ALTERNATIVE VOICE: Dr. Tony Evans pastors the 9,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and is president of the Urban Alternative, a national ministry devoted to restoring hope in families. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)
When President Obama announced that he now supports same-sex marriage, he cited his Christian faith as the reason for his “evolving” views. Yet for many other Christians, their commitment to Jesus Christ and an orthodox view of the Bible is the reason why they reject homosexuality as a valid lifestyle.
In a report on NPR’s Morning Edition, Dallas preacher and bestselling author Tony Evans said the issue is especially intense in African American churches. “The breakdown of the family is the single greatest challenge that we face today,” said Evans, which is why he believes black pastors are often the most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage.
NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty then asked Evans about the argument that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue like race, but Evans wasn’t having it. “The issue of race is not an issue of choice. It’s an issue of birth,” he said.
When Hagerty asked Evans whether he believes homosexuality is a choice, he replied: “The Bible is clear on that one too. And that is, sexual relationships are to be between men and women within the context of marriage. That’s not only related to the issue of homosexuality, but adultery, or fornication or bestiality. All of that is proscribed in the Bible.”
SPEAKING OUT: Actor Kirk Cameron during his infamous March 2 appearance on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."
To everyone who’s gay, was gay, has gay friends, supports gay rights: Christians don’t hate gay people. Or, despite those who actually feel that way, hatred is not an official Christian position and doesn’t appear in the WWJD handbook.
I know the rhetoric suggests otherwise whenever some religious personalities appear on TV. But please understand that the message from the loudest seemingly self-appointed Bible expositors on your nearest conservative broadcast affiliate aren’t telling the whole truth.
I don’t necessarily put Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron in the same vitriolic category as some others, despite headlines from his March 2 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan. I read the entire transcript to confirm my assessment; though, initially, I was annoyed at what I thought was yet another loudmouth misrepresenting what it means to follow Christ. I didn’t get the sense that “Michael Seaver” was trying to browbeat anyone or trumpet an idea for the masses to bow down and accept. He was simply answering the question he was asked as honestly as he could. Still, something was missing from his now-infamous declaration that “[homosexuality is] unnatural … detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”
(For the record, you know what else is unnatural? That sugary orange drink in the indistinct plastic container. I could probably make a biblical case for why it and others like it should be forbidden. But I digress.)
Make no mistake: I know what the Bible says about homosexuality in Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, albeit in translated versions. However, my experience as a Christian who’s constantly stumbling reminds me that grace is the determining factor of how I got to this point of trying to honor God in all my thoughts, words, and actions. A part of that means extending the same love and grace that I’ve received to everyone else — regardless of what others believes or how they behave.
Anything less than that offends my Christian sensitivity to all people, all who are equally subject to doing things that would offend God. The Bible has a whole list of those things spanning across the Old and New Testaments. I’ve committed my fair share of sin, and with help from several friends, family members, and associates, we’ve likely got a majority of them covered – and that list, unfortunately, includes murder. I bet the same is true in every social circle worldwide. So, who are we to cherry pick one offense for an opportunity to don a white wig in judgment?
But that’s exactly what happens when someone wages any variety of anti-gay campaigns that distort the universally extended love of Christ. The most vocal “broadcast Christians” don’t seem to have campaigns against arrogance, envy, severe anger, laziness, lust in all its forms, greed nor gluttony. Those are the deadly ones. Other documented abominations — translation: things God hates — such as cheating, adultery, lying and creating drama (biblically known as sowing seeds of discord) seem minor.
I’m not sure why homosexuality is singled out and made into a determining factor for goodness or depravity, and it is not my desire to argue for or against it. While for some people homosexuality may be an embraced choice, for others it is natural — much in the same way it might feel natural for a married man to “check out” a woman other than his wife. Feelings happen, but acting on them is another story.
Recognizing my own weaknesses — as well as the fact that I’m not God — I’m in no position to judge. I’m also in no position to say what is or what isn’t so in the mind of someone compelled to be someone that I’m not, or do something that I wouldn’t.
As Christians, we’ve received and continue to get too much grace, forgiveness, and abounding love from God to condemn anyone else. In light of that, I often have to wonder, Where is the love?
I didn’t see it in the One Million Moms’ attempt to have Ellen DeGeneres fired as spokeswoman for J.C. Penney. I don’t see it in any of the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. I certainly don’t hear it in the Christian conservative discourse of the current political season.
And I am sick of not seeing it from people professing to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Perhaps it’s popular to protest the existence of gay people to prove you’re really Christian. It has to be. Otherwise, why would strong language against gay people keep coming up? News flash: We as Christians are not known by how vehemently we target other people. We are not known by how we vote. We’re not even known by the cool Christian T-shirts that we wear. And we definitely shouldn’t be known as a right-wing, hate-mongering club of sinless holy rollers.
We’re known by the love we show to others. And if those among us haven’t mastered that love, it’s up to the rest of us to speak just as loud and proud about what Jesus would really do.
For those who didn’t know, the start to this article is my tribute to my favorite Sophia (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey) line in the movie The Color Purple. Here is the line in case you did not see the movie: “I loves Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ‘fo I let him beat me.” And if you did not know, Oprah’s name spelled backward is Harpo and was the name of her husband in the movie and the name she chose for her company (read: empire).
