Miley Cyrus and the Eschatological Hope of “We Can’t Stop”

Cyrus Eschatological HopeTrue Confessions: I do not regularly consume “pop” or “top 40” music, such as Miley Cyrus.  However, I am occasionally a sucker for a catchy melody.  In the late 90s I fell hard for the Backstreet Boys’ song “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).”  Now, in great shame and humiliation, I admit that that have fallen for a version of a Miley Cyrus tune.  Maybe I am just seeking to justify my shameful indulgence, but I think in this particular song Cyrus is tapping into and revealing a deep theological, specifically eschatological (end hope), desire and drive in our culture.  And if we take the time to exegete this cultural artifact it may help us in our gospeling to this culture.

Before we get into it we need to take a look at the song.  Here is a link to a compelling accapela version she did with Roots on The Jimmy Fallon’s show.  If you don’t listen to the song this post won’t make sense.

In this song she is painting a picture of youthful partying and indulgence.  In case you missed it, her reference to “Dancing with Molly” refers to a popular club drug.  She is using the imagery of partying as a way of show a “new humanity” that has finally arrived.  This “new humanity” is finally celebrating its own arrival.  This is a picture of a great eschatological moment.  The end, the climax of human history has now arrived!  But, what end? What climax?

To answer that question you have to enter the narrative world of Western civilization.  Modernity (1800-1970), a Western cultural movement that assumes knowledge of the world begins and ends with the singular individual, preaches that no authority or tradition should constrain the open endedness of individual choice to discover truth.  The experience of the individual is the best and most reliable guide to discovering reality, so in other words, the highest end of an individual human is to be true to one’s self.  Because of this premise we end up with a world where multiple truths are not only possible but a desired outcome.

The individual desire is then the ultimate determinant for what one is.  So, complete freedom and total autonomy to be what one is – what one desires – brings about a victorious struggle against tyrannical and oppressive forces of authority and tradition.  When individuals are free, autonomous and being true to their experience/emotions then the end or climax of human history has arrived.  In as much as Christians look forward to the return of Jesus as the climactic end, so Western culture looks forward to the emergence of the self, free and autonomous, as the climactic end.

This is most evident in the refrain . . .

It’s our party we can do what we want
It’s our party we can say what we want
It’s our party we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can sing what we want

She is declaring that the collection of individuals partying (celebrating this climactic moment in human history) is in itself a realization of the hope of Western culture.  This song celebrates the West’s answer to the problem of evil.  This song answers the big questions any worldview MUST answer.

Who are we?  We are the liberated, autonomous, individuals that are free from the tyranny of tradition, authority and metanarratives (big cultural stories that answer these big questions – yeah I know the West eschews metanarratives while still holding to one).

What is the problem in our world?  There is a lack of education (free thinking), judgements, and traditions that constrain the individual from being their true selfs.

What is the solution?  Well, as Cyrus puts it . . . Remember only God can judge ya
Forget the haters ’cause somebody loves ya.  There is no longer any constraint; you can be and choice whatever it is you desire. (Of course, the ungrounded, undefended assumption is that your choice is limited in that it cannot limit the choice of another).

Her song is a eschatological celebration of Western Modernity.  She sees this time when all constraints are gone as the eschatological moment of hope the Western world has been longing for.  This is the heart beat of our culture.  She is tapping into and exemplifying the controlling narrative of our time.  If our gospeling does not fully appreciate, acknowledge, realize where our culture is at, we are wasting our time.  Missionaries emerse themselves in the culture to understand it and reach it.  Modern, Conservative, American Christians are still too interested in fighting the culture, trying recapture the control it once exercised when Christendom ruled.  This move is counterproductive for the gospel.

We need to stop being shocked, mad, perturbed, or disturbed when you see people that live under the cultural narrative act according to the cultural narrative.  It does little to lament Cyrus’ drug references in a song, so, instead, we should seek to understand what she is actually saying.  If we could listen to the culture it is possible we could learn something that would help in participating with God’s mission to reach a lost world.  Maybe if we listened they might for a second care about an alternative narrative, the biblical narrative.

Maybe putting Penal Substiution on hold for just a moment and picking up another metaphor from scripture about meaning of the cross and resurrection could help reach a post-Christian culture for Jesus because our culture lacks a category for a juridical concept of sin.  We need to become expert cultural exegetes, and we need to stop being cultural warriors.

