The entire Internet is still in a state of consternation after the recent performance of Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Since I am way past the MTV viewers median age, I found out about it from a post on a social network. Although I was bracing myself for something innapropriate, I was in for a surprise. In fact, it was so painful that I could not watch more than a few seconds of the recording. It hurts deeply to see a beautiful young woman like her descending so low on the scale of decency. The only thing on my mind was: why? I saw in her all the lost daughters of the world that allowed themselves to be transformed by premature success, bad company, and misguidance.
But what this has to do with St. John the Baptist?
In a few days, we will be celebrating the feast of the beheading of the Holy Prophet. We all know the story; I’ll retell it just in case you missed some details. After openly denouncing Herod for leaving his lawful wife and living in sin with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19-20), St. John was thrown in jail. On Herod’s birthday, Salome, Herodias’s daughter, danced and charmed Herod and his guests. In return he swore to give her whatever she would ask, up to half his kingdom. On the advice of her ill-intended mother, she asked to be given the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Although Herod hesitated to allow this, pressured by his guests and his oath, he gave orders to cut off the head of St. John and give it to Salome.
According to Tradition, St. John did not stop here, but his mouth continued to preach repentance: “Herod, you should not have the wife of your brother Philip.” Trying to make him stop Herodias stabbed the tongue of the prophet with a needle and buried his holy head in an unclean place. The same tradition also accounts for the tragic death of all the ill characters involved: Salome was beheaded by a sharp ice piece while crossing a river, while Herod and Herodias, defeated in war by the Arab King Aretas, died of terrible diseases in exile.
In the context of Miley Cyrus’ recent performance, and others like it, the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist takes an important connotation. The Prophet was martyred because he condemned what the people of his times loved so much: immorality. Nowadays we see the same thing. Our entire society is soaked to saturation with the same decadence, and our children are the first to suffer the consequences.
A recent analysis of broadcast media content indicates that, on average, teenaged viewers see 143 incidents of sexual behavior on network television each week. This includes teen sitcoms on children’s channels, starring Miley Cyrius, Lindsay Lohan, and other teen prodigies like them. Now that they have gone bad, what are they if not Salome reinvented?
How did they get here, though? How does one fall so deep into the rabbit hole? I won’t pretend that I fully understand the complexities of a star’s life, but there are a few general ideas that could give us hints for some potential contributing factors.
I would call first pre-mature success. The King liked Salome and this made her vulnerable. Being promised half of the kingdom can go to anyone’s head. Fame and fortune are difficult to digest at a mature age, let alone in the forming years of one’s personality. The pampering, the fans, the money, all contribute to a boosting of the ego that now needs constant attention.
Comes then bad company. Salome acted under the influence of her wicked and ill-intended mother. Our teen prodigies fall prey to an entourage that exploits them under the disguise of praise, manipulating them for their sole profit. Once they extract everything out of them, they spit them out dry.
Boundaries are generally nonexistent with such children. Parents are either powerless or simply blinded by the success of their offspring, and they forget to actually act like parents. They become thus, probably without realizing it, the types of Herod and Herodias, enabling their children on a spiraling down path.
Once the star status diminishes, and the constant attention starts to fade, doing shocking things may appear as an acceptable alternative to gather the needed attention.
St. John represents the conscience of all this sad reality. He is the voice crying in the wilderness of the secular society: repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand! But we don’t want him crying, so we attempt to put our conscience to sleep. It’s Ok, is music, is dance, they all do it; we might as well enjoy it. And we go down the rabbit hole deeper and deeper. But even in the depth, the voice of truth can still be heard, bringing guilt and remorse, and we desperately try to shut it down, just as Herodias pierced the Forerunner’s tongue.
The fact that the Orthodox celebrate this feast with fasting is not random, but it is a call to the repentance preached by the martyred prophet. The discipline of fasting, prayer, and a well-guided life in Christ are the only exercises that can help a young person be formed in the right mold: the image of God. Otherwise the fate of Salome, Herod and Herodias are inevitable for the soul.
But it is never too late for anyone to listen to the prophet’s cry and turn to Christ. Through repentance, the Kingdom of heaven is attainable, just as St. John prophesied. In Christ any sin can be forgiven; any life can be turned; any enslaved soul can be freed. The Forerunner’s call to repentance, heard over the centuries, prepares still the way toward His love. I pray that Miley Cyrus and others hear his call and wake up from the drunkenness of their ephemeral success and get a grasp on their lives before it is too late. I also pray that other fragile and susceptible young souls will learn from their mistakes and stay on the path. May God have mercy on us all!