Is Justin Bieber Allowed to Suffer? (and Other Indecent Calculations)
Over the last few months, no fewer than three people I know and respect have told me that I should listen to Justin Bieber’s new album. These are all people that know me well enough to understand what a musical stretch this would be for me. Each recommendation was met with slightly hostile incredulity from yours truly. Justin Bieber?! Seriously?! You might as well ask me to forfeit my soul. How would I even begin to salvage the tatters of my reputation? But three people. And people I respect. Hmm, what to do.
Well, one recent Monday I gulped, and with not small amount of trepidation and self-loathing, typed the word “Bieber” into Apple Music on my phone. I grabbed my headphones and used his most recent album as my housework soundtrack, perhaps hoping that the din of the vacuum cleaner would drown out my musical sins. And after a few songs, I discovered that… well, I discovered that I hated it. My tastes are evidently too refined (ahem) or impermeable to grant access to Justin Bieber at this stage of my life. To improperly borrow from the title of this post, the boy wonder is apparently still able to inflict suffering, at least upon these ears.
A few days after my near miss with Bieber’s music, I came across an article in GQ called “The Redemption of Justin Bieber.” I was barely acquainted with Bieber’s attachment to Hillsong Church and a certain celebrity pastor who has wandered down familiar celebrity pastor trails. I have enough people in my orbit who occasionally drop approving references to Bieber’s conversion to Christianity. And I still had enough of his music in my ears to be hungry for anything connected to the word “redemption.” So, I read the article. And you know what? It was a deeply moving experience.
It is indeed a redemption story. It narrates the spiritual journey of a young man who had celebrity thrust upon him as a young teenager, who yielded to the predictable sins and stupidities that fame and fortune seem to reliably produce, who descended into pits of depression and spiritual crisis, who agonized over questions of meaning and purpose, and who has come out the other side with a good marriage, a strong faith, and a deep inner peace. Here is just a sampling of themes that pervade the whole article:
I have a wife who I adore, who I feel comforted by. I feel safe. I feel like my relationship with God is wonderful. And I have this outpouring of love that I want to be able to share with people, you know?”…
I don’t want to let my shame of my past dictate what I’m able to do now for people… A lot of people let their past weigh them down, and they never do what they want to do because they think that they’re not good enough. But I’m just like: ‘I did a bunch of stupid shit. That’s okay. I’m still available. I’m still available to help. And I’m still worthy of helping.’
As I read passages like the one above, I thought, “Man, that sounds good. Who wouldn’t want what he’s describing whether they’re a twenty-seven-year-old gazillionaire or someone bumbling along in midlife or a grizzled veteran looking back on a long road travelled? Who wouldn’t want to feel safe, comforted, filled up with love? Who wouldn’t want to believe that all the stupid shit they’ve done could be forgiven? Who wouldn’t want to not feel weighed down and free to give themselves away for the sake of others? Who doesn’t long to feel worthy?”
The article is, for the most part, beautifully written by Zach Baron. But there is an aside that feels awkward and irritating. Baron feels compelled to remind us, midstream, in the midst of narrating both Bieber’s pain and his transformation, that he is of course aware of things like privilege and that he gets that many won’t be inclined to have much compassion for a rich young pop star:
You do not need to feel sympathy for people like Justin Bieber: people who ask for attention, money, fame, as many people do, and actually receive all three, as most people don’t.
I don’t know precisely why Baron included this little aside, but I have my suspicions. I suspect that he (and we) subconsciously feel that people who have all kinds of luxuries and privileges that most of us can’t imagine don’t really suffer. Or that their pain is less real than those who are poor or lack talent and opportunity or who are not white or who are not showered with adulation or whatever else we use to calculate and calibrate our hierarchies of suffering. How can anyone talk about struggle (spiritual, emotional, whatever) when they’re bouncing around the world in private jets and living in gated mansions, after all? How can you talk about anguish and isolation when you have a gazillion YouTube views?
But human suffering is rather more complex than our crude metrics, isn’t it? For one thing, our metrics are very selectively applied—to others, mainly, not to ourselves. Our pain is rarely scrutinized and legitimized with primary reference to our bank accounts. Our depressions, spiritual crises, addictions, and poor choices usually have a bit more nuance and complexity in our retellings, even if only to ourselves. We cut ourselves considerably more slack than the Justin Biebers of the world. And of course, in our more rational and observant moments we know that fame and fortune certainly seem to lead to crises more often than they serve as an inoculant from them. There is a well-worn trail from King Solomon to Anthony Bourdain, with many stops in between, that ought to furnish us with enough evidence to disprove the thesis that the rich and the famous can’t suffer.
A friend recently directed me to a beautiful passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Robinson’s famous character, Rev. John Ames, preaches the following sermon over breakfast one day to his young wife Lila:
Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us…
Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent…
This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each one of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation.
I think John Ames would allow Justin Bieber his suffering. He would refuse the calculations that we so easily and eagerly seize upon in our judgment-hungry, moralizing culture. He would insist that we honour the real sorrows and struggles of this life, wherever and however they show up. And he would celebrate joy and love, as we surely must, as is surely among the holiest duties of being human.
Near the end of the GQ article, Baron (probably inadvertently) proclaims the good news of a gospel that transcends all our calculations:
It is beautiful to hear Justin Bieber talk about God. “He is grace,” he says. “Every time we mess up, He’s picking us back up every single time.
I read that line and it occurred to me that one could hardly wish for a better thing to be said about them. It is beautiful to hear ____ talk about God. I may not like Justin Bieber’s music. But it is indeed beautiful to hear him talk about God.