Racing to Put Out the Old Fires
Maybe the secret of Madonna's success is the vitality of her prayer life.
Count them -- there are more prayers than simulated sex acts in the "Truth Or Dare" movie about her "Blonde Ambition" concert tour. Night after night, the secular superstar gathered her dancers and musicians for a pre-concert prayer circle. In Toronto, police officials warned that Madonna would be arrested if she performed some of her raunchier numbers.
Then the scene shifts. "Dear Lord, this is our last night in ... the fascist state of Toronto," says Madonna, before aiming her words at those gathered around her, instead of the heavens. "I just want you to know that I love you all that I appreciate everything that you're doing for me and that I'm here if you need me. ... Remember that in the United States of America there is freedom of speech, and let's kick a**."
During a later clash with the Vatican, Madonna told reporters: "I say a prayer, not only that the show will go well, but that the audience will watch with an open heart and an open mind and see it as a celebration of love, life and humanity. ... The audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments. ... When a mind is imprisoned then our spiritual life dies. When the spirit dies, there is no reason to live."
It would be interesting to conduct a poll to discover the impressions of children and teen-agers who watched "Truth Or Dare" in theaters and on their VCRs. Would most say that Madonna's prayers were sincere? Is she right that the ultimate standard of truth is the solitary mind and the voice of the heart?
I'm sure that few pastors, or maybe even youth pastors, have spent much time thinking about this Madonna and her prayers. It's much easier to think of her as a jiggling, profane secular humanist who exists to mock God and make money on MTV.
Truth is, Madonna is part showman and part shaman. She proudly blends the physical and the spiritual.
Truth is, she would be an easier debate opponent for church folks if she were a one-dimensional figure.
Which brings us to an old, old story. Once there was a troop of fire fighters that put out a deadly series of fires. People cheered. The fire fighters became famous for the manner in which they defeated these particular fires. Then the alarm sounded again, and again. Rather than rush to each new fire, the fire fighters returned to the scenes of the earlier blazes, pouring out thousands of gallons of water. It felt good to return to the sites of their earlier triumphs. They had learned how to fight those particular fires and felt comfortable doing so. New fires felt threatening.
And so it goes with many Christian leaders. We know all about the old fires. We know how to fight them. New fires, new opponents make us nervous. This is especially true when we face the electric madness of modern media and youth culture.
Let me cite two cases in which I believe we too often rush to the scene of an old fire, instead of hearing a new alarm that is sounding in our culture.
Week after week, characters in the teen soap opera "Saved By The Bell" face decisions about matters of romance and, from time to time, life in the real world. Whenever this happens, someone is sure to voice the following words or some variation: "When the time comes, you'll know in your heart what is right for you."
This theme is so familiar that it sounds harmless. As a character on ABC's "Civil Wars" series said during a wedding rite: "When you know what's in your heart, you have to follow what's in your heart."
Stop and think about this. For decades, conservative Christians have prepared themselves to debate -- what? -- the arguments of people who do not believe in God or in spiritual realities. We also have learned how to debate religious groups that openly reject Christianity.
Sorry, but things have changed.
Today, pop culture takes Christianity and other religious flavors, puts them into a blender and hits the slice and dice button. Watch the last 20 or so minutes of a movie like "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and you'll see what I'm talking about. Dozens of religious references zip past, each making little sense in relation to the previous theme or symbol.
Sad to say, but it's easier to debate a black-and-white secularism than a culture rife with spiritual confusion.
I am not denying that there are purely secular influences in the lives of young people and parents. But this is not where the action is, today. Most Americans -- even Madonna -- appear to be seeking their own answers to religious questions.
Look at the polls. Do people believe in God? Yes. How about the supernatural? Naturally. Life after death? You bet. Do people desire some kind of religious experience in their daily lives? Sure.
Do these poll results have anything to do with biblical authority, moral codes, sin, repentance, organized religion, or belief in a Savior who is THE truth, THE truth, THE life?
Our true opponents, today, are "believers," of some kind or another, who are convinced that the Lord our God is a nice guy, or an all-accepting Mother, or an all-uniting Force, or some mysterious Light with little or no authority.
