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Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieber
By Cathleen Falsani
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2011 Cathleen Falsani
All rights reserved.
Beliebing: An Introduction
Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.
—Paul Simon, "The Boy in the Bubble"
Don't let anyone put you down because you're young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.
—1 Timothy 4:12
Senior High Sunday school room
Basement level, North Park Baptist Church
Mid-morning on a Sunday
Early August 1985
Your author, age 15, and a dozen other high school students
The Sunday school teacher asks if there are any prayer requests
Should I? They'll think I'm stupid. They'll probably laugh at me. David will say something snotty to make fun of me. He's always quick to make me look like a dork if he can. (Probably because he likes me and won't admit it.) But ... the guys really need our prayers. Oh, what the heck ...
I raise my hand.
"Yes, Cathi," Rex, the Sunday school teacher, says and nods in my direction.
He'll get it. Rex used to be a rock-'n'-roll guy before he got saved. A roadie, I think. What was the band again? Twisted Sister? Meatloaf?
"Yeah, um ... I think we really should pray for the members of the band U2," I say, tentatively.
A few people giggle. A few more stare at me like I'm crazy.
"Because, well, I know this guy at my school who has friends in Boston, and they're, like, friends of the band," I continue, trying to ignore the giggling. "And there's this old couple there who are friends with Bono and have prayed for him for years and stuff. He calls them 'Ma and Pa,' or something like that. Anyway, so you know how U2 are Christians? ..."
Full-on laughter interrupts me for a moment.
"They are! Seriously!" I say, raising my voice a little, which shuts them up. David stops laughing, looks like he's going to say something mean, but then seems to change his mind, sweeping his long bangs out of his eyes and staring glumly at his spotless Air Jordans.
I'm starting to blush, from aggravation, not embarrassment.
"Go ahead, Cathi," Rex urges.
"They totally are Christians. Well, at least Bono and The Edge and Larry are. Adam isn't, I guess, but still," I continue, the pounding in my chest slowing and my hot cheeks beginning to cool. "So Bono was talking to this couple recently, and he asked them to pray for him and the band because he thinks they're on the verge of becoming huge, especially after Live Aid. He said he's worried about being super-famous and that it might bring a lot of pressure to not be Christians. He's worried about how fame might change them or affect their faith. So I thought we should pray for them, that God would be close to them especially right now and protect them and guard their hearts."
And then we prayed.
We prayed for the members of U2 to be strong in their faith. We prayed for the bass player, Adam Clayton, to become a Christian. We prayed for the band's protection while they travel, for God to surround them with good people who would support them in their faith. We thanked God for placing "believers," as we called them, in a position where they could influence people positively in a unique way. We prayed that God would use U2 and their music to reach more people with God's love.
Even though I ran the risk of looking like a total band geek, I'm glad I spoke up. A few weekends before that Sunday, my alarm clock sounded before sunrise. I wrestled myself from sleep and tiptoed downstairs in my pajamas. I switched on the television, tuned it to MTV, and turned the volume way down so I wouldn't awaken my parents or my little brother whose bedrooms were nearby. Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I found the remote stuck between two cushions of the couch, grabbed a throw blanket, and settled into the not-so-comfortable chair closest to the TV set.
At the time, my family didn't own a VCR and this was a good twenty years before digital video recorders were invented, so if I wanted to watch Live Aid, the huge benefit concert in London—and, simultaneously, in Philadelphia—organized by Irish rocker Bob Geldof to raise money for Africans suffering through a terrible famine in Ethiopia, I had to get up in the dark and watch it live. In 1985, the Internet wasn't even a pixilated glimmer in anyone's imagination, so there were no websites listing who was performing when, no video streaming online, and no YouTube to watch clips later. If I didn't want to miss my favorite band play during the concert at London's Wembley Stadium, my only choice was to watch from the very beginning, just to be sure.
By the time I got settled in my chair in the living room, it was almost noon in London, where the Live Aid concert was about to begin, and I had a fierce case of what I call "crawly butt"—that mixture of pins-and-needles jumpiness and a vague kind of sweaty nausea you get when you can't wait for something to happen. Images from Wembley filled the television screen. A British military band took the stage and played the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," followed by two bands I'd never heard of: Status Quo and Style Council. About twenty minutes into the live broadcast from London, the first act with a name that I recognized hit the stage: The Boomtown Rats. This was Geldof's band, the guy who organized Live Aid and, the Christmas before, the Band Aid album with two dozen rock-'n'-roll stars from England and Ireland, including members of Duran Duran, The Police, and U2.
