Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

Think Like Someone Who Enjoys Good Romantic Comedies

I have a confession to make. You might want to sit down for this: I am a young Black woman and I enjoyed the film Think Like A Man.

Whew. Feels good to get it off my chest.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard that there was a film slated for 2012 based on the book, I did the obligatory eye roll and didn’t expect much. The past few times I made the grudging trek to the theatre to see movies with predominately Black cast — primarily so that I could keep my membership in the Black community — I was mildly disappointed. I say mildly because I have sadly grown to expect very little from Black movies. In real life, I find my community to include a wealth of comedic talent, natural artistic abilities, an eye for concepts that are abstract and often complex, and yet … on screen it seems that we often fall flat.

Nevertheless, Think Like a Man (TLAM) was everything you wanted a romantic comedy to be. It was witty, keen, and resonated for me as a young unmarried woman in her late 20s. I kept whispering to my best friend, “This is hilarious … This is so on point … This is so true!” He agreed.

But of course, EVERYONE doesn’t agree. Rahiel Tesfamariam, the founder and editor of Urban Cusp (a website I deeply respect), posited that TLAM served up “patriarchy with a smile.” Rahiel writes:

… Harvey, Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes and countless others are making millions branding themselves as cultural gurus who understand the plight of black women.

Only a patriarchal mind set would constantly paint women with stereotypical, pathological brushstrokes and serve it up as digestible truth. As if real-world paternalism wasn’t enough, we can also have it to look forward to in black cinema.

She goes on to outline the four stereotypes of Black women found in the movie: the single mother, the promiscuous Jezebel, the never-satisfied control freak, and the emasculating powerful executive.

The problem here, though, is the article forgets the purpose of a romantic comedy. Have you ever seen a good rom-com where the women and men in the movie don’t have some serious flaw? That’s the whole point! Let’s break down these alleged stereotypes:

1. Single Mother – I’m not sure if “single mother” is a stereotype or if it’s a reality for many women, of all races. I’d be more inclined to believe that Regina Hall’s character was a stereotype if she were irresponsible, unable to care for her child, and dependent on welfare. But she wasn’t. She was the mother of one child who balanced healthy friendships, relationships, and a career. She was a single mother you’d be proud of!

2. Promiscuous Jezebel – Meagan Good’s character, Maya, just doesn’t fit this stereotype. She’s only shown sleeping with one man prior to her onscreen counterpart, Zeke. If anybody was seen as promiscuous, it was the man she was sleeping with who failed to remember her name and left the morning after. Was she more trusting than she should have been? Possibly. Promiscuous. Not sure on that one.

3. Never Satisfied Control Freak – I’m having trouble with the premise that Gabrielle Union’s character fell into this stereotype. She wanted the man she was dating to improve his career and commit to her…. Where’s the control freak part? Furthermore, when attempting to remodel their apartment, she asked for his input prior to making any decisions and only proceeded after he passed the reins over to her. Yeah, calling her a control freak is quite a stretch here.

4. Emasculating Powerful Executive – Here is where I can concede that there was a possibility that Taraji Henson’s character, Lauren fell into a stereotype, just not the one that Rahiel pointed out. What stuck out for me wasn’t Taraji’s power role, it was her ridiculous expectations for a man. She expected him to have a certain kind of career, pedigree, and power. The sad part is, while this is a stereotype, it’s one that I see in real life, much too often.

I’d be more inclined to believe that men are stereotyped in the film more than the women. You have:

1. The Reckless Rebounder – Kevin Hart’s character, Cedric, is the recently separated man who leaves a good woman he loves and embarks on a tour to get back on the dating scene and do nonsense in strip clubs.

2. The Playa – Romano Malco’s character, Zeke, is the ultimate player who wines and dines women, sleeps with them, then disappears.

3. The Mama’s Boy – Terrence J’s character, Michael, plays the ultimate cliché, the adult male who can’t quite let go of his dependence on mama.

4. The Normal White Guy – Gary Owen’s character, Bennett, is the White friend who has it all together and is in a happy marriage.

Unfortunately, though, calling out TLAM’s stereotypes of men doesn’t appear to fit in Rahiel’s overall theme that Steve Harvey and the film’s producers are serving up patriarchal ideals.

One other criticism lobbed at TLAM, not only by Rahiel but by others, is the lack of a spiritual message or any discussion of faith. In her commentary at The Washington Post, Rahiel says:

Matters of faith have historically been so deeply embedded into the black American psyche that’s its practically dishonest to reflect black women navigating concerns about love, family and careers without any substantive “God talk”…. Maintaining centrality in the character’s lives by providentially coaching them through life’s most important decisions, Harvey symbolically played the role of God.

