Lily Allen is a mostly unknown name in the United States, but in the UK she is ubiquitous. Her picture is plastered all over the daily papers, her pop songs blare from the radio, and gossip of her escapades fill the tabloids. Lily Allen is one the UK’s great paparazzi magnets because she is one of the UK’s most captivating celebrities. And the glow of her fame will soon be as white hot here as it is in the UK (just last month she sold out two shows in LA, her new album It’s Not Me, It’s You sits at 54 on the billboard charts, and the first single just appeared on VH1’s top twenty countdown).
Lily Allen’s celebrity is not only built on her talented song writing and vocal ability but also on her fast living and party girl antics. Lily Allen is the empowered twenty-year-old woman who is business savvy (using social networking like MySpace and Twitter to launch her career), and deep in her lyrical pop songs, and yet is nevertheless obsessed with fame, drinking, and easy sex.
Lily Allen represents the new world of a new generation; a generation that refuses to so easily be categorized, a generation that believes that smart and sexy are not competing realities, responsible and yet hedonistic not complete opposites. Lily Allen represents in her music and celebrity the categorical shifts that are occurring in our culture, she represents escape from old categorical dichotomies as the location for constructing meaning and identity.
By this I don’t mean the overstatement that this pop star somehow represents a radically different ideological or epistemological cultural shift. Rather, I mean something more slight, less dramatic. What I mean is that the categories in which we have often done theology and church have simply changed. Or to say it better, the categories people use to organize and make meaning in their lives are no longer the categories we have used to construct theology and do ministry. The categorical dichotomies that once captivated people’s consciousness and allowed for a rich field of theological construction no longer touch people’s lives, because people no longer live within these categories, they are no longer making meaning or taking on practices that give them ways to make sense of these dichotomies. These dichotomies, once so vital to theology and ministry simply don’t function as they once did. We can still find them in our language, we can even find people that use them, but like a CD walkman, while the cultural memory is still strong, few people find them functional.
Therefore, it is no wonder that theology matters little to the public (let alone the younger public), and it is further no wonder that so many young people have such benign feelings about the church and Christianity. As it has been documented, most don’t hate or despise the church, they just don’t care.1 And they don’t care, I’m arguing, because the categories that they use to make meaning are not the categories we are using to do theology and ministry. Our categories no longer match their reality; no longer have congruence with their habits.
We must do theology and ministry in new categories, if we hope it will mean anything to a younger generation. To explore this assertion, let us examine Lily Allen’s latest single The Fear. While it is treacherous to try to dissect and exegete any artist’s song, assuming this means that or that means this, I will make no assertion about what the song means for the artist (for instance, is this song actually a heartfelt irony of the struggle of celebrity life? --which I think in many ways it is). Rather, we will approach this song as a cultural text that I believe reveals something about how people no longer see our most common (and strongly held) theological dichotomies as operative for their cultural existence.
If there have been two overarching categorical dichotomies that have functioned for theology and ministry since, at least, the early Reformation, it has been the dichotomies of right/wrong and saint/sinner. It can be argued that Luther himself was almost driven nuts trying to find a way to avoid the negative category and find himself (through his own works) in the positive. The great breakthrough of course, was the realization that we cannot avoid the dichotomy, that we need God’s own act to make us right in the midst of our wrong, it is by grace that we are made right, justified. And this free gift is continually needed; we are always caught between these dichotomies, therefore we are always at the same time saint and sinner (simul iustus et peccator).
These categories of right/wrong, saint/sinner have been operative (morphing in shape) since the Reformation into our own time. Even the megachurch baby-boomer movement revolved around acceptance and freedom from performance as a way of helping people see that they were made right, good, saints, by the activity of God, God’s grace. Doing theology and ministry within these categories of right/wrong, saint/sinner were captivating. Justification by faith alone was a great gift to so many fearful of not being found good enough to be saved, understanding oneself as both a saint and sinner at the same time was freedom to a generation of over achievers seeking self-help. So while these categorical dichotomies have taken distinct shape, these categories have seemed to be operative in the Western world—until recently!
