As fans get ready for the eagerly awaited Michael Jackson concert film, an African American pastor reconsiders the Black church’s dubious embrace of the King of Pop.
This week a new single by the late Michael Jackson arrived on the Internet, no doubt signaling the launch of a marketing blitz for This Is It, the forthcoming film documentary about Jackson’s ill-fated comeback concerts. Hearing the news of Jackson’s posthumous song and its curious lyrics, which include the line I’m the light of the world (see the video below), reminded me of the intense outpouring of grief, adoration, and praise that the singer’s death inspired this past summer.
A couple days after Jackson’s death, I watched the last hour of the BET Awards, a show I had never previously bothered to watch. Compared to what I have seen on other awards shows in the past, somewhat expectedly I found the BET show very much affected by the passing of Jackson. There were many tributes given to the King of Pop. They ranged from snippets of his music before commercial breaks, to words of tribute from the various artists and emcees on the program. Some of the tributes honored the enduring nature of his race-transcending music. Other tributes virtually deified him.
For example, the legendary Soul Train host, Don Cornelius, referred to the artist as the “immortal Michael Jackson.” To this my oldest daughter immediately retorted, “Well, I think this week we found out, clearly, that he was not immortal.” Yet many in the BET audience expressed agreement with Cornelius.
The artist Wyclef Jean, who received a humanitarian award, spoke of a long hoped-for meeting with Jackson. He said he had planned his words for this exciting meeting, but “when [Jackson] showed up, I shook his hand and lost my voice completely. That is the effect this man had on people.”
Other artists remarked that “[Jackson] meant so much to us and to the whole world,” and that he was “often imitated but never duplicated.” One artist referred to him as “a musical deity.” Never mind those suspicions surrounding children, the dangling of the baby out of the window, the constant changing of his facial appearance, and Jackson’s other self-destructive behavior; Jackson was an entertainment god.
There was a very odd moment in the television program when one of the members of the O’Jays used some very foul language while honoring Michael. The award show’s technicians attempted to mute the word, but were about a half-second too late, so the entire listening TV audience heard the word. The foible produced roaring laughter among the audience and some momentary blushing on the part of the entertainer who made the mistake. I was wondering if anyone had noticed that only a few moments before, when the O’Jays stepped on stage to receive an award for lifetime achievement, two of the men began with words of praise like, “I would like to give honor to God, to whom be all the power and glory,” and “First, we would like to thank God for all the blessings bestowed upon the O’Jays.” The member who slipped with the curse word ended the acceptance speech with “God Bless …”
I guess Michael can be honored while foul language is used, and this can happen to the praise of God. This is not simply gray. This is where you wish you had not made the switch from analog to digital.
“Syncretism” is a fancy word used to describe the blending of different, and often incompatible, systems of religious and philosophical belief. The syncretistic practice of Christianity within the traditional African American church is well known, and in some settings cherished. The line between Christianity and secular African American culture is not blurred; it does not exist.
On the positive side, some sociologists and historians have suggested that, historically, this is due to the inseparability of the slave church and slave culture. African American slaves were able to survive the brutality of antebellum slavery due to their Christian faith, and the slave church was the rallying and unifying point of the slave community.
Negatively, however, the gray matter of African American Christianity is most evident in the democratic process of presidential elections. Consequently, last November the thinking probably went something like this: My Christian position on the life of the unborn and the biblical teaching on marriage have no place in my decision-making when it comes to the election of a President. He is African American, I am African American; nothing else matters.
The blurred nature of what is distinctively Christian and what is African American is commonly displayed at our national, non-Christian music and video award shows. It would be typical for an African American artist, who is receiving an award for a song or video full of lyrics and/or scenes completely contrary to the moral standards of the gospel, to receive the award with the words, “First, I would like to thank my Lord Jesus Christ for …” giving something related to the talent of the singer or the award itself. The thanksgiving, though obviously hypocritical, is received with great acclamation, seemingly without the hosts or audience being put off by the references to the Lord among the secular throng.
I think, however, the telltale sign of African American Christian syncretism was revealed at the BET award show in a different manner. The vast majority of artists did not mention God at all. Instead, where you might have expected thanks to be given to God, thanks was given to Michael Jackson. It is not that Jackson was being thanked for empowering the artists, but simply that a great amount of the thanks being given at this year’s show was given to Michael. Thanks to the King of Kings was eclipsed by thanks to the King of Pop.
Christianizing an Idol
I can only imagine how many words of honor were given to Michael Jackson from African American pulpits on the Sunday after his death. It would be my hope that Michael’s death would have provided many opportunities for African American pastors to point out the errors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For Michael, along with the artist once again known as Prince, are the Watchtower’s two most well-known members, both are African American, and the Witnesses love to prey on African Americans.
Many African Americans equate the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a Christian denomination. Christ’s name would be honored by pointing out that Michael’s hopes did not rest on God the Son, and that there are many like him within the African American community who are in need of the message about God the Son coming into the world to save people from the wrath of God due to their sins. I suspect, however, that much praise was given in the name of the Lord for Michael Jackson. Prayers might even have been offered from pulpits for the comfort — rather than salvation — of Jackson’s family members, who also are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Unsubstantiated rumors that Jackson had converted to Islam made the rounds but were never confirmed. And another big rumor speculating that Jackson had accepted Christ days before his death, during a visit from Andrae and Sandra Crouch, was immediately squashed by the Crouches. But many people tried to keep it alive as truth anyway — no doubt a reflection of their desire to “Christianize” their late idol.
Many African American churchgoers are fine with Christianity as long as we, as African Americans, can bring our cultural gods with us. We see no problem with our secular artists, their words or their behavior, as long as our fellow church members see God’s blessings as being consistent with our entertainers’ debauchery.
