As a theologian who works in areas of media culture and youth ministry education, it should come as no surprise that I have had a number of people encouraging me to comment on the latest MTV program Skins. For those not familiar with this latest attempt by MTV at capturing the coveted teen viewing market, Skins is a scripted TV show that first aired in the UK and surrounds the drug and sex fueled lives of teens where each episode casts the core characters in increasingly questionable scenarios: drugs and booze flows freely, kids regularly jump into bed together, take erectile dysfunction pills and spend the show with erections openly displayed, and parents leave for days at a time whereby teens hold parties with no boundaries and no end in sight. And this is only the first three episodes.  One of the things that has caused a bit of a media firestorm is that the show is not employing older actors playing teens like other teen dramas in the past where teens we put in explicit and questionable scenarios (think: Fame and Saturday Night Fever).  Here the youngest actor is 15 years of age and given the legal definition of child pornography puts MTV into some dangerous legal waters.  The public outcry has been significant enough that some major corporate sponsors such as Chevy Volt have pulled out of MTV entirely over the show.  However, the show is a huge hit thus far for the network with some 3.3 million tuning in to its première which has set a new first-episode record for MTV viewers ages 12 to 34.  The show is rated TV – MA which means that in order to view the show online via MTV.com, you have to enter your birthdate testifying that you are over the age of 18.  One can only wonder how many of the 3.3 million within the 12 to 34 range have shifted their birth date to mirror not their chronological age, but the maturity level that see themselves at. In a recent New York Times article in relation to the show, MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas made the following statement assuring concerned adults that the show will continue to focus on key standards that are important to viewers:

“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.  We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of ‘Skins’ will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.” (emphasis added)

One has to wonder how MTV understands *what* their responsibilities are to their viewers.  MTV is a network owned by Viacom, that major cable giant who also gave the world Jersey Shore which is not show that has announced a return to Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best by any means.  As a network that has struggled with its brand for quite a while, this move in ‘reality child porn’ seems to be hitting a nerve in many ways – people are buzzing about MTV as a cultural force again, seeing the network as beyond edgy and willing to even face censorship and pornography charges for the sake of ‘real television’ about ‘real teens’.  What Skins announces for me is the apogee of Western cultures’ ultimate goal of taking children out of the equation all together as responsible, caring soon-to-be adults in the making and sell them to themselves as mere products of flesh without souls.  As such Skins is a true nexus point of teens as both product and consumer, nothing more and nothing less.  Akin to the horror porn films such as the Saw series and The Human Centipede, it is another instance of a case study whereby we sit and watch young people devour each other in a supposed Dionysian frenzy of liberty and self exploration as something we tell ourselves is simply “seeing kids as they are” but that in the pit of our stomach we know that we are watching youth who only want to be admired and liked then destroyed for our momentary escape from our malaise.  I may sound prudish in my comments here, but I suppose it is also the sound of lamentation.  As much as we are told this is a show showing us “the real deal” of teens in our culture, it is also a wish-fulfillment decades in the making. As far as I can tell, Skins is ultimately a sick indictment of Western cultures’ fetishistic, pornographic and deep hatred of youth (yes…hatred… not idolatry) as something that is forever lost in all its innocence and optimism in the wake of a culture utterly lost east of Eden without a compass, without hope, and therefore must destroy anything that reminds us of what we sacrificed in our gluttonous self-indulging of the bloated ego.  As Troy Patterson at Slate.com noted in his review of the show, perhaps the show is really just showing us how we wish teens would act:

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

To this I think Patterson is probably correct, but not for the reasons he gives in his review.  True, the show does take care to allow teens to see that ‘pissing off your parents’ is probably just part of being a teenager, but what I don’t agree with Patterson is that the so-called script that Skins is offering is not a descriptive script (just showing us what teens are like) – but rather a blatantly prescriptive one (how culture wants teens to be).

The “Animal House factor”

It is this prescriptive emphasis that is not-so-subtle and a raging current throughout teen focused media which I call the “Animal House factor”.  Movies like Risky Business and Animal House provide a prescriptive script for teens to fulfill, offering a road map for coming-of-age that has little to no spiritual or psychological grounding and results in teens merely acting these scripts out in hopes of finding the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s door after all the sex and drugs are over and perhaps given a chance to just go home at long last.  What we as consumers of shows like Skins are telling teens is that this is a way forward down that golden path.  What we *don’t* tell them is that we blew up Oz long ago, the ruby slippers were gambled away with other dreams that died with our innocence, and no one wakes up to find family – be it Auntie Em or Toto – around your bedside welcoming you home anymore.  No, what we have left are the moment-by-moment distractions, the entertainment machine that needs more young bodies poured into it daily, and the deepening sense that if we don’t turn up the soundtrack a little louder, the High Def a little crisper, the jump cuts and fade outs a little quicker, then we will see the angel with the flaming sword marking yet again how far we are from Eden and just how hopeless and lonely we truly are.

