Now, before you sprain an optic nerve rolling your eyes, let me begin by saying, “Yes.”
Yes, I realize that the vast majority of Sojourners readers do not fall within young Mr. Bieber’s target demographic.
Many of you likely are asking yourselves (perhaps out loud, as we adults are wont to do), “Who the heck is Justin Bieber and why should I care?”
But please indulge me for a few more sentences before you click over to “Seven Sites I Should Be Wasting Time on Right Now” or similar.
You might not have a clue who Bieber is. Or, if you are aware of the existence of the crown prince of Stratford, Ontario, you might not give two hoots about him. But I’m guessing that there is a young person in your life who does.
So, for the sake of the children, please hear me out.
Justin Drew Bieber, age 17 ¾, is a Canadian pop singer and, without a doubt, the most popular teenager on the planet. (I am not exaggerating.) You may have heard his earworm hit single, “Baby.” To refresh your memory, the chorus goes like this: “Baby, baby, baby OH! Baby, baby, baby NO!”
Perhaps you’ve heard it in recent weeks while shopping at the mall or emanating from your daughter/granddaughter/niece/little-sister’s bedroom (or her Justin Bieber singing toothbrush in the bathroom. Yes, that’s a real thing. I have one. Well, two, if I’m going to be completely honest about it.)
Justin also happens to be, to use a popular bit of Christianese, a “believer” — and quite an outspoken one at that.
It is entirely possible that Justin has more of an influence in the young-person-you-love’s life than any clergyperson — living or dead — does. That sounds scandalous, I know, but it’s true.
That is part of the reason why it might be helpful to know a bit more about him — and his burgeoning faith.
The lad’s faith was explored to a certain extent in his record-setting hit documentary film, Never Say Never, which is the second highest-grossing feature-length doc in U.S. history, right behind March of the Penguins and one place above Michael Jackson’s posthumous This Is It.
In his world tour last year, Justin grossed something in the neighborhood of $53 million. He sold out Madison Square garden in 22 minutes, and his first three albums (he only has the three so far) debuted at No. 1 on the charts.
He is an ubercelebrity, with more than 16 million followers on Twitter, more than 39 million fans on Facebook and his channel on YouTube has been viewed more than 81 million times since his mother set up the account five years ago next week. He’s even sung for the President — four times, most recently during the annual Christmas in Washington concert. (Sasha and Malia Obama are huge fans.)
In fact, Justin was discovered on YouTube. It’s part of the Bieber legend (albeit a true part) that the legion Beliebers, as his fans are called, know by heart. His is a modern-day Cinderfella story, one that, even if you divorce his faith from it (though that would be nearly impossible), is patently inspiring.
Here’s the short version: Justin was born on March 1, 1994 to Pattie Mallette (then 17) and Jeremy Bieber (then 19), who were engaged at the time of their son’s birth but never married and split when he was an infant. He always has lived with his mother, who raised him as a single parent in Stratford (home of that famous Shakespeare festival), but his father, who has since married and has two young children, always has been a part of his life.
Mallette had a difficult childhood and troubled teen years, but had what she has described publicly as a visceral encounter with Jesus Christ not long before she became pregnant with her only child, and committed her life to Christ. She raised Justin in an evangelical Christian church, where she was involved deeply in its prayer ministry and music.
As a toddler, Justin would accompany his mother to music rehearsals and “jams” with musician friends from their church, and it was during this time that he first showed rather preternatural musical ability. By the time he was in grade school, Justin had taught himself to play the piano, guitar and drums. (He also plays trumpet.) And he had a soulful voice well beyond his years.
But Justin seemingly was more interested in sports than music for most of his childhood, until five years ago, when he surprised Mallette by asking for her permission to enter a talent contest at a local youth center. (He placed third.) Like so many of us parents do, Mallette captured Justin’s performances on a hand-held camera and posted the amateur videos to YouTube, so out-of-town family could see them.
As the months passed, however, Justin and his mother noticed the YouTube “hits” counter climb into the hundreds and then thousands. It was obvious that the youngster’s musical stylings had reached an audience far beyond his extended family. Eventually, a young music producer in Atlanta, Scooter Braun, stumbled onto the videos, and quickly became convinced that Justin had real talent and potential.
Braun tracked down Mallette in Canada and cold called her. She wanted nothing to do with her only child entering the frightening world of professional music. But Braun, who is a religious Jew, convinced her to give him a chance. Even though they didn’t share the same spiritual tradition, Braun spoke the language of faith and shared Mallette’s fundamental commitments to God and family. After praying for discernment with church elders, mother and son flew to Atlanta (their first time on a plane), met Braun and the rest, as they say, is history.
Justin didn’t go looking for fame or fortune. They found him. He’s not a product of the Disney machine or a prefab package constructed by a team of marketing geniuses at Nickelodeon. Nor is he a Hollywood scion who inherited his celebrity as a birthright.
He was — and to a certain extent still is — a regular kid, if one with blessed with extraordinary talent and audacious divine favor.