For the next five hours, I didn't move, except for occasional potty breaks between sets. Finally, shortly after 10 a.m., in the neatly appointed Connecticut home where I grew up, surrounded by artwork and memorabilia from my parents' many world travels, U2 walked onto the stage at Wembley. I burst into tears, turning the volume up to ear-ringing levels (the rest of my family had gone out for the day) and hanging on every word Bono uttered.
It was an epic performance--one that, many years later, is credited as the turning point in U2's storied career, thrusting them out of mere popularity into superstardom. U2 opened with their song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and then launched into a nearly thirteen-minute-long version of "Bad."
"Isolation, Desolation, let it go! ... I'm wide awake! I'm not sleepin' ..." Bono howled, passion rising in his face like the Irish flush that reddened his cheeks.
Clad in black like a sprightly Johnny Cash, Bono whooped, strutted, and marched around the stage. Lifting his hands in the air and crouching down as if in prayer, the twenty-five-year-old front man tossed his (admittedly ill-conceived in retrospect) dyed-black, frosted-tipped mullet like a pony, owning every inch of the enormous outdoor stage. Midway through the song, he dropped his microphone with a resounding thud and climbed onto a low riser between the main stage and the vast crowd pushing its way toward the barricades at the front of the stadium. Waving his hands above his head and gesticulating toward the crowd, Bono motioned for security to help several young women being crushed by the weight of the crowd behind them over the barricades. When that didn't happen fast enough, Bono leapt down to the audience level, helped pull a few girls from the throng of fans, grabbed one lucky lady in a tight hug, and then slow-danced with her.
I swooned, positively beside myself with envy.
After hugging and chastely kissing a few other girls who also had been rescued from the thousands-strong mass of humanity pressing to get as close to the Irish rocker as it could, Bono returned to the stage and finished the song. Before exiting stage left, he grabbed a white towel to wipe the sweat from his brow, twirled it like a flag, and spoke to the audience one last time. "GOD BLESS YOU!" he shouted.
Again I dissolved into joyful tears, thrilled to my bones about what I had just witnessed. It was so moving, so visceral, and he even mentioned God! I had been a fan of U2 for several years by the time the band played Live Aid on July 13, 1985, but I had only ever listened to their albums or heard their music on the radio. I'd never watched them perform. In fact, it would be another twenty years before I finally saw them play live in person. (When I was in high school, my parents forbade me from attending rock concerts lest I begin to fall down some slippery slope. And when I was in college and graduate school, I couldn't afford the price of admission.)
Still, as a teenager I bragged about having been a U2 fan "from the very beginning," when they released their first album, Boy, in 1980. I had all of their albums and cared for them as if they were precious jewels. Posters and pictures of the band purchased at the mall record store or torn from magazines—particularly shots of Bono, with whom I was completely infatuated—covered the walls of my bedroom. I devoured even the tiniest bit of news that I could find in the newspapers about the Irish rockers. Being half-Irish and a young Christian unapologetically obsessed with music (but cautioned by well-meaning youth pastors that rock-'n'-roll surely was "of the devil"), I felt a unique kind of kinship with the band. I knew their story—how they grew up in a working-class part of Dublin during years of violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland that my parents called "the Troubles"; how Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton met while students at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, the first school in Ireland where Catholic and Protestant children learned side by side; how Bono's mother, Iris, a Protestant, died suddenly when he was fourteen, and how Bono and his older brother, Norman, were raised through his teen years by his father, Bob, a Catholic; how the band formed when they were just fifteen and sixteen years old; and how Bono, The Edge, and Larry attended an nondenominational church in Dublin called Shalom whose members would eventually question whether the boys could be both authentically Christian and secular rock musicians. Their story resonated with me deeply.
U2 was a godsend. Literally. Their music—the sound and the lyrics—inspired me, enlivened my burgeoning faith, and truly opened my heart to the Holy Spirit in profound ways that stay with me to this day. They sang songs about relationships—with God, family, parents, and friends—and falling in and out of love, about politics, war, peace, and their heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr., whom they memorialized in their famous song, "Pride (In the Name of Love)." But they also sang about faith, doubt, and spiritual connection—the same ideas I heard in church and the Christian prep school I attended, but in a different way. It was honest, genuine, sometimes difficult, and it felt so real to me, as if they found the words for thoughts I wasn't brave enough (yet) to express out loud. "Oh Lord, loosen my lips ..."
I first learned of the hardships and injustices faced by poor Africans through the band's involvement with Live Aid and continued to be educated about poverty, environmental concerns, political injustices around the world, the AIDS emergency in sub-Saharan Africa, and issues of faith and economics through their lyrics and Bono's activism as a rock star-diplomat tirelessly advocating for the "least of these" among us. Bono's outspoken challenge to express our faith not only in words but also in action challenged my notions of what it meant to be a true believer. He made me want to be a better person, give back, and do what I could to help heal the world.
