Archive for July, 2005

Certainty

The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and the discomfort and letting it be there until some light returns. Ann LaMott. Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith

I’m not certain about much. I woke up today feeling the ridiculousness of believing in an invisible partner to fashion myself after and follow. This whole idea of religions seems rather foolish. Why not live my own life my way? Prayer seems like one step removed from the delusion of talking to your self. The whole idea of church struck me as rather cult-ish. So why do it? Why put myself through all of the mental anguish that comes with faith? If I don’t want to come at this from a ‘yay! I’m down with Jesus’ perspective, what am I left with?

Here’s the thing: we all have worldviews, these grids through which we digest reality. For that matter, we all have meta-narratives–over-arching stories–that we cling to. There is a certain appeal to this mythic image of the rugged individual that America holds so dear. It is easier to believe that the truly strong don’t need anyone. Religion becomes a crutch, an opiate, that we need to reject in favor of learning to trust in ourselves. Our intellect, our capabilities.

I’ve become convinced that with nothing bigger or outside of ourselves, we can’t help but produce nihilistic, cynical, and joyless people (and art). No, I’ve got no evidence to back this up with besides anecdotal observations. Consider it a hunch. As smart as we are, there are limits to what we can know. I believe that reason can only take us so far in our quest for knowledge. It then also becomes reasonable that at some point faith can take us further along in that same quest.

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility.

I get the post-modern distrust of meta-narrative, since overarching stories/myths have been used as oppressive forces. But we need a meta-narrative to understand and interpret the world around us. The key is to have a redeeming meta-narrative, not an oppressive one. In the final analysis, the meta-narrative that I subscribe to, prayer makes sense. In the meta-narrative that I subscribe to, trusting in God makes sense.

I suppose that I ought to think this through a little more. My gut tells me that there are glaring holes in my reasoning (such as it is). There’s just a jumble of thoughts in my head right now that I’m trying to make sense of. I guess for me, faith boils down to this: to understand mystery, you have to think with the heart. I want to make the most of this gift called life. I remember what gives my life meaning. Friends, family, loving people period. Autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be. And I do this in light of something bigger than myself. A belief in God.

Because believing in people–in our ability to do right if left to our own devices–seems so ludicrous that believing in God seems downright rational.

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On Ghetto Crackery and Values

Once again, the Postmodern Negro needs to get out of my head or I’m going to start charging rent. I had been thinking all week about ghetto values and their implication when I read his blog about an article by Anthony Bradley on “Ghetto Cracker: The Hip Hop ‘Sell Out’.”

You see, I love black people, but sometimes our behavior hurts my heart.

Bradley makes the argument that this “cracker mentality” most often portrayed in hip-hop videos is something that we brought up with us from the south. This “cracker ethos” includes an aversion to work, proclivity for violence, contentment with little to no education, sexual promiscuity, short-term thinking, drunkenness, an anti-entrepreneurial spirit, reckless pursuit of excitement, and wild music and dance. Rednecks had touchy pride, what you might call today a “bling-bling” vanity, a boastfully dramatized sense of self, and little self-control.

Okay, such criticisms might go down a lot easier if the conservative voices didn’t sound so morally superior. Maybe it’s the lack of love or the accusatory tone that sets me/us off. (Farrakhan can make many of the same pronouncements, but because he’s not sitting in judgment or acting like he’s above or outside the community, he has an ear). Plus, to my ear, it sounds like he’s blaming the “ghetto mentality” on Southern blacks. But that line of argument will take me way off point.

I have long believed that we have more of a class problem in this country than a race one. Ghetto folks and “white trash” folks have more in common than they think; and a middle class white guy will have more in common with a middle class black guy than “poor white trash”. They both live in conditions with limited opportunity, limited education and extreme poverty. And too often, a survival by any means necessary (take what you need), don’t pursue education mentality pervades both groups.

