Justin Bieber's Spiritual Crisis
If there’s a person who can answer the question that everyone’s asking this week – what on earth was Justin Bieber thinking? – it’s Cathleen Falsani. Falsani, the author of “Belieber! Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber,” is an expert on what makes the young singer/heartthrob/jailbird tick. And according to Falsani, Bieber’s latest episode (a 4am DUI arrest fueled by booze, weed and pills) isn’t just the latest outburst from an angsty teenager -- it’s evidence of a deeper spiritual crisis.
I caught up with Falsani about the challenges Bieber is facing, and how he might possibly find his way out.
Q1. Cathleen, is Justin Bieber's arrest and recent troubles evidence of a deeper spiritual struggle, or simply the normal behavior of a 19-year-old seeking to find his way?
A1: Joshua, I think the most honest answer I can give to this two-part question is: Yes.
Yes, Justin’s arrest and (mis)behavior of late (and I’m talking about the last 18 months or so, at least from what little we know publicly about his life and activities that he’s provided himself via Twitter/Instagram and the like, as well as video and photographs from the paparazzi, which hounds him) seems to me to be the outward manifestation of some of what’s going on with Justin spiritually.
And yes, I do think that some of this is “normal” behavior for a 19-year-old boy/man seeking to find his place, stance, and stride in the world. I have a 19-year-old nephew who is just a week younger than Justin. He’s a freshman in college and experimenting with new freedoms — often making good, sound decisions, but sometimes not. That’s normal. When I was 19, I spent a lot of time sleeping and listening to The Smiths and The Cure and mooning over the 19-year-old man/boy who’d broken my heart. That, too, is normal.
But what we have to remember is that Justin, while a “normal” kid in many ways, is living a life that is anything but normal. At 19, I had a $100 stipend (it may have been a lot less than that, it fact) from which I lived. Justin has more money than most small nations in the developing world. So what and how he is able to “act out” and the magnitude of his less-than-stellar decisions is a whole different ballpark. And to that end, so, then, is the worldwide amplification of his worst public moments, the world’s access to and judgment of them, and (I would imagine) the level of his embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.
Q2. From the time you wrote "Belieber" - which quotes Justin as saying, "The success I've achieved...comes from God," to today, clearly something has changed. To what do you attribute the apparent radical shifts in Justin's character and life?
A2: I don’t necessarily agree that “clearly something has changed.” I am far from an apologist for Justin (whom I don’t know personally, just to be clear), but I think you can know and love God, be cognizant of where the blessings in your life come from, believe in the God of grace, mercy, redemption, and salvation; and still make epically stupid mistakes. Just because he’s famous doesn’t make him inure to the pitfalls of being human, young, and at least occasionally stupid.
What has changed is how much we see of his misbehavior in public, and the extent to which, again publicly, we see him thumb his nose at authority and, at least in some sense, his legions of very young, very impressionable fans.
I have a 13-year-old niece who is a Belieber (aka big fan of Justin). When news of his arrest broke earlier this week, she texted her mother from school, saying, “Mommy, Justin Bieber is in jail!” She was clearly heartbroken, worried about Justin, and trying to make sense of why he’d do what he apparently/allegedly did. Her mother responded by saying, in part, “You know God loves him and this might be just how he comes back to living in a way that pleases God and that is much happier and healthier for him.”
I’ll add my amen to that.
I also have the sense that Justin’s parents — biological and chosen — let go of him too soon. Again, I don’t know Jeremy Bieber or Pattie Mallette (his biological parents), nor do I know Scooter Braun (his manager who has played the role of a surrogate parent for much of Justin’s career), but when a child turns 18, yes he or she is of the age of majority, but that doesn’t mean one’s job as a parent stops. In fact, the transition from boy-to-man or girl-to-woman is the time in many children’s lives when they most need a parent’s guidance and involvement, even if it’s precisely the time they want it least.
I wonder whether there are any people in Justin’s inner circle now who are there simply and only because they love him for who he is and not what he is. That seems to me to be the most significant shift I’ve watched from a distance in the last few years.