I’m still hoping that the untimely death of Michael Jackson will help awaken the Black church out of its syncretism — that we will view the lives of entertainers with discernment rather than with bliss, and give worship to the King of Kings alone. Only one King is immortal, and He is to be worshiped. This should not be a gray matter. This should be a no-brainer.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared at Rev. Eric C. Redmond’s blog, A Man From Issachar.
Andreas Hale, former Executive Editor of Music for BET.com, got the pink slip this week and tried to take the company down with him. After nearly a year at the urban entertainment network, the executive left his post by sending a fiery email to industry friends confirming what many critics of the network have long suspected: BET is a hot mess.
This week’s Pop & Circumstance is all about returns — the return of a compelling show, the return of an iconic magazine, the (surprising) return of a reality-show diva, and the return of BET’s fishy programming.
Here’s this week’s rundown of pop-culture stories. Lots to talk about, so let’s get started.
BET Gives Us “A Time” to Let Loose
Even though comedians like Katt Williams, Chris Rock, and Cedric the Entertainer keep us laughing on their popular HBO or Comedy Central stand-up specials, we’re hungry for some clean comedy we can watch with the whole family. Thankfully Vickie Winans, who has long been a successful gospel music artist with No. 1 hits like “As Long As I Got King Jesus” and “The Rainbow,” is bringing family-friendly comedy to BET with her new show, A Time to Laugh. Set to debut in January 2010, the show has already begun filming a scheduled 30 episodes. BET, which has found recent success with gospel-influenced programming such as the hit show Sunday Best, describes A Time to Laugh as gospel stand-up with dynamic dancers, musical artists, and fast-paced Bible story improv from a fresh urban contemporary perspective.
It certainly will be good to see more of Vickie Winans. After an extended absence from the music scene following the death of her mother, Mattie Bowman, and a difficult exit from the Verity Records roster, earlier this month Winans released How I Got Over, her first album in three years (see video for the first single below). We’re not sure yet whether A Time to Laugh is exactly what we had in mind when we said we wanted “Christian comedy,” but we’re still looking forward to seeing what Sister Winans has to offer on BET.
‘Act Like a Lady’ on the Big Screen?
When Steve Harvey released his dating book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, it seemed like the world couldn’t stop talking about it. Tyra Banks invited him on her daytime talk show to share his relationship revelations, and Oprah brought him on her show twice, including an appearance before an all-female audience where he counseled various women on the ways of love. UrbanFaith even offered its more skeptical assessment. With insight into the male psyche like “Men are driven by who they are, what they do, and how much they make” and hints on what men want (Harvey claims it is “support, love and ‘The Cookie'”) the comedian-turned-pop-relationship-expert found instant success with his book. Now BV Newswire reports that filmmaker Will Packer (This Christmas and Obsessed) is adapting the book into a full-length film. It’s too early to even begin discussing the plot, but we hope they’ll turn it into a documentary. Steve Harvey is so hysterically funny, and with the number of women at their wits end as to what men want, it would be great to see him set loose, training a group of women to think like men.
‘Idol’ After Paula
Now that Paula Abdul is officially stepping down as a judge on American Idol, we’re kind of looking forward to what’s in store for the new season of the show. Without Paula’s positive and, let’s be honest, generally unintelligible commentary, how will the show survive? We doubt she’ll be easily replaced by just another “nice female” voice, as fans might be suspect of a judge who’s already been pigeon-holed into the canned role of good cop. On the other hand, a stronger, more critical voice may feel too harsh against the biting words of Simon Cowell and the “yo’ dawg” musical analysis of Randy Jackson.
Until Fox can find a permanent replacement for Abdul, they’re temporarily filling her chair with a slew of celebrity guests like Katy Perry, Victoria Beckham, and even a rumored appearance by new Real Atlanta housewife and singer Kandi Burruss.
One thing we know for sure is that the American Idol formula for success has been compromised. If the dispute was really over money, Fox may regret failing to move some of Ryan Seacrest’s $45 million over to Abdul, if only to keep the show interesting.
Life After ‘Purpose’
It may be no surprise to you that Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 25 million copies, making it by Publishers Weekly‘s count the best-selling hardback book in American History. Since its debut in 2002, it has been a must-read for a global audience of believers and non-believers alike when trying to make sense of their lives and come to terms with their faith.
Now Warren is ready to piggyback on nearly a decade of success with plans to release a new book, just in time for the 30th Anniversary of his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. In a recent video to his church members, he explained, “I’m in book writing mode right now. I’ve gone back into hibernation to write the follow up to Purpose Driven Life now, eight years later. It’s going to be called The Hope of the World, and my plan is to release that on Easter Sunday.”
The new book is set to focus on the church and its role in contemporary culture, elevating the purpose-driven “what do I do with my life?” philosophy to a broader “how do I engage with the culture around me?” level. Warren, who also launched the Purpose Driven Connection magazine with the Readers Digest Association in early 2009, has increasingly been practicing what he preaches in terms of engaging culture. Last winter, he had a highly publicized conflict and eventual reconciliation with musician Melissa Etheridge. The two made headlines when Etheridge, known for being outspoken about gay rights, criticized the President Barack Obama for including Warren in his Inauguration plans, despite his criticism of California’s Proposition 8. The singer later apologized for her negative reaction to Warren’s role in the ceremony, saying her assumptions about the megachurch pastor’s character and prejudices toward Christians were reinforcing the exact type of behavior the homosexual community is trying to undo.
That’s it for this installment of Pop & Circumstance. Until next time, please leave your comments below and let us know what pop-culture stories you’re most fascinated by this week.
In this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?
Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins
This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.
While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.
The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less
Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”
The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.
The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.
Jazz at the White House
As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.
Reality TV Piety
When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.
But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?
The Word on BET
A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are Beyoncé, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.