Jon Stewart

The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart is known for political satire that skewers both the right and left, but his recent skit featuring a vulgarity-spewing gospel choir raises lots of troubling questions. The first one: why isn’t the church more outraged?

I listened and watched for the outrage.

Surely, it must be coming, I thought.

As it happened, I was on vacation without my laptop, so I had no immediate opportunity to respond. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know about it until a full week or so afterwards.

Yet, here it is, all this time later, and not a peep from anyone of significant influence.

And the silence is telling.

In case you couldn’t tell from the headline, I’m referring to a bit from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, in which he went on a Blues Brothers-style, over-the-top musical monologue haranguing a Fox News personality, riffing on all the ridiculous hypocrisy of their criticisms of his show.

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This in and of itself would not really be news, since Jon Stewart is a professional comedian hosting a highly rated television show. Stewart has been trading barbs with this particular host, and Fox News in general, for weeks and months, if not years. It’s become a comedic staple for him.

What made this particular segment notable was the fact that his comedic tour de force featured five African-American singers clad in choir robes, singing and swaying like they’re in church, who concluded his routine by singing the phrase, “go (bleep) yourself,” which was his original statement that started the whole on-air fracas.

What’s worse than the bit itself was, in my opinion, the immediate reaction to it. All across the blogosphere were headlines with variations on the following:

I wish I were making this up.


Now let me be clear, lest readers start filling in the blanks on their own. I’m not suggesting that this particular segment was racist in tone. Poor taste? Yes. Racist? No. And judging from the sound of crickets coming from the mass media, I’m guessing that most people don’t think this is that big a deal.

As a matter of fact, I suspect that many people in my demographic, young-to-middle-age professional Black people, are willing to give Jon Stewart a pass on this one, either because we generally enjoy his shtick, we agree with his politics, or both. In this, I would normally be no exception, which is why initially, I wasn’t particularly offended.

But the longer I thought about it, the more disturbed I felt.

The truth is, I do take exception to anyone who presents or refers to a group of singers vocalizing obscenities — even in jest — as a gospel choir. To do so is to be ignorant of, and disrespectful to, the faith of billions of men and women around the world. Anyone who understands the meaning of the word “gospel,” even outside the Christian context, would still have a hard time applying it to Stewart’s on-air shenanigans.

Because “gospel” means “good news,” and the only people who would really call this good news are the folks at Viacom who measure attention share, since the number of plays for that particular video clip are probably through the roof by now.

Now traditionally, when Black churches want to get the attention of a multinational corporation, boycotting and protesting are usually the vehicles of choice. And considering how good some of our traditional Black leaders have become at generating reactionary outrage, I’m a little surprised someone out there isn’t already doing this. But we’ve got to see the bigger picture.

The artistic contributions that Blacks have made in American pop culture overall are immeasurably valuable, and gospel music has played a key role in this. It is not uncommon for historians, scholars or music lovers to listen to gospel music strictly for artistic or aesthetic reasons. Listening to heartfelt, anointed gospel music can be a transcendent experience, even for those who have not put their faith in Christ alone.

And speaking as a minister of music in both hip-hop and gospel genres, I consider it a privilege to be able to offer my music as an avenue of expression, especially to those who do not believe as I do.

But what does it say about the effectiveness of the Black church if a couple robed singers on TV can bellow out, “go (bleep) yourself!” and the world calls this… a gospel choir? What does it say about our ability as believers to be salt and light to our generation when they can’t tell the difference between that and an actual gospel choir?

More importantly, what does it say about the gospel music community when this happens and there is hardly any response?

It makes me wonder if the salt is losing its flavor.

Gospel music is a multi-billion dollar industry. It used to be common for the great African-American singers of generations past to grow up singing in church before taking their music elsewhere. Nowadays it’s possible to make a career out of singing gospel music entirely, especially if you can make it far enough on American Idol before you get your first record deal.

And let’s be honest, there is virtually no difference between “secular” and “gospel” when it comes to the business side of music. It’s commonplace for secular artists to collaborate with gospel artists, and it’s just as commonplace for secular artists to record albums that are recorded and marketed for Christian audiences.

In the last decade, the examples of gospel songs and artists that have “crossed over” and found mainstream success are too numerous to recount here.

I am not opposed to this. I listen to Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary and Israel Houghton just like everyone else. I love their music and I’m grateful for the impact they’re having with people.

What I have a problem with is the idea of “gospel” music existing only as a style to be mimicked and marketed, a churchy synonym that could just as easily read “positive” or “inspirational.” (Occasional UrbanFaith columnist LaTonya Taylor opined about this irksome phenomenon at her Gospel Gal blog.)

The power of gospel music is not in how much melisma a lead singers uses to embellish a chorus, or how well a keyboard player can stack killer chord progressions. The power of gospel music is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that we as humans can be reconciled with God despite our propensity to sin.

Now don’t get me wrong… I know that there are plenty of Christians who have chosen to record or play secular music, or headline secular venues, in order to collaborate, build relationship with, and ultimately minister to their non-believing peers. If that’s what God leads you to do, then do it. Whatever the Holy Spirit leads is a valid ministry strategy.

I also know from firsthand experience that it’s hard to be out there on that pedestal, where people look up to you and have high expectations for your life. The higher the pedestal, the more pressure you have to live with. The fact is, gospel singers are still real people with real issues. There are those among us who battle with substance abuse, or get divorced, or struggle with confusion about their sexuality.

On top of all of this, many gospel musicians are actively involved in larger issues of politics and policy, and they may feel, like Admiral Percy Fitzwallace from The West Wing, that they don’t have time for cosmetic battles. All of this, I get.

But I’m convinced that if we gospel musicians spent less time working on our skills or refining our style, and spent more time building an authentic relationship with the Lord we profess to serve, then the world wouldn’t be quite so confused about what the gospel is or isn’t.

That’s why a boycott is not the answer. Living out the truth of God’s Word so that the gospel becomes inextricably intertwined into everything we say and do, including our music … that is the answer.

The sad irony of all this is that if Jon Stewart had instead recruited a crew of rappers to back him up and spew profanity, this incident would’ve gotten much more attention. Because if there is one thing Black churches have learned how to protest against, it’s rap music.

So I guess I should be glad he didn’t do that, otherwise I’d have even more animosity to defuse the next time I have a chance to do hip-hop in a worship service.

If that’s the only thing that will pass for good news, then I guess I’ll have to take it.

But man …

Let’s not confuse that, or any other vulgar appropriation of our faith, with the gospel.

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