Ghetto life is a reality, a cauldron of pain, anger, poverty, and injustice. Our culture too often reflects the self-hatred that comes from living a nihilistic existence. It’s bad enough that the “real hip hop” brand of blackness is marketed to death to our youth, with the “bling-bling” mentality fomenting a sense of entitlement through our music and culture. Then to have to live next to liquor stores billboards for Kools (or are we supposed to be smoking Newports now, I missed a memo), and check cashing places that prey on poverty as much as any lottery, it all gets a little much.

But I still can’t get behind “ghetto” being the definition of us.

It’s okay to want to leave it behind. I have no inner, deep-seated need to prove my hardness by wanting to stay. Maybe I’m soft. Maybe I’m tired of ducking bullets on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve (and I’m far from living anywhere close to a Boyz ‘N the Hood-styled ghetto). Broken English and drooping pants or whatever bit of latest prison fashion has embedded itself as de rigeur within the sensibilities of our community. It sickens me that prison life seems to be more venerated than college life, that speaking too clearly and pursuing education is somehow “acting white.”

I don’t want this to be reduced to some “blacker than thou” argument that only ends up pitting the educated against the uneducated, the middle class bourgeoises against the poor. However, I can’t stand how quick we can be to toss around epithets like “sell out” or “house Negro” or “Oreo” whenever someone breaks with our accepted group think, be it via philosophy, idea, or political agenda.

What does it mean for a black person to “sell out”? Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tiger Woods and many more, are often branded as “sell outs” or accused of “acting white” because they speak understandable English, pursue learning and have racially integrated lives. What is overlooked, however, is that much of the hip-hop and rap world represents a different form of “acting white” and “selling out.” That is, hip hop culture can be traced to the urbanization of the southern “redneck,” or to use the more socially offensive term, “cracker” culture of the past.

Bradley sais something that I really liked. The idea of that which is seen as “selling out” is actually “buying in”: buying into a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community.

I grew up in mostly white environments (school programs that in their infinite wisdom decided that only one black male at a time was to be considered an “advanced” student; living in a “good” neighborhood and attending the closest church). This led to an insecurity about being “black” and what it meant to be black. Once I was on my own, I had to get to a point where I was comfortable with my “blackness”, but I had to figure out what that meant. The first step was to no longer let other people, black or white, define what being black meant for me, or worse, judging my blackness through their eyes. I was born black, I will die – no matter what the world’s interpretation. We need to allow room for all kinds of black folk. Authentic blackness is about personal responsibility, pride, and a sense of history and community. If that makes me a sell out, then you can bite my sell out black ass.

Loving Jesus People

Christians have a bad reputation with folks
Sadly, much of it well-deserved
Earned with our hate and condemnation
Bought with our self-righteousness

Reducing our faith to catchy slogans
Political movements, and poor cliches
Forgetting how we’re to treat the least of these,
the poor, the children, the widows.

I blame my dilemma on Him, you know.
This Jesus I’ve chosen to follow.
He had to go ruin things with His talk of
“Love your neighbor as yourself”
“Love your enemies”
Who needs that sort of pressure?
Doesn’t He know how annoying some people are?
I’ve got a list of annoying people
(many of them His).

He ate with the “sinners” of his day–
Tax collectors and prostitutes–
Making Himself available to everyone.
But this is a question that I have to ask:
Would Jesus have lunch with George Bush?

All people were created in God’s image.
All deserving of respect, and love?
God’s standards aren’t very high.

I guess it’s not Him that I have the problem with.
Mostly the people who act in His name.
Using Him like a stamp of approval.
Justifying war in Jesus’ name.

As the world around us grows more desperate
We live in a community of shared loss
and hope.

We forget what we’re about
We’re more than agendas and dogmas
We’re joined in our humanity, our weakness
What we have in common.

We’re all Jesus people.
I guess that means that we’re stuck with each other.

(Obviously, I have been reading a lot of Ann LaMotte. I just couldn’t get her language and words out of my head.)

