Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflections on Music, Ministry, and "Moral Failure"

Well, Blogosphere,

Here goes another one of those posts that begins with a commentary on how little I’ve posted lately.

One reason is that, at least right now, I’m not as interested in mainstream gospel music as I’ve been in the past. More than usual, I find myself drawn to the quirky, the rare, and the old-school (Watch this space for a review of Fire In My Bones: Raw+ Rare+ Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007, which meets all three of these criteria). I’ve also pursued some of my interests in other genres, so I’m not listening to as much gospel as before.

Another reason is that, these days, a lot of my writing energy goes into my graduate work. I am doing some academic work related to gospel music, and perhaps I’ll post some of that work here, and/or use my blog to test a few ideas.

So, as I’m revisiting this space, I’ll probably blog on a few things I’ve “slept on.” Expect a few posts that are the equivalent of Fred Hammond’s 2001 album In Case You Missed It—And Then Some. Hopefully the “And Then Some”—the analysis, reflection, and conversation—can make up for the “You Missed It.”

For example, I didn’t learn until recently that Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer passed away in July. He was truly a giant of gospel music scholarship and performance. I interviewed him a few years ago, and I will post that interview here in the next few days.

I also didn’t know about several sad stories with similar themes.

This year, two artists affiliated with Cross Movement Records, a record label/ministry focused on holy hip-hop—The Ambassador, of the group Cross Movement, and Da’ T.R.U.T.H., another CMR artist—have both been suspended from ministry with the label, and, to some extent, within their own congregations. The explanation for the label’s decision in each man’s case has been “recent findings of moral failure in his marriage.” (Da’ T.R.U.T.H. has published an apology on his website, which can also be read here.)

I first became aware of the Cross Movement in 2000, when they performed at a conference presented by The Impact Movement, a ministry of Campus Crusade to African-American College Students. Although I don’t listen to much hip hop, I appreciated their theological rigor, their independence, the members’ decision to live as missionaries, and the high moral standards to which they held themselves. (I also dug “Know Me,” and to this day the song “What Do You See” is among the most powerful I’ve ever heard.)

Around that time, the group had disciplined a couple of members. When I interviewed them in 2002, I asked them about the mindset behind this kind of action/accountability:


In terms of lifestyle standards, what are some of the things that you expect of one another, and some of the ways that you hold each other accountable?

Tonic (John Wells): I think for us within out group, within our ministry, within our record company we try to take biblical principles and biblical standards and hold each other to a high level of integrity, because we value a lot of things. One, we want to keep a good ministry reputation because we think it’s valuable to those who are looking on, those who are looking to us to be examples. As we look to be examples of Christ, we can’t say one thing and do another. Or we can’t say one thing and then watch our brother do something else and that be acceptable. So we have set up an accountability between us as a group that if we find each other wayward or in fault that we deal with it.

And there’s no consequence too great. We won’t step beyond what God requires, but there’s no consequence too great for us. So if there’s a situation where somebody finds themselves in a funny situation and is just unrepentant, then we deal with it as a group. We’re prepared always to ask one another to step down or to step out with prayer and still continuing to encourage one another.

Do we expect too much of our Christian artists?

Phanatik (Brady Goodwin): I wish that that was the problem that we were facing. I think that we don’t expect enough. Or maybe the areas that we do expect too much are not in the right area. Like the beat wasn’t banging enough, or it didn’t sound like the number one hit on the Billboard charts. We might expect too much in that realm.

But when it comes to just the representation of the faith, the claims that they make, I don’t know if we expect enough of the artists that are claiming to be Christians. We strive to take hold of that for which [God] took hold of us. We strive to be perfect as he is perfect. We don’t look at each other and say “You’re not perfect yet? I’m through with you.” But I really do think that just as humans we tend to let each other off the hook too quickly. You’re not this? Don’t worry. You don’t have to be. You probably never will be, so I ain’t even going to look for it from you. You don’t have the fruit of the Spirit on your tree, no patience, no self-control, no love, no gentleness? I wasn’t expecting it anyway. That ain’t Christianity. So I offer that. I just think that we could expect more without being too hard on each other as Christians.

Tonic (John Wells): No, I don’t think we’re being too hard. I think there’s a world and a generation of young people and people just in general who are on their way to hell with no return. And I think if that’s what we’re looking at, if that’s what we’re facing, then I don’t think we can afford to say, hey, you’re being too hard.

When we look at the influence that Christian music is having now, there’s just too much work to be done. It reminds me of Jesus saying the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. For the Lord God to have to say, dang, I can’t find no helpers, I can’t find no workers…the standard isn’t high enough.