Q3. Some folks watch Bieber's challenges with bemused interest, others with disgust, and others with genuine concern. What are the responsibilities of a society - and of people of faith - towards a mega-star facing this type of trouble? Do his fans enable his behavior?
A3: We have the responsibility to be kind to one another, and that responsibility extends to celebrities, too. We’re the ones who placed them on their teetering pedestals. Justin didn’t ascend his without our help. So when they tumble off, the fact that we cheer and sneer is awful, hypocritical, and deeply, sometimes savagely unkind.
As for people of faith, we should be rushing to his aid in whatever way we can, which for the vast majority of us is prayer. Pray for Justin. Pray for Justin’s friends. Pray for God to send Justin his Anam Cara - soul friends, the rarest and most valuable and necessary kind for any of us to have as we navigate our lives on this side of the veil.
Don’t shame Justin. Instead, remind him of who he is: A beloved child of the Most High God whose love for Justin is the same as it was last week and last year and every moment since he took shape and form in his mother’s womb. There is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any less and there is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any more.
Grace isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it covers not just a multitude of sins - it covers them all. Even if you’re a celebrity. Even if you act like an entitled, spoiled brat. Even if you get drunk and pee in mop buckets, or swear like a sailor at the cop who’s arresting you. Even if you get behind the wheel of a car drunk or stoned and you drive it and you hit someone and you kill them. Grace is still there. Grace is the final word and we should remind Justin of that.
Q4. How can Justin turn it around - practically, emotionally and spiritually? If you could speak with him today...what advice would you give?
A4: As a mother and a person of faith who has made myriad mistakes (some of them fairly epic) in my lifetime as a believer, I don’t think Justin can turn this around. I KNOW he can turn this around. But in order to do that, he needs a Sabbath. A long one. Out of the public eye and surrounded by or at least accompanied by someone who loves him, will be honest with him, kick his arse when he needs it, hold him while he bawls his heart out, and make him matzo ball soup. He needs time to heal (and no, I don’t think he should go to rehab - I don’t believe he’s an addict) with the help of people who can help him get healthy, whether they are therapists or clergy or friends (famous or not).
I know for a fact that several older celebrities — goodhearted people of faith who share Justin’s Christian faith and upbringing and have been in the business since they, too, were teens — have reached out to him as mentors and friends in the past, but were rebuffed. Now is the time, Justin, to let them help you. Let them accompany you through this difficult time.
Find a spiritual director or pastor or rabbi or clergyperson (and please not the kind who is interested in having his or her picture taken with a pop star or asking you to endorse his or her latest book) and lean into their wisdom and care. Let them remind you of God's promises to all of us. Also read Eugene Peterson's "Run with the Horses." You are a Jeremiah.
And then go away. For as long as you need to go away to get well and remember who you are and why you are here. Don’t worry about your career or the Bieber Industrial Complex. Those people got on fine before you arrived and started lining their pockets with benjamins and they’ll be fine if (and hopefully when) you take a break for a few months or years or however long you need to be whole.
As an artist, you break yourself open and pour yourself out. It’s like Eucharist. But you can’t share that amazing gift of Eucharist with the world if your internal well is dry.
Go fill it up. Let people help you find a way to do that. Be gentle with yourself - shame is not helpful - but neither is arrogance.
Say sorry to your fans. Fans like my 13-year-old niece. Don’t just tell them how much they mean to you and thank them for putting you in the spotlight and giving you this life. Apologize for not behaving the way you should; for not being your highest and best self.
And then go take care of you. Not for the sake of your career, but for the sake of your heart, mind, body, and soul.
Justin, I’m sorry for being party to the atmosphere of media pressure around you that at the very least contributed to where you are right now. Please forgive me. I don’t want to sell another copy of the book I wrote about you. I just want you to be well. And if there’s anything I can ever do to help you privately to get whole, please call on me.
Praying for you, dear brother in the One who loves both of us more than we ever could fathom.