So on to my topic of the day. Oprah is a skilled interviewer and a master of ingratiating herself with those she chooses to interview, two of many qualities enabling her to be queen of talk with very little competition for a quarter of a century. And undoubtedly, Oprah has earned her place in history as a girl who was born in the backwoods of Mississippi but ultimately has become the first black woman billionaire, a world-class philanthropist, and a beloved global icon. And most recently, the owner of her own cable television network — OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network).
And yet as I watched Oprah interview author and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen on her new OWN show Oprah’s Next Chapter on Sunday, I did not feel the same energy that I felt when I would watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. And I’m a member of the target audience of her new show, which debuted on Jan. 1, because I’m a woman who love all things religious and spiritual!
According to the Chicago Tribune, her new show, which will feature weekly one-hour interviews, will essentially be Oprah on a “spiritual quest” with various celebrities, politicians, religious and or spiritual gurus and more. Unlike her talk show, there is no audience, and she is interviewing her guests in their natural habitats wherever that may be.
The premiere episode featured a two-hour interview with eccentric Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler who is now an American Idol judge. This interview took Oprah to Tyler’s home in Sunapee, New Hampshire. For part of the interview, Oprah and Tyler explored a forest which kind of felt like an answer to a Jeopardy question. Who are the two unlikeliest people you will see in the forest together? Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and aged rock star Steven Tyler. About 1.1 million viewers tuned in, which is the second highest rating of an OWN show, according to the Chicago Tribune. The highest rating goes to Oprah Behind the Scenes, which chronicled the last season of her talk show.
In her interview with Osteen, Oprah was accompanied by another Tyler — her good friend (O, to be so lucky) Tyler Perry. The pair visited the Lakewood Church, reportedly the largest church in America, before sitting down with Osteen in his home to interview him. Although everyone knows that Oprah is a spiritual person, I have not associated her with any one religion although she has spoken about Jesus Christ and often fondly recalls giving Easter speeches in church as a child. So it was kind of cool to see Oprah raising her hands giving praises and singing along during the church service/gospel concert.
Oprah began by listing Osteen’s impressive stats: His show reaches 10 million people in nearly 100 countries, he has written 20 books and six of them are New York Times bestsellers, his church has 16,000 seats (it used to be the stadium for the Houston Rockets), two 25-foot tall waterfalls, and a 450-member choir backed by a full band. She rightfully concluded that Osteen’s church is “big business.”
In spite of all of that, Oprah did not shy away from the tough questions, asking him about how he keeps his ego in check, his reputation as a prosperity gospel proponent, the shady reputation of some televangelists down through the years, and his stance on homosexuality. The only question that threw him a little was about homosexuality: “Is it a sin?” After offering a more cryptic response, he finally declared that he believes it is a sin.
“It’s a hard thing in a sense, because I’m for everybody,” Osteen said. “I’m not against anybody. I don’t think that anybody is second-class. But when I read the Scripture in good faith, I can’t see that it doesn’t show that as being a sin.”
Watch the clip below to see Oprah ask Osteen about homosexuality, sin, and whether there’s more than one path to God.
The fact that Osteen affirmed his commitment to the Bible on such a thorny issue as homosexuality was somewhat surprising since he also readily admitted that he does not use a lot of scripture in his sermons, which he has been criticized for. But you have to appreciate the guy’s honesty.
It was a good interview and demonstrates that Oprah will always be Oprah: a seeker on a journey toward truth. But as I said earlier, I didn’t feel drawn into the show. And I’m not sure why.
I watched Oprah’s Lifeclass show some months ago and wrote about how much I enjoyed it on my personal blog. One person commented that while she loved Oprah, she was “Oprahed-out” and was experiencing déjà vu as she watched the show. Maybe her comment expresses some of what I’m feeling now. I’ve been on a journey with Oprah before, from the time she was Sophia in The Color Purple until her talk show ended last May. And I’m just not sure how much further I can go. I’m not saying that she is no longer relevant, but we have seen Oprah every weekday for 25 years and it’s not clear whether her spiritual quest has landed her any closer to genuine truth. I certainly hope her circuitous path will ultimately take her there.
And as far as Oprah’s cable network is concerned, I’m just not that into it. I’ve not been a fan of Rosie O’Donnell since her mean-spirited (and mercifully short-lived) stint on The View some years ago, and the rest of the network lineup doesn’t look too exciting either. I do like Suze Orman though, and I will probably tune in to watch her show, America’s Money Class with Suze Orman, which debuted on Monday. And others seem to share my sentiments. According to an article in the International Business Times, OWN is struggling, averaging “just 136,000 viewers per day, a decline of 8 percent compared to Discovery Health, the channel it replaced.” And “Oprah’s OWN Network is apparently losing money monthly at a healthy clip. Media reports suggest Discovery has pumped in $254 million above a $189 commitment.”
Like I said, I loves Oprah, God knows I do, but Oprah has a challenge on her hands. Still, it’s not as though she hasn’t beat the odds before. If a poor black girl from the country can become a billionaire media mogul, then only God knows what the future of OWN — and Oprah — may be.
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.”