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25 Responses to Miley Cyrus and the Eschatological Hope of “We Can’t Stop”

  1. davidlovi says:

    I was tracking with you up until that last paragraph. What on earth does the Penal Substitutionary theory of the Atonement have to do with anything that you wrote before that paragraph? With respect, it does seem like you and Ryan love to attack that doctrine which is at the heart of what happened on the cross of Jesus Christ. Why put Penal Substitution on hold? Why not simply incorporate other Atonement narratives into the discussion as well? As for me, I will never stop proclaiming as long as I live, that great truth that Jesus paid the penalty for sinners, and that he is the Propitiation for our sins, and that through him we can have new life and victory and sonship. I would even go so far as to say that if an evangelist does not mention that great fact of Penal Substitution in their Gospel presentation, he or she is not proclaiming the Gospel.

    • David, Thanks again for reading and commenting. Also, thanks for pushing back. Let me correct two things you said.

      First, Ryan wrote this not Scott. 😉

      Second, I have NEVER attacked PSA. It is unequivocally a biblical metaphor for the work of Christ. My only point I have EVER made is that it is the only metaphor that gets utilized in our gospeling. It is almost the only one that we use in our worship. That is a very large problem for people that claim that all of scripture is God-breathed.

      Putting it on hold in a discussion with someone in our culture that cannot even begin to comprehend the plight of humanity in terms personal, juridical offense is only using wisdom. There are other in-roads to Jesus and his work that will have more immediate resonance to someone like Miley. That is NOT to suggest it is never discussed; my point is ONLY that it may not be the most effective place to start the conversation.

      And, as to what PSA has to do with what I wrote above was displayed by you in your last statement.

      “I would even go so far as to say that if an evangelist does not mention that great fact of Penal Substitution in their Gospel presentation, he or she is not proclaiming the Gospel.”

      Because Evangelicals are more attuned to fighting yesterday’s cultural war they make themselves unable to listen to what culture is saying today. Because Evangelicals want to fight the liberal and fundamentalist wars of 100 years ago they cannot start a gospel discussion with someone using another biblical metaphor for Jesus’ work. Evangelicals have allowed the culture wars to shape how they even conceive of the gospel to such an extent that PSA is the gospel. That might be idolatrous.

    • David,

      Quick couple of thoughts in response to your comments. First, I (Scott) was not the author of this particular piece. I don’t mind being credited. I just wanted to point you in the right direction in terms of your conversation partner.

      Second, to the best of my recollection, I don’t believe I have ever written on the topic of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory (PSAT) on this website. Perhaps I am not remembering correctly, but … I don’t believe I have.

      Thirdly, I wanted to touch on the last thing you said at the close of your comment:

      I would even go so far as to say that if an evangelist does not mention that great fact of Penal Substitution in their Gospel presentation, he or she is not proclaiming the Gospel.

      While I would agree that PSAT is very significant, I can’t stand with you when you say that any Gospel presentation devoid of that theory is not the Gospel. Why would I say that? Because in order to make that claim, you would have to stand behind the assertion that the Gospel has not been preached throughout the majority of church history. Without question, the dominant model of Atonement Theory up until the time of Anselm (ca. 1000 A.D.) was Christus Victor.


  2. davidlovi says:

    Sorry, I thought that it was Scott that wrote this piece because I saw that he had posted it on some social site. My mistake.

    I thoroughly disagree with the claim that Penal Substitution was not preached throughout the majority of Church history. As is well documented in the book “Pierced For Our Transgressions,” Penal Substitution has always had a prominent place in the preaching of the Gospel since before the time of Justin Martyr (c.100-165). The authors meticulously point out and provide evidence that not only did Justin Martyr preach that doctrine, but so did Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), Athanasius (c. 300-373), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330-390), Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397), John Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430), Cyril of Alexandria (375-444), Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), not to mention Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Bunyan, John Owen, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, J. I. Packer et al.

    Would you like the quotes attached to all of those men regarding Penal Substitution?

    • No, but I would like a copy of pages 161 – 203. I strongly suspect in these few pages they are not doing good historical research that is capable of overthrowing an entire paradigm of Church History that is taught widely in Evangelicals schools. I suspect is that they are word checking “substitution” in these writings and merely drawing the conclusion that the authors mean PSA. But, I’d like to read those pages to see what they are doing.

