Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

Where Faith and the NBA Intersect

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is that a lesson for church leaders, too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving Bravely

Loving Bravely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was so romantic.

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

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

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

Think of great leading men in popular films:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this passage from 1 John 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know what would happen.

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

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

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

Consider the following, courtesy of Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shai Linne’s “Fal$e” Positives

Shai Linne’s “Fal$e” Positives

Shai Linne has created waves in the Christian music scene with his recently released single, Fal$e Teacher$. The song names prominent pastors and televangelists that Linne suggests are wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Photo credit: Covenant.edu)

When it dropped, the reaction that I saw across my social media feed consisted of a lot of raised eyebrows, tilted heads, and furrowed brows.

Wow… he really went there.

Shai Linne, the standard-bearer for reformed theology in hip-hop, released a song called “Fal$e Teacher$,” in which he castigates the erroneous, prosperity-based, word-of-faith teachings of many high-profile ministers, and then in the chorus, calls them out by name. Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are just a few of the names that Linne identifies as false teachers.

In this video, he explains his reasoning for the single (part of his recent album Lyrical Theology, Vol. 1), specifically citing widespread deception regarding prosperity doctrine on the continent of Africa. According to Linne, the export of these ideas to unreached communities in Africa is even more dangerous, because many of these African listeners and viewers are mired in even deeper and more extreme levels of poverty. This prosperity thing must work, Linne says they’re probably thinking, since so many Americans have bought in.

I share an extreme distaste for most of these big-name ministries, for most of the same reasons. Because I care greatly about the destruction that such false teaching can unleash in the lives of naïve Christians who lack discernment, I am glad that Shai Linne has renewed his effort to address these heretical doctrines.

(*cue my Stephen A. Smith voice*)

HOWEVAH… I wish he wouldn’t have done it this way. Not the naming-names, thing. In principle, I don’t have a problem with that. I agree with Shai that there is significant Biblical precedent for naming names, most prominently with Paul publicly opposing Peter’s favoritism in Galatians 2.

No, for me, the most problematic part is in the title and the chorus. The single doesn’t just refer to false teaching, but it calls out false teachers. It crosses the line from holding public ministers accountable for the words and actions into publicly name-calling and denouncing their whole ministry. Depending on how you interpret 2 Peter 2:1-3 (which was quoted in the song), it’s possible to conclude that Linne is even questioning their salvation.

I am reminded of the words of hip-hop intellectual Jay Smooth, whose video blog “ill doctrine” blew up in 2008 when he offered people tips on how to tell someone that what they said sounded racist. Even though the issues are different, the concept is similar. When trying to hold someone accountable for something bad, it’s always better to focus on what they did rather than who they are. The former has a much narrow focus, whereas the latter gets into much bigger issues that are easier to derail.

So even if, for example, there is plenty of evidence to convict Paula White of having espoused and transmitted false doctrine, simply labeling her as a false teacher makes it too easy for her allies (in this case, her son who manages the ministry) to defend the totality of her ministry without addressing specific allegations.

In the headline, I used the term “false positive” – this is not an accusation that Shai is being deceptively nice. It’s a medical term, which describes “a test result that wrongly indicates the presence of a disease or other condition the test is designed to reveal.”

False positives are a major problem in medical diagnosis, but not because patients are often diagnosed as sick when they’re perfectly healthy. What happens more often is that patients who truly are sick get misdiagnosed, and then are given treatment that relates to the overall problem, but lacks certain nuances that could more precisely aid their recovery.

Whether intentionally or not, by releasing “Fal$e Teacher$,” Shai Linne gave the impression that all of the ministers named are cancerous toxins in the worldwide church, who should be, if not removed from ministry outright, at least avoided at all costs. These are sweeping accusations that, in my opinion, should not be done without providing or referencing specific evidence and proof – and in the song, he declares them over twelve people (in order: Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Fred “KC” Price, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Eddie Long, Juanita Bynum, and Paul Crouch).

Now I’m not a fan of any of these names, but how fair is it to compare the ministries of Joyce Meyer and Robert Tilton? I don’t know, and that’s the point – Shai Linne provides very little contextual differentiation between them to justify his declaration of their heresy, only that they’re all in the same hellbound boat (“if you’re living your best life now, you’re headed for hell”). What then of any potential truth intermingled within the heresy? Or does one errant sermon, video or sentence corrupt the whole thing?