Today's bottom line: All religious paths are right and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.
Our task would be easier if more pantheists and relativists stated their beliefs in words as blunt and articulate as science fiction legend Ray Bradbury. "The living God is not out there. He is here. ... Man, living too close to himself, could not see that he was the godhead, that he was the Lord and himself the Christ. ... We are more than water, we are more than earth, we are more than sun. We are God giving Himself a reason for being."
Such candor is rare. It's more likely that our opponents will merely suggest that people say a private prayer on their way to the dance hall or the mall.
"We must choose to cast our lot," said theologian Carl Henry, "either with a society that admits only private faiths, and then simply add another idol to modernity's expanding God-shelf, or we must hoist a banner to a higher Sovereign, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings."
The issue isn't whether God exists, but whether God has anything to say.
Second verse, same as the first. Let's apply this concept of old and new opponents to a lifestyle issue.
Hang around with teen-agers or the parents of teens and the odds are good you will eventually discuss pre-marital sex or curfews or sex or car insurance or sex. When Christians get ready to debate sex and popular culture, we often fall into a trap similar to the God issue we previously discussed. Most church leaders are prepared to debate people who are advocates of a no- holds-barred, "Playboy" style of sexual morality. The hot sexual fires of the '60s and '70s make us angry, but we feel comfortable contrasting that lifestyle with the Bible.
Meanwhile, Hugh Hefner is married and bouncing a baby on his knee. Meanwhile, a tougher opponent as entered the cultural arena.
Turn on MTV, or the Baby Boomer VH1 channel. Love, romance and sex are everywhere. But, if you listen closely, few of the songs praise temporary love affairs. Yes, hard rock often celebrates partying and some songs mourn the end of relationships.
But most of today's love songs are similar to those of previous generations, only with louder guitars. Most songs celebrate love that is "forever" and relationships that stir true emotions as well as hormones.
The "Playboy" mentality is dead, for the most part. It weakened emotions and promoted loneliness. Our new opponent is a watered-down traditionalism that includes a tip of the hat to commitment. "Campus Life" columnist Tim Stafford calls this the "Ethic of Intimacy."
"Intimacy is not love, exactly," he writes, in his important book "The Sexual Christian."
"It is a state two people may feel for a night, or a month, or a lifetime. ... Most people would say, I think, that you know it when you feel it. The Ethic of Intimacy offers no behavioral absolutes, but many attitudinal absolutes, such as openness and caring."
Once again, the standard is in an individual's heart.
Most people insist their goal is to find an "intimate," "mature," "loving" and "trusting" relationship. When asked about sin or promiscuity, modern young people and single adults say, "Promiscuous? Me? I don't sleep with just anybody. I try to practice safe sex. Besides, I'll be faithful when I find the right person and get married."
Today's sexual fantasy is somewhat complex: people believe that if they are careful, sexual freedom will not affect their ability to someday have an intimate, committed relationship.
We warn against immorality. The culture replies: Whose moral standard are you using? We'll be faithful on our own timetables, thank you very much.
Obviously, the first step to winning a debate is to identify the opponent. As we have seen, this is not always easy.
What next? How do we debate confusion? How does a pastor who works with young people for one or two hours a week compete with the principalities and powers of modern pop culture?
Stafford has suggested one strategy, using sexuality and the Ethic of Intimacy as a starting point. It is critical, he said in a recent interview, to keep asking those to whom we minister if the culture is delivering what it promises.
Ask young people if modern sexual practices are creating happiness in the lives of those around them. Ask if pre-marital sex has brought feelings of acceptance and security.
"Ask shattered teen-agers about intimacy, or ask men and women after they've been through a few divorces," said Stafford. "Ask a woman about intimacy after her husband abandons her for a younger woman. ... Are we really seeing more intimacy today, or less?''
We can ask similar questions as people struggle to find meaning in a New Age when the confused voice that echoes inside our skulls is absolute. Many people who try to play God will end up feeling as lonely as orphans.
"The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick," the Lord told Jeremiah. Our God is faithful and his Word is trustworthy. Can we trust the murmurs of our hearts?