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1. The Depths of Cruelty

What it is: As the search for the Titan submersible took over the news cycle last week, some people shared memes that weren’t exactly kind to the victims in this tragedy.
Why it hints at something deeper: Last Thursday, debris from the ruined Titan was found 1600 feet from the Titanic wreckage, at an undersea depth that would kill any person. But even before all five crew members of the expedition were presumed dead, TikTok and Twitter were alight (and some might say, darkly delighted) at their horrific fate. #titanicsubmarine rocketed to 1.2 billion views, most of them memes and edits meant to be funny. The reported wealth of the passengers, combined with reports of ongoing safety issues with the OceanGate submersible, seemed to imply to some that merciless mocking of these victims was okay, and a certain class of online commenter expressed that perhaps those on board deserved what they got. For some reason, a classic SNL clip of Bill Hader dancing in a box to the song “Makeba” by Jain was often paired with sarcastic Titan commentary in these memes. As NBC News suggests, the tragedy brought “eat the rich” sentiment out in force. But if our empathy doesn’t extend equally to billionaires and beggars, can it really be of Christ?
Start the conversation: Did you see a lot of memes or commentary about the Titan submersible tragedy?

2. Up for Debate

What it is: The Free Press reports that high school students are losing debates due to their personal beliefs or even their past tweets.
What it’s about: The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) is the leading organization for middle school and high school debate teams. According to this article, some judges at local, regional, and national NSDA events openly state their biases on a website called Tabroom, which debaters are instructed to appeal to. Judges have said and continued to say that sometimes attacks on another debate contestant’s character or social media presence are acceptable, as long as they can be verified via documentation like a screenshot. Some judges have also said that certain points of view are simply unacceptable to present. Debate clubs were once an incubator for those who aspired to the public square. It would appear that now, our future attorneys, civic leaders, and politicians are being taught that the ability to adhere to a wriggly ideology is more valuable than the technical skill required to present an argument well.
Start the conversation: Do you see the ability to express unpopular perspectives as being important and worthwhile? Why or why not?

3. Shameless

What it is: An influencer on TikTok is going viral for reading her embarrassing and often expletive-ridden diary posts from middle school and high school.
Why it’s relatable: Mackenzie Thomas (@dumbmackenzie) was a comedian with a relatively small TikTok following before she hit upon the idea to share her teenage memoirs. She reads from her notebooks with a deadpan seriousness, perhaps to convey the earnest tone in which they were penned. The result is cringe comedy—in one post, she confesses to eating an entire lip gloss, fretting that her stomach hurt but admitting “it tasted awesome, and that is the saddest part.” In another post, she wonders how boys will ever understand her “when her brain is a computer.” While @dumbmackenzie’s posts are incredibly specific, commenters say that her content strikes a nerve because of how universal the feelings of discomfort, humiliation, and self-loathing can be during puberty.
Start the conversation: Would you share your journal with an audience if it meant you could go viral?

Song of the Week

“f**umean” by Gunna: Reaching #1 on Apple Music, #3 on Spotify, #16 on Billboard, and also trending on TikTok, this murky hip-hop track is basically about Gunna’s sexual prowess, how much money he has, and how he has no equal. After being charged with racketeering and accused of snitching, this song represents Gunna’s attempt to reassert his own sense of agency. The sort of braggadocio found in songs like this can create an opportunity for Christians reflect on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:12, where He says, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” For the full lyrics to the song, click here (language).

Culture: Translated

What do dark memes about the Titan submersible, new norms around high school debate, @dumbmackenzie’s TikTok account, and the new song from Gunna have in common? To put it simply, they are all about performance, and the desire for approval.

When expectations around high school debate are restructured, the whole goal of “debate” ends up being to perform for judges’ biases, and to signal one’s own righteousness. In a similar way, when users turn the deaths of five people into a series of cynical memes, they exploit real tragedy. They’re either performing for an audience with a dark sense of humor, or signaling their public disapproval at the excesses of capitalism. When Gunna raps about how much money he has and how attractive the women around him are, even if he’s making it all up, he is also performing and projecting power and success to his listeners. And when @dumbmackenzie reads her old diary entries on TikTok, she also puts on a kind of performance—but in this case, hers is performative vulnerability instead of virtue signaling or braggadocio.

We see self-centeredness in Gunna, self-deprecation in @dumbmackenzie, others-centeredness in catering to judges’ preferences, and others-deprecation in the Titan memes. All of these approaches seem very different; but in a way, they’re also all driven by the exact same desire: the desire to have others’ approval and appreciation.

The desire to be approved of and appreciated by others is profound—so profound, in fact, that the only way to put it to rest is to receive the eternal approval that God offers to us in Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians 2:4, the Apostle Paul describes his missionary journey like this: “We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.” He understood that the approval of God runs deeper than the approval of man, and also that we actually can’t pursue the approval of both at the same time. As he puts it also in Galatians 1:10, “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

It’s a question that all Christians should wrestle with: Am I working primarily for God’s approval, or for the approval of other people? It’s a topic worth discussing with our teens as well. Here are three questions to spark the discussion:

  • Why do you think the desire for approval is so strong for so many people?
  • What does it look like when someone is more concerned about the approval of other people than the approval of God?
  • What does it look like when someone is more concerned about the approval of God than the approval of other people?