Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

CHURCH OF BASKETBALL: Blazersedge.com managing editor and Lutheran minister David Deckard is part sports journalist / part online pastor.

David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as clergyman, husband, and dad. But unlike many pastors, who might hold jobs in sales or construction, his other job is in sports entertainment — specifically as the managing editor of Blazersedge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team. Part of the SBNation, Blazersedge stands apart from other sites because of the rich sense of community its members provide.

And in the center of it all is Deckard, the man known to the masses simply as “Dave.”

As a Portland native and devoted Blazers fan, I sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview covering the curious intersection of sports and faith.

 

JELANI: Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background on how you got into these roles. Plus, how did you become affiliated with Blazersedge?

DAVE DECKARD: Hah! I could tell a thousand stories about each of those things.

I grew up in a very non-churchy-type family. I sang in a Catholic boys choir when I was 10 or so, and that was it. But my high school choir director took a job at a downtown Portland church and I wanted to sing with her after I graduated, so I started singing in that church choir. That’s where I got my first inkling that God was a decent person to know and that faith might be part of my make-up. I went from that to a summer as a counselor at a church camp, then another, then youth directing, then to seminary. So be careful what you do! God is sneaky like that. You go in one day just wanting to sing a little and BAM!  You’re working for the guy for life.

I’ve been a Blazers fan since I was quite young. It’s all I cared about as a kid. I went through all the ups and downs. When the Internet came in vogue, I got mixed up with an e-mail group talking about the team. A friend was blogging for the local paper’s website, and he became part of the group. He had to leave for a short emergency trip and asked me to fill in for him for a few days. I did and got the bug, then started my own site. Casey Holdahl, now with the Blazers, was running Blazersedge.com at that time. He left and contacted me about taking over Blazersedge. The rest is history.

So be careful what you do! You just start chatting about the Blazers and do a favor for a friend one day and BAM! You’re the managing editor at the biggest Trail Blazers site in the world.

As a pastor who also operates in the public square, I think you have an interesting perspective on practical theology.

Personally I think theology suffers when placed in the abstract, such as, “I believe in Doctrine X.” So often that’s a shorthand way around knowing people and God, instead of an invitation to know both better. Doctrine is like underwear. It’s indispensable, but meant to support the rest of the stuff you’re wearing. If you’re just into flashing the doctrine in public, people should run.

I’m Lutheran, to be specific. But even people within a denomination usually don’t know or understand its teachings fully. The best thing to say is just, “Let’s talk about God and life and such and you’ll get the idea.”

A few years back, I was trying to explain to my wife the significance of Blazersedge in the life of an average Blazers fan, and your role with it in particular. And I think it was after reading a commentary you wrote that touched on the whole Erin-Andrews-hotel-room thing that, in my attempt to contextualize the situation, I referred to you as “the Internet pastor of Blazer nation.” Is that a fair label, informal or not?

I haven’t heard that one before! I suspect plenty of people would bristle at that, either because the pastoral relation implies voluntary consent or because the entire idea is anathema to their worldview. However, it’s accurate to say that my outlook (read: faith) determines how I speak, how I react to folks, and in general how the site functions.

UPS AND DOWNS: After a string of misfortune with once-promising players, forward LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few solid players left on the Blazers’ roster. (Photo: Mark Halmas/Newscom)

Oddly enough, most people misread the role faith plays. They assume that our site’s non-profanity rule stems from a religious source. I am not overly offended by swearing in personal conversation, nor do I find it more ungodly than a hundred other things people do every day. The no-profanity thing is out of concern for public decorum and being welcoming of all people without having something as insignificant as swearing get in the way.

That’s where the real faith issues come in: Diverse voices are welcome, you’ve been given power to add to this conversation, use that power for good, and frame your assertions to welcome others as you’ve been welcomed. People get banned at Blazersedge for one reason:  they’re exercising their power of speech for the good of the self, hurting or ignoring others in the process. That’s a statement of faith — valuing the neighbor as oneself translated to Internet conversation.

In my writing I try to be fair and thoughtful, to treat my subjects like real people and not just objects, and to do justice to the topic instead of writing to gain more traffic for myself. I try not to take things too seriously, as a sense of humor is an asset to faith. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between my on-site life and the rest of my life. I try to write in such a way that I could be held accountable for what I say. So I guess in that way you could say that my approach is pastoral. But it’s found more in example than preaching. I’m not the center of attention. Just like church isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering God together, the site isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering the Blazers together.

