Last week saw an upsurge in one of my least favorite types of writing, open letters. The occasion was Miley Cyrus’ twerk-fest at MTV’s Video Music Awards in which she danced provocatively in a nude-colored bikini, touched herself with a foam finger, and offered herself symbolically to Robin Thicke in a sexual gesture meant to shock. It wasn’t a very good performance; the focus was on the spectacle of seeing the girl who used to perform as Hannah Montana shed off any last assemblages of innocence. Post performance, Hannah Montana fans, mothers, fathers, and concerned citizens took to the internet to write “open letters” to Miley Cyrus, to young women, and to young men who might be influenced by the performance.
I both sympathize and agree with the majority of concerns that these letters express about the way Thicke and Cyrus expressed themselves on stage. In general I think young people would do well not to look to either performer for guidance for identity formation. That said, I do not find the open letters a helpful form of communication. Further, Christians seem to have a penchant for writing open letters, we’ve written open letters to Justin Beiber, Mark Driscoll, President Obama, Beyonce Knowles, and Joel Osteen. While I find many of their injunctions of these to be helpful, the sad reality is that the mode by which they are communicated is prideful and presumptuous.
So here are three reasons I find open letters to be a form of communication we should leave behind.
1. They make assumptions about their addressees. Open letters are generally written to correct people that, in actuality, we know very little about. The general idea behind most of the open letters to Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber, and Beyonce Knowles is that their behavior is a poor influence and they need this letter so that they can get back on the right track. It’s fine to offer correction, but honesty and charity requires that we do so without masking correction under the false pretenses of a personal letter.
This open letter to daughters in response to Cyrus’ VMA performance is a good example of what not to do:
Dear daughter, let Miley Cyrus be a lesson to you.
Yes, this is what happens when you constantly hear everything you do is awesome. This is what happens when people fawn over your every Tweet and Instagram photo. This is what happens when no responsible adult has ever said the word “no,” made you change your clothes before leaving the house, or never spanked your butt for deliberate defiance.
It seems this author wants to talk about parenting, but the entire argument is based on ungrounded assumptions about Cyrus. Christians ought to be people who “speak the truth in love.” We don’t need the guise of a personal letter to do so. Instead we should say what we mean. We should speak winsomely and in love and trust that will be enough (Ephesians 4:29).
There is plenty we can learn from the behavior of public figures without presuming to know why they do the things they do.
2. They treat their addressees as if they are stupid or ignorant. When writing a letter to someone you aren’t actually writing a letter to, its easy to treat that person as immature or ignorant or immoral. This letter to sons in light of Robin Thicke’s behavior is a prime example:
Don’t let any of these pigs and perverts you see on TV be a lesson to you. They treat women like garbage; they possess no chivalry, no self control; they are disloyal and dishonest; they spend all day pursuing pleasure at the expense of others, and they encourage you to do the same. You might be tempted to follow suit. In fact, you WILL be tempted. These male pop stars and celebrities, look at them, you’ll think. They take advantage of emotionally broken, self loathing, confused young women, and they are rewarded handsomely for it. Look at their nice clothes and their nice cars. Look how they are admired and loved. Look, they treat women like trash and other women fawn all over them because of it. This must be how real men behave, you’ll think.
The assumption being made about young men here is that young men have no idea what is being sold to them. They are buying the lies of the pop music they listen to. If this is true, it deserves to be addressed. The problem, however, is that the argument being made is based entirely on assumptions about the influences of pop music on young people. A more honest form of communication would be to address the ideas presented in “Blurred Lines” and Thicke’s performance of it. As a father and a pastor, I sympathize with this author’s concerns, but he isn’t writing to fathers and pastors–he is writing to young men. When the default stance is to speak down to young people, should we be surprised when they don’t listen?
3. The pretension is misleading. As my Christ and Pop Culture colleague Brad Williams said, “an open letter is a passive way to talk about someone while pretending to talk to someone.” Open letters aren’t really written to particular public figures as if those people are actually going to read and be helped by them.
Jesus’ teaching on personal conflict (Matthew 18:15-18), does not rule out writing public criticisms of public figures. When people put themselves forward as public examples, I think it follows that their example should be examined publicly. However, open letters do something deceitful here–they claim to be offering correction to their addressees when really they are publicly criticizing them.
This letter to Mark Driscoll is a prime example:
The first is this: you are fantastic at making much of yourself. You are the master of the humblebrag now that the meme is dead and the ship has sailed. Like a self-aware version of Ari Gold from Entourage, you drop all the names you know to demonstrate your position — but dutifully, you’re not like any of them. . . .
If anyone knows how to salvage his own reputation from the doctrinal and moral pratfalls and frankly-insulting egoisms for which you are actually well-known, it’s you — and it’s funny to watch you do it as you get older and your audience stays the same age.
This author has some pretty strong words to share with Driscoll. As someone who lives a very public Christian life and sets up his example as something to be admired and followed, Driscoll is worthy of examination. The problem with this, however, is that the author pretends to be concerned about Driscoll’s lack of humility while simply talking about how pompous he thinks Driscoll is.
Jesus warned against “practicing our righteousness before men in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1) and encouraged us to let what we “say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matthew 5:37). Open letters ignore these two injunctions by placing us on moral high ground above those we seek to critique and refusing to directly address the things with which we are actually concerned. I believe in critiquing culture and particularly those in culture whose behavior is worthy of critique. In doing so, it is essential that we speak honestly and in love.