Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 2

Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Testifyin’ or Signifyin’, an analysis of whether the many choir appearances and Christian allusions presented at the Grammy Awards were doing good work or perpetrating a fraud. As a reminder, here is the scale that I based my assessment on:

-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?

-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?

-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?

-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*

From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?

Let’s go (back) to the tape!

Pharrell, “Happy”

Appropriation index: 3

GrammysPharrell-resize

Pharrell performing “Happy” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

I give him one thing right off the top – Pharrell Williams is nothing if not eclectic. And considering how ubiquitous his hit was in 2014, you knew that for this special night, he was going to have to do something different.

And different, it was.

From the dramatic spoken word opening (interpreted in various foreign languages) to the string-heavy orchestral accompaniment, to the impressive solo from Chinese pianist Lang Lang, to the phalanx of players, dancers and singers accessorized in white, black and yellow, it seemed like the production was designed to elicit gasps every 30 seconds. By the end of the song, I was expecting military helicopters to detonate the roof so that a UFO could abduct Pharrell with a beam of light, “Close Encounters” style.

Ironically, the one emotion this song didn’t seem to really capture was happiness. The first chorus was in a minor key, and hearing the sound of the choir belting out the words about happiness to minor string arpeggios felt a little ominous. During the solo, his brown-skinned, black-hooded dancers, adopted the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, which has become the universal sign of nonverbal protest against police brutality. That was great! I loved that he put that in there, but that’s not exactly a posture of happiness.

Matter of fact, It took almost four minutes for the arrangement to sound at all like the song we’ve all grown to like, love, and then get tired of.

So on the one hand, I give Pharrell a lot of credit for trying to endow more significance to a song that was initially just about being so happy that you don’t give a bleep what people think. On the other hand, I think his exuberance and willingness to jam so many ideas and images into one song made it feel chaotic and scattered. Whatever unity of message he was trying to deliver was sidetracked by the variety of spectacle and the thematic disconnect between interpersonal happiness and societal injustice.

But those yellow-sequined shoes, those were kinda fly. Was that enough to make up for the existential crisis we all witnessed? It’s hard to say.

The verdict: BOTH TESTIFYIN’ AND SIGNIFYIN’

Beyoncé, “Take my Hand, Precious Lord”

Appropriation score: 1.5

GrammysBeyonce-resize

Beyonce performing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” accompanied by a choir of tuxedoed black men. It’s the same song that the Mahalia Jackson was famous for singing, widely reported as Dr. King’s favorite.

As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.

But if you were on social media at all during the telecast on Sunday night, then you know this much already. And you’ve likely heard a hundred different takes, all clustered around two basic questions – did she do the song justice, and/or should someone else have been invited – namely Ledisi, who played Mahalia Jackson in Selma, and who’s garnered a reputation of her own as an incredible soul singer.

Here’s my take.

I think she did a nice job. Not a great job, but a good one. I would’ve preferred Ledisi do it, but it’s obvious that eyeballs rule when television decisions are being made, and no one can deny that Ledisi wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the number of eyeballs as Queen Bey.

That said, it was clear from her performance that the song was meaningful to her, and just in case the performance wasn’t convincing, she also had someone cut a brief rehearsal documentary to talk about why she wanted to do it and why she had a choir of black men up there with her. In it, she mentions the struggles her parents and grandparents faced, and she talks about how she wanted to sing from their pain.

I think that’s an admirable goal, but slightly misguided. Struggle and pain are not exactly synonymous with the Beyoncé brand. Not that she doesn’t have problems like the next person, but, well, no, she doesn’t. Not that she doesn’t have problems, but they’re not like the next person’s. (I’m resisting the obvious Jay-Z joke there.)

So yeah, it looks a little hypocritical to win a Grammy for “Drunk In Love” and then get up to sing that song. She certainly had a right to do it, and it made plenty of good business sense to do it, but I think it would’ve been classier to at least share the stage with Ledisi. Especially with her sheer, flowing quasi-wedding dress look, the whole thing just looked a little self-indulgent. The tenor of the performance was grounded enough overall that the whole thing still went relatively well. But, in this case, she needed the choir a lot more than the choir needed her. I could’ve just watched the choir by itself and been fine.

Also, I could’ve lived without a few of her runs, and maybe a little less of her rapid vibrato.

The verdict: TESTIFYIN’ (mostly)

John Legend featuring Common, “Glory”

Appropriation score: 0

What’s a zero appropriation score mean? It means they brought it.

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Common & John Legend performing “Glory” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

The rap bars were passionate and on-point. The lyrics were full of Scriptural references that embodied the struggle for civil rights. And, more than anything else, it seemed that both Common and John Legend, in their respective rhyming and crooning, were using their voices as proxies for the collective whole, not grabbing the spotlight for themselves.

And the choir was perfect. Dignified, but still full of fighter’s passion. Restrained, but pulsating with rhythmic intensity. As Common’s wordplay danced between the staccato bows of the strings, and John Legend’s plaintive wails echoed against his stark piano chords, the choir continued to respond to their call. Purely aesthetically, it was amazing.

But most importantly, the song seemed to echo God’s truth for all people – that we long for the Lord’s coming because His return will usher in a new era of justice and peace. And in that judgment, on that cataclysmic day, we will not only see the Lord’s glory, but we’ll be able to partake in it.

