GAY UNION: Reginald Stanley and Rocky Galloway became the first homosexual couple to legally wed in Washington, D.C. in March 2010. (Newscom Photo)
“Lord, we’re definitely living in the end times.”
“It’s about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
I heard these complaints from callers to a Christian radio talk show in Virginia alarmed by New York’s June 24 vote legalizing gay marriage. Similar cries are being voiced across the country among Christians who apparently believe homosexuality is THE unpardonable sin and biggest threat to marriage. America is headed for hell, they say.
But government legalization of gay marriage may be a blessing in disguise that the church in America needs today. Gay marriage isn’t what Christians should worry about. Conformity is the bigger threat.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Separation of church and state is not just a philosophy concerning the relationships between governments and organized religious institutions. It’s ultimately about the church (people) being the moral conscience that influences the nation (society), as the Founders intended. When people of faith become too close and comfy with society’s secular standards, we get negatively influenced. This is evident in the case of marriage and divorce rates.
The accuracy of divorce rates has been questioned because of difficulties obtaining clear data, but according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national divorce rate is about 34 percent. According to a study by the Barna Group, the Christian divorce rate is 32 percent. A U.S. Census study released in August indicates that southeastern states have the highest divorce levels. Explanations are that people there tend to marry younger, have less education and lower incomes compared to, for example, their northeastern counterparts whose average divorce rates are the lowest. With the Bible Belt leading the way in divorce, and the national Christian rate mirroring the nation, we’re certainly not the “salt of the Earth” God intended when it comes to marriage.
Not only lay people, but many of Christianity’s most well-known figures are divorcees, even multiple divorcees. Their scandals read like the pop culture celebrity breakups blogsites. How can Christians claim to believe that marriage represents Jesus Christ’s love and eternal bond with the church and is between a man and woman only, yet have equally high divorce rates? How is it that the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) community that many Christians say is headed for the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah is a stronger advocate for committed marriages?
Could it be that Christians have “conformed” as the Scripture warns?
America’s Founding Fathers wisely established the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the disastrous results the church/state union had in Europe. The bond has been a bad dealfor the church for centuries since Emperor Constantine I wedded the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church in A.D. 313 for strategic benefit. Christianity grew and spread, but at the cost of much horrific state-motivated sins, such as the Crusades, colonialism, and slavery, that were sanctioned by the church. Christianity’s moral stature suffered.
Secular and spiritual motives on marriage have often clashed. The marriage debate was at the heart of Protestants splintering from Catholics as King Henry VIII established the Church of England because the Pope refused to annul his marriage. The king wanted to wed a different woman who could bare him an heir to the throne.
If we believe marriage is under God’s higher authority, why would we need the government to change the Constitution to define marriage to our liking? Our greater concern should be that the government never infringe on church freedoms, including whom individual churches choose to marry. Instead of petitioning the government to adopt a definition that not even all Christian agree on (there are also LGBT Christians), show by example why marriage between a man and woman works best. Be the conscience of society by significantly reducing the Christian divorce rate. Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites who have conformed to the world.
I’ve been married once, for nearly 20 years to the same woman. We’ve successfully reared three children into adulthood. It has been wonderful and challenging; my shortcomings and stubbornness over the years haven’t helped. Marriage is not easy and there are situations where couples are better off parting ways. I realized this at age 12, watching inside the courtroom as my parents split.
Still, as Christians our best witness to society on marriage is to put our energy into making our marriages work, not speculating about the end times, or pressing to block two consenting adult citizens from pursuing their equal rights to privacy and happiness under the government’s laws as guaranteed by our Constitution.
In the end, only God’s judgment of all of us — straight or gay — matters.
The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.
IN RADICAL COMPANY: Tonéx with gospel artist Fred Hammond at the 2008 BET Celebration of Gospel in L.A.
If you’ve made it this far, you know what this series is about. In the first three parts, we took a look at Christian music as a whole, the cultural definition of gospel music, and the identity of the artist formerly known as Tonéx in light of all of this.
Next up, some conclusions. (But first, an illustration.)
In the critically acclaimed series Sports Night, sports anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has the following exchange with his co-host and best friend Dan Rydell (Josh Charles):
“How can I be cool again? I’m a newly divorced man, I’m young, I used to be cool, I need to be cool again. Help me… be cool again.”
“Well, first I would need to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before.”