The best compliment I get regarding faith — and it happens reasonably often — is when Blazersedge folks find out what I do for a living and say, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, but that makes total sense now that I think about it.” Instead of faith being this distinct moment with a distinct person separate from “real life,” it’s breathed in organically in the course of doing what you love. It’s not about me or you, it’s all around, filling the space between us and making things good whether we realize it or not.

People often equate intense sports fandom with religion. In a post, you once compared sports teams with churches in the sense that they are both public trusts that have strong traditions, but at the end of the day the people who work there are still responsible for making their own choices and protecting their own financial interests. You were trying to balance the perspective of fans who expect loyalty from their sports heroes but treat them as fungible assets when they don’t perform up to expectations — such as with Blazers point guard Raymond Felton. In your opinion, is there more loyalty in the church compared to the sports world? Should there be?

Oh yeah, Felton was about as fungible as it gets.

Back in the day, multiple ties bound people to their church. Doctrine was part of it but social ties, ethnicity, and survival in this strange New World (cultural, if not actual in the form of propagation) made church all but inescapable. If you came here as an Italian Catholic you couldn’t very well flip to a British Episcopalian without losing your identity and community. As descendants in successive generations identified as American, those ties loosened. But even then the idea of “American” and “good, church-going person” were intertwined. You might not go to your grandparents’ church but you went to some church … at least on Christmas and Easter.

In the post-’60s world folks began to question what it meant to be American, even. In most groups ethnic ties had disappeared, now national ties were following. Then came instant global communication and all of a sudden you didn’t have to be tied to local neighbors at all. You could talk to anyone and get anything you want, with the push of a button. In this environment churches have become fungible. Only those truly interested in faith (or too stubborn to let go of the old culture) remain engaged. Even among those, most won’t remain at a church that doesn’t closely align with their personal convictions.

In spirit, loyalty is still a part of the church relationship. In practice, it’s at an ebb … it has to be taught where it was once assumed.

So, do you think we’re worse off today?

Actually, there are good things about this. Those cultural and national ties overwhelmed faith back in the day. Church served the cultural perception rather than transcending it. Faith bound in service to anything but God is not faith at all. We don’t have to worry about that now. People participate in church because they desire a relationship with God, not because it’s the thing to do. Oddly enough, it’s far easier to hear God without all the cultural expectations getting in the way. I actually prefer the small, wandering group of faithful seekers to the large congregation of “good people” set in their ways. We’re just now rediscovering what faith is supposed to be.

I’m not as conversant with loyalty trends in sports but I suspect pro leagues, at least, follow the same trend. We’ll always have diehard Steelers or Blazers fans just like some folks will always be “church goers.” But most folks have a myriad of choices for their leisure time and disposable income today. Teams can no longer assume their fans will follow. The fans that do remain tend to be more knowledgeable and involved and demand more from their teams.

So is that a lesson for church leaders, too?

I believe so. It’s not enough to have just the name anymore; you have to show quality to keep folks engaged. The uniforms still said, “Trail Blazers” in 2011-12 but few fans felt that Ray Felton and company reflected true Blazer basketball. Their complaints and rejection of the product reflected that. For years people of faith have been willing to swallow almost anything that claimed a “Christian” label no matter what it said. If some idiot gets on TV and says he’s for God or a presidential candidate shows up at a church one Sunday they’re supposedly “on our side.” People of faith need to be more discerning. You’ll know where a person’s coming from by the fruit they produce. It’s not enough to divide the world into teams and then say you’re on the right one. Your claims and actions have to do something good in the world before they can be considered godly. Otherwise the uniform you’re trying to claim doesn’t matter.

Yeah, I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who, in a moment of existential gloom, referred to sports fandom as essentially “cheering for laundry.” There are few things more disaffecting than the realization that your emotional investment is not going to yield the dividends you hoped for, and that’s true in the church as much as it is in sports.

