The Genius of ‘Gangnam Style’

The Genius of ‘Gangnam Style’

If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.

Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.

Just stop and watch it already.

It’s amazing.

(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)

VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)

Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:

To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.

So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:

1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.

This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.

2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.

While I’m on this topic … 

3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.

Speaking of which …

4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.

Which brings me to …

5. Great songs unify people.  I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show.  “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.

And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.

So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.

Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”

What Whitney Gave Women Like Me

What Whitney Gave Women Like Me

BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)

A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.

I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “I Love the Lord.”

Then it hit me.

This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.

I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:

1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”

3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.

4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.

The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.

Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.

I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.

More Than Child’s Play

More Than Child’s Play

It takes a person with a calling to work in children’s ministry. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences to realize that you can help develop the spiritual faith of a child. Statistics from the Barna Group suggest that if you minister to ten children, four of them will accept Christ by the age of 13. Sadly, research also shows that six out of ten children, who are active in church during their teen years, will become spiritually disengaged by the time they become young adults. One way to reverse this trend is to create learning environments that include games and interactive activities. This will help children develop a dynamic personal relationship with Christ and establish a foundation of faith.

Many churches have been content to let children sit in the sanctuary trying to make sense of a sermon or Bible study that was clearly prepared for adults. Or, in cases where efforts were made to set aside classes for children, the approach basically involved a chalkboard, and maybe a flannel graph or puppets. Some of these tools still work for preschoolers, but to engage elementary-age and tween students, you will get more results with interactive activities.

If you spend the majority of your class time talking to children, studies show that they will retain only 5% to 10% of what they hear. A teacher can increase effectiveness by showing them pictures, posters, and maps, for example. Children will retain 20% to 30% of what they see. However, if the leader really wants to have a lasting impact, he should introduce a hands-on activity or experience. Children retain a full 75% to 90% of what they do.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean just letting kids run around the classroom because you didn’t make time to plan your lesson. I am talking about intentional play, such as a game or activity, with a strategic purpose that is a part of the lesson plan.

Children engaged in interactive activities use more of their senses than just hearing, and we provide opportunities for them to fellowship with each other. While children are playing, teachers can reinforce virtues of cooperation, sportsmanship, encouragement, and Christ-likeness. This will encourage group dynamics that help to keep down distractions that crop up when kids get bored, and that keep the children focused on the task at hand.

Our goal is not only to meet the children where they are spiritually, but also to get them excited about the Gospel message so that they come back willingly. Plus, we want them to be so excited about what they are learning at church that it transforms their lives and they are inviting their friends to come with them.

Here are three activities you can introduce in your children’s ministry.

1. Scripture Memory

This high-energy game will increase Scripture memory and takes minimal preparation. You will need colorful latex balloons and two copies of the memory verse printed in a large font. Prepare the balloons prior to class time. Cut the verse into pieces, like a puzzle. Make sure that the cut pieces match their corresponding piece. Put each puzzle piece into separate balloons, blow them up, and tie them off. Then do the same thing for the copy. You should have two sets of balloons with a part of the memory verse inside each balloon. Divide the class into teams. A member from each team will run to a designated spot, turn and run back to two chairs you have set up. They will put the balloons on the chairs to pop them. Their teams will collect all of the pieces and assemble the memory verse. The team that assembles the memory verse and recites it wins. Stickers or small pieces of candy are good rewards.

2. Visual Prayers

This simple activity packs a powerful punch! Give the children sheets of paper and have them trace one hand. The thumb is closest to our heart—it reminds us to pray for our family. Have them write a prayer request for family on the thumb. The index finger points out things we don’t always see, or it instructs us. Write a prayer request for teachers. The middle finger stands tallest. Write prayer requests for those in authority such as government leaders, pastors, etc. The ring finger is weak and can’t stand alone well when you put the other fingers down. Write prayer requests for those who are sick, elderly, in prison, or in need of help. The pinkie finger is the smallest. Write a prayer request for yourself.

Then have the children exchange the sheets and place their own hands on top of the sheet they received and pray for their classmates. Or the teacher can collect the sheets and pray for the children throughout the week. (This activity was originally submitted to Children’s Ministry Magazine by Nancy Paulson.)

3. Lesson Review or Conversation Starter

Make a “Throw and Tell Ball.” Buy a basic inflatable beach ball. Write generic questions like “What is your favorite movie and why?” or lesson specific questions such as, “What happened to the main character in our story?” or “What Book of the Bible did our story come from today?” Cut the questions out and tape them onto each panel of the beach ball. Have the children lightly toss the ball or pass it around. When the teacher says stop, the child holding the ball can answer the question under his right thumb.

We can help children make Christ their own. The task is set to us as parents, teachers, and children’s ministry leaders to not only get them excited about who God is, but to help them see His connection to them. When children really know God themselves— not just know about Him or know stories in the Bible—then we will see children with deep roots that will last. They will be the illustration of Psalm 1:3, “They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.”

Parables for the NBA Lockout

Parables for the NBA Lockout

Fans of the wacky musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords recognize one of their signature hits, a song called “Business Time.” 

Despite being very silly, “Business Time” is not for kids.

