J Walking

I have two snapshots of Britney Spears stuck in my brain.

The first is from the late 1990s. I was living in Atlanta and had started attending a cool new church. It was a church “unplugged” – the pastor was young and sat on a stool and talked about Jesus and U2 and Quentin Tarantino. “Worship” was performed by a band. No one wore suits. It was so much fun there were mid-week worship services.

Early one evening I walked in and sat down and worshipped and listened to the sermon and was getting up to leave when I caught up to the non-Jesus buzz in the room. “Britney is here ” I heard whispered as I saw a hulking man and a small girl bustle out a side door. Apparently it wasn’t a terribly uncommon experience. Whenever she was in town for a concert or for meetings, she stopped by the church. I hadn’t heard of pop stars going to church. It never made me a fan but it made me believe that her ‘virgin talk’ was far more than some marketing ploy.

The other Britney snapshot was from 2002. The NFL opened its season on a Thursday night in Washington, DC and there was a concert on the mall to celebrate. My wife Kim and I had been given backstage passes. A host of stars passed before us on their way to perform. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith strutted by, Mary J. Blige held court, Aretha Franklin deigned to be there. Most memorable, however, was the very small Britney Spears. She looked timid, comforted by the big jacket she was wearing, looking like a little girl lost in a glittered world. As her stage time approached, she looked around and shed the jacket to reveal a very tight little outfit. She fidgeted. Her dancers moved in closer and so did her bodyguards. She walked out on stage and lipsynched a new song, grinding and moving and stripping down further to reveal pants well below her navel and a top that covered not much at all. After the performance she ran offstage and back into the clothes. The empress needed her clothes.

Those two moments have colored my perception of Britney. I couldn’t buy the image of her as a sexual diva, a slithering temptress. It seemed an image that old men and young boys wanted but not one based in reality. During the past several years as her music became coarser and her sexuality even more overt I couldn’t buy it. It felt faker than people said her virginity talk ever was. The toll it took on her own soul, however, was real.

Now there is this runaway, this breakdown, the shaved head, the tattoos, the parties and the presumed drugs. And it all makes me wonder if the lost, little girl who now has two little boys isn’t trying to do whatever she can to get back to who she once was. I wonder if she’s looked at the pictures of her onstage kissing Madonna and writhing around on the floor and felt much as the prodigal son felt when he found himself lying in a pig sty. Britney’s sty may be different – more luxe and less slop – but the self-loathing, hopeless destination is the same. They both reached the end of the of the glam road and discovered it looked a lot like hell.

For the son there came the conclusion that his father’s house would give him a better chance at life even if the father he had once shunned no longer loved him. So he went home to confess and ask for forgiveness. He was greeted with a party; a party to celebrate his life.

For Britney now there is a trip to rehab; a trip to rehab with a newly tattooed cross on her left hip. And there is the prayer that as she goes into rehab that she might remember a simple faith that she once had in a man named Jesus and that she might return to him and find that he is waiting to welcome the little girl back and throw her the kind of party she has really been looking for.

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