Speaking of which, many fans will look at the 2011-2012 Trail Blazers season as The Year the Dream Died, with Roy announcing his sudden retirement, Greg Oden being waived, Nate McMillan being fired, etc.  And when I think about some of my episodes of basketball-related frustration (the Western Conference Finals in 2000 come to mind), Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief strike a familiar chord.

Do you find much correlation between the work you do as a pastor to walk your parishioners through grief and the way you help Blazers fans cope with wave after wave of disappointment?

There’s overlap, for sure. Grief is grief. I remember the Western Conference Finals loss in ’91 almost like a death. It was, really … the death of a dream. It hurt. We certainly do our fair share of putting things into perspective, reminding that there’s goodness that circumstances can’t touch, that there are reasons to believe, that the important part is taking the journey together instead of the lumps you take on the way.

But the roles of “journalist/analyst” and “pastor/counselor” also differ significantly. At the end of the day my role at Blazersedge is to speak the truth as I see it. I make bold proclamations about the Blazers’ prospects that I’d never make to a person sitting in my office in crisis. In counseling it doesn’t matter what you know and feel, it’s what the person in need knows and feels. Sports are more predictable and less important ultimately. They also lie outside of the domain of any individual. Abstract truths become more valuable in that kind of situation. Truth is truth in this venue in a way that isn’t possible in interpersonal relationships.

I find myself contradicting the popular wave of opinion at Blazersedge far more often (and stridently) than I’d contradict a parishioner making decisions about their own life. When the Blazers started this season 7-2 but still evidenced serious holes, I went ahead and spoke out about it. I probably wouldn’t do that so baldly in church because people need to figure that out for themselves.

The other overlap is trolling. Trolls blossom on websites and in churches alike. I must admit having to deal with trolls online has better prepared me for the unhealthy, bad behavior that people sometimes evidence in church. Whatever unfair tactic they’re using, I’ve probably seen it before. I’m much more forward in pointing out those things now than I was before my online experience.

As you know, Dave, fans can get really crazy. Sometimes it’s just fun, but at times it goes too far — like pouring beer on the opposing team’s star player. What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of sports, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds or souls? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?

The idea that you can be one person in one venue and a different one in another is overblown. I’m thinking primarily of the Internet here, but I suppose it also applies at the arena or stadium. Your environment will influence your choices. But even allowing that environment determines methodology, you’re still either going to conduct yourself with honor for the greater good or you’re going to make it all about yourself and how you can get ahead. You can’t let that self-serving, “screw everyone else as long as I get ahead and look good” mentality take hold. As soon as you start basing your decisions on that, it’ll color the rest of your life. You can’t really pretend to be a jerk without actually becoming one. That’s true whether you’re clocking somebody from behind on the floor or abusing someone on a website. Act in ways that honor the people around you no matter what the venue (even when arguing or playing against them) and you’re going to bring something good to the world. That’s true whether you’re playing sports, talking about them, or just watching them while your kids say, “Daddy, can you play with me?”

Once again, bigger life lessons from the world of sports …

One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective: whether it’s in sports or church, folks seem to value being right more than enjoying the experience and each other. Both sports and faith are communal endeavors. Yet people use their knowledge to try and prove they’re better and/or more correct than the other person. This is silly. What’s the point of following sports at all if you’re not enjoying it with the people around you? The striking phenomenon from the ’77 championship in Portland wasn’t just the title but also the massive parade and community unification in the wake of the event. Fandom requires company to reach full flower. When you destroy the community to exalt yourself, you’re winning a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The phenomenon is even more ridiculous when applied to faith. If any of us could have gotten it right, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for us. God would have simply said, “Nice, Bob! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to get it! Come on up to heaven, you perfectly correct dude, you!” Since Jesus, you know, died for our sins, that seems to imply the necessity and thus our falling short. In many ways arguing about who’s the most correct is arguing who needs Christ the least … a curious argument for Christians to try to win. Missing the greater picture in favor of making your point is a bad idea whether you’re in an online forum or in church.

It seems like it all comes back to the question of “How do we build, sustain, and reflect authentic community?” In what ways can you see the communities of sport and faith combining for the greater good?

There’s always potential. Every year we hold “Blazersedge Night” where the people of our community donate to send underprivileged young folks to a Blazers game. Last year we exceeded 700 kids and chaperones sent so we know people are willing to participate in something good.