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Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Church-Styled Deal a Meal

I have already written about how I believe there is a spiritual aspect to food. Think of the fellowship that often surrounds the act of eating, be it with family or with friends, even co-workers. Think of how much more food is enjoyed when done in the company of people you love. Think of the religious ceremonies–communion, the Holy Feasts of ancient cultures, Ramadan, Kwanzaa–built around food. Meals can serve several roles, from memorial, celebration, fellowship, to the sealing of covenants or diplomatic pacts.

It was pointed out to me that the story of the Bible revolves around food. The original sin, that act of rebellion from Adam and Eve, involved an act of eating. You could even see their sin as being symbolic of them no longer being hungry for God. Abraham experienced a theophany while unknowingly entertaining angels. During Passover, the Israelites remember God’s provision during each part of their symbol-laden meal. While they wandered through the desert, the Israelites were daily dependent on God to survive (eating manna from heaven). They feasted upon returning from exile; for that matter, most of their holy days involved feasting.

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus is called The Bread of Heaven. He ate with his disciples, the crowds that followed him, “sinners” … everyone was welcome at his table. He left us with the sacrament of communion, which came after his last supper. And he’s promised a future banquet, a marriage supper of the Lamb. So symbolically, a meal would join us with this lineage of community, meeting past and promise to celebrate the promised future.

Meals have a way of conveying both hospitality and friendship. Meals have a way of leveling the playing field, of signifying equality, by taking a rag tag group with little in common and binding them in fellowship. Instead of doing “Sunday School” or “Adult Bible Fellowship”, what if we simply ate together after the main gathering time? We want people to slow down.

We say we want community, but do we really? Let’s face it: most times, the last song has barely faded before people are scrambling to get the heck out of church. I don’t have time to spend with you people, I’ve got stuff to do. Or a game to watch. Believe me, I ain’t mad at you, I’ve been just as guilty. (I usually timed my exits to coincide with the pastor’s closing prayer). I guess I will have to learn this “discipline of community” as much as the next person.

Happy Gestation Period

People are always celebrating birthdays, clogging up message boards with wishing one another happy birthdays. Not that I’m jealous, I’m all about birthdays. It’s kind of an annual reminder that this one day, someone (hopefully) is thinking about us. That’s why for me, my best birthdays are ones where friends just call me up, tell me they were thinking about me, maybe tell me that they love me; and my favorite “gift” is a bunch of us getting together to hang out (though cash is a great number two gift).

But I’ve come to the recent conclusion that one day is simply not enough.

So in my efforts to be consistent with my beliefs that life begins at conception, I’m officially celebrating my entire gestation period. However, to figure out when exactly the celebrations should begin, this required some investigation on my part. And, as you can imagine, some lively conversations with my parents.

The conversations weren’t as awkward as you may imagine. My father once explained the finer points of the “birds and the bees” to me at the breakfast table, using hand models that still has me scarred. He had also long regaled us with stories about how he knew that was his because if I was his, I would have to be born on May 1st. I showed up a day early, apparently eager for the world to be blessed by me. My mom is an angry Jamaican woman (a more redundant phrase you’ll never read than “angry Jamaican woman”). Similar to what I hear about Greek people, Jamaicans are intensely proud and fiercely defend their culture. She loves to paint this image of herself as a proper, ever so refined lady. Though this sometimes runs afoul of her Jamaican country girl self.

I hate to break it to you people, but this personality was not developed in a vacuum.

Obviously, to quote the great philosopher, Terrell Owens, “I love me some me.” I love me a lot. I love the way I look. I love the way I think. I love the way I behave. I love my quirks. What drew me to my wife? How much she loved me. Not everyone is capable of this kind of self-love. It’s a gift.

Unfortunately, the words of that Jesus guy keep haunting me: “Love others as you love yourself.” So I have a lifetime of work ahead of me.

Anyway, on July 26th, 1969 at 3:15 in the morning, that precious bit of sperm met with that fated egg and Maurice Gerald Broaddus was conceived. Everyone may officially commence to swim in Lake Me!