Christian music: same as it never was
If we’re really going to understand the extent to which Christian music in general, and gospel music specifically, has ceased to be particularly “Christian” or full of the gospel message, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that, on a large scale, much of it never was in the first place.
Not that there has never been any music written or created by Christians used by God to proclaim His glory and fulfill His purposes. On the contrary, God has been using people for that purpose since the days of Asaph and the sons of Korah.
The issue, rather, is that the arbitrary manner that evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s were taught to discern which music is good, legitimate, and holy and which music is bad, wrong, and sinful was flawed at best and hypocritical at worst.
It’s time to stop the charade.
We must get away from using terms like secular and Christian to differentiate the music recorded by and/or marketed to Christian people.
Those terms didn’t work before, and they don’t work now.
Some songs by some artists do a great job at communicating truth, and others by others do a poor job. Some artists glorify God by creating great art that stimulates the senses and appeals to our sense of beauty and awe. Others glorify God more explicitly by calling our attention to His mighty acts and wondrous ways. And some just know how to set a great hook to a good beat so they can put food on the table.
In the grand scheme of things, there should be plenty of room in the marketplace for artists across the spectrum of aesthetic achievement and spiritual significance.
But if we can’t tell which is which, then the problem is not with the artist or the song; the problem is with us as listeners. And since listeners are the customers in this commercial model, then listeners must be the ones to start changing if we’re going to change the system.
We’ve got to be smarter. We must learn to understand the difference between the gift of music, the vessels who carry the gift, and the Giver who created them both.
And we must learn to appreciate, support, and promote music from musicians who do their best to honor God and make a difference with their music, regardless of whether they are being promoted by a “Christian” record label, a “secular” record label, or are completely independent, especially since some of the best musicians out there started with the former but are now doing the latter.
Don’t call it gospel, either
Language matters, y’all.
If we’re going to bring about change in the gospel music industry, we’ve got to find another word to describe the music. Dawkins and Dawkins called it “rhythm and praise,” awhile back. Maybe that will work, maybe not.
But we need something else.
It’s not that the word gospel is bad, just culturally loaded. The meaning has gotten so diluted that it’s no longer useful. The priorities of today’s contemporary gospel listener are so far out of whack that we tend to care more about whether the beats are hot than the message being transmitted.
That’s why pastors like my man Cole Brown of Emmaus Church (author of Lies My Pastor Told Me) tends to opt for phrases like “gospel-centered” to describe the kind of music that he wants his flock to listen to.
Gospel music might have started being only about the message of Christ, but after a while, we consumers have learned to blindly trust the reputations of the artists themselves and the industry machinery that marketed their wholesome imagery to our willing eyes and ears.
And it’s made us lazy.
Many of us have fallen prey to the prosperity gospel and other distortions of Christ’s message because we’ve learned to turn off our brains anytime the beat is bangin’ and the track has “Jesus” in the hook.
Bad for us, bad for them
And while more and more esteemed Christian recording artists have been scandalized by divorce, infidelity, or other forms of impropriety, most Christians shrugged and kept listening. Consumers of American church culture, we’ve learned to just move on to the next wave of talent instead of trying to bring substantial reform to an industry that leaves so many anointed musicians personally shipwrecked and morally adrift.
Because that’s what’s really insidious about this whole thing.
The arbitrary division between sacred and secular is not only bad for the listeners, but it’s bad for the artists, too. Too many people assume that just because a person is anointed by God to minister with music, it means that person has their life together.
We put our artists up on pedestals without giving them a way down.
And artists don’t live or work in a vacuum. But when these folks go through the trials of life, either we’re too busy to notice, or we find ourselves offering excuses without taking the time to look closely.
In many cases, the people who are close enough and involved enough to make a difference in the lives of our best artists are too scared to risk angering their friends and losing access to influence and revenue in the process. So they refuse to ask tough questions of our artists that can hold them accountable.
Though I don’t know him personally enough to know for sure, I’m fairly certain this is what happened to Tonéx, and it happened so consistently for so long that after a while he felt like he couldn’t reconcile who he felt he was to the person everyone expected him to be.
Though he is still ultimately responsible for his choices and will stand before God to account for them just like all of us, I understand a little more about how Anthony C. Williams went from singing as Tonéx to singing as Brian Slade. His was not only an individual failing, but a failing of the system as a whole.
And I’m saying … if we want the system to change, we have to change what we look for in our music, and what we use to describe it.