I think you’ve hit on the main point, though … it has to be something good, as in “service to others.” Much of the overt “Christian” presence I see online (and I use the term loosely) makes me shudder. People screaming at each other, dividing the world into camps and picking fights, gloating over people’s misfortunes and saying, “I told you so.” It’s not everybody, of course, but it doesn’t take too much of that to turn the name sour. I had to spend years online showing who I am and what I’m about before I was overt at all about my profession. The field has been poisoned enough that when people hear the name “Christian” or “church” they’re just as likely to run or scroll onward as to engage or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we sports fanatics all need to make.

Loving Bravely

Loving Bravely

Loving bravely is risking great personal cost to do good for someone, even when you know that others may ridicule you for doing so. That’s the kind of love I want to give this Valentine’s Day.

This Valentine’s Day, I’m gonna try something different. Something brave.

Brave, as in, “this-year-I-will-forgo-typical-expressions-of-love-and-instead-donate-to-her-favorite-cause” bravery.

No, that’s not what I’m planning. I’m just offering that as an example. Eschewing a gift for a donation is the kind of thing that you only do when you really know somebody well, because if you’re wrong, you will pay for it. (All the married men should be nodding their heads right now.)

That’s what I mean by brave. Something unexpected that shows how much you care, something that might seem reckless, but is, in fact, very meaningful.

I have some work to do in the bravery department. Holly and I have been married for five years now, and unfortunately, I set the bar pretty high when we got engaged.

A friend of mine was the worship director at a megachurch in the area, and his band was planning on covering Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” for their worship service, since they were doing a series on relationships. So he asked me in advance to write another rap for it and bust it out during the service. So I upped the ante, and with their permission ahead of time, I wrote the rap verse as my will-you-marry-me speech, and during the middle of the song, I jumped off the stage and came down to where Holly was sitting, got down on one knee, and asked her to marry me.

It was so romantic.

Afterwards, I got mad cool points for going to such a length to surprise her. Afterwards, everyone kept echoing the same sentiment: Man, that was so brave.

Far be it from me to revise, as my grandmother used to say, even a jot or a tittle from the Bible. However, if I were to bring any editorial changes to an iconic biblical passage, I would choose 1 Corinthians 13, and right after “love is patient, love is kind,” I would add a third clause: “Love is brave.”

‘Cause seriously … ladies dig bravery. And for good reason.

Think of great leading men in popular films:

• Cary Elwes throwing himself down the hill in The Princess Bride.
• Bruce Willis fighting the terrorists in Die Hard.
• Will Smith trying to express his feelings in Hitch.

These are characters who found themselves in unfamiliar territory, and against all odds, they chose to do something good to help someone else, and found themselves being stretched (or in Smith’s case, swollen and contorted) beyond capacity in the process.

These are universal themes, for sure, but the common element here is bravery: the massive chutzpah required to stare down adversity and do the right thing anyway. It’s the stuff heroes are made from.

It’s important, though, that we not get confused about what bravery is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. Being brave, for example, is not the same thing as simply going against the flow.

Awhile back, I avoided seeing the last huge James Cameron blockbuster, mostly because I figured I already had a pretty good handle on how it ended (the boat sank), but also because I got tired of the hype. I just decided at some point that I’m going to be The Guy Who Never Saw Titanic, just to show up everyone else who thought it was so great.

The sad part is, I’m tempted to do the same with Avatar, even though I’ve read countless reviews and articles (including this one by UF’s Todd Burkes) that suggest that it’s a film experience worth having. It’s like I’d rather be the guy who didn’t see it, even if it means I miss out on seeing a great film.

Being contrarian is quite a marketable skill these days, because if you want to be a celebrity in today’s celebrity-saturated media marketplace, you have to do something to stand out from the rest of the pack. The quickest, easiest way to do that is to find a stance that is accepted as conventional wisdom, and then oppose it as vociferously as possible. This is why the Internet is full of people who oppose relatively normal things, like certain type faces, or even lowercase i’s next to capital letters.

(If you didn’t get that last reference, it’s ’cause you didn’t follow the link to the word “tittle” earlier. Go ahead, it’s not naughty or anything.)