If our children are destroying themselves, then perhaps they won’t be able to see our true faces either.

“Any of you in high school during the 1980’s?”

This was a lead question by Tim Neufeld, lead singer of the band Starfield, during the opening Big Room session of the NYWC in San Diego (National Youth Workers Conference) this afternoon.  The question was met with a roar of affirmation and in many ways was the right question to ask.  Youth Ministry in America is a field that has a number of outliers – contemplative, ecumenical, urban, globally minded – but still struggles under the legacy of the explosive growth in the field during the Reagan era of the 80’s that framed youth ministry as event-driven and programmatically framed where numerical growth in a youth ministry is a mark of success or failure.

*BAM!* (I was just hit in the head by a Frisbee… nothing major…I am fine… )

The exhibit hall here at the NYWC is filled with pounding music, vendors selling witness-wear T-Shirts with various morphing of pop culture semiotics and references to bible verses, bigger and more effective video projection units, Christian video games, flashy camp experiences and tons of books promising the latest method for helping youth find their way in the Christian faith. This is pretty much the same as past NYWC I have been to and blogged about.   Amidst all the glimmer and glitter of this festival celebrating a vocation deeply concerned with the state of teenagers in our culture, there is also a tiredness and almost last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to recover the glory days of the 1980s when youth ministry in America was reaching out to the suburbs, Contemporary Christian Music was gaining a large audience, and Zondervan, Youth Specialties and Word took youth ministry publishing to a new level.

Kids who were in youth groups during those glory days are now the youth workers wandering the exhibit halls.  These are the ones who responded to Tim Neufeld of Starfield when asked if they were in high school in the 1980’s and when they stop by to talk to me about graduate education there is often a notable pause in the midst of the noise surrounding them as if they are really unsure about what they actually need to meet the challenges they face.  When I ask them what youth ministry for the 21st century should look and feel like… to a person they don’t mention anything around this convention center.  Or at least not that which meets the ear and blinds the eye.  It keeps coming back to a simple thing:  being in relationship with kids and modelling a life that is worth living amidst the madness of the consumer driven age.

In many respects youth ministry leading into the 21st century has been an exercise of confidence in an unchanging message coupled with an ever-increasing attempt to turn up the volume to be ‘heard’ above the crowds.  But that era is fading and the writing, as they say, is not in the book stalls but on the proverbial wall.   A change is happening and the method of turning up the volume just isn’t working like it used to.  These tired and burned out people who spend a lot of time on iPhones following the FB status updates and texting with the young people they are committed to yet in a way that isn’t seeming to change anything.  These folks, like my friend and soul brother Lars Rood who is a Youth Pastor in Dallas recently blogged about being here at NYWC, are part of a tribe I celebrate.  These are people who think and feel with a depth that folks in the academy often don’t take seriously – which is a crime.  Youth workers are some of the most ingenious, entrepreneurial, energetic people you will meet. As Lars puts so well, this is a group that have hearts committed to being with teenagers and that is something to be celebrated:

Being around other youth workers who love all parts of youth ministry is an amazing thing.   I don’t feel like I have to try to “explain” what it is I do with my life. I don’t have to justify my role or why I hang with students all the time.  I don’t have to be the “slightly older guy” who is still hanging around and I don’t feel guilty for wearing shorts and a v-neck.  I love knowing that we all “get” each other and value the gifts, skills and sacrifices we make to do what we do.

Part of what it means to be in a “tribe” is also to realize that the larder for the winter is low on food, that the hunting may mean taking us to new lands, and that banging rocks to keep the demons at bay can only work for some long before we either give up in exhaustion or find a new vision and purpose.

So I sit here with the folks in my tribe and ask whether it is truly time for a revolution.