Ambassador (William ‘Duce’ Branch): That question “Are we expecting too much?” It’s funny. We’re not expecting jack. The question is, “Did we get our expectations from another source?” Because we only think like this because we were raised up reading the Bible. And when you read the Bible you talk about high expectations. How about [when Jesus said] hate your mother and father before you think about trying to swing with me, because whoever doesn’t hate his mother, father, sister, brother, children for my sake can’t be my disciples, not worthy to be my disciple. What about back in the [Old Testament] days? We’re not under [Old Testament] law now, but I’m saying…. What about if you found two people sleeping together that’s not married, [the punishment for adultery was to] bring them up to the middle and stone them? God is the one with these standards out the window, these standards no one can possibly reach outside the enablement of God. And we still won’t do that today because of the weakness of our flesh till he comes back. I think if we were expecting this of people, we got some nerve.


A couple of years ago, I interviewed Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and published his thoughts on music and discernment in a magazine for teens.

Although I hadn’t posted on them, I was aware of news reports about the paternity suit filed against J. Moss (check out this interview he did with Gospelpundit), and domestic violence allegations against BeBe Winans.

And, earlier today, I learned that Take 6 first tenor Claude McKnight is now speaking openly about years of behavior he describes as the result of a sexual addiction.

It’s a tough time to be someone who respected these artists. I know that the gospel/Christian music industry is not without its scandals, but I respected what they stood for and the groundbreaking things each had done with his work. On some levels, that remains true. After all, I enjoy the music of many people whose personal lives are messy, or who don’t claim to be followers of Christ.

Part of my disappointment about these stories is rooted in the fact that some of these men are about my age, while others are artists I grew up listening to. So to have scandals erupt among these folks is a world-wearying milestone.

A more acute disappointment is personal. After all, respecting these artists as musicians and fellow Christians is one thing. But, along with many of my other single sisters, I respected them as the kind of man we wait for. We were happy to know there were good, godly men out there who were also family men, or who were trying to live for God as single men. We hoped that, even within the (gospel/holy hip hop) music industry, there were some who were committed to living in a wholesome way. To have so many “fall” in such a short time and in similar ways adds to the disappointment.

I want to emphasize that I don’t know the details of these artists’ lives. And you’ll notice that I haven’t linked to much information about their problems. But for those of us who enjoy gospel music because it is a way of observing and celebrating our faith, I think these stories offer an opportunity for sober reflection on our lives as individuals. I’m taking some time to prayerfully reflect on my own life and my own vulnerabilities.

Beyond that, though, I hope that ministers, industry folks, and artists themselves take this opportunity to ask some systemic questions. Again, I’m not making assumptions based on direct knowledge of any of these situations. But I hope this crisis (and yes, that’s what it feels like) doesn’t go to waste. Here are a few questions:

· Is participation in the music industry, as it currently exists, compatible with marriage and family life?

· If so, which artists are modeling this effectively? If not, is anyone thinking creatively about how to make it so?

· Is anyone speaking candidly about the challenges of ministry/industry, and about costs for spouses and children?

· What potential outlets of spiritual and emotional support/accountability can artists create for themselves and their families?

· Are people being honest with themselves about temptations and strategies for avoiding/overcoming them?

· Are our churches ignoring some important realities about our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs? Are they teaching something incomplete or incorrect that leads to these kinds of situations?

· What important questions aren’t being asked?

These questions are worth talking about.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Give Me That Old-Time Religion?

One Christmas during my childhood, my family received a small electric chord organ and several songbooks. The organ allowed budding musicians to make music using a simple system of numbers and letters. Notes corresponded with numbers that were played with the right hand, while a series of buttons, played with the left hand, produced chords.

One of the songbooks we received included a gospel version of the spiritual “Old-Time Religion.” Because I liked pushing the chord buttons as much as the keys, I didn’t always pay much attention to the time signatures. Instead, I would often play songs at a pace I liked. As a result, my family was often subjected to a rather plodding version of the song:

Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
It’s gooood eee-nouuugh for meeeeeee.

While my love for spirituals like this one has only deepened—and the gospel music tradition I’m a part of allows for a lot of creativity with meter—I wouldn’t say that I practice “old-time religion.”

On the one hand, I deeply value the heritage and theology of those who originally sang this song, and I share with them the Christian beliefs described in statements like the Apostles’ Creed.

On the other hand, these old-time co-religionists would likely be taken aback by my life. I’ve studied theology more broadly than they did, and am influenced by a number of denominational traditions. I have attended some churches where blue jeans and T-shirts are the dress code, and others where we sit around small tables in a cafĂ© rather than gathering in pews. I suspect that my tendency to research, analyze, and re-analyze theological questions would strike them as tedious, unnecessary, and perhaps bolder than becomes a young lady. And the sounds of today’s gospel music would scandalize them.

Yet while my life doesn’t look or sound like old-time religion, I’ve had several opportunities to reflect on traditional Christian language. I’m occasionally surprised—and changed—by moments where its firmness and clarity cause me to reflect on my life.

For example, some time ago, I was in a friendlationship—you know, a hybrid involving mutual caring, lots of time spent together, an emotional connection, but no romantic commitment—with a man I cared for very deeply. The problem was, I wasn’t totally sure where his faith was. I knew that we’d grown up in similar Christian traditions, and because I really liked him, I’d put off asking some questions I knew I’d eventually need to settle.