This desire to stand out, in my opinion, is why former-NBA-journeyman-turned-culture-critic Paul Shirley recently penned a crude diatribe suggesting that Haitian citizens are culpable for their deplorable living conditions. Even though there are points he made that I agree with, I don’t think it was a particularly brave thing to say. He was looking to get a reaction, and he got one. People will accuse Shirley of many things, but loving too much is not one of them.

Loving bravely is not just taking an unpopular stance; it’s risking great personal cost to do good for someone, even when you know that others may, in fact, ridicule you for doing so. Obviously I’m not privy to all the details, but it seems to me that, by choosing to stand by her husband, Gayle Haggard chose to love bravely. It’s possible that Elin Nordegren Woods may be choosing similarly.

This is the truest essence of love, and as Christians we see it all over the Scriptures.

Consider this passage from 1 John 4:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This idea of sacrificial love, of doing for others what they cannot do for themselves, is one of the foundational principles that underscore all the worldwide efforts at Christian evangelism. And evangelism, as we all know, takes on many form — some subtle, and some not so subtle. The best strategies are ones that require truth and vulnerability, but still are basic and doable.

I’m reminded of “The Best Stuff In the World Today Café,” a cool little ditty by Take 6 with a nifty analogy of evangelism imagined as a downtown restaurant:

Time for lunch, my stomach said
I left the office to get fed
I had dined at every place on Main
My appetite was ripe for change.
And there stood this old restaurant
I had never seen before
And a stranger in an apron
Came bursting through the door and said

‘Welcome to The Best Stuff In the World Today Cafe
We are all believers in a better way
We were served as customers not so long ago
Now we are all waiters, we thought you oughta know’

It’s a clever song, and given the abundance of vocal talent in Take 6, I could probably listen to them sing pages of HTML source code and still love it.

Still, I wonder … what would happen if we really tried this? What would happen if I really grabbed someone off the street on an average Sunday morning and told them, “I don’t care what you planned to do, you gotta try this Jesus thing?”

I don’t know what would happen.

And that’s why it’s such a scary proposition in real life. Maybe that person would undergo a dramatic, Paul-on-his-way-to-Damascus conversion to Christianity. Or, maybe that person would give me the stink eye and say, “Dude, get your hands off me.” That’s why it’s such an act of bravery to put yourself out there like that.

And whether we recognize it or not, this holiday that we celebrate every February 14th, the one that was seemingly invented by purveyors of greeting cards, flowers, stuffed animals, and expensive chocolates … you know, Valentine’s Day?

Its origin is rooted not in empty sentiment, but in bravery.

Consider the following, courtesy of Wikipedia:

• The name “Valentine” is derived from the Latin valens which means “worthy,” and which bears etymological resemblance to our English words “valor” and “valiant.”

• The holiday itself has roots in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, where it was known for centuries as the feast day of Saint Valentine

• All the romantic sentiment related to love and courtship that has been traditionally associated with this feast originated with works of art like Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth century Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) and Chaucer’s fourteenth century poem “Parliament of Foules”

• The name St. Valentine is actually an umbrella name for a number of martyred figures throughout church history, many of whom were known for various acts of kindness and bravery

• These acts include marrying and otherwise providing aid to Christians persecuted under the reign of emporer Claudius, and restoring the sight and hearing to the daughter of the jailer who subsequently imprisoned him

You put all that together, and it becomes evident that all of the sentimentality on display every year is just our society’s misguided yearning for a purer, less self-centered version of love than what we see in the movies, on television, and in gossip magazines.

It’s misguided because, sadly, we as a society keep returning to those same movies, TV shows, and gossip mags to inform our ideas of what true love looks like.

That’s why it’s incumbent on us as Christians to show, as Paul said, a more excellent way.

So this Valentine’s Day, I say be brave.

I can’t tell you what that act of bravery should be, because it’ll be different for all of us. Maybe it’ll mean being honest and really sharing feelings and issues that you would rather keep buried. Maybe it’s going out of your way to show your spouse that you love them, and doing so in the way that they really appreciate, rather than the way you happen to be good at.

Maybe it’s just stopping, out of the blue, just to say, “I love you.”

But whatever you decide, step on out there and do it.

And if it involves rapping a marriage proposal in the middle of a Sunday-morning worship service, don’t tell them I sent you.

