.

America

This post could last for an eternity so I will end on a note about how the culture warriors related to America.  There seemed to be a strange sort of patriotism that viewed America in almost a Holy Land light.  It was God’s own land, the best country on earth that needed to be defended from the heathen who wanted to stop it from being a Christian nation.

The New Testament calls us to be good citizens certainly, but it does not approve of this blind nationalism, this binding of state and church.  Ultimately Christians are called to serve the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Men.  The USA, while certainly having its good points is in the end just another nation capable of evil and good.  Christians are called to worship God not the US of A.

The path of the culture war has caused immense damage.  It has harmed both the church and those outside of it.  It is time to lay aside that banner of war and actually take up the cross.  Christians are called to be lights for the world, not the rulers of the world.

Stay tuned for my next post on something a bit lighter, the adorable Toradora.

The Culture War Part 1.

Most people with even passing knowledge of Christianity in America knows that evangelical Christians have been waging a culture war for quite a while now, which they are now starting to lose.  They are beginning to see the fallout with evangelical churches slowly decreasing in number.  Yet, there are those within the churches who have been trying to guide evangelicalism away from the culture wars such as Rev. Jim Wallis who wrote a fascinating book called God’s Politics(free advertising).  Wallis pinpointed what he thought was evangelicalism’s critical flaw, it worked to seize power and place all attention on a few issues while ignoring other huge issues.  I intend to examine in this series of posts a few of the problems with evangelicalism’s culture war as well as bring up a few bright examples such as the Canadian evangelical churches.  This first post will focus on the nature of the conflict and how it compares to the Civil Rights movement and Israel in Jesus’ time.

First of all, the word war implies a great struggle for control, which is certainly no exaggeration.  One need only take a look at the group TeenMania, which is an evangelical youth organization which puts a lot of focus on teens being warriors to take back the nation for Jesus.  Here’s a video as an example:

 

Yet the reaction to the evangelical culture warriors has at times been an equally fundamentalist secularist reaction which demands a complete separation from faith and civic duties(such as voting, petitioning, and policy making).   It appears from a reading of the winds that secularism is winning.  But, I believe both secularism and fundamentalist evangelicalism miss the mark.  Neither of them can explain, for example, the success of Martin Luther King Jr.  While certainly not a perfect man, King brought a message of righteous indignation to the modern American conscious and he did it through the lens of faith.  Why was his message victorious to a certain degree whereas the culture war appears to be a dismal defeat?  I believe the matter lies in what the messages focused on.

First, King and the general Civil Rights movement did not seem to be waring against people but rather general sins of humanity such as racism and apathy towards the plight of those different than you.  On the other hand, the culture war had definite enemies it was targeting, i.e homosexuals, Democrats, feminists, public education, etc.

Second, the Civil Rights movement was not concerned with taking political power.  Its goals were for justice to be done to a marginalized group.  With the culture war, all it takes is a quick Google search to see many of those involved were quite adamant about gaining power.  When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die there is no middle ground.  Or, as the documentary God in America put it, you can either be a prophet standing outside of society calling out its flaws or you can be the ruler but you can’t be both.

Third, the Civil Rights movement was not limited to one political party.  It called out both parties for their institutional racism.  On the other hand, the culture warriors, mostly aligned themselves with Republican interests.

Yet all this talk of culture warriors might make us believe it is a new phenomenon, which it most certainly is not.  The Gospels present quite an interesting example of culture warfare, as the Jews desperately fought to keep their identity and morals in the Roman world.  They also had groups they viewed as being particularly immoral such as the publicans and Samaritans. They also had culture wars among themselves as can be seen with the struggle between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes who all wanted to define Jewish identity.   It is interesting how Jesus responded to them.  He also seemed to dismiss all their culture warfare and brought up ideas and morals they had never thought of before or simply hadn’t applied in a certain way.  While they viewed themselves as being the moral gatekeepers, He pointed out that their morality in truth left a lot to be desired.

The next part of this series will be a more specific critique of the overall culture war as well as a vision for the future of  Christianity in America, particularly in regards to social and political engagement.  I want to emphasize however that I know and respect many people of different faiths, including those of the more conservative Christian variety and I do not intend to condemn them or their ideals.  In the end, we are all responsible for working out our own thoughts and perspectives while hopefully remaining empathetic enough to see things from another person’s perspective.