Lose the baggage, keep the flavor
This issue is the biggest reason why so many rappers like to refer to themselves as Christians-who-rap rather than Christian rappers. They’re trying to sidestep all of that baggage.
I used to think that was dishonest of them, especially compared to the bold stand displayed by members of The Cross Movement and the 116 Clique / Reach Records crew. Now, in retrospect, it seems pretty smart.
So that’s my advice to up-and-coming artists today.
Lose the baggage, and keep the flavor.
Stop selling your material in the Christian discount bin, and take the bold step of getting yourself out in the marketplace, where your music can be experienced, appreciated, and critiqued like everybody elses.
If you’re good, people will notice. If you’re a Christian and you want your music to bless other Christians, people will notice that, too. Christians use iTunes and eMusic just like everyone else.
And if you’re not as good as you thought you were, or if you don’t meet the expectations that others might have had of you … so what? Maybe you’re just supposed to be obedient. Or maybe your music will open a door and lead you into the next phase of ministry you’re supposed to be in.
And note, there’s nothing wrong with having a music ministry that is aimed primarily at Christians or churchgoing people. (That’s the sweet spot for my own hip-hop crew.) But if you’re going to do that, be honest about who you are, and resist the urge to live up to other people’s expectations if they’re not biblical.
More importantly, if you’re going to minister in that fashion, make sure you have people in your corner who knew you as a person before they knew you as an artist. As an artist, you need people in your ear who care more about pleasing God than making you feel good. You need folks who can challenge you to walk in a manner worthy of your gift and calling.
But what about Tonéx?
The good news is that, as I said before, if Tonéx is a believer in Christ (which it seems he is), then his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and that is a very good thing. That is worth rejoicing over.
And the extent to which songs in his catalog reflect that reality, those songs should be listened to, celebrated and promoted. I’m thinking, for example, of a song like “To Know You, Lord” from Out The Box. It’s a very nice, relaxed, smooth, jazzy worship tune.
Yet, we cannot afford to lose our vigilance in engaging the lyrics. We need to be asking ourselves things like, “What does it really mean to know the Lord? How do we know if we do or not?” As we listen to our music, we must be like the Bereans, who checked the things they heard against the Scriptures.
This vigilance is especially important in light of the role that music plays in modern and postmodern culture. In American society, artists are the prophets. So we must use discernment in the way that we engage with art, whether “Christian” or not — otherwise, we could be led astray by another gospel.
On the flipside, we must not have a judgmental attitude as we do this. Not that we shouldn’t use our judgment, but we can’t act like just because an artist has struggles in an area, nothing they have to say is worth hearing. If God can use a donkey to speak, he can use an imperfect person, even if that person is a nonbeliever.
And if you want to buy any Tonéx recordings or attend any of his live shows — including the ones he’s been doing as “B. Slade,” just approach it like you would any other concert. If you enjoy the music and you think you’ll have a good time, and you can conduct yourself in a manner that represents the Lord while you’re out in public, then go. If not, or if you think it might be a stumbling block to the people around you, then don’t.
The end of Christian music
The truth is, the end is near. We are in the last days of Christian music. As the years continue to turn, we will see more and more signs of the end of Christian music as we know it.
And this, for the many reasons I’ve covered, is, generally speaking, a good thing.
But there’s another end we need to consider.
If we as Christian consumers are to be discerning about the media that we consume, then we need to consider this other end. And if we as Christian musicians are going to be successful in creating, marketing, and sustaining our musical vocation, then we definitely need to be aware of the other end.
We need to understand the end of Christian music … the goal. The Aristotelian virtue of it. What is the point of listening to, evaluating, and creating this music, or any music?
It’s the same as anything else.
Man’s chief end, according to catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
If our music, despite the exterior labels, despite the cultural connotations, despite the raft of expectations riding on each release … if our music can do those two things — help us to glorify God and enjoy Him in some way — then we’re doing something right.
And regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, this is, I believe, the direction that God is calling us toward.
When we are pleasing God, we don’t have to care what others think. We don’t have to care what our sales numbers look like. We don’t even have to care whether we live or die, because as Paul says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
And in that state, we’re free to live out the ethos of the great theologian Michael Stipe — yes, that Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. — who once penned the following lyrics:
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
The big news out of New York last weekend was the legalization of gay marriage, but The Village Church in Greenwich Village is under threat of eviction from the public school where it meets and a New York Times op-ed writer says it should be because its ministry to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction doesn’t represent the community. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to the church’s senior pastor, Sam A. Andreades, about the church and it’s unique position as the only Exodus International affiliate church in New York City. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Urban Faith: The Village Church was mentioned in a recent New York Times op-ed about a legal battle over churches renting space from city schools. What is the legal challenge that you’re facing?