Lily Allen’s song The Fear obliterates these categories, alerting the listener that they are no longer operative, that they no longer exist as a field within which people seek to find meaning and identity. While this song cannot be assumed as proof that these categories are no longer operative at all for a new generation, this song can be used as cultural text that may point to a cultural transition. I will use this song as a lens (as an ideal type) to argue that a new generation is making meaning somewhere far beyond the old dichotomies of right vs. wrong, saint and sinner.
Allen’s song begins with words sung within a kind of introspective, but dance-beat tune, that say,
I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and I want f***loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them
And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
cuz everyone knows that’s how you get famous
I’ll look at the sun and I’ll look in the mirror
I’m on the right track yeah I’m on to a winner
The first two stanzas reveal a person who wants to be rich and famous and is willing to pay the price to get there. She isn’t naïve. She knows that to have her “f***loads” of diamonds people will have to die mining them, but she nevertheless wants them. Does that make her bad? A sinner, wrong? She doesn’t care. She knows that to be famous she will have to take off her clothes and be shameless, but it will make her famous, put her in the Sun and Mirror (two of the UK’s most notorious tabloids), and fame is more powerful than righteousness. Fame provides material for identity and meaning that being a saint or right cannot, for these dichotomies are dead.
The chorus then reveals that she is done with the dichotomy between right vs. wrong all together. It states, “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore.” She never even mentions "wrong." Right vs. wrong are no longer opposed realities. She feels right to want diamonds and the identity and meaning that fame can bring, but her question isn’t whether it is right, but is it real. Does it after all provide anything real to stand on? The chorus continues, “I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore.”
Like so many young people she is not trying to find a way between right and wrong but between real and unreal. The song gives us a new category, a category that may have little concern for right vs. wrong, saint and sinner, but nevertheless yearns deeply. The new category is about reality itself, her questions revolve around her very existence and the fear that it is too thin to be at all. The church keeps talking about right vs. wrong, but this is an old category, the new one is real vs. unreal.
The song continues,
Life’s about film stars and less about mothers
It’s all about fast cars concussing each other
But it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic
and that’s what makes my life so f***ing fantastic
This second verse shows how much the categories have shifted. It may be sad and painful, but life is more about the hyper-real world of film stars and fast cars than a mother’s love, for mothers seem to multiply and dissipate with every new parental relationship. But films stars last. It is the category of the real vs. the unreal, rather than right vs. wrong that matters again. As she says, “it doesn’t matter cause I’m packing plastic” meaning that she has fake breasts, and that is what allows her to have a fantastic life; and it is fantastic, but is it real? And how is she meant to feel? Can she be at all in a world where film stars are more constant than a mother’s love? Where packing plastic gives one meaning and identity? It is fantastic, but fear surrounds it, because it is so close to nothingness. Again, in the chorus she doesn’t care about the old categorical dichotomies of right or wrong; she doesn’t fear being wrong and won’t, as we will see, take on the title of “sinner.” But she does deeply fear losing her own being in the blur of the unreal, in the difficultly of discerning what is real (or if there is anything real). She’s not concerned if her fake boobs and film star status make her good or right, she is satisfied that they are not wrong and are necessary. Her only concern is if they are real, if they provide something real enough.