It’s about an amorous husband trying to get his wife in the mood. The song (and accompanying video) is funny because of the contrast between the sensuous musical subject matter and the decidedly unsexy, ordinary domestic activities surrounding it. Doing the laundry, separating the recycling … these are not activities normally depicted as foreplay in our modern culture.

Yet, many married women attest to the fact that with the right attitude, many of these can, in fact, set the mood quite nicely.

Which is another example of how many times the truth can be counter-intuitive. 

But if you learn from it and take advantage, you can reap dividends.

How the sausage is made

In the same way, I’m hoping that there are young NBA fans who have been paying close attention to the league during this latest work stoppage.

See, some people think the lockout is a time for basketball fans to tune out and enjoy something else. And I’m sure a lot of us (myself included) could definitely stand to do less watching of physical activity, and more doing of it.

But for young ballplayers who aspire to greatness in the NBA or elsewhere, now is the best time to pay attention to the NBA. If I were 16 and could shoot from distance, I would be digging into as much coverage of the lockout as I could.

It might not be as fun or interesting as the game itself. But there’s the game … and then, there’s the game behind the game.

See, there’s a reason why when LeBron James was discussing his free agent plans in 2010, he kept referring to his team, and he wasn’t talking about his NBA coworkers in Cleveland. He was talking about his management team. He was talking about the team that helps him take care of his business. He was talking about business time … those things that happen behind the scenes that allow him to be the basketball-playing global icon he aspires to be.

And that’s one thing that LeBron deserves credit for. Whereas a lot of young ballers focus only on their game and pay accountants and managers to handle the rest, LeBron has been very hands-on regarding his image and his business matters. He understands that he’s not just managing a basketball career but a business career. And unlike a quick first step, business acumen can last well into one’s later years.

Professional basketball has always been a business, and it’s a testament to the power of flashy marketing that fans aren’t aware of this truth more often. But in a work stoppage, the business of the game is on center stage.

But now Labor Day, an oft-quoted negotiating deadline, has come and gone, the NBA preseason has been effectively canceled, and the traditional start of the regular season is fast approaching. Both the labor and ownership representatives must feel a sense of urgency to get a deal done in order to save the season. In the same way, young aspiring business professionals should also have a sense of urgency in understanding how this particular sausage gets made, before it gets swept back under the rug of marketing hype that will accompany the NBA’s inevitable return.

(Did I just sweep the sausage under the rug? Pardon my mixed metaphor.)

Central to the negotiations are questions about revenue sharing, player contracts, salary caps, age restrictions, and many other related issues. Getting a handle on these things can sharpen a young person’s business acumen.

And this kind of sharpening is crucial, because a good business sense is an essential for overall success in any field. Whether it’s basketball or basket-weaving, in order to be the best you have to learn not only the craft itself, but the way to turn that craft into a solid business. Many of the most successful figures are not necessarily the most talented, but the hardest working in their field

Taking our talents beyond South Beach

Good business sense is essential in the kingdom of God, according to many of Jesus’ parables regarding the managing of money.

One of the more commonly preached is often referred to as the parable of the talents, which helps us to understand that the word “talent” was not always a reference to skill or aptitude, but actually meant a sum of money to be invested. Most NBA-caliber players intuitively understand that their talents, invested properly, can yield a great harvest over time. And many Christians today understand the principle that being faithful with a little can translate to being entrusted later with much.

But Jesus’ parable is not just about maximizing return, but also about taking to heart the urgency required in honoring the master. You also see this in the parable of the unjust steward, which is quite the head-scratcher compared to the other one. But in both cases, one of the resounding themes is the urgency with which the stewards act in response to the oversight of the master. Even though the unjust steward was shady in the way he brokered his freedom, his master was so impressed with the ingenuity that arose from his desperation.

What can we learn from these parables?

That the God of the Bible is both infinitely just and inexplicably merciful. And that for everyone, NBA players and middle managers alike, living in a reconciled manner with Him is not only the key to salvation and a life full of shalom, but if that weren’t enough … it also makes good business sense.

So when (or if) the NBA returns to arenas and TV sets across the nation, let’s rejoice. But while it’s still in lockout mode, let’s get our notebooks out.

Because, y’know, business time doesn’t last forever.

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

Sometimes identically-qualified people studying the same topics and come up with wildly divergent conclusions.

Take astronomy, for example.

The Scriptures teach us that the heavens declare the glory of God. But the atheist astronomer would have you believe that the cosmos declares nothing more than the existence of certain matter — light waves, metals, minerals, gases, etc.

In this light, it is a dreadful understatement to say that our faith informs our worldview. Really, it should inform our entire universe.

My universe includes a lot of pop culture, including a fair number of video games. And of all the games I’ve played in the last year, none of them have captured my attention or garnered as much critical acclaim as Valve Software’s Portal 2.

A different kind of video game

The Portal series is unlike any other title on the market. It stands out for several reasons — because it’s almost completely nonviolent, it’s got a witty, snarky tone to it, and rather than bludgeoning the senses with nonstop violence, it engages the mind with clever problem solving. The primary game mechanic involves a gun, yes, but rather than shooting bullets, it shoots portals that help the user travel from one space into another.