Moving from ‘weak ties’ to ‘strong ties’

In the recent New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell published a provocative article entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.”  In it he recalls the way the Civil Rights movement took shape and caused a massive shift in our country in a time without Facebook, Twitter, or cell phones.  When he reflects on this point, he notes that many of the Civil Rights activists had personal relationships at the core of their work and passion which is what he calls a ‘strong tie’ form of activism.  By contrast Gladwell notes that the use of social media platforms to galvanizing change is hampered by ‘weak ties’.  As he puts it in the article:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the forms and effectiveness seen in the Civil Rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Gladwell goes on to note that ‘weak tie’ networks can foster a high level of participation as long as it doesn’t cost too much and doesn’t demand change of how I live my life.  He cites examples where FB campaigns have raised millions yet at 9 to 10 cents per person.  There is certainly volume to be found, but social change only occurs at a robust and lasting level when someone gives more than 9 to 10 cents of themselves.  ‘Strong tie’ relationships are those that are led by a selfless commitment at all levels and a personal invitation mirrored with incredible commitment to change that will risk everything. Another part of this is that a vision for change must be made and led in a directive fashion and cannot be left to the masses to figure out on their own.

Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Back to the NYWC in San Diego and the tired youth workers that are walking by the book stalls and T-Shirt sellers.  Many of them have over a thousand FB friends, have churches that both trouble and support them and a burning desire to serve in ways that the US Congress could learn something from.

But that isn’t enough for the revolution.

But perhaps this weekend it is time to start forging some ‘strong ties’ beyond the ‘weak ties’ and asking each other the hard and difficult questions as we listen to the booming voices, see the endless books, T-shirts, and stickers promising a new day that requires little of us beyond putting the merchandise into a bag and keep walking.

The revolution in youth ministry will not be loud because embracing someone, sitting with them face-to-face, committing to a new way of doing things that defies consumerism and the cult of immediacy, and turning to a different road less travelled by is a solemn thing.

No, the revolution will be quiet people.  So we need to turn things down a notch so we don’t miss it.

Thoughts?

To escape the Seattle heatwave, my daughters took me to see “Toy Story 3” last night (air conditioning and a good flick beat sitting in our house that was reaching 90 degrees upstairs).  I had read quite a few reviews and heard that Pixar really hit the ball over the back field fence in completing the Toy Story trilogy and this was certainly the case.  My friend Jeff Overstreet – author and movie critic – mentioned that he has never seen an American film trilogy that had each film continually exceed the previous film with each new release like the Toy Story franchise has done.   I still hold the first one in highest esteem, but will have to say that the maturity of Toy Story 3 and (dare I say it) humanity with which the film raised the bar for choosing loyalty, compassion, and ultimately stating in no uncertain terms that (akin to 1 Corinthians 13) without love everything else in this life is not worth living for was masterfully done.  I won’t go into the film’s plot beyond saying what has been generally revealed in press releases:  the story begins with Andy – the owner of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all the other assorted toys – coming of age as he “puts away the things of childhood” and readies himself to move out of his home and go off to college.  Through a series of missteps, our cohort of toys are separated from Andy and end up at Sunnyside Daycare and enter into the Mattel and Hasbro equivalent of Shawshank prison.  It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination (this is still a Disney movie after all) to guess that there will be a reunion with our fearless action figures and their owner, but what happens is what takes this movie from being a thing of mere multiplex and into the realm of Gospel proclamation.

(NOTE:  SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING *HERE* IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING OF THE FILM!)

As Andy prepares to finally take his leave of his mother and his childhood home, the toys watch from the concealment of a cardboard box as Andy’s mother hugs her son and tells him (to paraphrase) that she has to let him go so that she will always have a part of him with her.  In short, Andy’s mother makes the move I am arguing for in Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads in that what constitutes the kenotic self as the defining mark of followers of Christ in the world is this: in order to fulfill the mandate of love at its deepest and most abiding, we must relinquish that which we wish to hold on to the most… for only in the freedom and risk of love is it actually alive and not idolatry.

The toys – especially Woody – see this exchange and take the risk of love as well.  Packing themselves up neither to be mothballed in the attic nor to be archived on a shelf in Andy’s dorm room as a token of childhood, the toys are given away to another generation.  As Andy sits on the lawn of a young girl at the end of the film with his toys at his feet, his car sitting in the middle of ‘the road less traveled by’ and idling ready to head off into adulthood, he takes a moment to lament and grieve these physical markers of his youth with this new owner.  Rather than merely doing a “dump and run” of donated goods, Andy ‘stories’ each toy into life for her – telling her their name, how he liked to play with them, even evoking the voices he gave them.  But if this was just a ‘telling’ then we would have merely a hand off from one person to another without any connection.  No, what Pixar does next in why so many bloggers and reviewers have outed themselves as getting misty-eyed at this end of this seemingly benign animated film.  Andy doesn’t merely tell her about the toys and his experience… he plays with her and allows her to own these toys in her imagination and the way she needs to understand them.  They leap around the lawn, zooming in and out of make believe scenes – an older college bound boy and a young girl finding a common language and tying their lives together that seems so simple and care free and yet exhibiting the hunger to make connect that is lost in the age of Twitter.  By relinguishing his stories, his sense of play, and his love for these toys, Andy is not only giving this young girl new toys – he has reminded himself of the meaning of love as a freedom to release and remember.  As Andy drives off down the road, we are left with not only a new chapter in the lives of Woody, Buzz and the rest… but a calling to what it means in this life to not grasp and control but to truly give and receive love as free people.