And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And its not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function
You can’t convince her that it is wrong to want and seek these things. She doesn’t care; she knows it isn’t all her fault. She knows she is obsessed with consumption, with the hyper-real, with what seems meaningless, but this is how she has been programmed. If you’re going to hate her, think she is wrong for wanting to pack plastic, then look at all the others, look at us, we have allowed this system to function. She is no more wrong or a sinner than the rest of us. As a matter of fact, she is more honest and noble than those of us who still care about right vs. wrong, saint and sinner, because she left these behind in full commitment to the system given to her. She is functioning as the system wishes; she is the obedient one. She has left the old categories and now lives fully obedient beyond them in a system that asks her to be obsessed with consumption, to find meaning and identity in it. And she does! She refuses to allow the old categories to convince her otherwise. Her only issue is that even in obedience to the new system the fear rushes in. The fear is not of feeling shameful, dirty, wrong, or sinful, rather it is the fear that she is but a shadow, that her existence is slipping from her hands. The church and theology keeps talking about the wrongness and sinfulness of consumerism, but few care about what the church thinks because they don’t live in these categories. But, Allen and other young people are confronting new realities; realities that surround the very fear of the loss of being itself, but the church can’t hear them because we have walled ourselves off in our old categories.
The final verse continues,
Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner
Now everything's cool as long as I’m gettin thinner
She knows she isn’t a saint. She never wanted to be. This isn’t a desire for her; how could it be if she doesn’t live within the categories of right vs. wrong? She might not be a saint, but she also isn’t a sinner. Life is too complicated to assume that she alone is guilty for her existence. Plus, this supposed shallow existence has given her great meaning and identity, more than trying to live within the categories of right vs. wrong, saint and sinner—the system of consumption doesn’t allow for this anyway. She refuses both labels, both saint and sinner. These aren’t categories that matter for her. What matters is that she is getting thinner; there is her salvation, in her body, in the identity and meaning she can make with her body. Stretching from the early Reformation until the baby-boom people may have cared deeply about right vs. wrong, and were seeking to live within the categories of saint and sinner, but not Allen and so many other young people; they are seeking for who they are and where they belong through consumption and intimacy experienced through their own bodies. They don’t care about being saints or sinners; they’re not both at the same time, but neither. They don’t care about either; these categories don’t work for them. They just care about getting thinner –not because they’re shallow, but because it provides more meaning and identity than the old categories.
And so the chorus rolls one more time,
I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by fear
We too often ignore that the categories have changed because we operate so deeply within them that we simply judge the new categories as trite and insipid. Yet, there is still deep searching here, just as deep as for those probing within the categories of right vs. wrong. Allen asks, “When do you think it will all become clear? When will I know how to feel, because I’m taken over by the fear.” Is her whole life real enough to keep her from being swallowed by the fear, the fear of nothingness? This is the new category to do theology and ministry within for this generation. Not in the categorical dichotomies of right vs. wrong, saint and sinner, but in the location of the fear, of the loss of being, of the thinness of existence itself. The issue isn’t “How can I be good?” but, “Am I real?” or “Do I exist at all?”
And ironically, taking these very questions into early Reformation thought we find a surplus of material with which to construct theology and ministry. If the new category really surrounds “fear,” the fear of sliding back into non-being, of being disconnected or missing something real, then the early Reformation assertions about the ontological realities of Jesus Christ’s action for us by taking on the non-being of the cross, and the existential probing for truth, meaning, and identity next to suffering and death may be a way forward. The new category demands that we place impossibility (the fear) as the new direction to search for God in our broken identities and quest for meaning.
What is obvious is that old categories are just that, old and no longer functional. There may well be theological reasons to assert that we are saints and sinners simultaneously, but for this perspective to have any significance (and be more than background noise) to a generation living beyond the category of right vs. wrong, we must explore what it means next to the “fear,” for it means nothing in light of a world where right vs. wrong is no longer a viable category to build existence within. But next to the “fear,” next to non-being, next to death and despair, to be saint and sinner simultaneously is to be caught and yet free at the same time, it is to be dying and yet made new, it to live beyond simply right vs. wrong and next to a God who is overtaken by the “fear” so that, though we still fear it, the “fear” no longer has the power to determine our being.
Dr. Andrew Root is Assistant Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, USA. He writes and researches in areas of theology and youth ministry. He is the author of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007). When not reading, writing, or teaching Andy spends far too much time watching TV and movies.