In his YouTube’d explanation (yes, I really just used the word “YouTube” as a verb), Shai mused that it had been ten years since he had really taken on this subject, which caused me to reflect on his original take on the matter, “Issues,” from 2003’s Urban Compositions.

This, to me, is a more well-rounded and more interesting song.

In it, he definitely attacks pastors who propagate the prosperity gospel (check this lyric: “I know this iced-out pastor, the brotha’s large / my man wanted to go to his church, but couldn’t afford the cover charge”). But its chorus also includes the phrase, “only Christ can separate the wheat from the tares,” a reference to Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:36-43.

Shai would be wise to revisit both the song and the parable. In it, Jesus describes a farmer who allow both wheat and the weeds to grow side by side, because trying to pull out the weeds could damage the still-growing wheat. It’s good to hold public ministers accountable to things they do and say that contradict Scripture, but labeling them as “Fal$e Teacher$” has the potential to undercut any of the gospel truth they might have preached alongside the heresy. And the people who get hurt – again –are those who follow those ministers, who haven’t yet developed the ability to eat the meat and spit out the bones, so to speak. After living under these faulty teachings, a believer who is suddenly exposed to the truth in such a harsh manner runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

My advice to Shai Linne: keep doing your best to promote Godly truth, but trust God to pull the weeds in His timing.

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Editor’s Note: Bradley Knight, Paula White’s son, released a statement in response to Shai Linne’s song. Linne  subsequently released a statement responding to Knight with specific examples of what he considers to be false teaching by Paula White.

When Rights Go Left

When Rights Go Left

In 1963, Malcolm X famously referred to the assassination of President Kennedy as America’s chickens coming home to roost – a bold statement to a nation still mourning the loss of its president. When pressed to elaborate in an interview, he explained his comments by saying that Kennedy’s murder was the culmination of a long line of similarly violent acts perpetrated by the U.S. government.

Today, the political pundits continue to focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to render a series of judgments with direct relevance to the legal institution of marriage. And most of the political left is united under the banner of what they refer to as “marriage equality,” the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and enjoy the same legal benefits conferred on heterosexual marriages.

And while most speculation is focused on either what should or will happen, I’m more concerned with what has already happened, specifically in the intersections of church life and civic duty. The Black church, though generally conservative socially and pro-traditional-marriage, has been unknowingly complicit in the hijacking of civil rights rhetoric by progressive liberal activists advocating for same sex marriage. Black clergy need to own up to the fact that the demand for civil rights from gays and lesbians is another case of chickens coming home to roost.

Diversity in religious Black thought

Rev. Irene Monroe, author, public theologian, and syndicated religion columnist, is a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage. (Photo Credit: IreneMonroe.com)

Now, I realize that referring to “Black clergy” and “the Black church” may give some the impression that Blacks are monolithic and uniform, always on the same page. This has never been true.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the two most prominent Black leaders were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose approaches differed greatly in tone and substance. In the 1960’s, Dr. King and Malcolm X were polar opposites. Even now, there are worlds of difference between the Christianity of President Obama and that of Ben Carson or Herman Cain. There are a variety of political and ideological flavors in the expression of Black organized religion and its connection to politics.

So it’s logical for certain, more left-leaning factions within the black church to promote open-and-affirming policies with officially sanctioned LGBT ministries. For these folks, civil rights for the LGBT community is the next logical step in their evolution of faith-based activism.

However, most African-Americans who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ also believe that homosexuality is a sin. We may have a measure of empathy for gays and lesbians because of the ways in which they’ve been ostracized and persecuted over the years, but we still resent the comparison between gays and blacks as people with morally equivalent struggles. Instead, we resonate with articles like Voddie Baucham’s “Gay Is Not the New

Rev. Voddie Baucham, author of Gay is Not The New Black and pastor of preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. (Photo Credit: Gospelcoalition.org)

Black,” primarily because, except for a few of the most light-skinned among us, Black folks have never had the privilege of choosing whether to come out of the closet.