What I loved most about the arrangement was the very end, right when it looked like it was over, the strings kept playing as the lights dimmed on the two soloists, and the last moment left was the voice of the choir, vicariously standing in for all of us who yearn for His return, proclaiming in one voice:

“Glory.”

The verdict: TESTIFYING!!!   (add more exclamation points as needed)

But that’s just my take, what’s yours? Leave it in the comments.

Note:

*Yes, I realize the irony of borrowing a French expression in an article about cultural appropriation. Welcome to America.

** In this case, “quasi-scientific” is a euphemism for “not at all scientific.”

Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 1

Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 1

Signifying… it’s one of the many terms that people have used for the historically black pastime of tossing playful insults back and forth, also known across generations as “cappin’,” “playin’ the dozens,” “stingin’,” et cetera. And testifying…well, if you’ve been to a black church, you know what testifying is. And chances are, that testifyin’ happened while a black church choir was present, swaying, clapping, and generally responding to the call flowing forth from the preacher or soloist.

This is probably how Beyoncé, John Legend, Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell first learned it. Because if you were a musician blessed with enough good fortune to perform at the 2015 GRAMMY Awards, chances are, you probably had a black choir or vocal ensemble back you up. (Notice I didn’t say gospel choir…it may be semantics but I reserve the word gospel for actual gospel music.)

Not that this is a recent phenomenon. Pop artists have adorned their live sets with choirs for years. It can amp up the dramatic element, and makes for a great visual. However, anytime entertainment reaches this level of influence and scale, the politics of identity are unavoidable. In particular, artists – especially white artists – tend to open themselves up to the charge of cultural appropriation when using black choirs as backup singers. More often than not, the appearance of a choir endows the music with a sense of spirituality, even when the lyrics are less-than-spiritual in nature.

And yet, cultural appropriation is never just a black-and-white matter. Plenty of white, popular artists have no problem takin’ it to church, and some black artists do it and end up looking less-than-stellar. For a variety of reasons, some choir appearances work better than others. And in this GRAMMY celebration, it seemed like there was an undercurrent of spirituality, even stronger than in recent years. Even songs like “By the Grace of God” and “Take Me to Church,” while not having choirs per se, still carried an air of churchiness not usually seen on this stage.

So in order to make some sense of things, I took all the Grammy musical performances that involved choirs or had significant Christian imagery, and rated them for the following characteristics:

-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?

-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?

-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?

-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*

From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?

Let’s go to the tape!

Katy Perry, “By the Grace of God”

Appropriation Index: 7.5

Grammys-KatyPerry-resizeNot gonna lie, this song surprised me. I was only familiar with a few selections from the Katy Perry catalog, so I expected either something really saccharine and overwrought (like pretty much anything by Celine Dion) or something really cold and distant (like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Instead, what I heard felt, at first listen, like an instant classic, a song worthy of the main stage. As I listened, I couldn’t help comparing it to Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” especially because of the way it was staged. The white dress and the white backdrop with the interpretive dance behind, it all seemed very classy and polished, like the kind of production you might’ve seen from CeCe Winans in the late 90s. Though there was no choir, there were some really sweet background vocals toward the end, like maybe Katy Perry’s road manager hired a couple of the ladies from either Virtue or En Vogue, but just for one song.

Although I figured it didn’t have an explicitly gospel message, I knew it was preceded by an important message from President Obama about domestic violence, so I was ready to receive Katy Perry’s uplifting message about escaping — wait, what? The last line of the refrain begins, “so I decided to stay”??? Is this a song about leaving an abusive relationship, or staying in an abusive relationship? Does she move out of the apartment but still stay in the neighborhood? I’m so confused.

As someone who has never dealt with domestic violence, I don’t feel especially qualified to assess the moral validity of a domestic violence anthem. That said, if the emotional climax of a song about domestic abuse leaves open the question of whether such abuse should continue, that seems pretty unsatisfying. And if you prefer the sunnier interpretation, that it’s just about difficulty in a long-term relationship, then why precede it with stern words from No. 44?

I’ve since listened to the song three times in a row, and while I love that grace is at the center of it, the overall meaning of the song still feels unclear. It seems less like Katy Perry is embracing the mystery and ambiguity inherent in the pursuit of authentic Christian faith, and more like she tried to write a song that people on both sides of the issue would like. That feels dishonest, lame, and sadly, it’s exactly what I would expect from an artist of her caliber – a shame, because the song really does sound beautiful.

The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’ (barely)

Sam Smith featuring Mary J. Blige, “Stay With Me”

Appropriation Index: 4

Grammys-SSmith-MJB-resizeA quick word about the Appropriation Index – the higher the number, the more appropriation has taken place, which in my view, is hardly appropriate (how ironic). And again, because I was unfamiliar with Sam Smith, I did not know what to expect. And like the Katy Perry tune, I was pleasantly surprised.

I was also surprised when I read the lyrics, because I had no idea what the song was really about until it was almost over. I don’t know how I missed it – the very first line refers to a one-night stand. I guess I was won over by the simplicity of the chorus, which was carried by Smith first, then by Mary J. Blige, and finally a very stately sounding choir. Soulful, but not too far out there.