    • David,

      While I have no doubt that you can find traces and echoes of PSAT (or “forensic theory”) in the writings of the early church fathers and down through the ages, you are swimming upstream against a strong current if you honestly want to suggest that Christus Victor was not the dominant theory held prior to Anselm. Even Packer, whom you cited above, admits this:

      “… Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it [i.e. the penal substitutionary theory]…”

      This quote can be found in J. I. Packer, What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution (Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973)

  3. emptyjones says:

    Semantics: I have to protest the language of ‘putting penal substitution on hold.’ I think we need penal substitution precisely because our culture lacks a category for it. Okay, sure, it should not spearhead our evangelical efforts within the American PoMo context, maybe, but we shouldn’t put it aside within the church or our individual understanding and appreciation of God.

    Otherwise, good stuff. Maybe this is a little tangential, but can I recommend pop music critic Todd in the Shadows’ review of We Can’t Stop? He’s certainly not going into theology or anything but–in my opinion–has a really interesting cultural analysis.

    • If I understand what you have written re: PSA I think we are in agreement. One caveat, could we please for the love of what scripture actually says employ some other biblical metaphors in our discussion and worship in the Evangelical church?

  4. davidlovi says:

    Ryan, you are making your position weaker by stating that you strongly suspect the authors of the book are not doing good historical research. For all you know it could be the greatest masterpiece ever written on Church history (it is not, but how would you know?). It is precisely those kinds of preconceived notions and prejudice that throw a wrench into mutual understanding.

    I could say, “I strongly suspect Bishop Wright is a terrible husband” but what would that be based on? I honestly don’t even know if he is married. Until I found out something about the man I would be foolish to say such a thing.

    • Well, isn’t that the kettle calling the pot black. Since you grossly and negligently mischaracterized what I have written about Penal Sub. it might be that “your position [is] weaker.” Nothing I have said impacts “my position.” I am only putting forth a hypothesis about a book, and my hypothesis does not directly impact what I have previous stated. So, if I am completely wrong about the book you have sited it is still possible that my post is still correct.

      Moreover, it is not an ill-logical hypothesis given that I have an MA in Historic and Systematic Theology and have read widely in historic theology and I have never encountered someone (other than fundamentalists) that would suggest that Penal Substitution as was articulated in the Reformation existed prior to said Reformation. Also, I can google the book and its authors to get an idea of what it is saying which can legitimately inform a starting hypothesis. Your charge might have validity if I stated my hypothesis as a conclusion and was not interested in actually reading the authors wrote to then test the hypothesis, but since that is not the case – well – I suppose you are wrong.

    • The following is taken from a review of the book you mentioned, and it seems they have concluded what I suspect. But, I am still willing to read the relevant portion to form my own judgement.

      However, it should be sufficient to cause concern if PS was not a prominent view even in the first 300 years of Christian tradition. For the first three centuries, they only find one single paragraph from Justin Martyr (2nd century) which may support of PS. (p164-166) Justin wouldn’t even have included this paragraph if not for the existence of Deut. 21:23, and supporting PS is clearly not his main point. Nevertheless, the authors claim a total of one paragraph that supports PS out of an estimated 6500 pages of Christian writings extant from this period. The New Testament contains 260 chapters, averaging about one page each. Roughly scaling the 6500 pages of these Christian writings to the size of the New Testament, their paragraph in support of PS would be the equivalent to about one word in the New Testament. This is hardly an overwhelming “weight of evidence.” In fact, their own evidence shows the PS is hardly mentioned at all by the early Christians within the first three centuries. This seems to prove exactly the opposite of what the authors present it in proof of.

      They find about one or at most two paragraphs to support PS from each of Eusebius (p166-167), Hilary of Poitiers (p167-169), Athanasius (p169-173), Gregory of Nazianzus (p173-174), Ambrose of Milan (p174-175), John Chrystostum (p175-176), Augustine of Hippo (p177-179), Cyril of Alexandria (p180-181), and Gregory the Great (p183). They also present a paragraph from an unheard-of Gelasius of Cyzicus (p181-183), who by their admission “has almost no significance as a theologian” (p183) and “was somewhat lacking in integrity as a historian.” (p182) Thus, they exhaust the references in support of PS written prior to the 13th century. Of course, from this time we have a vast amount of Christian works extant, and thus their “exhaustive” list of quotes is hardly compelling. The fact that 21 pages are taken to present only about 20 paragraphs of quotations also reveals how padded with irrelevant discussion the section is. It is clear that even in these quotes in support of PS, the writers had no intention of focussing on PS or emphasising it as an atonement theory. Thus even if these quotes do refer to PS, none of these writers considered it a theory worth emphasising at length. Furthermore, they omit any mention of several key aspects of the modern PS theory. Thus, it is unclear exactly in what way this evidence is “overwhelming” – whether it is in support of the chapter’s case or contradictory to it.