Rev. Sam Andreades: One church, the Bronx Household of Faith, represented by the Alliance Defence Fund, has been in a legal battle with the New York City Department of Education over whether public schools should be allowed to rent space to churches on Sundays. This effects the 60 or 70 churches that rent public school space in New York. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a closely-related issue (in favor of religious freedom) a few years ago, the New York Second Circuit Court ruled against the churches. Since an appeal has been filed, the ruling does not take effect immediately, but the future of churches meeting in schools is uncertain.
The reason [Katherine Stewart] mentioned The Village Church by name is because she said we were running this [Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor] and that she didn’t think we were representative of the Village. That’s what I responded to [in an article on the church website] and said, “No.”
Has Stewart contacted you since then?
No. We sent our piece to The New York Times, but for whatever reason they declined to publish a response.
The two main ministries listed on your church website are the Mercy Network and the Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor (GAME). Did you start both of those?
Mercy was here as part of the church since the beginning. It’s been going through different iterations over the years and it’s done some really neat things. We’re looking for more to do.
GAME was something I decided we needed to do. It took a few years of praying about it for the right leadership to come along, because I would go into the gay bars and I would go to some of the transvestite parties in the Village, but I kind of lacked credibility because it’s not really my issue. I could get to know folks and see how we could help, but I realized it really needed [a leader] for whom this is an issue, but who is following Christ while having same-sex desires. … We have a great lay leader with the ministry now. I don’t give out his name because, for the group, confidentiality is very important.
If somebody wants to come to the group, we meet with them first and see if we can be of help to them. The people who come to the group, many of them aren’t in The Village Church. They come from other churches. We realized after we started it that this is actually a gift to other churches in New York, because …people come here and they have a place to be open about it, and not necessarily have this known about in their congregation.
Is it a pretty active ministry?
We get one or two inquiries a week, I would say, from people who are interested. Some of those decide not to be involved and some of them get involved. So we’ve had a fluctuating size of ten or twelve on a weekly basis. For a while we had a women’s GAME group, but that is taking a hiatus right now.
Is that because of disinterest or not having a leader?
It seemed to come naturally to a close in terms of interest and leadership. We’re certainly trying to address women who inquire, but we’re seeing if there will be enough interest in the fall to have a group for women.
How is the church’s relationship with the local gay community?
I think part of the reason nobody has picketed or protested is because we’re kind of under the radar. We’re not a very big organization. We have this support group and people who want to come come. We’re not big enough to cause a lot of discomfort.
The Village Church is the only church in New York City listed as an Exodus International affiliate. What is your relationship to the organization?
There’s a level of connection where you become an official Exodus ministry. We’re kind of waiting to see how we do. We might do that in the future, but as of this moment we’re just part of their church network and then GAME is a ministry of our church.
Is Greenwich Village as diverse as people assume it to be?
Racially it’s not as diverse, but that’s changing as the immigrant population is making its way into the core. … We have a lot of racial diversity in the visitors, but it’s still very white and very affluent. Diversity of viewpoints, that’s a different thing. Diversity of worldviews, that we have.
It’s got its layers. There’s a layer of older population that have made their lives here and many of them have rent-controlled or rent-subsidized apartments and they’re going away slowly. That’s one layer. You have New York University, which has made its home here and is gobbling up various parts of the Village, so it’s a kind of university situation as well. And then you have people who choose to live here if they can … because it’s more bohemian [than the upper east side or the upper west side]. You get people who may be in different occupations, but they don’t fit in the grid. Their views can be anything. The Village sort of attracts the eclectic and the unconventional. For a lot of the couples here, one of them is an artist and the other one works on Wall Street or works in the financial district, because to get a place here, somebody has to be making money.
And the gay community has a presence as well?
Yeah, the center of things has kind of moved into Chelsea, which is the neighborhood to the north, but it’s still the Village.
How did you come to pastor in Greenwich Village?
I’ve always had a non-conformist streak. My wife and I actually met in the Village and I went to school here for a master’s degree. I used to be a street musician; I would play at different places around the Village. A lot of threads of our lives come together in the Village. It was always very important to me to see Christianity applied and the culture engaged as part of the emphasis of my own faith. The Village seemed like a great place to conduct Christ’s revolution as we say, because Jesus was the ultimate non-conformist, so it just made a lot of sense. … The Village Church was planted here out of Redeemer Presbyterian 16 years ago by another pastor. … I’m the third pastor, but I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years.