The choir helped it to pass one of my appropriation tests – could you sing it in church with a straight face? If I didn’t know this was a Sam Smith song, and someone made a few tactful edits to the verse, I’d say yes, absolutely, and put it in the same corner of gospel-influenced hits as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” You could easily pair this song with a reading from Psalm 51, and it would be powerful.

And honestly, now that I know that it’s about the self-loathing sense of desperation after a tryst, it feels even more honest and resonant. Because who among us can call out to God for help from a place of complete blamelessness?

But I could’ve done without quite so many goo-goo eyes between Sam and Mary J.

The verdict: TESTIFYIN’

Hozier featuring Annie Lenox, “Take Me to Church”

Appropriation Index: 8

Grammys-HozierLennox-resizeThis was a hard one to review, because I really like Annie Lennox (I use Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” as a go-to karaoke jam) but I’d never heard of Hozier and all I knew about the song beforehand was the title.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about this title. Now, I realize that white people go to church. But white people, by and large, do not take it to church, musically speaking. No judge on American Idol is ever going to remark to a soloist, “boy, you really took us to church… I mean, a typical Midwest Lutheran church, that is. Your performance was perfunctory and unemotional.” Like, people don’t do that.

So between the combination of all the tweets and Facebook statuses I saw about how Annie Lennox “killed it,” “shut it down,” etc, and the title of the song, I was ready for some good ol’ fashioned chuuch.

And then I actually listened to the song.

Ummm… no.

In “Take Me to Church,” Hozier does what plenty of others have done before him in order to get a rise from the audience, he uses sacred words and imagery to paint a very dark picture. Even if you ignore the original video depicting a same-sex relationship (odd since the lyrics are written by a man about a woman), the lyrics are pretty antagonistic toward faith in general:

Take me to church / I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life

This song is like the sonic equivalent of Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix. It’s bold, provocative, and to most Christians, patently offensive. I personally wasn’t offended, but I was disappointed. Not that God couldn’t use it, of course… He can use anything. This particular bluesy-rock medley was long on emotion, for sure, but short on anything that resembled spiritual truth.

Though it does explain why Annie Lennox, in her cameo appearance, segued into “I Put A Spell On You.” If you’re gonna do the anti-Christian thing, you might as well go all out.

The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’

Madonna, “Living for Love”

Appropriation Index: 9.5

GrammysMadonna-resizeThe appropriation index is probably a little high for just this song, but you have to take the context into the matter. Madonna has made a career out of flouting the rules of the religious establishment. She took her stage name from the virginal mother of God, and her first hit was about how sex with her new boyfriend makes her feel “Like A Virgin.”

So it’s not like I didn’t know what to expect. And by her standards this was maybe even a little restrained, but that’s only because there was no cameo appearance of Dennis Rodman making out with Kim Jong-un. As it was, her major visual accompaniment was a fleet of glistening, masked topless men with bull horns affixed to their heads, leaping and undulating to the rhythm. Some people thought it looked satanic, I just thought it was rather bizarre.

As for the song itself, I actually liked it, somewhat. It was a bouncy anthem, fun and fresh feeling, much like, “Like A Prayer.” The choir came out at the end, clad in bright red robes, clapping and swaying. Thankfully by that point, Madonna was done with her more salacious pelvic thrusts, but still, the disconnect between how much they were wearing and and how little she was wearing was still a little jarring.

Also, I did find it odd that the song is called “Living for Love” when the lyrics make it clear it’s actually a break-up song. The overall message of the song appears to be, I’m living for love, and since I’m not getting enough from you, I’m outta here. But you wouldn’t know that from the chorus or the vamp, which consists mostly of the phrases “I’m living for love” and “I’m not giving up.”

It’s as if the two parts of the song were written by two people in separate rooms who couldn’t communicate until after the song was over.

“I can’t do this anymore!”

“What?! I thought we weren’t giving up?!”

The verdict: SIGNIFYIN’ (like a mug)

But that’s just my take, what’s yours? Leave it in the comments, and be sure to come back tomorrow for part two where I will take on Pharrell’s “Happy,” Beyonce’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and John Legend & Common’s “Glory.”

Notes:

*Yes, I realize the irony of borrowing a French expression in an article about cultural appropriation. Welcome to America.

** In this case, “quasi-scientific” is a euphemism for “not at all scientific.”

Avoid Being Overrated, Part 2: An Interview with Eugene Cho

Avoid Being Overrated, Part 2: An Interview with Eugene Cho

eugenecho-overratedresizeUrban Faith’s Jelani Greenidge sat down for a wide-ranging phone conversation with Eugene Cho, founder of One Day’s Wages, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, and the recent author of “OVERRATED: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World.” In the first half of the conversation, they talked about tunnel vision and the value of hard work.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

In one of the chapters you talked a lot about having more depth than 140 characters and being an expert… I wonder if you could speak to this idea of specialization. In the evangelical church, a lot of our ministries have become specialized to the point where we have youth pastors, pastors of young adult ministries, pastors for every grade level in children’s ministry, pastors for seniors… I don’t necessarily think all that is bad, but where do you draw the line between being specialized and being well rounded enough to have an overall kingdom mindset that ministry is ministry?