Despite his unfathomable fame (and all that it brings, for better and for worse), Justin seems to have stayed firmly grounded. You don’t find paparazzi photos of him stumbling drunk out of a nightclub or behaving in an untoward fashion, like so many other young celebrities. He is basically a nice kid. Respectful. Hard working. Kind, gracious and generous. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
His fans know this. They know his story, feel a kinship with him — “If it could happen to him it could happen to me — never say never!” is a familiar Belieber refrain — and are passionately protective of him as a result.
Justin has never been shy about his faith, whether in interviews, in his film, his autobiography published last year, on the red carpet or during awards shows. (Last year, while accepting a Kids’ Choice Award, he turned to the audience and said, “Jesus loves every one of you!”) That said, to my ear he is most articulate about his faith not through anything he says, but in what he does, which includes vast charitable endeavors on behalf of children and the poor, and a constant litany of tweets expressing his gratitude (to God, his family and his fans) or urging his followers to, as he says, “#payitforward” and “#makeachange.”
He is, in a sense, laying the groundwork for an awareness of the social gospel for a generation that will, sooner than we realize, become leaders in our society and our world.
As he approaches his 18th birthday, Justin’s public expressions of faith have become more frequent and even more personal. Last week, the world discovered that he’d had a large portait of Jesus — the classic “Ecce Homo” Jesus with a crown of thorns and upturned eyes — tattooed on the back of his leg. It’s his third tattoo, joining the black Hebrew letters for “YESHUA” on his rib cage that he had inked last year on a trip to Israel and the small outline of a seagull on his waist, a 16th birthday present and that matches one his father bears in the same location.
I don’t think getting a good-sized tattoo of the Ecce Homo on the back of his leg was a choice that is going to win him too many new fans — especially among the parents who make up his largest shadow demographic fan base. (Next to teen and tween girls, women 35 to 50, I believe, is his next largest fan group. In other words, the Moms.) I dare say it was decidedly not a strategic marketing move designed by Team Bieber and exhaustively tested in focus groups.
It seems to me that it is an authentic expression of his growing, maturing and evolving faith. Some kids his age — depending on their predilections — might get a huge tat of indecipherable Chinese characters or of Stewie from “The Family Guy.” Justin chose a classic depiction of Jesus. If he's going to make choices about permanent body art at 17, at least he’s making meaningful ones.
When I was Justin’s age, I was beginning to move away from simply mimicking my parents’ faith and beliefs, and making them my own. I think that’s what we’re seeing him do now, whether it’s in his choice of body art or in how he has, in recent months, been more explicitly vocal (unprompted, largely) about his faith.
What I appreciate most about Justin’s expressions of faith is that the lack the tenor of triumphalism and, to a certain extent, tribalism that is all too common among his peers and co-religionists. His is a nuanced articulation of faith, which speaks both to how genuine it is and how it is evolving and becoming his own.
Listen to what he says in his latest interview, with Elliott David of V Magazine, that hits newsstands Thursday:
ED You’re working so hard. As you said, this consumes your life. So what do you look to for strength? I know you are religious, right?
JB I don’t think I’m religious. I am spiritual. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I believe that he put me in this position, and that I have to always give him the glory he deserves for putting me here. But I don’t consider myself religious. A lot of people who are religious, I feel like they get lost. They go to church just to go to church. I am not trying to disrespect them at all, you know, whatever works for you; but for me, I focus more on praying and talking to Him. I don’t have to go to church. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him. People can be like, “If you don’t go to church, what do you mean, how are you a Christian?” But I am. I talk to Him, and that’s all.
ED I read that your mom said she had a personal encounter with God, and she believes you are here to inspire and brighten the world. When you talk to Him, do you feel like you have a personal encounter, or are you just expressing how you feel?
JB You know, my ma has always had God around me, has always made it really apparent. She never pushed it on me, but she always brought me to church and she put me in Sunday school. When I was little, I did these things: “prophetic words,” which is sort of like fortune telling, but from God. They said in one of those tapes—when I was really young—that I was going to be the voice of the new generation. So, I don’t know what that means. It could just mean that I’m here to make music and inspire people. That’s all I know. I just want to be able to be a good influence on people. I know I’m going to make mistakes, because I’m young and I still love to have fun. I’m not perfect. I think everyone makes mistakes, and that’s what life’s about, you know?
Justin is at once a reflection and shaper of his generation. (A recent survey of “Millennials,” i.e. kids Justin’s age, found that 72 percent claim to be “more spiritual than religious,” a phenomenon that one mega-church pastor called “more spiritually honest.”)
But does he have a prophetic call? Is Justin Bieber the voice of a generation?
I’m inclined to believe both may be true.
Whether you are starting believe it as well, or have gone back to rolling your eyes, doesn’t really matter. Divinely called, or just plain lucky, the lad’s voice is reaching millions of kids around the globe.
And they’re listening. Perhaps the rest of us pay attention, too.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners, where she edits the God’s Politics blog. She is author of four nonfiction books, including her latest, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber.