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.


LaZeric Freeman said...

Interesting article. Cool site ...
Another way of looking at is ... If it can happen to them, maybe all men DO come short of the glory of God. Maybe I'm really not the only one struggling with a problem. Maybe the songwriter was right when we he wrote, "We Fall Down, but get back up." If Kirk can get back up and minister stronger than ever before (including serving as a speaker as much as a performer) and Donnie can turn away from homosexual urges ... Then prayerfully, Tye, Claude, Ambassador, J Moss and Da Truth will come back better and stronger as well.

LaTonya said...

Interesting point, LaZeric--and, to be honest, one I'd like you to expand on, though I think that Romans 3:23 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I think your distinction between a minister and a performer is helpful here. What, if any, are the responsibilities of each?

Spread Love,