  5. Davidlovi says:

    You forgot to mention almost every book of the Bible that teaches Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Those are all before the 3rd century. There is no Gospel without it.

    • Actually, I did not forget to add that. Our discussion was about Church history and suspect claims made by a book written by fundamentalist pastors (and one professor). Also, assuming that a theological perspective (PS – which I agree with by the way) is “just there” in the text is the kind of bad hermeneutics that fosters proof-texting that cannot acknowledge the difference between the text and one’s theological interpretation of the text. So, in discussion about PS simply pointing to passages in scripture will not end the debate or resolve the questions.

  6. davidlovi says:

    How many paragraphs do you need from a person who is stating what they believe happened at the cross? How do you know that what was presented in the book was exhaustive for each author? I believe that no amount of quotes from those men in Church history would satisfy you. And FAR more important than theological history of thought, can you prove that Penal Substitution is NOT at the heart of what the Bible teaches about Jesus death? You can’t, and I can easily prove that it is. I will give you 500 verses of Scripture if you like.

    I love you buddy, but I am entirely not impressed by your theological degrees. John Bunyan did not have an M. A., Charles Spurgeon did not have an M. A., Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not have an M. A., at least not in theology…but then again, those are all men who agree with me on Penal Substitution. So perhaps we are the fools?

    • Well, I have not yet read the book you cited, so I am suspending judgement until I actually read it, but my only point in putting up someone else’s critique of it was to show you I’m not completely off in suspecting there is a problem with the book.

      If the method of the book is, as the above critique describes, listing brief quotes that name check substitution and then anachronistically reading PS into that word, then the book will ultimately be unpersuasive to me. So, it is not matter of listing quotes and proof-texting earlier theologians, no matter how exhaustive the list.

      BTW – I did a quick google search for articles on this topic, searching for others who share Piper’s view on this matter. I was curious to read what they had to say. I found a published article by a professor at Master’s Seminary. As it mimic’s the form of the book you cited and it cites that book throughout the article, I am guessing that the article is a fair representation of the book’s argument. IF that is the case, then I am even more confident that my starting hypothesis is a good place to start, but again, I do want to do full justice to the book and read it first.

      You are asking me to prove a negative? Hahaha. Moreover, I don’t want to “prove” PS is not a faithful interpretation of scripture. I believe it is which is why this entire conversation is a bit perplexing to me.

      You seem so desperate to make a point or “prove PS can be taught from scripture” when I actually agree with you. It is this kind of reaction to the culture wars of yesterday that only goes to demonstrate the actual point of my blog post. Christians need to stop being reactionary, cultural warriors and LISTEN to the culture to reach it. Crap man, some Christians cannot even listen to fellow Christians for fear that their theological system – that functions more like a M. Knight Shyamalanian Village – might be questioned.

      I know your issue in this discussion is not personal in nature, and please don’t think I am taking any of this personally. It’s just a full-throated discussion over ideas, and that’s a good thing. But, I never asked you to be impressed with a degree. I only suggested that in my formal and informal study I have never run across this particular thesis put forth by Piper’s book, and as such it is not unreasonable to suspect the problem is not with the professors at Wheaton or the theologians I have read but with the one book you have cited. That strikes me as pretty reasonable, assuming that I was willing to actually test that initial hypothesis by reading the book.

  7. And what’s funny is I just found an academic article that makes the very critique I instinctively had as my initial, working thesis. Here’s the link, but, just to be clear, I am still willing to read the relevant section of the book to give it a full, fair shot.