And unlike the original Portal, which was a sideshow bonus added to a larger game, Portal 2 is a full-featured title with an impressive single-player campaign that takes you through a story of hope, betrayal, and redemption — pretty impressive, considering almost all of the key characters are computers.

And, by the way, it’s also really, really funny.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not a video game enthusiast, you might be wondering — why should I care?

Well, on a basic level, it’s a basic tenet of healthy mental stewardship that we use our God-given intellect to evaluate the pop culture landscape around us. Even if you’re not interested in buying video games for a loved one, it’s not a stretch to say that TV and film have become the literature our day, and by extension, video games are occupying much of the same cultural space as films were decades ago.

Simply put, it’s good to know what’s out there, what people are talking about.

But more importantly, we must learn to appreciate good art in all of its forms, because any piece of art that is truly creative and innovative is in some way reflecting a portion of the character of God. Not just because he created the people who created the art, but more essentially because all good art flows from God as a source. Everything good and perfect comes from Him. Therefore, it opens up our appreciation toward and understanding of God’s character when we see His signature on man-made creations, even ones by those who do not profess to know God.

So enough of the philosophy lesson.

Here are three important lessons that every Christian can learn by playing through Portal 2.

[SPOILER ALERT – If you don’t want to know any plot details of the game’s story, STOP HERE and skip to the end.]

1. We Bear the Image of a Creative God When We Create Things in Our Own Image. In Portal 2, we learn that GLaDOS, the controlling, manipulative computer life form, was created in the image of an Aperture Science employee named Caroline, assistant to founder Cave Johnson. This truth comes out in a delightful set of scenes where GLaDOS the computer hears recordings of Caroline’s voice and recognizes it as her own. For the viewer/player, it’s a moment of bemused poignancy.

These scenes illustrate the ultimate truth that all of us are made in the image of God, and that just as GLaDOS finds a greater sense of purpose and perspective with this, so can we as Christians find a greater sense of purpose and perspective in the midst of our day-to-day trials.

These trials don’t usually involve killer robots and volatile chemical reactions, but still … it’s true nonetheless.

And many times, these creative expressions have incredible meaning, even when they appear not to.

(Even when the creative expression is self-referential and derivative, like a TV show about two guys having dinner while not talking about one guy’s favorite movie while reenacting another of his favorite movies about two guys having dinner. Even something as crazy and recursive as that.)

2. Immortality Through Technology Is a Futile Mission. As the game progresses, we learn from a series of audio recordings scattered through the old Aperture Science facilities, that Cave Johnson, Aperture’s lovable, reckless dolt of a leader (voiced by J.K. Simmons), died prematurely from prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the end was near, and not wanting his company to lose the collective knowledge and wisdom amassed during his tenure, Johnson instructed his computer engineers to create a form of artificial intelligence drawn from the brain of his most trusted assistant, Caroline.

Yet, at the close of the game, after GLaDOS comes to realize that a part of her file architecture contains something approximating a conscience (the part she inherited from Caroline), she promptly deletes it. Which means that, in one sense, all of Johnson’s work was for naught.

The Bible is full of stories about people trying to either gain immortality or stave off the inevitable, and it never works. (See: Jonah, or The Tower of Babel.) And you see strains of this idea all of pop culture in general (especially films like Inception), and the message is often the same. Technology might be able to enhance life in certain ways, but it can never replace it wholesale. All attempts to prove otherwise amount to chasing after the wind.

3. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. One of the most interesting plot reversals happens when the sentient personality sphere known as Wheatley (voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant) conspires to supplant GLaDOS as the prime directive over the Aperture Labs testing facility. After taking over, we see the effects of so much power going to his head, so to speak. Wheatley becomes just as much of an insufferable tyrant as GLaDOS had been prior.

This is a principle we also see from the Scripture, that is echoed across the film and pop culture spectrum. King Saul hunts down young David, yet when David takes the throne, he eventually has another man killed to take his wife. The younger protégé became the ruthless opportunist, just like Michael Corleone upended his older brother Fredo in The Godfather, or little Cindy turned the tables on Riley in “The Fundraiser” episode of The Boondocks.

The principle is simple. All of us have evil in our hearts. None of us are truly righteous. So if given the power and opportunity to do wrong, all of us have the capacity to go there, and the only thing that is stopping us is the grace and power of God in our lives.

Which, really, is the whole point.

[SPOILERS OVER.]

Learn to make the leap

If I were raising an adolescent or a teenager, I would definitely want them to be able to understand the pop culture that they consume, but also to see the connections to biblical truths, and make the final connection back to their need for Christ.

It would be my hope that in their private moments, they would recognize God at work in their lives, and that they would be able to see and appreciate how God can use their favorite movies or video games or songs to woo them toward Himself, as He does for all of us. And I would hope they would respond to His call, and take the courageous leap of faith toward the thing He is calling them to do.

Mostly, I would want them to trust the Holy Spirit more than any ratings system, because only He can help us to move from where we are to where He wants us to be.

And He doesn’t need a portal gun to make it happen.

(Which is good, because those things are kinda dangerous.)