1. Tokking Points
What it is: The White House briefed TikTok stars on the Russian invasion and subsequent humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.
Why it’s controversial: Much has been made of the way the Russian/Ukraine conflict has played out on TikTok, specifically the way that disinformation continues to morph and spread quickly on the app. So it makes sense for the US government to choose to directly feed information to influential TikTokers, in hopes that their posts will shape the narrative. But to some, the meeting felt a bit like looping TikTokers into a state-funded propaganda scheme; what briefing TikTokers with a bulleted list of talking points doesn’t do is encourage critical thinking or a nuanced approach to understanding a complicated international crisis. It also lends more legitimacy to getting news and foreign policy ideas from TikTokers, an idea that even SNL poked fun at this past week during their cold open. As we pray for those who have lost their livelihoods and loved ones, we can seek information from a number of different perspectives to get a holistic picture of what’s happening on the ground.
2. Getting Us
What it is: A $100 million ad campaign called He Gets Us aims to re-introduce Jesus to Gen Z and millennials.
Why it’s about to be everywhere: He Gets Us is believed to be the largest purely evangelistic marketing effort ever launched in the United States. The campaign is being funded by several wealthy Christian families who have chosen to remain anonymous. The black and yellow branding is sleek and serious, with portrait photography and bold sans serif typefaces leading the effort to draw in digital natives. Copy on the He Gets Us site emphasizes Jesus’ experiences with anxiety and loneliness, painting Him as a highly empathetic figure who is different than some might assume. One sixty-second commercial spot that debuted on YouTube on March 9th already has around 5 million views. Young viewers may be intrigued enough by the campaign to reassess their preconceptions about Jesus, and maybe some will even invite Him into their lives. At the same time, this effort does raise interesting questions about the utility of “branding” when it comes to church, teens, and even Jesus Himself.
3. Red Faced
What it is: Pixar’s Turning Red drew mixed reviews as the first feature film from that studio to target a tween audience.
Why it’s not everybody’s favorite: Critics largely praised the movie for celebrating Chinese Canadian culture through a magical realist, coming-of-age plot set in early aughts Toronto. But many audience reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes felt differently. That could be because Turning Red is, for the most part, typical PG-movie fare, but some themes and dialogue aren’t what parents would expect from a Pixar film. In some moments, it feels like it was actually made for grown ups. Some reviewers were surprised that there were multiple euphemisms for periods and period products throughout the film. There’s also a spiritual aspect that might make Christian families uncomfortable, with multiple scenes of ritual chanting, out-of-body experiences, and ancestor worship. But perhaps at the root of most discomfort with the film is the depiction of parental/child relationships. A choice to tell a huge lie to a controlling parent is framed as completely justified, and protagonist Mei chooses to honor herself over her mother’s desires in a “moral of the story” moment of the movie. (To be fair, this is kind of the moral of every Disney movie, unless it utilizes their other favorite plot device, parents who are dead.) Knowing what to expect from Turning Red will help you decide if it’s appropriate household viewing.
Slang of the Week
Flop era: a period in your life when it feels like everything is falling apart. (Ex: “That time my face was breaking out, my parents grounded me from my phone, and I couldn’t pass advanced calculus… that was my flop era.”)
Debates about White House policy and getting news from TikTok aside, the Biden Administration’s decision to officially brief some of the biggest stars on the platform is a powerful example of using contextualization to convey meaning. To contextualize simply means to present ideas in a format that will be easier to digest by the intended audience. Rather than asking TikTok users to turn on C-SPAN, the White House decided to try to meet them where they were.
Many Christians have seen Paul’s line in 1 Corinthians 9:22 about “becoming all things to all people” as justification for doing this to share the Gospel. But contextualization can be tricky. As Tullian Tchividjian once put it, “This is the challenge: If you don’t contextualize enough, no one’s life will be transformed because they won’t understand you. But if you contextualize too much, no one’s life will be transformed because you won’t be challenging their deepest assumptions and calling them to change.”
The He Gets Us campaign is another example of contextualization. Their videos so far include taglines like “Jesus suffered anxiety too,” “Jesus was born to a teen mom,” and describe the disciples’ journey as a kind of street rebellion, where they “roamed the hood, challenged authority and made a lot of people uneasy” for the sake of the gospel. These ideas plus images of pierced, tattooed, and ethnically diverse subjects (crucial for “the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet”) may make the story of the gospels easier for Gen Z to see itself in. (Ask your own teen what they think about the videos!)
Turning Red arguably contextualizes puberty and teenage rebellion for a tween audience (at one point Meilin literally says “my panda, my choice”). Without space to unpack it fully here, suffice it to say that Disney and Pixar understand about their ideas what Lesslie Newbigin understood about the gospel: “if it is to be received as something which communicates truth about the real human situation, it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.”
Here are some questions to hopefully spark discussion about all this with your teens:
- Does the fact that the White House briefed TikTok influencers make them seem more trustworthy or less?
- Does Jesus need a rebrand in order to be seen as relevant? Why or why not?
- What do you think is the main message of Turning Red? How would you describe Meilin’s relationship with her mother?