Let the Word Speak

Let the Word Speak


The art of spoken word poetry is one of the most compelling and least understood of the contemporary verbal arts. It’s similar, in certain ways, to acting, public speaking, preaching, and even stand-up comedy. Like the beat poets of the 1960s and 1970s, and the slam poets of the 1990s, spoken word artists have evolved with the times. Their oratorical creations borrow and remix the dominant forms of the day, which is why the art form that spoken word most resembles and intermingles with is hip-hop music.

And yet, spoken word artistry is still quite distinct from hip-hop.

From the beginning, hip-hop has been about taking forceful poetic rhymes and amplifying them with energetic beats and street-authentic rhythms—the “yes, yes y’all” with the “boom boom bip.”

But in spoken word, the power is in the words themselves. As they are delivered with an intensity so potent, they can’t be locked into musical bars. Great spoken word artists use an internal sense of rhythm to arrange the literal and the literary into sentences as stanzas, using sharp timing, tonal contrast, and vivid imagery. And like great thespians, preachers, and emcees, spoken word artists transmit those words with the power of their voice to maximize meaning and audience comprehension.

Some even compare the techniques used in spoken word to those used in rap. In fact, many of the best spoken word artists have the same kind of swaggering dynamism common to great rappers.

And some artists switch between the two genres. Jason Perry, Jackie Hill Perry, and Ezekiel Azonwu are leading the charge in Christ-centered spoken word artistry, but they’re also gifted rappers. Rather than opposites, the two art forms complement each other.

Azonwu made it onto the national radar after several of his spoken word videos went viral on the Passion 4 Christ Movement YouTube channel. But his entry into the form started with rap. During high school, he participated in freestyle rap battles on the topic of guns and violence. After becoming a follower of Christ in college, he changed his subject matter, keeping the same aggressive approach.

But eventually, something changed.

“I stopped rapping with beats because I hated that people would bang out to the music and wouldn’t hear what I was saying,” he said in an interview with David Daniels of Rapzilla.com.

When a friend introduced him to the idea of sharing the Gospel through spoken word poetry, he tried it, and it left an impression.

“It was crazy,” Azonwu said. “It was just my testimony. I didn’t really need swag to do it. I didn’t need a beat to do it. And finally, for the first time in life, people were able to hear and relate to my words.”

The first verse in the book of John confirms an essential element of the biblical creation account: “In the beginning the Word already existed” (from John 1:1, NLT). The ultimate expression of creative declaration is the Triune God, speaking the very world into existence. And as human beings made in God’s image, we bear both the privilege and the responsibility to do something similar—to use words as a way of expressing our ideals.

Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly brought to life than in spoken word artistry.

It’s this emphasis on the word—and on the Word, the author of all truth—that makes spoken word a compelling alternative to hip-hop in the articulation of a Christian point of view. Thus, in the spirit of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17), here are several things to consider if you want to try your hand at spoken word poetry.

And who knows? These tips could also make you a better rapper, too.

Great spoken word artists use more literary tools than simple rhyming. Assonance and alliteration; similes and metaphors; repetition and parallel phrasing; personification; theme and variation; strategic contrast; even onomatopoeia. Get to know these literary devices, what they mean, and how they work. Once you do, find examples in popular spoken word pieces and recognize how they make the poems more effective. Or even better, find these literary and poetic devices in the Bible itself. For example, in the book of Proverbs when Solomon describes wisdom as a lady, that’s personification. When the Apostle Paul calls the church “the body of Christ,” that’s a metaphor.

Listen for a sense of spoken rhythm and cadence. Great preachers do it. So do great poets, great rappers, and great actors. Find the text of a well-known poem, song, or sermon and experiment with different ways of saying the same words, emphasizing different words, stretching out and shortening vowel sounds, sharpening or slurring your consonants.

Veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said this about dialogue, but it applies to spoken word as well.

“Remember that when you are doing this—what you’re writing is not meant to be read. It is meant to be performed. So anytime words are spoken out loud for the sake of performance, they have now all the same rules that apply to music. So it needs to sound like something.”

And finally…

No one can tell your story like you. Your story may have elements in common with other stories, but there is no story exactly like yours. Don’t run from your story, but own it. Take time to dig into it. See a counselor, therapist or if those aren’t options, consult your pastor. If you can fully inhabit your own skin and take the time to tell your story with all of the authenticity, pathos, and technique that it deserves, you’ll be able to make a connection with an audience, and that’s what all spoken word artists try to do.