Wow. Considering Steve Harvey’s frequent and often Tebow-like references to God in his comedy and on his radio show, I’m sure he’d be offended by the statement. As a Christian, though, I understand why matters of faith may have been strategically left out of the movie. A good portion of the movie centers around the “90-Day Rule,” in which Harvey posits that women should not have sex with a man until after 90 days of dating, because a good man who respects you will stick around for that long to “get the cookie.” The Christian perspective as outlined by the Bible, however, is in direct conflict with this advice. Sex outside of marriage is simply not an option for committed Christian couples. Steve Harvey knows this. And there clearly are contradictions inherent in his “God talk” and “relationship guru” personas. I cannot defend him on that. But this film is a separate matter, and I think viewers should judge TLAM for what it is, not what we want it to be.

How exactly could a movie with such a heavy focus on Steve Harvey’s 90 Day Rule also expect its characters to rely heavily on spiritual themes or guidance? If the characters did that, then they’d toss the book and its advice in the trash, and we would never have had a premise for this hilarious film that gives us something relevant to talk about with our friends.

In short, expecting a movie that does not purport to represent Christian values and themes to include references to “matters of faith” is a bit odd.

Think Like A Man is a keen, entertaining film with characters that I recognize from my daily life, but I believe many people expected it to suck — and probably for good reason. Unfortunately, when you start with low expectations, there is opportunity for self-fulfilling prophecy to take hold. You assume the movie is going to have you up in arms, so you find a way for the movie to, well, have you up in arms.

Give it a chance, if only for the lively discussions afterward.

Saying Goodbye to Whitney Houston

Saying Goodbye to Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston funeral guest shows his program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller).

Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.

I was in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday, embedded with an international pool of journalists on a corner a few hundred yards from New Hope Baptist Church, where the service was held and where Houston’s family has roots extending back a half century, according to the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., pastor of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church.

The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.

When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.

“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.

Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.

The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.

When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”

“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.

Singer Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie leaving Whitney Houston funeral

Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie pass a sign that flashed "We Will Always Love You" and "Whitney Houston" as they leave her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).

Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.

“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.

Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.

Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.

“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”

Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”

This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”

In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”

“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.

“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”

Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”

This is what journalists call the "coffin shot": Whitney Houston's casket being carried out of New Hope Baptist Church after her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).

Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”

“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”

I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.

“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.

“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.

Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.

More ‘Elephant Room’ Noise

More ‘Elephant Room’ Noise

ON THE HOT SEAT: Last month, Bishop T.D. Jakes discussed his views on the Trinity with Elephant Room leaders James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll. (Photo: The Elephant Room)

There has been considerable discussion regarding the Elephant Room 2 in light of T.D. Jakes’ invitation and appearance. For those unfamiliar with the controversy, check out UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller’s roundup of reactions to the event. In short, the Elephant Room is a gathering of evangelical megachurch pastors who discuss the theological and ecclesiological “elephants in the room.” The second convening of the event took place on January 25, and the headlining “elephant” was Bishop T.D. Jakes and his beliefs regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Much has been written about the strange interrogation Jakes endured and the wisdom of inviting such a polarizing figure in the first place. Here are a few more thoughts:

1. While there is admittedly something intriguing about the concept of the Elephant Room, where prominent church leaders with significantly different approaches to ministry come together and speak frankly with each other, I wonder how much all of this plays into the problems of celebrity evangelicalism.  It is good to get successful leaders together in settings like this, but do these events also run the risk of suggesting that certain forms of success in ministry also equate with the highest levels of biblical and theological expertise? I don’t know the various educational backgrounds of all the participants, so I can’t make any claims about their theological backgrounds, but it is worth asking how we grant authority to the opinions of successful church leaders, particularly given the populism of evangelicalism.

2. I don’t know the circumstances of Jakes’ invitation, but some of the controversy relates to whether his presence at the Elephant Room 2 was a tacit endorsement of his ministry and whether he truly preaches the gospel. I wonder what would have been the kind of circumstance where his invitation would have been okay with everyone and where there could have been not only a conversation about the Trinity but also the other elephant that lingers — Jakes modified, marketable, and therapeutic version of the prosperity gospel. The conversation needs to happen, but how does that occur? What event could have been created to have this conversation without the cloud of controversy?

3. Race and evangelicalism remains massively complex. Some applaud Bryan Lorrits’ comments on his blog and on a video regarding the centrality of white leaders in this movement that tacitly claims to speak for all evangelicals and (for some) the apparent desire of the approval of such leaders in the critique of Jakes.  While there may be truth to Lorrits’ comments, here is why this is difficult. Any African American who comes into evangelicalism and attends seminary will be primarily taught by white professors, and if they embrace what they are teaching and then have some critique of the black church (not that there is one tradition, because there are many), of course it will seem like their critique is one that gets “approved” by white leaders. It is certainly possible that some desire this approval, but it is also true that some bring their critique on the basis of convictions that they fully embrace apart from any affinity for white approval (this is not only about Reformed theology — it can happen with Arminian theology or other traditions as well).

What makes this so complicated is the fact that the ripple effects remain from centuries of racism, and the issues of power, respect, and control all hover around situations like this one, making it difficult to see where this is simply about disagreements about correct doctrine/practice or about participation in contexts that remain largely white (whether it is the Gospel Coalition or any other evangelical institution/group).