What is your goal as an urban minister?
What I want to do is what we say is our vision, which is to bring about Christ’s revolution to exemplify in the Village urban eternal life, meaning to see the life of Christ manifest in people in a place where history is going. History is going towards a city, right. So, we want the see the life of Christ manifest in city people.
What are the unique challenges to accomplishing that goal?
Any revolution is an engagement in the midst of resistance. Not everybody wants to see that happen, so it’s helping to overcome that resistance by moral suasion that I think is our big challenge.
Another big challenge that’s more prosaic is building community because New York City, especially Greenwich Village, is a stopping place for many people on their way somewhere else. … It’s very difficult to build community for people to come and stay, and say, “Yeah, we want to see this vision happen here,” and be able to commit to that for more than a few years. We have a high turn over. That’s part of what my wife and I are trying to do, is show people that you can raise your kids in the city and they turn out okay. It’s actually glorious.
A month into his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich must regroup because his entire senior campaign team has quit. While Senator John McCain did lose his campaign manager and campaign chief strategist, the majority of his staff downsizing was a result of financial woes. Gingrich, on the other hand, has lost his campaign manager, campaign spokesman, New Hampshire based consultant, strategist, South Carolina consultant, Iowa consultant, and additional Iowa staffers due to a difference in opinion about political direction. Gingrich was already under scrutiny because of his anti-GOP comments concerning Medicare, $500,000 Tiffanyís tab and luxury cruise to Greece. His staffís lack of confidence in his political potential is just another sign that Gingrich isnít in this race for the long haul.
Americans are known throughout the world for their insensitivity to foreign cultures, and often their disinterest with learning other languages. If you’d like a tool to help boost your foreign language skills and take a step towards slightly improving our foreign reputation, visit BBC.com. They offer extensive tools in all the major languages as well as tools on a vast array of dialects. Their tools include, 12-week email courses, programs, dictionaries, guides and more!
If you’ve been thinking of buying a Kindle and joining the E-Book craze, you may want to hold off for a bit. The Kindle is rumored to be under $100 by Christmas based on the success of the product thus far. Analyst Mark Mahaney predicts that eBooks will surpass print book sales in 2-3 years. Kindle sales are already up 200% from last year. I do not currently own a Kindle, but may look into a purchase if the price drops as expected.
4 MUSIC WHY RAPPERS SHOULD REFRAIN FROM POLITICAL STATEMENTS
Ever since Kanye’s “Bush hates Black people” outburst, rappers have had a bad rep for their political correctness. It looks like they’ve done it again, this time the culprit is Lupe Fiasco. Not only did he say that “the biggest terrorist in the United States is Obama,” but he followed that up with a more intelligent reason for not voting, “It’s meaningless.” (INSERT ‘BOO’ HERE) Why Mr. Fiasco do you feel that politics is a viable platform for you? I’d prefer the next time a pop artist picked up a book, that they chose not to make their “enlightenment” public. Who do you think will be the next culprit?
Today’s youth are living in an era where there is not only a dependence on technology, but also a dependence on social media. Love it orhate it, social media has changed the way we interact and it is here to stay. As a result, L.A. based teacher, Enrique Legaspi, has incorporated the use of Twitter in his 8th-grade history class. Instead of raising theirhands, students tweet their answers. Some may find this use of technology in the classroom disturbing, but with 8-18 years old consuming ‘10 3/4 hours worth of media content everyday’ it might benefit teachers to engage youth in creative ways. Will tweeting the teacher during class become a trend? I think this will become more of a problem than a solution to student participation, but maybe teachers should consider using Twitter for afterschool homework assistance.
On Friday, the Dow dipped below 12,000 for the first time in three months. Energy stocks took the biggest hit, after Saudi Arabia reported that it would increase oil output and reduce prices to $99 per barrel. This is the 6th straight week of decline, the longest streak since 2008, and analyst are worried this might be more than the temporary glitch in a stock come-back. Frank Davis, director of sales and trading with LEK Securities, stated that “nearly all (traders are) leaning toward the bear side.”