This latent resentment probably burns the hottest from those believers in the Black community who have labored the longest, who are entrenched most directly in the ongoing battle, and who confront racialized economic disparities through the pursuit of better enforcement of civil rights. Their offense over the mostly-White gay activists borrowing the language and legacy of the Black civil rights struggle was crystallized by Dr. King’s youngest Bernice King in a 2005 march, when she said that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.”

Unfortunately, these are the folks who helped same sex marriage become a foregone conclusion. Why? It’s all the focus on rights. In the Black church, we’ve elevated the pursuit of rights into an art form. We march, sing, and preach for our rights. “I got a right to praise Him,” said Karen Clark-Sheard.  He’s a “Right Now God,” said Dorinda Clark Cole. “Receive it RIGHT NOW,” said Andrae Crouch.

Discipleship breeds activism, not vice versa

In our attempts to necessarily address local injustices, we’ve inadvertently modeled church life as consisting primarily of activism for social change, rather than as a place for spiritual discipleship. Not to say that we shouldn’t do both; outward social change should be a natural flow of spiritual discipleship. But the issue is of primacy – which do we do first, best, most naturally, and more completely? If we’re about a social cause more than we’re about being disciples, we might do all of the same programs, but for different reasons and in different ways.

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church and the founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, is a prominent supporter of marriage being defined as a one man, one woman covenantal relationship. (Photo Credit: TheHopeConnection.org)

So take mass incarceration, for example. It’s one thing if, in the process of learning how to consistently receive God’s grace and love, we recognize our value as being made in God’s image, then transfer that recognition to others (in this case, Black men) who are being disproportionately victimized by drug laws, police harassment and unfair sentencing biases that feed them into the prison industrial complex.

It’s another thing, though, if you show up at church and everyone’s always talking about this problem with Black men in prison and it’s really bad and c’mon people we’ve gotta DO SOMETHING about it because somehow Jesus doesn’t like it (maybe he was Black? not sure).

I’m exaggerating to make a point, but there’s so much Biblical illiteracy nowadays because as ministers we assume that people understand that it’s our faith that provides the emotional, moral and philosophical foundation for our civic engagement. But in a post-Christian society, that assumption is dangerous. After all, the Pharisees were very skilled at doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Liberated theology

Liberation theology has been wonderful in helping people to contextualize contemporary suffering into the narrative of Biblical suffering, but we need other theological constructs and frameworks to fully engage people with the gospel in a multicultural context. Without balance, our liberation theology ends up becoming what I call “liberated theology” – where we tend to view the gospel only through the lens of the freedom to self-actualize.

And this is a problem, because it blurs the boundaries between our rights as citizens and our rights as believers. As a citizen, I support the idea that gay and lesbian couples should be able to enjoy all of the municipal benefits of marriage as sanctioned by the local state. But that’s different from my belief that as a believer in Christ, I really don’t have any rights, other than to be grateful for God pouring His love on us instead of His wrath.

Thus, my sexuality, like any other facet of my life, is subject to His wisdom and guidance, which is tied to my understanding of His Word. There are a lot of things I could do with my body that I choose not to, and some of them I avoid because I’m constrained by the laws of the land. But others of them I choose to avoid because God’s grace and mercy causes me to trust His principles, even when I don’t personally enjoy them, even when rationalizing my way around those principles is perfectly within my legal rights as a citizen.

If liberated theology is my only guidepost, I’m tempted to have a distorted view of the Scripture, where Exodus 9:1 is reduced to “let my people go,” rather than the full text of the verse, “let my people go, so that they may worship me.” The first part is connected to citizen rights, but the latter half is all about being humble worshipers in God’s kingdom.

So I don’t have a problem with people demonstrating with marriage equality. But I have a feeling that there would be less appropriation of civil rights language if our Black churches weren’t as focused on securing rights for the African-American community.  And I know that part of our calling as Christians is to battle the injustice that we encounter. But I hope we can do it with the humility and freedom that comes from knowing we are fully loved and forgiven.

Mostly, I’d just rather our preachers would spend a little less time engaging 1 Cor. 6:9-10 (which denounces sin) and more time engaging 1 Cor. 8:9 (NIV), which says the following (emphasis mine): “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

An Open Letter to Lena Dunham

An Open Letter to Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls (Photo Credit: All Access Photo/Newscom)

Dear Lena,

First, let me apologize.