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Thinking Through Children’s Ministry

I love it when my oldest son, all of four, sits with me during the “worship portion” of our church service. He doesn’t sit through it very well. He’ll color. He’ll wander off to stare out the windows. Now, this may have something to do with the fact that I’m with them through the day, and we’re all about short attention span theater. But you know what? He makes my worship. We’ll chat about what’s going on. I’ll color (even when he’s not with us, I write during church. I find that I pay attention better when I do). I’ll go with him to the window and we’ll talk about the beauty of God’s creation. My wife is not as fond of us disrupting everyone while we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m of two minds on this issue: I love the chaos of (the idea of) kids being in the gathering with us, but I also love the peace of kids being off in their own area so that I can learn in peace. This was my mindset as we wrestled with an article written by a friend who describes himself as an amateur pastor, hack theologian, and wannabe mystic. His article summarized a book by Ivy Beckwith called Postmodern Children’s Ministry.

This is one of the most important discussions that any new church can have. It’s important that the whole community is on the same page in order to make any fundamental paradigm shift work. You see, most of us grew up in the crafts, snacks, and games model of children’s ministry and while we were entertained, we didn’t find it terribly impactful. The question has to begin with what the purpose of children’s ministry is supposed to be.

* If our purpose is to provide glorified “babysitting” for children while the adults do the “real” work of worship, then we will simply seek to keep the children occupied, whatever it takes.
* If our purpose is to entertain children because we assume that they are unable to grasp or appreciate transcendent spiritual realities, then we will seek to incorporate the snazziest programs possible in order to ensure the kids have fun.
* If our purpose is to use children’s ministry as a marketing tool for prospective parents, then our focus will be on creating the most attractive program.
* However, if our purpose is the spiritual formation of children, then we will proceed in a completely different direction. The significant question will not be, “Do we have the best program?” or “Is our program fun and exciting?” but “What does it mean for a community of faith to take seriously its responsibility to spiritually nurture its children and families?”

It takes a village to raise a child. There is wisdom in this African proverb, wisdom that shouldn’t be rejected just because Hillary Clinton once co-opted it. People are in our kids lives. As parents, ours is the dominant voice, but rarely is it the sole voice. The reason that we gather together as a church is to engage in spiritual formation, in order to be a blessing to the world. If we believe that this is something best done in the context of community, then this should apply to our children also. There needs to be a different mentality, one that begins from the nursery on up.

“The child develops more trust than mistrust when the child has trustworthy, consistent caregivers and lives in a trustworthy, consistent environment… if these things are not present in the infant’s environment, then the ability to have trusting, loving relationships with others can be severely disabled”.

Often the work that happens in the church nursery is seen as little more than baby-sitting. No wonder it’s hard to find committed volunteers! The caregivers in our church nurseries need to know that they are doing much more than helping parents. They need to understand that by loving, holding, feeding, and changing these babies, they are putting bricks in the foundation of trust these children will need in order to know and love God.

Here’s our dilemma: in order for children’s faith to become their own, they need to connect to it on their terms in their time. What we’ve seen happen entirely too often is well-intentioned coercion as we manipulate kids to make “decisions for Christ”. We ask kids, kids as young as five years old, to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives in terms of their spiritual walk. Decisions which lead to uncertainty if not rejection by their college years. Do some kids understand this, sure; so some grow into their decision, certainly. But I also recognize that I have a three and a four year old, two boys who seek my approval. I can get them to “accept Jesus” and parrot a prayer. They’ll love the attention of everyone celebrating their choice (or want the attention if they see their friend receive it) and their baptism would be a significant event. But if their decision is not their own, then their conviction will turn to doubt or will fade with age.