Facebook is changing the way you tag your friends. They will now be able to scan faces in your photos and suggest friends, based on facial recognition. The new feature has people up in arms about the violation of privacy. Facebook has allowed for users to opt out of the feature in their privacy settings. Google had planned to release an application that would allow someone to “Google” them from a picture and find out their information. They later decided not to release technology in that capacity, due to privacy issues, and has used it for less invasive technologies.
Keke Palmer will play an international pop star named Kadee Worth in Rags, an upcoming film on Nickelodeon. The movie is a modern-day fairy tale that centers on Charlie Prince, an orphan played by Max Schneider, who lives with his evil stepfather and dreams of being a singer. When Kadee finds Charlie, they work through their differences to gain a new perspective on their worlds and an appreciation for each other.
9 MOVIES WILL “MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS” BE A HIT OR GET AN ICY RECEPTION?
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family comedy starring Jim Carey and based on the children’s book Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater. The movie is about the workaholic Mr. Popper and his journey to truly understanding the important things in life. While, the film sounds awfully similar to Carey’s Liar, Liar, this production is unique because Carey shares the screen with real Emperor Penguins. Mr. Popper’s Penguins opens Father’s Day weekend and appears to have humor for the whole family, so this may be the flick for dads and their kids. While the plot is sure to be predictable, the knowledge that it features real penguins gives the film bonus points in my book!
You think Tracy Morgan would have taken a hint from the “Kobe Bryant homophonic slur incident” and subsequent NBA public service announcements and just avoided saying anything about the LGBT community. But he didn’t, and now Morgan is apologizing to “the gay & lesbian community for [his] choice of words at [his] recent stand-up act in Nashville.” In his apology, the comedian and 30 Rock actor, says he is not hateful and is “an equal opportunity jokester.” While everyone is entitled to their opinion, Morgan took it a step too far. It is reported that he said if his son were gay, he’d better come home and talk to him like a man or he’ll “pull out a knife and stab that little nigger to death.” The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is condemning Morgan for his remarks. The alliance has asked that 30 Rock investigate and Morgan remove the remarks from his routine. If Morgan doesn’t do something drastic, his career could be in jeopardy.
CHANGING PERSONAS: Tonéx in his earlier, more conservative look; Tonéx more recently as "B. Slade."
Part 1 of this series examined the coming out of Tonéx, viewed against a broad history of Christian music in general. Part 2 of the series examined the cultural definition of gospel music, and saw Tonéx as its first reality star.
Here in Part 3, we must dig deeper, ask harder questions, and more importantly, find solid answers. Extensive as it has been, this series was designed not as an exhaustive resource of definitive answers, but a series of solid ideas from which some of these questions can be answered.
If we’re honest and observant, we see the truth found in Scripture illuminated by what we see around us.
Not About Salvation, but Definition
Here is an important caveat.
Liberal theologians, gospel music fans, and critical readers might be tempted to attack this series as being overly judgmental. Some might feel that asking these kinds of questions is tantamount to questioning Tonéx‘s salvation. This accusation seems especially galling considering his church heritage.
But the issue is not eternal salvation. Hebrews 9:27 assures us that eternal judgment happens after a person dies, and it’s not our job to be the arbiter of such salvation. That is a matter between a person and the Almighty. And according to Romans 10:9, if a person confesses and believes, then they are saved. Based on that basic rubric, it seems Tonéx is a Christian.
But that doesn’t help us answer the question of whether his past, present or future musical offerings can or should be classified as Christian music.
See, in the most literal sense, there is no such thing as Christian music, and there never has been.
It impossible for an inanimate, intangible article of intellectual property to come to a saving relationship with Christ Jesus. A song can be no more Christian than a radio, a Frisbee, or a lawnmower.
So when we talk about Christian music, it’s important to have a clear definition of what we mean. Many of the common cultural clashes regarding music written and recorded by and for Christian people stem mostly from misunderstood terms and mismatched expectations.
In 1998, the Gospel Music Association issued a fourfold definition to address the issue of lyrics in songs to be nominated for their annual awards show. In order to be eligible, songs had to be:
• Substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible • An expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and /or • Testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or • Obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view
Based on this criteria, a lot of the music that has been marketed as Christian would be excluded, which is why the GMA eventually rescinded this definition in favor of something less restrictive.
Nevertheless, when most people refer to “Christian music,” they are talking about music with lyrics that, regardless of style, meet one or several of these benchmarks.