I formed an opinion about you without really examining your work. All I’ve been able to see from your critically-acclaimed comedy Girls is clips from YouTube. Since I didn’t exactly know what to make of them, I mostly ignored and moved on. But since hearing of your casting Donald Glover as a black Republican boyfriend – even for just two episodes — I thought to myself, “maybe I should give her another chance.”

So looking for an entry point, I watched your feature film debut, Tiny Furniture. And I was impressed by its emotional honesty. While I’m glad that it helped me to get a broader sense of your cinematic voice, I can now say with certainty that many of my initial instincts were correct.

You and your costars, the progeny of successful, famous people, have inspired quite the backlash from critics and bystanders – a potent combination of curiosity, incredulity, and let’s be honest, plain ol’ Haterade.  There are many reasons for this, but one stands out:

Lena Dunham, you are, quite literally, a living embodiment of white privilege. (By the way, that “literally” was spoken in Rob-Lowe-as-Chris-Traeger-voice.)

Now I realize that in 2013, privilege is no longer the exclusive domain of white people – just ask Rashida Jones – but yours is a situation that specifically illustrates the advantages in the entertainment business that are granted by growing up amongst the liberal, hypereducated upper class.

And none of this is your fault, really. None of us asked to be born into our families. But I say this only so that you can understand how grating it can sound to struggling artists and filmmakers – of any race, really, but especially of color – when you say, as you did in last year’s NPR interview, that you “wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me, and only later did I realize it was four white girls.” You should take plenty of credit for the freedom and boldness that it takes to write from such a gut-level place. However, the ability to express those gut-level fears and anxieties in the context of a commercially successful television program on a premium cable network? As President Obama put it, you didn’t build that. That ability came straight from your invisible knapsack.

I’m sure none of this is news to you, so don’t think of this letter as an indictment, but an encouragement. Your fledgling success actually gives me a measure of hope, because I see parallels in your story to another writer whose work I really respect. For now, we’ll call him Paulie.

This guy Paulie also came from a Jewish background. His upbringing was also steeped in privilege – a privilege that he understood and fully owned, even though he eventually grew disenchanted with it. And even though he could be intellectual and systematic, he wasn’t afraid of showing his real self, warts and all. He wrote with a raw, visceral intensity. He once implied that vegetables are for weak people, he referred to his enemies as dogs, and once sarcastically told some of his critics to cut off their own junk.

But as far as I can tell, there’s one important difference between Paulie’s story and yours. Paulie had an amazing encounter with the Christ, one that quite literally opened his eyes to the world around him (after being temporarily blinded), and eventually transformed his entire worldview.

And you know what the kicker is? All the stuff that I just mentioned… he wrote all of that after he became a Christian, not before. Though he hated Christians and actively tried to undermine everything they stood for, after having really encountered Christ, he went just as hardcore in the other direction.

Now if you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering – how is this relevant, exactly? I’m not a Christian. Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to change that. I want everyone to experience the forgiveness and freedom that comes from having a relationship with Christ.

But that’s not my main objective here. I want to call your attention to a specific aspect of my man Paulie’s story (okay fine, nobody calls him that, I’ll just call him Paul). See, when Paul became a Christian, he didn’t run away from the privilege afforded by his upbringing; instead he leveraged it. He wrote and spoke with firsthand knowledge and experience of the cost of following Christ as one of the Hebrew elite, and his resulting message was credible and resonant. As an apostle, someone who traveled to various churches in various places, Paul understood that God had given him a unique platform. By writing from a dual perspective, both inside and outside of his culture, and by doing his best to be all things to all people, he reached many with his writing.

(I would apologize for the cliché, but Paul’s the one who started it.)

My guess, Lena Dunham, is that with Girls, you’re trying to use your story to speak resonantly to people beyond your core demographic of disaffected, upper-middle class, twentysomething women. In my opinion, that goal, admirable as it is, only happens if you can demonstrate enough grace and humility to reach out and learn from others beyond the scope of your upbringing. And it starts with realizing that you need other people to help you get there.

In Paul’s case, the love of Christ compelled him to do so; in yours, perhaps Nielsen numbers would suffice? Either way, I hope you learn how to cross those cultural boundaries. Your professional output will be better for it. If you do, could you share some of that grace and humility with Cathryn Sloane? She’s probably ready now. You can reach her on social media.