“I believe the time has come for churches to reconsider the overt evangelizing of children. The approaches typically used have little to no bearing on what’s actually happening in a child’s heart and mind. For the most part these tactics are manipulative, playing on the child’s emotions and desire to be accepted and loved. A faith community should never be involved in manipulating the soul of a child”. Overall, an imbalanced focus on conversion rather than transformation has the capacity to short-circuit the entire process of spiritual formation. Evangelism is not simply about one decision; it is about inheriting and embodying a way of life.

“Family is everything to a child. Family is the first place a child forms and experiences relationships. It is a child’s first experience of community. Family is where a child learns language and motor skills and where she develops her first view and understanding of the world. Family is the first place a child experiences love, intimacy, forgiveness, and physical care. Conversely, family can also be the place where a child experiences her first emotional violence, neglect, indifference, and physical hurt”. For this reason, “family is the most important arena for a child’s spiritual development and soul care” … “Instead of building children’s ministries on more and more programming, the church needs to see families as the axis of their children’s ministries. The first priority of children’s ministry ought to be supporting parents in their role as the primary spiritual nurturers of their children”

And lastly, children need to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What we are trying to figure out is how to immerse kids in the constant community of the faith, trying to figure out how to incorporate them into the worship, and how to encourage the inter-generational mixing that best informs the truest aspects of community. The discipline of sitting through a meeting is good to learn. The lesson of respecting the people upfront and the people around them and listening is good to learn.

Churches often fail to recognize that “children need to be involved in processes that communicate belonging. An affective relationship with people in the faith community other than their parents and relatives is an important piece of their spiritual nurture. Children must feel they belong in their faith community as much as the a
dults do”

The child sees adults who struggle, who trust God, who make mistakes and are forgiven, who work for mercy and justice, who model kingdom values. This modeling is powerful teaching for children – more powerful for faith development than listening to a hundred Bible stories or watching a month’s worth of VeggieTales videos. Children will remember the people of the faith community and their lives more than any Bible facts they learned at a church program.

This model is especially powerful when it is manifested by someone who actively participates in children’s ministry. “What a shame that the adults in our churches can’t see the importance of connecting with the children in the community! The friendships children form with those who lead them in religious education are among the most influential relationships they will have in the community”

Here’s the thing, everyone sounds like we’re on the same page about trying to let kids be more of a part of the Sunday morning gathering. The fact that we were already on the same page should make me happy, yet I only get suspicious; like maybe we’ve overlooked something. What that means or what it may look like, we aren’t exactly sure. Though this all sounds good in theory, the problem may come in the future. Right now, we’re a few dozen families deep. As new parents with kids and teens join, they may be expecting kids programs. What we’re talking about sounds like a fairly tall order, or at least more work on the part of parents. Breaking up the church into homogenous groups is the easier route. Too often, we don’t want to put in the effort to having our kids learn to participate in worship (that’s why we bring them to Sunday School and what we expect the Sunday School teachers to teach them). We make them sit through six hours or school and programs, but we don’t make the same effort for a 30 to 45 minute sermon. Maybe we don’t value times of worship, but valuing worship won’t happen on its own and needs to be instilled in kids (as well as some adults).

The bottom line is that everyone is involved, everyone participates, even if they don’t understand every element of what is going on. Heck, adults don’t understand every element of what’s going on half the time.

Oddly enough, everyone ignored my ideas on how to calm kids down enough to sit through a gathering by having them engage in serious spiritual formation-cum-Christian pacifier through the sacramental wine: “Alright kids, extra Jesus juice today.”

The Long Road to Print

Ah. I never get tired of reviewing proofs.

Well, I haven’t had to do that too often. And, truth be told, I hate it. This time around, I had two other sets of eyes go over it so that I wouldn’t be tempted to re-write it. Then I shook myself and went over it. It’s for my story “Family Business” which will be appearing in the next issue of Weird Tales. Going over the proofs got me thinking about two things. The first is how crazy my roads to print are.

Some of you have heard this story before. The first story that I had accepted was my story “Soul Food”. In my credits, it says that it was published in the magazine Hoodz, however originally, this wasn’t going to be the case.

It was a Saturday morning at 7:15 a.m. (sad, but this is how clearly I still remember this), my phone rings waking me from a rock solid sleep. I’m prepared to yell at whoever was calling when they immediately apologize and explain that they are one of the editors of the anthology that I had submitted my story to.

He wanted to call me and personally accept my story.

So I’m sitting in bed, dumbstruck. I thank him, hang up the phone, do my happy dance, then call and wake up several friends to share my news. Months go by. Nothing, I don’t hear a peep. This was my first sale and I had no idea how the process worked. I didn’t even know that editors don’t customarily call up the writers they accept. Then one day I read that the anthology that accepted my story has been released.

My story isn’t in there.

I e-mail the editor. She writes back this huge apology. Apparently the editor that accepted my story left the anthology. Not all of his work made it to her, and my story slipped between the cracks. Of course, the anthology went on to big sales and critical acclaim.

I bumped into the editor at this year’s WHC. She asked why I no longer submitted to her. I told her that I didn’t know she had any open projects. So she convinced me to write something for her. I’m still waiting to hear back from her.

“Family Business” won the World Horror Convention/Weird Tales Short Story contest back in 2003. It’s route to print was a lot simpler. Well, relatively. The tale involves the story originally being accepted by a magazine that immediately went out of business. So I entered it in the contest. Yay bad business models!

[The second thing reviewing my proofs got me to thinking about? Why I don’t do readings. Many of my stories have such heavy accents, and I sound absolutely ridiculous affecting either a Jamaican or hardcore ghetto speech pattern.]

Constrained Lines

On occasion, I get asked what are taboos for me. Most times, I don’t know how to answer that, though I know that the asker is usually going for “you’re a Christian and a horror writer, so what won’t you write about?” So I think that I’ll wander around the topic and see what I come up with.

We as writers/artists often rail against the tyranny of the constraints of our Puritanical society (and too often misuse words like “censorship” in the process). But you know what? I like lines. Lines force me to be creative, subversive within the boundaries. In fact, people are more clever when they can get their point across within the so-called bounds of polite society. And I like clever. Plus, I think that we miss the point: we need the lines. I’m not talking as “that Christian guy” or “that moralist busybody,” but as an artist.

On the one hand, sometimes, well, lines are there for a reason. Let’s face it, that envelop was getting pretty out there. We were left coming up with new things that leather clad midgets could do with goats. Though, seriously, reading about the rape of a retarded girl as entertainment isn’t my idea of a fun read, but that’s a personal taste issue and I get that some people are drawn to more extreme stuff. Though it is another reason why I appreciate lines.

On the other hand, pulled back lines make it easier to cross. Which is why I even like the occasional reset. After the Janet Jackson brouhaha, the lines that govern social acceptability were reigned in. As horror writers, one of the tools in our artistic tool belt is the breaking of taboos, the pushing of the envelope. Those lines affect the traditional horror writers as well as the more extreme, since all too often all horror is lumped together (with of course the “extreme” stuff trotted out as examples of the genre as a whole).

There’s a lot that I won’t write about because they have no interest for me or there are some places that I can’t go. At least right now. I used to discount the possibility of me writing a romance novel, until I wrote one (one of those “baby mama dramas,” though under a pseudonym).

So the short version is that I have no specific taboos. Sacrilegious things used to be my reflex answer, but even that can be done in a way that I would find engaging. All I care about is that the writing is done intelligently and well.

That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it. For the moment, anyway.

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Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Black People in the Conversation

“What the hell have you dragged me to?” Those were the first words out of my mouth when “the man who would be head pastor” of the Dwelling Place dragged me to an emergent church. We’d been curious to see what other churches in the area who called themselves emergent looked like. Well, apparently they were about line-dancing. The pastor, in a cowboy hat, had encouraged the women of his congregation to start dancing during the music portion of the service. Yeah, I was the only black guy in the place. Yeah, the pastor had to “pull the service over” in order to explain that I was in the right place.

It was fine. They were in the middle of a series on finding God in music and the genre of the week was country music. The following week was hip-hop, and “the man who would be head pastor” was convinced that most of the congregation thought that I was the advance guy for the rap group that was due in that week. But it didn’t help ease my concerns about what a postmodern church is supposed to be about or look like.

For those that have no idea what I’m talking about, or have no idea what a PoMo (postmodern) or Emergent Church is, luckily for you PBS has been running a series of specials on the movement. Part 1 and Part 2 are up as transcripts (plus there are some video streams).

There is also a Brian Mclaren interview that opens with this question: How do you describe the emerging church? “It is a group of people who are trying to put together two things that have been apart. One of them is a fidelity to the Christian message, and a real concern about it actually being lived out in practice. And we’re saying you can’t have one without the other … When you try to put those things together, you end up with a stronger emphasis on practices. It’s not just doctrines that people get in their minds, although our thinking is very, very important. But also there is a desire to have practices that actually form us as people.”

This last point, the idea of practices that form us as people, has been what I’ve been continuing to meditate on. Between the Emergent Convention, my experiences in local emergent churches, and after seeing the movie Rize, I’ve been thinking a lot about the place of black people in the conversation called the Emergent Church. It didn’t help that a discussion on my message board addressing criticisms of the emergent church has erupted. As this sympathetic dude put it: What is the emergent movement doing to involve more diverse cultural groups. I see a lot of young white faces, but not much color. Is there an effort to reach the traditional black church, the growing Latino community in our country, and the larger global community of Christians, mostly catholic, that are ready to expand and develop into newer forms? Once again I will reiterate that I am a post-modern/emergent type of guy myself, but it is always going to be important to look at ourselves and be open about our weaknesses. Let’s try to get that toothpick out of our eye before it becomes a plank.

So think of this as an expansion on my last bit of mental noodling on black people and the emergent church.

Let me put the nature of my dilemma in context. As another postmodern brother put it, I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a Sankofa lately. (“Sankofa” is an Akan word which means, “one must return to the past in order to move forward.”) I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis, trying to work through my faith first as a Christian, then as a black man. I’ve already spoken about my spiritual journey, but obviously I’m not done yet.

In a lot of ways, the emergent church struck me as, well, the Christian equivalent of the grunge movement. A little subversive, a little edgy, and whole lot of white, middle class evangelicals trying to make Christianity look cool. In other words, originally I saw a lot of style over substance. However, once I dug a little deeper, read some of the foundational works, a lot of the substance of postmodernism resonated. I was left wondering how this would translate to black churches, wondering what an emergent African American church would look like or what a multi-cultural emergent church would look like. Better put, what would a multi-cultural church look like that drew on all worship traditions? Because, let me tell you, I ain’t feeling guitars, candles, and labyrinths. I love organs, drums, and gospel choirs way too much to give them up. Of course, part of this stems from the fact that we could all stand with a bigger definition of worship.

I guess I should start with whether or not black churches are in need of being a part of the conversation. It may sound elitist to say, but there were some issues that the historic black church managed to escape; some Postmodern leanings that have always been a part of who and what the black church is. For instance, we’ve been doing narrative theology from the jump. Looking back on the history of black Christianity, we had no choice but to focus on a narrative presentation of the faith, rather than on the development of a metaphysical system which attempted to draw infallible logical inferences from the Bible, reducing it to data in need of organizing. Not to say that this didn’t become more of an issue in the rise of seminary trained pastors, but by then, narrative theology was a part of the tradition.

Worship has always been experiential within the tradition of the black church. People tend to look at black churches and think that the attenders were in it for the emotional ride. Sure, we are an affective people, but it is a cognitive affectiveness: we feel the truth and worship is (intuitively) experiential. The emotional ride of worship has to be done within the narrative of the Gospel. Okay, I may have a bit of rose colored glasses on. Plenty of folks in my neighborhood go for the weekly show and the hollerin’, then come home and cause a ruckus during the rest of the week.

The historic black church has also been more missional in nature also. It had to be, given its context within the black community. Black people had had enough hell on earth to have to wait on the promise of an eternal heaven. Things had to start changing now, thus why the Church (big ‘c’, not solely the African American church) was the home of the Emancipation movement, Civil Rights movement, and has always set a tone of being a liberating presence in the community. With issues of poverty and economic and social justice at its forefront, the church, historically, has been socially conscious and thus relevant.

Yet the black church, too, has felt the sting of modernism and has seen its effectiveness lessened. How else can we explain our youth seeking a sense of family in gangs rather than in church? The decline of men in church attendance? The continuing break up of black families? As Brian Mclaren says of modernity and the church, what we think happened is that modern culture has been, in som
e ways, spiritually an arid place. It’s been spiritually a place that there wasn’t much room for authentic and communal spirituality. And so modernity brought us down.” We think that the church has, in many ways, already accommodated to modernity. And so the Christian message has become a product almost, and it and the methods of spreading it are like sales pitches. We feel that it has been individualized.

I have seen several modern tendencies infiltrate the black church. I am greatly concerned by this rise in the “health and wealth” Gospel (have enough faith and healing and money comes your way). Being in bed with nationalistic politics is no different from white evangelicals flexing their political power within the Republican party. And the perception of the pastor as (mini-) pope, well any overly pastor-centered church is in danger of becoming simply a cult of personality.

With the diagnosis in place, the next step is figuring out what our traditions of faith are and what we bring to the table. A friend blogged about Negro spirituals as subversive Christian practice. Musically, I’d love to see jazz incorporated more, maybe a worship team that is part jazz ensemble (this is a style issue, a reaction to white evangelical churches doing 70s era light right as choruses and calling it worship). The movie Rize has driven home the importance of dance as and in worship.

As I continue to think through this, I am exploring the Coptic Orthodoxya branch of Christianity that, according to tradition, the apostle Mark established in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century–and seeing what they have to offer in terms of practices.

I still might not find what I’m looking for. And maybe the critics of Emergent may have some valid points. I know that Brian McLaren is purposefully broadening the conversation in Africa and South America. There’s one thing that can’t be denied, however: when all is said and done, at least the Emergent movement allows for this sort of conversation. A conversation long overdue.

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Burn, Baby, Burn

“We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy both racism and capitalism.” Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panthers.

Remember how you felt the first time you heard your “never sell out”/“better to burn out and die young” rock ‘n roll band from your youth being used to shill your father’s Oldsmobile? That’s almost what this is like:

JULY 18–Former Black Panther associates of Huey P. Newton, the late co-founder of the militant organization, are seeking to trademark the phrase “Burn Baby Burn” so they can slap the words–long associated with conflagrations that left cities like Watts and Newark in cinders–on hot sauce. According to pending filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (which you will find below), the Huey P. Newton Foundation also wants to trademark the phrase “Revolutionary Hot Sauce.” The Oakland-based group, which is run by Newton’s widow Fredrika and ex-Panther David Hilliard, submitted the trademark applications late last year and, according to USPTO records, appears close to securing government approval of its requests. On the foundation’s web site, the Newton group describes itself as a “community-based, non-profit research, education, and advocacy center dedicated to fostering progressive social change.” It is unclear exactly what role spicy condiments play in this noble multicultural pursuit. In 1966, Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party, which would later be called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States” by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

You know, there comes a point where you’ve traded on your reputation a little too much, diluted the power of your message to the point of irrelevance. To go from a force for good–granted, often having to muddle through its often mixed messages and methods–to sell its soul to the capitalist system that it struggled against, well it’s a little disappointing.

Granted, it’s not like I’m reading about a new “I Have a Dream” line of adjustable beds.

Though now I’m waiting for Col. Farrakhan to start serving up some fried chicken.

Served with crackers.

(That cracker joke brought to you by lokust)

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Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.