EC: Well, I kind of feel like you just answered the question for me. Ultimately, we have to have kingdom mindedness about anything and everything, we can’t allow our particular specialties to hijack us to the point where it becomes the only banner that we wave. Even good things that we’re called to, if we’re not careful, if it’s not a response to the gospel, it can become idolatrous. This question is an important critique to our culture. We can become so specialized that our worldviews in ministry can become compartmentalized. I tell my pastors at our church, despite the fact that they have certain titles and adjectives that describe what they’re doing, the most important word is “pastor” – they are there to pastor the church, you’re not just a compassion-and-justice pastor, you’re not just a music pastor. You’re called and given the burden and privilege to care and teach and lead. And I share that with all of our staff.

But having said that, I do think that there’s a balance. We understand the bigger picture or narrative, but if you’re called to something and feel convicted about it, we owe it to ourselves and to the Holy Spirit convicting us to get more substantive and deep and committed so that we’re able, in that season of our life. I was a youth pastor, and way back then, that’s what I was called to, to go deep into those friendships and relationships in my pastoring and my caring, in addition to things that would help me contextualize the way I do leadership.

Also, I think about urban ministry, and we don’t want to absolutely segregate everything, but I think it’s absolutely true that there are certain dynamics that are different in an urban context versus a suburban context. So for a suburbanite to say, “hey, I feel called to urban ministry,” but to take no time to invest in friendships and relationships and being in situations where they could be mentored and listened to and read books… for that person NOT to do those things, it’s insulting to the work. So that’s what I mean, I think there is a balance. I think sometimes we can become enamored by an idea and not end up doing the hard work, digging into whatever conviction that might be.

JG: I noticed in a CT cover story that you’re featured in, you mention that at Quest Church, you emphasize race and ethnicity as an important part of identity and how it relates to the gospel. When you talk to people outside of your community, do you find that they’re surprised that you have such a focus on race?

EC: It depends on who I’m speaking to. You and I both know that the conversation about race and racism or racialization, depending on who we’re speaking to, can be a very, very different conversation.

JG (laughing) Uh, yeah.

EC: I think there are those, because of social media and being sort of a mini public figure, I hear from people who are disturbed, they say there’s only one race, the human race, and we shouldn’t be talking about race or racism. And then there are those on the other side, there are those who are encouraged by it, and surprised that there are evangelical churches out there that are willing to engage this issue. There are those who are surprised that a multiethnic church is being led by an Asian-American. And I’m someone who finds a lot of joy in knowing that this is who God created me to be, and I’m not afraid or timid to talk about my ethnic heritage and my experiences as an immigrant as I minister in my church.

But… there are two extremes that I try to address, that concern me.

One extreme is those who say that issues of race have nothing to do with the gospel. That’s a huge concern for me. I explain to people that we don’t talk about race and racism for the sake of talking about it. I mean, I don’t enjoy talking about it, I’m not a sociologist, they’re intense, and they can be difficult. For me, I’m compelled by the gospel. The gospel informs and transforms everything we do. It’s that huge. I don’t ever want Quest Church to be known or hijacked by any issue – even if it’s important, even if it’s true – I don’t want anything to supersede the “why” of gospel. The gospel is so magnanimous, it’s so beautiful, it’s not this one-dimensional thing where you just get to get into heaven. Talking about race gives us the opportunity to illuminate the depth, the breadth, the absolutely scandalous nature of the gospel, and why Jesus Christ came, not just merely for a foundation but for the whole process of reconciliation.

The other extreme that I’m concerned about concerning racism… and this is a very sensitive issue, I know a lot of people push back at me, even at my church… when you talk about Ferguson, when you talk about Trayvon Martin, as complex as those issues are, it’s important for us to call upon our larger society and culture for justice, it’s a critical part of the entire process. There are some people who clamor too easily toward reconciliation without understanding the important necessity of justice. But I would also caution people — even though that’s absolutely true, the opposite is also as true. As we rightfully clamor for justice, that we should always have reconciliation in mind as well. Both of those are really essential, and we should never highlight one over the other.

JG: You talked earlier about the value of hard work, and you know as a pastor that people in ministry always have to work hard to ensure we have good boundaries, so that we’re living well balanced lives. So I ask you what I ask a lot of people in ministry – what do you do for fun? How are you checking off your “fun” box?

EC: Well, I’m a big sports fan. I love playing and watching sports, both of those are challenging, since we cut the cable, we don’t have a TV at home.

JG: Oh, wow.

EC: Yeah, and I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing basketball 6 or 7 years ago, so I’m not able to execute my slashing, penetrating game, or talk trash like I used to – well, I still talk trash.

JG: (laughing) You just can’t back it up anymore.

EC: Those things are important to me, I love the outdoors, which is why I love living in Seattle. I love hiking, fishing is a very life-giving aspect of my life. Every year, I take two weeks off to go fishing ten hours a day in the Midwest, and I love fishing for salmon here.

The older I get, the more I realize how important friendships and relationships are. I can just come out and say it in public – I’m a recovering workaholic, pretty much my whole life. Some years ago, I learned, it’s best not to hide it but just to name it and be mindful of it. My wife, who happens to be a therapist, figured that out a long time ago. So I take a sabbatical every three years. I mean, I used to actually feel guilty about resting. And now I see it as an important part of how God designed not just me, but actually all of humanity. The Sabbath is a really critical thing for me to embrace so that I can remember that it’s not about me and that things don’t revolve around me. It’s not fancy or glamorous, but it’s me.

