Katy Perry and the New Evangelization

June 24, 2017

By Tim McCauley |

At first glance, it may seem that our culture presents only two options of the repressed Christian or the dissolute pagan, ignoring that in Christ there is a third option of the redeemed and transfigured human being. Katy Perry, her life writ large on the world stage of pop culture, offers a fascinating optic through which to view this issue, in part because she is the daughter of Christian missionaries, she has "Jesus" tattooed on her wrist, and has purchased as a residence a former convent in Los Angeles. Yet she remains manifestly ambivalent, to say the least, concerning Christian moral teaching. I would suggest that Christians can still learn something from her success, without in the least compromising our principles. And if the disappointment of her latest album (released June 9th) is any indication, she may yet have something to learn from the religion of her childhood, this faith which is the source of so many graces we tend to take for granted.

In some respects, it seems that she has been maturing as a person and evolving as an artist. She told Vogue magazine in an interview in April that her single "California Gurls" and other "fluffy stuff" is behind her: "(it) would be completely inauthentic to who I am now and what I've learned . . . if you have a voice you have a responsibility to use it now, more than ever." She continued, "I don't cure cancer or anything, but I know I can bring light and joy and happiness in tiny installments of three minutes and 30 seconds. That does something. That lifts spirits."

Her recent single "Chained to the Rhythm" was her first to capture my attention.
"Are we crazy? Living our lives through a lens
Trapped in our white-picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, the trouble . . . . so put our rose-colored glasses on
And party on." 
I was impressed. Here's a pop song with an infectious beat issuing a cultural critique, while making an excellent philosophical point -- that the unexamined life is not worth living. All wrapped up in a package more attractive and perhaps more effective than many sermons.

Her 2016 song "Rise" has obvious Christian roots.
"When the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in
Think again
Don't be surprised
I will still rise."
Poetic imagery set to music evokes emotion and a personal response. How do we preachers communicate the truth of the Gospel? With abstract concepts and dry academic discourses on the "Paschal Mystery" that put people to sleep? Yes, we could learn a thing or two from popular singers like Katy Perry.

Perry began her music career as a Christian artist. For various reasons, she was not successful. Her re-invention as a secular singer seemed to give space for her spirit to breathe, allowing a fuller expression of her personality and her talents. We Christians need to be honest and admit that it is possible for the human personality to be oppressed by a cultural manifestation of Christendom that lacks the spirit of Christ, and amounts to a misinterpretation or even perversion of the Gospel.

Something went wrong in the evolution of Western Christendom. In our obsession with materialism and technology, we allowed the Spirit to die within. We completely forgot how the desires of our spirit can be purified, transfigured, redeemed and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. Over time, when confronted with the surge of chaotic and conflicting desires within, our only recourse was repression. "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" Such a non-Christian attitude is reprimanded by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, probably as a form of early Gnosticism. As St. Paul writes elsewhere, "That is not the way you learned Christ!" I wonder if we ever did learn this one essential aspect of the Gospel -- that Christ and Christianity do not teach repression, but redemption!

Young Christians of recent generations seem tempted to re-enact the sexual revolution, to revolt against Christian morality which seems to constrict their liberty and hamper the flowering of their personality. Yet in this rebellion they often trade repression for dissolution. Our culture promotes a naive and simplistic anthropology, that every desire that arises in the human heart is an unqualified good by virtue of the fact that the acting subject feels the desire, as if to say, "If I'm feeling it, it must be good." Applying such an impulsive and unreflective approach to life in general would lead us all to economic ruin in short order. Would we trust that every salesman that appears at our door is motivated by our highest good, so that we should immediately purchase a suitcase full of whatever he is selling? Then why would we give immediate consent to every desire that arises in our heart?

In life, our desires are like trails of breadcrumbs through a dark wood, leading to different destinations. Every time we act on a desire, we advance a step on that path, and form our identity. Unfortunately, original sin has in a sense split our personalities, so that we are divided within ourselves by divergent desires, in a civil war between what common sense and psychology would call the true and false self, and St. Paul in Colossians refers to as the old man (palaios anthropos) and the new man (neos anthropos).

In baptism, our salvation is achieved in seminal form. The old anthropos has died with Christ and the new human being is risen with Him. However, in saving us, Christ does not instantly assume us into heaven; rather, by His Spirit He gives us discernment to distinguish between desires leading to life or death, and He liberates our will, giving us grace to choose the good, the true, the beautiful. Our desires are neither repressed nor indulged, but redeemed. Our identity is neither oppressed nor dissolved, but transfigured.

Perry herself seems to be searching for an identity. The brash and bold girl is showing some signs of insecurity and uncertainty, trying too hard to be successful on her latest album, judged by most critics to be overproduced and uninspiring. Furthermore, while she professes interest in "purposeful pop" with a sense of social responsibility and cultural engagement, she continues to lend her talents to a media machine promoting the exploitation of the body and the commercialization of sex. Perhaps she needs to dig deeper for inspiration and return to her roots. Jesus is still tattooed on her wrist and imprinted on her soul in baptism -- an open invitation to seek the redemption that lies between repression and dissolution.

Perry tells stories from her youth of picketing concerts by Madonna and Marilyn Manson, and in one case handing out pamphlets entitled How to Find God. Are they binary opposites, Christians versus concert-goers? Are there but two options of repressed Christians who never commit a public sin, or dissolute pagans who never attend Church? There is a third way.

St. Philip Neri, (the "second apostle" of Rome) in the midst of the decadence of Renaissance Rome, realized he could not simply lecture young men on the necessity of avoiding the sinful excesses of the yearly Carnival, telling them "Do not handle! Do not touch!" He knew, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught so clearly, that if human beings are deprived of spiritual joys, we will seek carnal pleasures, for we cannot live without joy. Accordingly, he began a tradition on Sundays of outdoor Oratories, with excellent preaching to stir the spirit and professional musicians to refresh the soul. In 1553 he also instituted the pilgrimage to the Seven Churches, a time of pious reflection and recollection, but also of physical exercise and pure enjoyment of the beauty of nature around the city of Rome.

We need similarly innovative, joyful and life-affirming apostles today, to show the world that Christ is the fulfillment of the human person. In Him, we Christians are more human, not less. If we fail in this witness, frustration and futility will mark many of our efforts in the New Evangelization, and those raised in the green pastures of Christian homes will continue to be sorely tempted by what appears to be greener grass on the other side of the fence. If we succeed, we will save not only ourselves, but also our hearers, who will be drawn by a subtle but irresistible attraction, to adopt and imitate our way of life.

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