In the end, Toy Story will be remembered as one of the most human trilogies on film and a call to us all to seek after a repose of relinquishment and release for the sake of love that will take us to “infinity and beyond.”

I am have been travelling quite a bit recently – a different city and a different conference for three weekends of the past four.  Venturing from the sublime (U2 academic conference in Durham, NC) to the ridiculous (was in a booth across from a disco dancing Yeti under a mirror ball blaring the Michael Jackson back catalog at the YS National Youth Workers Convention in LA) to the somber and informative (the AYME conference where I gave a paper on racial identity in teens in Louisville, KY), in the immortal words of Jerry Garcia – “oh what a long strange trip it’s been.”

I am pretty beat up after all this travelling and frankly marvel as frequent business travelers who keep up this pace.  It is utterly de-humanizing to be travelling those distances in that period of time.  I was bumped up to first class on one leg of a trip and got a taste of what happens to people who travel that much – people shoving their overhead luggage into you so they can secure a spot, barking at the stewardess for yet another drink, grunting at the elderly as they attempt to get off the plane with limited mobility.  I kept thinking “so THIS is what the boys in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” would have become if they had traveled by plane as opposed to ship…”

Being bone tired makes you realize your limits and on a spiritual level offers a space to consider what it is that makes us human.  Exhaustion is the end of the bell curve and I am beginning to see it as the polar opposite from imagination.  The lack of human intimacy, the frantic blur of locales and yet the utter banality of hotel rooms in drab sameness, the lack of distinctiveness in food all add up to a vacuum that provides no resources nor encouragement to even consider possibilities and a vision larger than just making it through another metal detector and TSA strip search.

Frankly, I am too tired to even know what to do with this… but at least I am home to think about it.

Los Angeles – arguably one of the most “American” cities you will ever visit.  Flash and image swirl around you in the reflections of 100 foot video billboards, half the television shows in the past twenty years are shot in a 10 mile radius of Wilshire and Figueroa in downtown where I am currently writing this blog at the pool side of an old 50’s faux Moroccan hotel: everything feels like a canceled TV show on Nick at Nite down to the extras walking across the street.

I am in LA this time at the National Youth Workers Convention.  This is the Superbowl of youth leader events if the Superbowl was only the halftime show and there was no game and held in a strip mall.  And perhaps that is my worry as I watch over 1,000 youth workers running around with the latest messenger bag with hip flare pins on the strap:  has youth ministry become only the halftime show and no game?  The Big Room events capture this perfectly:  huge expensive stage show with set musicians cranking out great covers of Stevie Wonder while the MC throws plastic frisbees probably made in a sweat shop in China to the cheering crowd who have spend the day grabbing as many free pens, T-Shirts, and funky USB drives from the booths as they could get their hands on… ‘consumerism sanctified’ to be sure.

Just outside the Convention Center where this is all taking place another gathering of the faithful has assembled:  hundreds of Michael Jackson fans have gathered around the Staples Center awaiting the premiere of the posthumous concert film of their dead hero.  For days they have been gathering, sitting in lawn chairs, dressed like MJ and iPod docking stations blasting out his back catalog for all on Figueroa to hear.  Votive candles have been lit and flowers left under a huge wall of messages written in memorium.

Both groups have gathered because someone died.  Both groups seek to honor their hero.  Both are also driven and defined by the products and merchandise that is being sold to give form to their faithfulness: CDs, T-Shirts, concerts, DVDs, books, hats, etc.

Question: if we switched the groups, traded the faithful at each gathering and televised it to the world, would the masses be able to tell the difference?  Could someone just watching behavior see which “King” is being lauded and worshiped?

I suppose like MJ I am wondering who IS the man in the mirror after all?

(Update five minutes later  – Right after posting this, I walked into the Big Room session and caught the end of the talk.  I was feeling like perhaps I had been too pointed in my reflections.  Then the speaker handed the microphone to a singer who launched into “a song to have in our heads as we think about change…”  The song?  Yup… MJ’s “Man in the Mirror”  Oh sigh… )