Perhaps there is opportunity in this to look more closely at these complexities and then make some real progress on issues of race — we may have taken some steps forward but we have miles to go.

I hope constructive conversation lies ahead.

Jakes, the Trinity, and the Elephant Room

Jakes, the Trinity, and the Elephant Room

Bishop T.D. Jakes

Bishop T.D. Jakes has embraced an orthodox view of the Trinity and no longer holds a “Oneness” view of the Godhead (as noted in our interview with theologian Estrelda Alexander), that says the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three aspects of one God rather than three distinct persons, Baptist Press reported.

A Room Full of Elephants

Jakes was interviewed by Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll and pastor James MacDonald at MacDonald’s suburban-Chicago church during the second annual Elephant Room conference, where evangelical Christian leaders gathered to discuss potentially divisive topics.

Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, told Christianity Today he takes the bishop at his word about his newfound orthodoxy, but apparently wasn’t all that impressed, saying, “A Christian pastor affirming least-common-denominator Christian doctrine should hardly be news, much less an elephant in the room. This can only happen in an American evangelicalism that values success, novelty and celebrity more than church accountability.”

What Jakes believes matters a whole lot to The Gospel Coalition, a theologically conservative group whose leaders “allegedly began pressuring MacDonald to ‘pull the plug’ on Bishop Jakes’ appearance at the Elephant Room conference, which eventually led MacDonald to resign as a TGC council member,” according to The Christian Post.

Texas pastor Voddie Bauchman said in a blog post that he was invited to participate in the conference after another pastor pulled out over Jakes’ inclusion. Bauchman ultimately declined, in part because he views the Word of Faith gospel that Jakes preaches as “heterodox” and “harmful” and he says Jakes’ influence in the Dallas area has been “negative, at best.” Bauchman, who is African American, also was concerned that his invitation would be viewed as tokenism.

Loving Issues More Than People

At the event, MacDonald said hosting Jakes had cost him relationships, The Christian Post reported. Jakes said affirming belief in the Trinity had cost him relationships with Oneness Pentecostals, who now apparently view him as a heretic.

Calling theologically Reformed critics of the discussion to repent of their love of issues over people, Memphis Pastor Bryan Crawford Loritts highlighted a race angle in the controversy, writing on his blog that “the implicit message that is being sent is that the varsity section of the kingdom of heaven in 2012 is white, middle aged and Reformed.” He finds this “disheartening.”

Humbly Stepping Into the Firestorm

Loritts also noted Bishop Jakes’ humilty in response to Driscoll, who is himself under scrutiny for alleged spiritual abuse. “This is the man that’s been on the cover of Time Magazine, and yet he steps into the firestorm and is willing to be questioned and opened up for ridicule,” Loritts said of Jakes.

Texas pastor Brandon Smith also noted Jakes’ humility in an open letter to the bishop that was published at the SBC Voices blog. Smith went to college at Dallas Baptist University, near Jakes’ The Potter’s House, and expressed regret for having previously judged the bishop harshly.

At his Lifeway Research blog, Ed Stetzer noted that Jakes said much the same thing about his evolving Trinitarian views on a 2010 Australian radio program. Apparently few American evangelicals heard him.

Speaking ‘Undignified’ Truth

Credo House Ministries founder C. Michael Patton was cautiously optimistic about Jakes’ newfound orthodoxy in a post at his Parchment & Pen blog, saying he appreciated the Bishops’ reminder that “none of our books on the Godhead will be on sale in heaven.” He noted, however, that among his peers it would be “undignified” for him to quote T.D. Jakes.

What do you think?

Are you glad to hear Bishop Jakes affirming orthodox beliefs about the Godhead?

Pentecostalism’s Neglected Black History

Pentecostalism’s Neglected Black History

Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn’t know much about the black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she’s spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement’s most important founders. Our interview with Alexander has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?

ESTRELDA Y. ALEXANDER: I grew up Pentecostal but don’t remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I’m sitting in class going, “I’ve never heard of him.” I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn’t Seymour’s emphasis. So, even though he’s at the forefront of this revival, he’s out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he’s black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn’t try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there’s this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he’s part of the uncovering of the story of early black history in the country.

What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?

He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.

The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?

Estrelda Alexander

They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early twentieth century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That’s not just Azusa Street; that’s a process that is pretty well documented.

Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?

There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There’s what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It’s been more or less successful. There’s still quite a bit of division. It’s not on paper. On paper, there’s this idea that we’ve all come together, but the practicality of it doesn’t always get worked out.

Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?

They’re not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout black and white Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there was elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was white, then the second person in place would be black. It would go back and forth. It’s now predominantly a black denomination, though.

Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?

Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn’t hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I’m a theologian, so I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other’s camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.

In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as “manifestations” of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?

For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes’ success, so they don’t even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You’ll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I’m not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.

Continued on page 2.