This went on for a while, largely because leaving important questions unanswered is key to maintaining a solid friendlationship. During that time, other friends listened to me analyze and re-analyze my not-boyfriend’s words for signs of shared faith. Eventually, my friend Ed—a big-brother figure who, along with his wife, listens to my romantic ups and downs—gently interrupted one of these talking sessions with some direct questions. When I didn’t have the answers, he got very quiet.

“You know, LaTonya, at some point this becomes disobedience,” he said. Ed pointed out that holding these questions in without pursuing answers was not a positive direction if my hope was to marry a man who shares my Christian faith. Later, when I spoke with my mother about my questions, she posed one of her own: “Is your friend apostate?”

Um, wow.

“Friendlationship” is not part of the shared vocabulary of Christians throughout the ages. But “disobedient” and “apostate” are definitely shared concepts. Up until that point, I’d simply thought of myself as very, very patient. But hearing these “old-time” words applied to the choices I was making (or choosing not to make) sobered me. Even before the friendlationship reverted to a friendship, I realized that I needed to be willing to ask tough questions earlier.

More recently, I asked my mom (an example of a Titus 2 woman in my life) to pray me through an interpersonal challenge. I was struggling with anger and unforgiveness, and I couldn’t get past it.

I expected Mom to pray that God would comfort me, that he would soften my heart, and that somehow I’d end up feeling better, so I could behave better. Then, she began:

“Heavenly Father, LaTonya would like to repent—” Mom paused. “Honey, that is what you’re doing, right? Repenting?”

I was taken aback. I’d expressed that I knew my behavior wasn’t right. But hearing the word repent clarified what I needed from God. As real as my feelings were (and Mom did pray for them later), I needed God’s help to turn around and go in a different direction. I agreed: “That’s what I need, Mom. I need to repent.”

Yet again, language—historic language that isn’t always prominent in seeker-friendly or postmodern settings—served as a prod in the right direction.

I’m not sure what became of the chord organ. And while I still listen to the song “Old-Time Religion,” I wouldn’t describe my own faith that way. But I remain grateful for the words I encounter in the Word—and in the loving Christian community I experience through friends like these. These words are good enough for me.

Also posted at Image credit:

RePosting: Sweet Little Jesus Boy: A Spiritual For Christmas

For me, it's just not Christmas until I've listened over and over to the song "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." It's a spiritual credited to the writer Robert MacGimsey. Some of the lyrics:

Sweet little Jesus Boy,
they made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child,
didn't know who You was.

Didn't know you come to save us, Lord;
to take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn't see,
we didn't know who You was.

In the other verses, the writer, in the broken language of an ex-slave, writes about how the Holy Child grew up and was mistreated, but lived his life as an example to the people he served. The writer apologizes for not recognizing the Savior.

I love that song, partly because the arrangements I've heard of it are soul-stirring and beautiful. But I also love it because it pierces my soul. It's sweet and mournful at the same time. Even though it's a Christmas song, it reminds me that the story of Jesus is about so much more than his birth. He came and lived a sinless life. He allowed himself to be sacrificed for our sins so that we could have peace and know God. And he faced terrible rejection. John 1:10-11 tells us: "He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him" (The Message).

The people of his day didn't recognize Jesus. And those who did recognize him sometimes found the cost of following too great. Too much. Not worth it. And so they left. They said, "No thanks." They abandoned him, hoping to find an easier way.

My face wasn't among those in the jeering crowd that screamed for Jesus' death 2000 years ago, contorted with rage and betrayal and hate. I wasn't cheering as the Roman soldiers whipped and beat him. I didn't turn away, angry that he wasn't going to change the world with my politics or my ideas about power or humanitarianism. I didn't stand in front of him, wondering if he was who he claimed to be, and then leave downcast, feet shuffling, disappointed.

Yet I do sometimes live as though I don't know who he is. I get caught up in my own problems and drama and busyness and stress, and fail to see his hand in my life. I bark and complain and make self-centered demands—Doesn't he see me? Doesn't he know I need his attention?—without remembering the ways he's already chosen to shine on me. I forget that the sweet, harmless baby who lay in a feeding trough is actually a king, a king with nail-wounded hands and compelling eyes, a king who promises adventure and gestures toward me, speaking in one-word sentences: Come. Follow. Sacrifice. Look. Listen. Live.

I don't remember, don't believe with all my strength, that the child born in Bethlehem—a town whose name means House of Bread—is the Bread of Life. The child would become the nourishment and satisfaction for my hungry soul, the Bread broken again and again, with plenty for all.

Just seem like we can't do right,
look how we treated You.
But please, sir, forgive us Lord,
we didn't know 'twas You.

The good news, the sweet, shining, truest story of all, is that the humble-born infant, the Holy Child who saw and sees with the all-knowing eyes of the Eternal, is willing to forgive me, to open my blinded eyes, to give me yet another chance to know who he was and is. May I listen to this song—and to God's heart—until I get it right.