JG: Okay, you ready for the speed round?

EC: Yeah, let’s go.

JG: Okay, we’re gonna play “Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated?” Here we go.

EC: Okay.

JG: “The Lego Movie.” Overrated, underrated, or properly rated?

EC: Haven’t seen it.

JG: The Ice Bucket Challenge.

EC: Properly rated.

JG: iPhone 6.

EC: Overrated.

JG: Xbox One.

EC: Overrated.

JG: Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince, or Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show?

EC: Gotta go with The Fresh Prince.

JG: Biggest guilty pleasure, junk food or junk television?

EC: Man, I’d go with junk food.

JG: I guess not having the TV helps there. Favorite kind of vacation spot, beaches, mountains, or somewhere else?

EC: Beaches, for sure.

JG: If you had to pick only one sport to follow for the rest of your life, between NBA, NFL or MLB… what is it?

EC: Oh wow… that’s tough. I would have to go NBA.

JG: Yes! (laughing) That is correct. Nice job with the speed round.

Okay, final question… if there were to be a new Blue Thunder in a few years… (the baby blue Miata referred to in the book that he needed to sell)… what kind of car would it be?

EC: Oh, man… this is not good… wow… umm…

JG: Do you need to plead the Fifth?

EC: No, I’ll answer the question… I guess, actually, it probably wouldn’t be a Blue Thunder, it would probably end up being an RV.

JG: Really?

EC: Yeah, maybe it’s the post-midlife crisis I’m going through, but yeah, just coasting around in a nice RV with my wife… just thinking about having as much time with my kids, in seven years, my youngest will be off to college, so that’s probably the best move.

Eugene Cho’s first book OVERRATED is published by David C. Cook, and is available at both internet and brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide.

Avoid Being Overrated: An Interview with Eugene Cho

Avoid Being Overrated: An Interview with Eugene Cho

eugenecho-253x170

Eugene Cho, pastor of Seattle’s Quest Church

In September 2014, the publishing debut from Seattle pastor and global hunger activist Eugene Cho was released under the title “OVERRATED: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?” The book, published by David C. Cook, and featuring a foreword by Donald Miller and glowing pull-quote reviews from the evangelical A-list (Christena Cleveland, Louie Giglio, Sarah Bessey, Derwin L. Gray, etc.) attracted the attention of Urban Faith’s Jelani Greenidge, who devoured his promotional copy and eventually sat down for a telephone conversation with the author.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

JG: So got the book and I burned through it immediately. I really appreciated how personal it was, and I thought it was very timely. Why did you need to write this book now?

EC: I’ve been invited to write a book for awhile now, and when I was first given the invitation, probably around ten years ago, my head got so big that I knew it wasn’t the right time, and I honestly just needed to examine myself and realize that I just didn’t have enough substance to share. But I have been itching, over the last few years, wanting to articulate some of the sense that I’ve been feeling about my own life and about what I’ve been witnessing in the larger culture, including the church.

When people ask me, “what’s the premise of the book,” I tell them it’s a confession, and I try to keep that tone. So really I just needed to write it, foremost, for myself, I needed to share some of what I’ve been wrestling with for the past ten years or so. And as I’ve been sharing these confessions, at times through sermons, or in conversations with people, formally or informally, on and off the record, I was surprised by how many people resonated with confession. A lot of people were, A) wanting to do good things and change the world, but B) confessing that they were more in love with the idea of it.

Because issues of justice and mercy and generosity have become that much more accepted and celebrated throughout the church – which is good, I’d rather that be celebrated than anything else —

JG: Right…

EC: But the question of “how we do those things?” became important enough to address in this book, in the hopes that people could be deepened and equipped for the long haul.

JG: One of the things that surprised me about the book is how funny it is. It’s not a funny topic per se, but I was struck by your candor and your honesty. You talked about it being a confession, I do some stand-up comedy, and stand-up is a very confessional form. Did you have to work hard to find the humor in it, or is it just something that comes naturally?

EC: I am an extreme introvert, but I’ve always enjoyed humor, both listening to it, but also using it as a coping mechanism, And I mean, I don’t wanna get all psychological here, but for me, it helps me to deal with my insecurities. The older and more established I get, I keep expecting that at some point I would overcome my insecurity, but I haven’t. It’s still there, and I still wrestle with it. And I also think it helps people – especially self-deprecating humor – helps people to empathize. So that’s encouraging, I was trying to capture my true voice with the book. I can be serious and pastoral, but I also try to be comical sometimes.

JG: It definitely comes through, for sure. One of the other things I appreciated about the book — and I can’t remember which chapter you talked about this — is the way you talked about the legacy of your parents and the value of hard work and how they modeled that. I know some of that is a part of your ethnic and cultural identity, but how do you find a balance between being committed and willing to hard for what you’re trying to accomplish, but not being so single-minded and having so much tunnel-vision that you burn out?  

EC: You’re referencing the chapter on “Tenacity.”

JG: Yes… right! I’m actually staring at the table of contents right now, and I was scanning the page for the words “hard work.” Sorry about that.

EC: Yeah, no, it’s fine. I’m with you.

