I am enough of a music snob to feel embarrassed about what I am going to tell you. I love a wide range of music – hard rock, ’90s alternative, rap, folk, plus classical, choral and show tunes. I have finally come around to country music, but I remain biased against pop, easily buying into the stereotypes that say the talent is manufactured and therefore the songcraft must be of a lesser quality. Here is the embarrassing part: last week I went to my second Katy Perry concert. I could easily name about 450 other artists off the top of my head who would be a higher priority to see in concert, and for a variety of reasons, I have seen Katy Perry twice.
I can’t say it wasn’t fun. It was spectacularly, jaw-droppingly fun — both times. Given that I’m not really a very fun person (established in a previous blog), it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I also felt a sadness in watching the performance. This isn’t because I wished that I had spent my concert-going money and time elsewhere. I was as swept up in the fireworks and stagecraft as anybody there. The sadness had to do with the tiny person at the centre of the whole magnificent production and how little she seemed to matter. I have no idea, despite seeing her twice, whether Katy Perry herself has any talent, how well she can sing, what her ideas might be and how she experiences the grace and beauty and disappointment of the world around her. She is made up, costumed up, choreographed to the hilt, a sparkly, bright-eyed, face pulling performer who is made to appear as if she is what this machine in all about, and yet is so obviously just one more cog in the massive entertainment apparatus around her.
There isn’t anything wrong with being a cog. We all can learn what part we need to play, and there is joy in finding the ability to play it with humility and generosity. I do wonder how much the glitter and the adulation, along with the speculation and false rumours of the celebrity gossip industry surrounding her make it hard for her to discern what her part actually is. I felt sad watching Katy Perry because I could see no evidence that there was a real person underneath the spectacle.
Katy Perry offers an illustration writ large of a quite ordinary and ancient problem. We can see Jesus struggling to keep real in a very different culture of first century Palestine. We know that the people in this time and place were hotly anticipating the Messiah. We know, too, that there were other miracle workers who got going on the circuit, amazing the crowds with feats of magic and proclamations about what they needed to do to win God’s favour. These pseudo-celebrities created the perfect circumstances by which people could feel inspired and hopeful, while ultimately never being challenged to embrace real transformation; they were entertained, and then life went back to normal. Jesus shakes off this adulation at every turn. “Don’t call me good,” he says, desperately uncomfortable with the hero worship beginning to smother him, “Only my Father in heaven is good.” He keeps himself real in the middle of the pandemonium of miracles and Messianic speculation in several important ways. For every mighty act, he redirects the credit: to the faith of the person receiving the miracle, to the power of Abba God. And against the growing crowds desperate to touch him, to hear a word from him, he also and deliberately seeks out small and intimate settings for teaching and healing – his favourite being around the supper table with a few friends, as well as the enemies whose voices he was equally insistent on hearing.
I am a far cry from celebrity or Saviour, yet I also face the possibility of having my life reduced to mere performance. I don’t have to be a pop star to be totally seduced into angling and presenting myself across various platforms for the consumption of others, defining my self-worth by the amount of reaction I am able to garner. This isn’t just a social media problem, though, and it isn’t just a problem for me. There is a very human temptation to believe our own press, to allow ourselves to be swept up in the range of stories that others will tell about us. More importantly, in our efforts to make sense of the world around us, there is an easy tendency to believe others’ press too: to take the performances and appearances and gossip about someone as somehow giving us a handle on who that person really is.
This has been made abundantly clear as our part of the church is currently swept up into the hot and heavy political speculation of needing to elect a new Bishop. Our neighbouring diocese is in the same situation. To get together in Anglican circles these days is guaranteed to lead to talk about who is going to run for Bishop in which place and why. I have heard and believed the authoritative pronouncements that are made about others — about their supposed ambitions and their desperate desires to be crowned the head of one of our little corners of church. In every case, to actually talk with the person in question is to discover that they are only doing the dance that most faithful people know very well: they are bringing the very ordinary chirpings of their own ego to prayer as they discern what God needs of them.
Over the years, I have occasionally experienced what it is to have surprisingly mean-spirited motives and character traits applied to me. I say they are surprising because in almost every case my very real and very deep flaws seem to be overlooked for ones that are wildly manufactured. And I admit also that I have often tried to do something about the sort of stories others will think about me, slipping almost unconsciously into performance mode.
But here is something else I have experienced: grace. There is the corrective. Last weekend, an act of kindness was attributed to me of which I have no memory. The person who recounted this story was crystal clear that it was indeed me who did this lovely thing. “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” Jesus announces when he first comes on the scene. He will be called names (both good and bad), he will work miracles and speak words of forgiveness, he will be accused of being a hustler and egomaniac, he will change lives, and people will want to raise him up as their Saviour and their scapegoat. But then we get these windows of personal encounter: we see him tired and angry, we see him needing the care of others and we see him pouring out blessing on people who never expected blessing. And in all things, he is revealing to us the astonishing reality of all of our lives, not just those who are celebrities or Messiahs. Our lives are small and flawed and fragile, and the living God is at work. God is powerful and as close to us as breath.
That hard shell of glitter encasing Katy Perry’s performance can also easily settle and harden over our lives and over our perception of the lives of others. But then there is this other voice, this witness, inviting us to trust that for all of the angling and performing we might do, and despite the stories others might tell about us, it’s really our raw material that counts and through which God can do (and is doing) something good. To learn to trust in that for ourselves is also to assume a responsibility in the assumptions we make about others: that behind the headlines and Facebook posts and rumours that swirl around the people we think we know are souls that are far more complicated and flawed and lovely than we had imagined, and God is drawing close and at work in them too.