Now at age forty, I am the mother of an African child who was an AIDS orphan born into extreme poverty in Malawi (a tiny, bean-shaped country tucked between Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique). My son, Vasco, who is almost twelve years old, is himself a huge U2 fan (and a Belieber, though he'd crown me for saying so in public). As soon as he learned enough English to understand them, he quickly memorized the lyrics to the band's biblically themed songs, "Salome" and "Mysterious Ways." For months Vasco would awaken me each morning singing, "Shake, shake, shake SALOME!" and "She moves, she moves in mysterious ways!" at the top of his lungs. Were it not for the influence U2's music and personal endeavors in social justice had on me as a teenager, I honestly don't believe my life would have crossed paths with Vasco's and that we'd be a family today. The band had and continues to have a formative influence on my faith, life, and the way I see the world. And it all took root when I was just a kid—an emotional, terribly earnest fifteen-year-old infatuated with a newly popular rock band.
When I was in junior high and high school, my parents had misgivings about my passion for U2, although the fact that most of the band members were people of faith who often sang about their relationship with and love for God seemed to allay some of their concerns. Today my parents look back on their over-tired, pajama-clad, weepy teenage daughter glued to the television for hours and recognize that God was doing something in her heart all those years ago. A seed was planted that grew into something more beautiful, powerful, and grace-filled than any of us could have imagined.
It is easy for adults to dismiss the passions of teenagers as silly, frivolous, and fleeting. Teens and tweens can be mercurial, fickle, impulsive, hyper-emotional, given to whims and flights of fancy, jealously guarding obsessions they feel are positively essential one day only to abandon them the next. I once heard a comedian say that all children are fundamentalists. Their young hearts wholeheartedly believe whatever it is they believe, and despite any and all evidence to the contrary, they remain unmoved. For most children, things are good or bad, black or white, ugly or beautiful. They live in absolutes. Kids are, by nature, deeply faithful, even or perhaps especially when others (i.e., grownups) tell them they're wrong, too young to know better (or to be taken seriously), or just plain ridiculous.
Parents would do well to pay close attention to their children's passions. Some indeed may be short-lived, but others are indicative of the orientation of a child's heart and mind, a trajectory that could last a lifetime. Although, as the Bible says, there comes a time in everyone's lives to put away childish things, some artifacts of childhood remain, for better or for worse. The masterful Christian writer Frederick Buechner cautions all of us—young, old, and in-between—to "listen" to our lives. Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat, he says, because "if you pay attention to those moments, you realize that something deep beneath the surface of who you are, something deep beneath the surface of the world, is trying to speak to you about who you are.
Sometimes listening to your life means taking careful notice of the music that moves your soul. Which brings me to the subject of this book—young Master Justin Drew Bieber of Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
My home office
Laguna Beach, California
Early on a Tuesday morning
Your author, age 40, and some of the 9 million+ other people following Justin Bieber on Twitter at the time
Sitting in front of my computer, browsing through emails, Facebook status updates, and my Twitter feed, which is exploding with activity
Uh-oh. Something's up with Justin.
Tweet after tweet from across the planet arrived rapid-fire in the Twitter feed for people I was following, many of them devoted fans, or "Beliebers," as they are often called, of Mr. Bieber, the about-to-turn-seventeen-year-old musical superstar plucked from obscurity in his native Canada only a couple of years earlier.
A chorus of impassioned tweets scrolled across my computer screen—in a litany of outrage, emotional support, and prayers—140 characters at a time.
And on it went. For hours. Tweets from at least four continents and in a dozen languages. All leaping to Justin's defense. The Belieber Army was on high alert, mustering for possible retaliatory strikes.
What in the world happened? Was Justin hurt? And where was Justin's bodyguard, Kenny? He's never more than a few feet away from his young charge. I hope Justin's okay ...
Because in 2011, the Twitterverse moves faster than the twenty-four-hour online news cycle and light-years ahead of TV news, I clicked over to Justin's official Twitter feed and scrolled down hoping to figure out what had gone down.
Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Aha!
There it was: angry dispatches hastily typed by the lad himself in the middle of the night.
Beginning at 3:16 a.m. in Tel Aviv, Israel (where he was preparing to perform in concert two days later), Justin posted a series of tweets that he later described as "frustrated."
@justinbieber, April 12, 2011
You would think paparazzi would have some respect in holy places. All I wanted was the chance to walk where jesus did here in israel.
They should be ashamed of themselves. Take pictures of me eating but not in a place of prayer, ridiculous
People wait their whole lives for opportunities like this, why would they want to take that experience away from someone
Staying in the hotel for the rest of the week u happy?
Excerpted from Belieber! by Cathleen Falsani. Copyright © 2011 Cathleen Falsani. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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