And yeah, I’ve been deeply informed by my parents and their work ethic, their tenacity. And I’ve been informed by my experience as an immigrant, as an “other,” and feeling like I really had to persevere and be tenacious throughout a variety of circumstances. And just like anything else, you have to assess both the positives of that situation, as well as the downside of being so singularly focused that you create burnout. I think for me a couple of things come to mind… everything needs to be tempered by the question of why we do what we do, and where our identity comes from.

Even hard work, in and of itself, can become idolatrous, I see it from a lot of people with immigrant backgrounds, they react that way to certain experiences that they had, growing up, and it becomes a source of pain in their life. So for example, my parents never vacationed. It was never a part of their vocabulary. Even when they were sick. So I look at that, and while a part of it is admirable, it can also be dangerous, sometimes even ungodly or unbiblical. And it’s not sustainable for the marathon of ministry.

So when I say I’ve been impacted by the tenacity of my parents, I saw both examples of what to do, and what not to do. I suspect that my kids, when they look back at my life – and my oldest just turned sixteen – they’ll do something similar, see things that they’ll want to mimic, but also things that they want to do differently.

And also I just think it’s important to stay connected to the larger narrative of what it means to be in the marathon of discipleship. When you go back to the question of why (to work for justice), well the fact that I’m a follower of Jesus, the fact that through the scripture, God gives us some instructions on what it means to be grounded in prayer, and Sabbath, and sabbatical – I just came back from a three month sabbatical — I did that because I know my propensity to go hard and fast, and I don’t want to do that. It’s not fair to me, or my wife, my kids, or my church.

Over the years, I’ve found myself more attracted to brothers in the faith that are older, in their latter seasons of life, in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. I’ve had some opportunities to spend time with Dr. John Perkins, and what amazes me about him is not just what he’s accomplished, but that he’s still serving Jesus and he still has joy in his heart. That’s stunning to me, because the more I live and the more I do “God’s work,” the more I feel prone and susceptible to cynicism, and I don’t want to be about those things.

JG: Yeah, I mean any time you can spend hanging with John Perkins, good things are going to happen.

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation, where we discuss the role of racial awareness in justice work and the importance of rest and Sabbath. See the lighter side of Pastor Eugene Cho in our next installment.

Christian Movies: So Close, & Yet So Far

Christian Movies: So Close, & Yet So Far

Just like “Christian music,” the terminology regarding faith-based cinema is often problematic. Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a “Christian” movie because movies, though often remarkable pieces of art full of symbolism, commentary and meaning, are not sentient beings. Even the animated ones are, strictly speaking, still things, inanimate objects lacking eternal souls, incapable of feeling emotions or making decisions. In this sense, calling a movie Christian because of one high-profile Christian involved (Kirk Cameron) would be as silly as calling an LA Lakers basketball game Christian because of the involvement of Jeremy Lin.

And yet, most people make implicit moral judgments about the quality of films based on the involvement of certain high-profile Christian people or the approval of certain organizational gatekeepers (pastors, Christian writers, parent advocacy organizations, et cetera). The term “Christian movie” is a pragmatic piece of shorthand for, “feature film either presented by or aimed toward Christian people.” This could serve as a definition, except for the fact that filmmaking is an inherently collaborative endeavor, which – as can be seen in any final credits sequence – often requires the work of hundreds or even thousands of people, spread across a duration of weeks, months, or in some cases, many many years.

And yet, this does not stop people from talking about movies as Christian, often because the presence of some nebulous form of “Christian message,” which in some cases (Fireproof, The Passion of The Christ) is quite explicit and easily understood, and in other cases (Bruce Almighty, The Preacher’s Wife) is a little less clear or explicitly Biblical. This is an improvement, but still problematic, because even if you ignore the difficulty and ambiguity inherent in trying to verify the Christian identity of all the principal creative roles in the filmmaking process (the film’s producers, directors, screenwriters, stars, etc.) and just focus on the relative “Christian”-ness of the message, sometimes the layers of meaning and messages in films can be messy to unpack.

Consider this list of films from the last decade, each of which are notable for one of the following: being a vehicle for a high-profile person of faith, having a faith-based message, having source material that’s sourced from or thematically related to the Bible, or having a very specific outreach strategy involving churches or church leaders:

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

The Book of Eli (2010)

God’s Not Dead (2014)

Believe Me (2014)

Jumping the Broom (2011)

The Single Moms Club (2014)

The Second Chance (2006)

Son of God (2014)

The Gospel (2005)

Black Nativity (2013)

Saved! (2004)

Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Courageous (2011)

I’m In Love With A Church Girl (2013)

Noah (2014)

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Bella (2006)

The Grace Card (2011)

There is a stunning amount of stylistic and thematic diversity in that list of films, diversity that hasn’t been around in decades past. There are films that portray Biblical characters with a faithful, orthodox interpretation, communicating an explicitly Christian message (Son of God, The Passion of the Christ). There are films that portray an explicitly faith-based story where the primary storyline revolves around someone beginning or affirming a faith commitment (God’s Not Dead, I’m In Love with a Church Girl).

Then there are films that portray a family-friendly story where Christian faith is a  ancillary part of the plot, but not a primary dramatic element (Courageous, Bella). Also there are films that portray a generally redemptive story that is consistent with certain aspects of a Christian worldview, but that contain thought-provoking conundrums or messy, thorny issues for the viewer to grapple with (Blue Like Jazz, Believe Me).