So take a chance. Try immersing yourself in the power of spoken word poetry—whether as a listener, viewer, or performer. It’s time to let the Word speak.

30 Years of Christians in Hip-Hop

30 Years of Christians in Hip-Hop

What up, y’all… can you believe it? Thirty years of Christian men and women rockin’ mics and reppin’ the name of Christ.

Thirty.

Years.

I keep having to say that to myself and to others, not only to remind myself that this particular segment of what we call the Christian music industry has come a long way, but also to inform other people that it didn’t start with Lecrae. Seriously, few of the mainstream music journalistic outlets that cover Lecrae and/or the Reach Records / 116 Clique movement ever take the time to dig into the scene. It may be new to certain people, or certain places, or it may have made new gains that haven’t been made before, but Christian rap is not a new thing. I know this because I’ve been listening to Christian rap since I was ten, and I’m about to turn 40.

So this is a collection of 30 rap songs by Christian artists that I consider to be significant or meaningful. They’re all good, in their own way… some of them I still bump on a regular basis. Some of them may sound a little dated now, but back when they came out, they were bangin’ (or, def, the bomb, or the hotness, whatever slang was big at the time).

Note that I’m not claiming that these are the best Christian rap songs from the last 30 years, because that’s an argument that can’t be proved. I’m just going with the songs that I feel are or were notable, special, or interesting. To hedge my bets a little, I’m also including a bunch of “honorable mention” titles, which are songs that are just as good and worthy of exposure, but which I just couldn’t write about since I’m only doing one song per year.

Also, I’ve included YouTube links for ease of playing, but when possible, I’ve also included links to purchase the music. If you really want to support Christian hip-hop, support the artists who’ve helped lay the groundwork for the plethora of great hip-hop we have to listen to today.

So without any further ado, take a ride with me into the wayback machine as we celebrate 30 years of Christians in hip-hop…

30 years of Christians in hip-hop

 

We Need Servants of Peace, Not Soldiers of Fear

We Need Servants of Peace, Not Soldiers of Fear

As another high-profile unjust killing fills the headlines across the nation, I can’t help but lament our current state of affairs – and the complicity the evangelical church shares with it.

Yes, the militarization of police is a problem. Yes, the police need better training. Yes, even though some police jurisdictions are using body cameras, there needs to be better civilian oversight regarding their deployment and the use of the resultant footage.

Nevertheless, there’s a connection between disproportionate uses of force (whether by police or civilians) against black people, and a fundamental misunderstanding of a popular passage of Scripture – Ephesians 6, where Paul describes “the armor of God.” As in many tragic illustrations of fallen humanity, the active toxic ingredient is fear.

Bad Experiences Can Generate Fear in the Hearts of God’s People

In the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, there’s a scene with Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) as an explosives expert named Left Ear participating in a stakeout. Left Ear mentions that the person the team is surveilling has a dog on the premises. “I don’t do dogs,” he said. “I had a real bad experience.”

The team leader, played by Mark Wahlberg, chimes in. “What happened?” Left Ear claps back with a quickness.

“I HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE,” he says, stretching out the word ‘had’ for emphasis. It’s a funny moment because you can tell whatever that bad experience was, it left a significant mental scar, and he does not want to talk about it.

Unfortunately, this is the lens by which too many Christians view their engagement with the world around them. Maybe they were victims of crime, maybe they were made fun of for being a Christian at school or at work, maybe they experienced legitimate persecution for their faith, but whatever it was, they had a bad experience, okay?

These bad experiences often generate fear in the hearts of God’s people, and in an effort to avoid those them, sometimes we assume postures that are, let’s say, less than loving. We may get defensive and behave like everyone is a potential threat. (If you grew up in a household where no secular music or television was allowed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Or we may go on the offensive and behave as though it’s our job to eradicate the forces of evil around us. Any potential source of secular encroachment on our religious liberty, we treat like a national crisis. (If you’ve ever known anyone who thought about suing Starbucks because their cups read “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” then you know what I’m talking about.)

Again, don’t forget … the operative word here is “fear.” It is fear of unbelieving, secular humanity – and the evil that can sometimes reside in the hearts of those who don’t know God – that drives people into these defensive or offensive stances.