Yet, these criteria are still subject to interpretation. Denominations and faith movements have been established, split, and evolved across generations over the particulars of what orthodox Christian truth is, or which ideas can safely be said to be prompted and informed by a Christian worldview.
And even if we agreed on all the particulars, how can we verify all of this in the context of a four-minute song?
In order to satisfy the requirements of nervous parents, youth pastors, and other evangelical gatekeepers, record labels always included biographical information in the press packets and liner notes of the artists they promoted. The idea was, if the lyrics of the songs didn’t convince you that the music was truly Christian, than details of their story could help nudge you off the fence.
But the problem with that approach is found in Romans 11:29, often cited as part of the doctrine of immutability, that God doesn’t change. In particular, this verse asserts that when God gives a gift, he gives it without possibility of being revoked. If He says it, He gives it, then it will come to fruition. Like the popular Tonéx lyric, it means that when it comes to His promises, “God Has Not 4Got.”
So if God has given someone an anointing to play an instrument skillfully, that anointing doesn’t necessarily leave just because the person is being disobedient in the particulars of how and when that instrument should be played. The King James Version renders that verse as saying that the gifts and callings are given “without repentance.”
We see this clearly as we survey the life of Old Testament patriarch David. The Bible refers to him as a man after God’s own heart, despite many documented examples of David’s disobedience. And the fact that the lineage of Jesus runs through the house of David shows that God kept his promises to David, despite the fact that David wasn’t always faithful to Him.
As it was then, so it is today.
The implications of this idea help explain why some evangelical figures start off ministering in prominence, but end up veering off the path of theological credibility. You can be anointed or gifted in a particular area, say, singing or preaching, and people might continue to respond well to that singing or preaching, regardless of what your actual message is. Though there are always consequences for sin, it’s possible for anointing or gifting to stay in effect despite errant belief or habitual patterns of sin.
This is a sobering thought, and though it shouldn’t result in a witch hunt, so to speak, it should give us pause to examine the messages in the so-called Christian music that many of us ingest, day after day.
With that in mind, consider some of the lyrics to a popular Tonéx slow-jam called “That’s When” from his O2 album (also available in Auto-Tuned, remixed, R&B form here):
All alone, sittin’ thinkin’ here by myself / contemplatin’ bout my life, chewin’ on my nails / Can’t afford to break down, gotta be a man / ain’t the richest guy around, but I do what I can / how it’s gonna go down, homie don’t ask me / I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity / that’s when, that’s when you bless me / that’s when, that’s when you rescue / me from, the pain and the heartache / that’s when, that’s when
For a long time, this was one of my favorite Tonéx songs. The words, and the manner in which they’re sung, indicate a mature believer struggling under the weight of financial responsibility, holding out hope that God will provide.
Yet, if you look closely, there are signs of faith that are sincere, yet not quite Biblical. Consider the last line of the verse, “I just pray to the Lord up above, in search of reciprocity.”
Reciprocity is a relationship of mutual dependence or action or influence, or a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The use of this word right before the chorus implies that Tonéx expects, or at least desires, a reciprocal relationship from God. When he prays, the song suggests, God will answer with a blessing.
Yet, that’s not the typical relationship with God that we see on display throughout the breadth of the Scriptures.
So compared to most of the music that you hear on urban radio stations today, “That’s When” is wonderful. There is no crass innuendo, and it even mentions prayer. Yet, examined against the light of the Scripture, the song still fails to communicate the truth as completely as possible.
Fact is, it’s hard to derive a full and comprehensive Christian worldview from just one song, and one song shouldn’t have to represent the entirety of what an artist stands for. But this one song has many of the same characteristics as a lot of contemporary gospel music – vapid, churchy, positive-thinking clichés, formatted with catchy hooks and solid production value.
Which leaves the song, and a lot of songs like it, in a place of doctrinal limbo. It’s still probably better than listening to most contemporary R&B, but it falls short of communicating the truth of the gospel in an accurate and meaningful way.
Still More Questions
Measured against the fourfold (temporary) GMA definition of gospel music, some Tonéx songs are unabashedly gospel. Others, not so much. Much of his catalog, dare I say, most… is somewhere in the middle. And how we respond to his music depends a lot on our expectations and what we’re looking for.
So the questions remain:
What should those expectations be? How can we tell which songs are worth listening to for the purpose of edification, and which ones aren’t?
More importantly, how should listeners evaluate which songs and artists are worth listening to or investing in?
Stay tuned for the final installment of the Gospel Identity Crisis series.