    • gbs says:

      From the footnotes of the Master’s Seminary Article you cite…
      “Many theologians of the early church held to a penal substitution
      “…12 Garry Williams points out that even by a narrow criterion the doctrine of penal substitution was taught by the following : Justin Martyr, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers,Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory the Great (Gary J. Williams, “A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De Satisfactione Christi [D.Phil. thesis, Faculty of Social Studies, University of Oxford, 1999] 70). Williams has done significant work unearthing the statements of penal substitution in the early church. He has also addressed the anachronistic demands of those who insist that penal substitution was not taught in the early church because this doctrine was not expressed precisely as it would be later during the Reformation.”
      Without pointing to Garry Williams as authoritative on this issue, I think the latter part of the footnote quote is what David has been trying to address.
      Re. referencing your credentials Ryan… your point could have been easily made without the reference. Whatever your motive, it came across in the same way as an appeal to authority does as a logical fallacy.

      • Williams’ work, as I have been reading this morning, is deeply controversial and highly contested. So, pointing to William is no end to the debate I had no interest in having. I cannot fathom how pointing out the fact that I have both formally and informally read experts in the field of Historical theology and never encountered a particular thesis and, as such, I developed a working, initial hypothesis that the proposition offered MIGHT be problematic could be considered by any fair minded reader that there was a naked appeal to authority. (sigh)

        • gbs says:

          Deeply controversial and highly contested… Luther’s work remains so even to this day, so though I understand your point, your statement does not negate Williams’ work. Nor was I attempting to put an end to the debate. I’m not that smart. I explicitly said that I was not referring to Williams as an authoritative source… I wanted to point out that approach is important. Thus “the anachronistic demands of those who insist that penal substitution was not taught in the early church because this doctrine was not expressed precisely as it would be later during the Reformation.” is what I found interesting.
          My observation with respect to you personally, was simply that you need not have referenced your credentials in order to make a solid, believable statement about your research. Unless you are an Apostle, there is nothing to commend anyone with an ‘education’ as being above, or more believable, than any other child of God. I’m sure that Benny Hinn’s credentials would outshine yours… yet I would not give him the time that I do you, as I read what you have to say. Our appeal to authority is by Scripture alone.
          I was not trying to be mean, nor was I accusing you of anything. That said, it seems, based on your credentials and research, that you distinguish yourself as being apart from ‘fundamentalism’ as if there is nothing, with respect to PS, coming from this undefined group, that is worth paying attention to. Curious about definitions here.

  8. Josh says:

    Just a couple thoughts: First, I think you’re infusing a much broader meaning into the song than the songwriter/performer actually intended. This song takes a much more specific theological stance by rejecting the idea that anyone should be judged for their sexual behavior or preferences. “We can love who we want…we can kiss who we want”. This song suggests that anyone who doesn’t approve of your sexual behavior is a “hater” and that God Himself doesn’t disapprove of your sexuality. If you don’t see this song as a big middle finger to the Biblical view of sexuality, you’re missing the point.
    Secondly, it’s not accurate to say that penal substitution as a “metaphor” for the atonement. A metaphor is something which is used to represent something else, but which is not actually the thing being described. Penal substitution is a non-metaphorical way of describing the atonement. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. That’s not a metaphor, that’s what actually happened. To call it a metaphor is highly problematic. To start shying away from doctrines like that because our culture “has no category” for them, is a very seeker sensitive approach, which is also very, very, very highly problematic.

    • Josh,

      Thanks for reading and writing. As to your first point, I agree that is the more narrow and immediate meaning of the song, but that meaning is but a symptom of a larger worldview that the song both assumes and preaches. As I said it is the Western, American narrative of radical individualism and autonomy for the self, and, as such, is absolutely incompatible with the biblical narrative.

      As to your second point, all theologies of the atonement are metaphors. By that I mean, we speak analogically of God not univocally of God. Since God descended to us and spoke to us by way of analogous language we can only embrace this way of speaking about God and the God/World relationship. This is a rather uncontroversial philosophical, theological prolegomena that you can find among the likes of the Reformed theologian Michael Horton. Just to be clear, I am not citing an authority to end discussion, but I am citing a “friendly voice” to make the point that understanding our language of God is metaphorical, or to put it more precisely – analogical, is not “highly problematic.”

  9. Josh says:

    No, you’re wrong. All theologies of the atonement are not metaphors. God’s word does contain some analogous language, but according to the dictionary definition of “analogy”, saying that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins in NOT an analogy. If you won’t concede the simple truth of this point, then I don’t think any further debate will be fruitful.

    • Might it be the divide is stemming from a dictionary use of the word analogous? Would you consider reading a conservative Evangelical theologian on this matter? I’m thinking of Michael Horton’s Systematic theology text we used at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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