There are films partially created or produced by people with very public faith profiles, like TD Jakes’ involvement with Jumping the Broom and Steve Taylor with Blue Like Jazz. There are films that take a hard look at Christian ministry, both domestically (The Gospel, The Second Chance) and internationally (Machine Gun Preacher).

And then there are films that deal with faith or Biblical themes but are created by people who are not of faith, like Darren Aronofsky’s recent Noah, or the Michael Stipe’s satirical takedown of evangelicalism, Saved! Also, plenty of TV comedies take a swipe at Christianity, like “South Park,”The Daily Show,” or more recently, “Key & Peele.

(And don’t even get me started on Aaron McGruder’s “Black Jesus.”)

My point in all of this is that good art requires the examination of faith issues from a variety of perspectives and voices. Yet for many audience members, the only way a film can be “Christian” is if there is a major altar-call type scene with a dramatic conversion. If the movie isn’t an overt endorsement not only of faith itself but Judeo-Christian morality and/or Protestant culture, then it’s not “Christian.”

This is the chasm that prevents Christians from being taken more seriously in the industry. It’s not necessarily the people of faith who are doing their best to create good work within the confines of both their moral compasses and professional opportunities, but the fans, the people whose distorted, low expectations artificially deflate the market for good art that interfaces with issues of faith.

Chris Rock said recently that the true test of racial equality in America will be when black folks will have the freedom to make mediocre or terrible films and still be able to continue to work and improve as filmmakers. I think a similar dynamic is true for Christians, but in reverse. For Christians to be more fully accepted in Hollywood, audiences will have to stop flocking to bad films just because they’re marketed to Christians (like Nic Cage’s Left Behind remake), demolish the Christian subculture bubble that exists for film in the same way it used to for music, and be free to evaluate each film on its own merit.

There are three films coming out soon which should be attractive to audiences of faith, and they are all intriguing to me for different reasons. Do You Believe, which I covered for a press event in a separate piece, The Same Kind of Different As Me, an unexpected tale of faith and friendship featuring Djimon Hounsou, Renee Zellweger, Greg Kinnear, and producer Devon Franklin’s remake of Annie, which will be out during the 2014 holiday season.

I hope these films are good examples of crowd-pleasing entertainment and thought-provoking art. But more than that, I hope that people of faith will see them, and in doing so, redefine their expectations around what films good Christian people should see.

In my opinion, good Christians should see good films… however “good” is defined. As Christians, both embedded in our own subculture but also in the midst of a broader American popular culture, we’re clearly not there yet… but we’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been.

The Man Behind “Annie”

The Man Behind “Annie”

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DeVon Franklin, the creative executive behind the “Annie” remake. (Photo Credit: Variety.com)

One of the most highly anticipated films of the 2014 holiday season is a new remake of Annie, starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis. DeVon Franklin, CEO of Franklin Entertainment and former Senior Vice President of Columbia/TriStar Pictures, is one of the main creative executives who worked behind the scenes to help bring this movie to fruition, and he spoke with UF’s Jelani Greenidge about how doing what he does ties into his calling.

JG: Before we talk about “Annie” itself, would you talk for a moment about what your role is like as a producer, for those readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the entertainment business?

DF: Yes. The role of the producer is to find content, whether it’s a book or a script or what have you, to sell that content to a studio, and then help develop that idea into a script that a studio wants to make, then to help put that movie together with a director, with actors, and then once that movie is greenlit into production, the producer is there onset every day to make sure that the shots are coming out well, then in post-production the producer works with the director to make sure the movie is coming together the right way, and then in marketing, the producer is also out there helping to publicize the film. So the role of the producer is essential, and the majority of movies that you see at the box office are there because a producer is working behind the scenes putting things together.

JG: That seems like a pretty hands-on process. Is that pretty standard for the role, or are you particularly a hands-on type of manager?

DF: No, producers are traditionally very hands-on, because when you think about all the different roles involved, movie-making is a very collaborative effort, so yes, that’s pretty standard.

JG: So let’s talk about “Annie,” then. I’m excited for the film, and I know that you are, too. Specifically, I saw in a recent interview, you were speaking so highly of the film that you said you wouldn’t be surprised if people left the multiplex feeling good, then turned around and went right back in to see it again. That got my attention, for sure. I was thinking, “This is a man who stands behind his product.”

DF: (laughing) Hey man, it’s true.

JG: But it got me wondering, why remake this film now? Was there something specific about the way it came together in this season as opposed to in years past?

DF: Well you know in filmmaking, timing is everything. Movies sort of have their own time tables, and a lot of times, you might want to make a movie, but the script’s not ready or the talent’s not ready, and you can’t do it right when you want to. So the way this came together felt really organic, the timing of it. The story had been in development for a couple years, but for the script to come in when it did, Will Gluck came in, and he’s such a phenomenal storyteller, then Quvenzhané and Jamie became available, so all of those things just sort of came into alignment to bring this story to life.

It’s also a good time for this kind of a movie to come out, because the themes in the story are just as relevant today for this generation as they were for previous generations.

annie-remake-trailerJG: Was there any one inciting moment that caused you to want to be involved or that sparked the idea? Like, I heard an internet rumor that this movie happened because the Jay-Z “Hard Knock Life” remake was such a big hit, so “they just decided to keep the remake going and do the whole movie.” Was there anything like that?