Thus, when someone in this fear-driven mindset reads about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, they subconsciously go into full-on vigilante mode. Even if they don’t own any guns or weapons or whatever, because of how much our broader culture glorifies violence, they can’t help themselves. I mean, I grew up on action movies in the 80s, and I did this too. When I first was presented with teachings on what it means to “put on the full armor of God,” I had an image of Arnold Schwarzenegger gearing up for battle in the first Predator movie.

This is why we must read the Scriptures in context.

See, you can’t fully understand Ephesians 6:10-20 without first reading and taking in the other five chapters of Paul’s letter.

So, here’s an overview of those five chapters:

In Ephesians 1, Paul tells the Ephesians what an incredible, mysterious blessing of inheritance that they have in Christ. In Ephesians 2, he talks about how they were dead but became alive again, and because of this new life, the old ethnic categories that used to divide them would do so no longer.

In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that the mysteries of God that had previously been revealed to Jews like himself were now available to everyone. In Ephesians 4, Paul urges them – in light of the great opportunity for unity that the gospel affords – to live with unified maturity, following up in Ephesians 5 to remind them to reject any improprieties (sexual or otherwise) that could undermine that unity or maturity.

Note the lack of fear mongering! Paul isn’t trying to get them riled up and afraid, he just wants them to live a blessed life. For the rest of that fifth chapter, and going into the sixth, Paul begins to break down how that life of unified maturity applies to various common relationships – between spouses, from children to parents, even from masters to slaves (which in current vernacular is more like boss to servant).

This is the point where Paul then writes this iconic passage:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:10 NIV).

Once you read it in context, it becomes clear – the image isn’t an armed vigilante gearing up, but of a peace officer who vows to serve and protect.

Paul wants the Ephesians to have the armor of God, not in order to strike back at their enemies but to preserve the unity and maturity they are supposed to live out as a witness to others. This is why Paul has to remind them in verse 12 that their enemies aren’t flesh-and-blood people because he knows that it’s easy for people from differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds to fight and feud with each other. This is why he refers to having feet covered with a readiness to share a gospel of peace. Paul isn’t trying to inject fear, he’s trying to remove it.

Don’t Use Fear as a Motivator


Video Courtesy of Vice


But therein lies the rub – often, the people most often who are governed by fear are those who are supposed to be trained to rise above it – actual peace officers. And when officers are, to use the language that is most often employed in defense of these kinds of shootings, “afraid for their lives” then the kind of snap judgments that result in these shootings are often driven by fear.

And fear can be a useful emotion. It can help motivate us to act, in order to neutralize a potentially deadly threat. Soldiers are often trained through the use of fear. A broadened sense of fear can promote the tribal instinct to band together against a dangerous Other.

Unfortunately, too many churches are doing exactly that – promoting a misunderstanding of Ephesians 6 by teaching people they should be afraid of people who aren’t like them, and that they should strike back against those trying to take away their religious freedoms. This climate of fear is toxic for our faith, which is part of the reason why so many churches are in decline. Evangelicals – particularly white evangelical leaders – tend to use fear as a motivator, and not only does it endanger black lives, but it betrays the very Scripture that they profess to love.

But 1 John 4:!8 tells us that perfect love casts out fear. So this is where God’s people need to live. Where there is fear – especially when that fear is fed by anti-black bias – it needs to be honestly and consistently addressed and rectified. And those of us who carry firearms, whether as part of law enforcement or for other reasons, absolutely MUST be willing to confront those fears and admit those biases if we want these kinds of tragic shootings to stop.

More importantly, we cannot afford to wait for police agencies to do this work on their own. If we are to hold police accountable to the motto of “serve and protect,” we must also be willing to model servant leadership, extending both grace and discipline in equal measure. Churches full of Christ-following, Spirit-led people can create a spiritual climate where all of God’s people can be loved and valued, and in places where that is happening, it’s easier to hold accountable those who twist Scripture out of context to justify their violence, particularly when that violence is racialized.

If police forces are supposed to serve and protect, let’s be people who love to serve, creating an environment that’s worth protecting. In 2018, the church doesn’t need more soldiers of fear, it needs more servants of peace.