DF: No, no… that wasn’t the motivating factor. I mean, sure, Jay-Z being involved, Will Smith and James Lassiter, sure, that helped maybe put it over the line, but ultimately, the reason to do it came down to the story, the script. Originally Willow Smith was going to do it, but then she decided there was some other things she wanted to do at the time, so then once Will Gluck came in with a fantastic rewrite, and once everyone read the script, that was the deciding factor in making the film.

JG: Excellent. The story always comes first. Now, I know you’ve developed a reputation as an outspoken Christian in the industry… would you describe this as a faith-based film, or is it more of a general audience family-friendly film?

DF: You know, it’s interesting… inherent in your question is the idea that something faith-based isn’t for everybody.

JG: It sounds like you reject that premise.

DF: You know what? I do. Because everyone’s definition of what faith-based is so different. My goal is to bring movies to the screen that can be for everybody. So I would say with “Annie,” this is a movie for everyone. And I think there are some really strong themes of inspiration and faith that are in the movie, and those things are articulated in a way that can be accessible for audiences of all ages.

JG: Do you ever find yourself, as a producer or in any of the other roles you’ve held in the filmmaking process, find it’s difficult to manage the tension between keeping the product family-friendly and making it artistically resonant?

DF: No, not at all. Because one of the things that has helped me is that I travel the country and I speak to people and interface with people on a regular basis. So part of that dynamic is being in touch with what people are going through. That tension and conflict that we deal with on a day to day basis… if I’m not shaping content that can reflect and address that vision, then I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s important to reflect the organic tension that audiences are going through on the screen. If you go back and look at some of the great classic movies that were made for family audiences… even in the animated space, they don’t pull punches when it come to the dramatic. I mean look at “Frozen” … in the beginning of the movie, the parents die!

JG: Oh yeah, Pixar’s “Up” was like that, too.

DF: Right! Okay… so yeah, I mean you see people going through some amazing things… whoa, his wife died? What?! So I think that’s something that I want to change, that perception that family movies have to be bland, or uninteresting. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I want my films to create an experience where people in families can connect, where people can then leave the film in dialogue about that connection that they felt. I think that is fantastic, and that’s when you see movies like that do like a billion dollars, because the dramatic, emotional punches aren’t pulled.

Because man, let’s be honest. Families go through hardships and difficulties. But a film can put the idea into the atmosphere that even though we may go through difficult times, when you come together as a family, you can make it through anything. For young kids, you might be in a family, similar to Annie, where you don’t have your real parents, but you can still find a family. You can still have a home. When people come to this movie “Annie,” specifically, it will give them a deeper appreciation for what struggling families can go through together, and really, a deeper appreciation for each other.

JG: Wow, yeah. That’s quite an endorsement.

So if I could shift gears for a moment and talk about your career, you’ve become quite the role model for students or aficionados of faith-based filmmaking. In some of your other interviews, you mentioned that part of how “Annie” came together was because of your different internships and your connection to James Lassiter (Will Smith’s production partner) and all that. So it seems that a lot of what you do is very relational. Can you talk about what you’ve done to cultivate those professional relationships to advance your career?

DF: You know, at the end of the day, it’s all about service. I started in the industry when I was 18 years old, I didn’t have any friends or family in the business. Nobody knew me. What I wanted the most, besides opportunity, was information. How to be successful. How do you make it in this game? And the people who I worked for, they had the information I wanted. But the only way I could get it was not through conversation, initially, because it’s like “listen, you’re an intern.” Nobody wants to stop and have conversation with an intern. So the only way I could create a conversation is by serving people. I learned how to anticipate the needs of the people around me. So during my internship I would look around and notice, “hey, these files are horrible.” So without being asked, I decided, “hey you know what, I’m gonna organize these files.” I decided to go to each assistant that had paperwork and say, “hey, let me file these for you.” I decided to go get the coffee, I would memorize people’s lunch orders. The way I made myself valuable enough to talk to, was through service.

JG: That’s awesome.

DF: Even today, it’s like, service, service, service. As a producer, I’m constantly asking the question, “how can I serve the vision you’re trying to fulfill?” Because it actually gives me a value and a sense of place and fulfillment. And often, the result of service is relationship. Because so many people are, so often, focused on, this is what I want, this is what I’m trying to do, that when you come across someone who really wants to service, it really sticks out. People notice that. My ability to cultivate relationships was completely an outflow of learning to serve and to be a servant.

JG: Excellent. One final question before you go… if you can take off your executive or producer hat, what kind of movies do you enjoy as a fan, when you just wanna kick back and relax?

DF: Great question. I like to watch movies that are about something. I like to watch movies that will take you on an amazing journey, and leave you in a place where you walk out of the theater, and you feel like the experience had some meaning. For me, like the Rocky franchise was like that. You come out of that, you feel like man, I can DO THIS… I’m about to start training.

JG: Gettin’ strong now!

DF: That’s right, (laughing) that’s right… those movies with interesting characters that are flawed at times, but still pursue the common good, that’s what I like. Whether it’s in a sci-fi, an indie film, horror, what have you, doesn’t matter the genre. I just like great stories that are well executed, and that leave you thinking about life in a positive way.

Franklin Entertainment’s feature film “Annie,” starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis will be released on December 19th in theaters nationwide.