Tag Archives: Marxism

The Musical Jesus: From James Hal Cone to Jesus Walks

James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.

Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.

The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery. This ultimately led to his rebellion and subsequent death. Similarly to Cone’s configuration of the Spirituals he believes that the Blues had a similar message. The Blues represent a secularized version of the socio-political message that was expunged from Spirituals. They too could equally be used as tools of liberation against dominant oppressive groups. Much like spiritual the Blues could be used to articulate a powerful socio-political message with profound theological implications. They affirmed the personhood of African Americans in the face of institutions that were created to take this very thing away from them.

While reading Cone’s work I began to think about some of the other connections that can be made with between African American experiences and how that has translated into music to have implications for theology, politics, and society in general. I preface this by stating that James Cone wrote this particular work in the 1970’s so what he wrote was indeed insightful for the context to which it was written. However, I believe that the religious insights from spiritual are reflected within the work of African American’s in other genres of music as well. In today’s context I do not see theo-political issues reflected in any particular artist or genre rather I see it in various songs by various African American artists. For example, Kanye West in his song “Gorgeous” poses a very interesting question.

West is questioning the function of hip hop music in the 21st century. Much like the Blues did for African Americans in the 20th century hip hop resonates with ideal and experience of many African American youth today. This is complicated by the secular nature of hip hop music. Hip hop music in itself could be seen as the religion of the youth today. The thought, ideas, cultural values, and even its counter cultural elements are appealing to youths. Ultimately, West is posing the question has hip- hop music replaced the socio- political elements that were once held onto by the Blues and Spirituals. Hip hop is to the soul of modern youth as what spirituals were to slaves. While admittedly this is not the case for all of hip hop music, West may be on to something, certainly there are hip hop songs that articulate a political theology the likeness of spirituals and the blues. Kanye West’s own work is an example of this. His song “Jesus Walks,” although not a gospel song has some inherently spiritual dimensions to it. From the introduction to the hook the song is laced with theo-political implications. He begins with the verse:

“We at war ” “We at war with terrorism, racism” “But most of all we at war with ourselves”(Jesus walk)” “God show me the way because the Devil tryna break me down” (Jesus walk with me)”

These lines hint at how West views some of our current socio-political struggles. Threats such as terrorism, racism, and even our inner struggles can leave us helpless. He sees they only way out is through his belief in Jesus. Jesus serves as liberation in this context in much the same way that Christian theology function as a form of liberation for the slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. West in this particular song is making use of theology and politics to articulate freedom from systems of oppression that dominate society today. Although West’s song gives insight to current use of African American political theology, I wonder what other songs and genres have similar themes.


James Cone’s The Spirituals and The Blues

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture

Anthony Pinn, et. al.: Noise and Spirit: The Religion and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music

(A THROW BACK!): Calvinism And Holy Hip Hop

White Saviorism Cultural Appropriation in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmit Till

MTV is for Minstrel Television: Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, & Race

#Continuum: A Test Of Time @ContinuumSeries #Liber8

“You’re telling me I could be here for a reason. Part of some bigger plan?”-Kiera Cameron


Last year, I saw the following video that was very Anonymous-like but was really a promo for the Showcase sy fy program, Continuum:

Liber8 are the “terrorists” fighting against a futuristic society dominated by corporations, governed by the Corporate Congress. These antagonists function a lot like Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, yet prefer lethal violence to send their message. Standing in their way are police persons, Protectors, like Kiera Cameron, played by Rachel Nichols (of GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra & Star Trek *JJ Abrams* fame). Liber8 is apprehended in the future, and were sentenced to death for the murder of thousands. However, they escape using a time bomb to send them back into time. They didn’t count on Kiera Cameron following them back 60 years into the past.

The episode “A Test Of Time” was the most compelling so far. Here, I think more implications of time travel, issues of life, economic, and notions of family just are in fuller view. It all starts out with Liber8’s leader, Eduardo, deciding to target Kiera’s grandmother (then a teenager), as part of a twisted experiment to see what would happen if Kiera’s grandma was murdered, would Kiera cease to exist? As the drama unfolded, Liber8 also begins to notice that one of its members is turning on them. In a plot twist, Eduardo and Travis also take Kellogg’s pregnant (future) grandmother as well. While they are alone hiding from our antagonists, Cameron and Lilly (her grandma) discover that Lilly is pregnant. Lilly is an emancipated teenager with no dreams or job. Horrified at the news, Lilly’s first response is that she must have an abortion, since she is without hope. Working out of self-preservation, Cameron talks to Lilly out of having an abortion, pointing out that she should discuss this with the father, and that there will be a possibility that her child will have a child, and they will surround Lilly with so much love, she will be really glad she made the right decision.

Kiera’s persuasive argument worked, and I think that there is a lesson to be learned here for person’s who are pro-life. Science fiction is always a great way to discuss ethics and culture, and Continuum is no exception. Officer Cameron makes her contention based on human love without a reference to a higher power of any sort. I think that this could be a possible example of the sort of arguments to be made in favor of life but from a common ground.

There other scene in this episode I found fascinating. One, was towards the conclusion of the ep, the hostage situation included the bodies of three pregnant women. It got me to thinking how in economics, as critic Gayatri Spivak notes, how undervalued the bodies AND labor of women and mothers are in corporation-driven economies as well as in Marxist theory. It could be possible Continuum is making a subtle criticisms of both capitalism and Marxism.

I can’t wait to watch what is ahead on this show, and I am glad it got renewed!

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Did Abel Deserve To Die?: Mosala's Postcolonial Reading of Genesis 4:1-16

15th century depiction of Cain and Abel, Specu...

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As far as I can remember, my mother was the first one to teach my brother and I about the Cain and Abel story. She inferred in her reading (which was the traditional understanding) that Abel gave the better sacrifice, the very best lamb he had. The question is, for me, where is this in the text? No where in Scripture does it say, in Genesis 4 that Cain gave the worst of his crop (as the children’s bible illustrations tried to teach me). This story always eluded me. For post-modern readers, like Brian McLaren and Marjorie Suchocki, they offer Abel and Cain as part of the meta-narrative of the Fall to violence, that Abel was one of the world’s first scapegoats (after his mother Eve of course), and Cain leads the world into death, rage, and eventually Nimrod’s empire.

At first, this would seem to be an appropriate reception of Genesis 4, but it still does not bother to ask, why is Abel favored over Cain? Then last week in my reading, I came across Itumeleng Mosala in his Biblical Hermeneutics And Black Theology In South Africa and his materialist critique of liberation theology. For Mosala, the notion of the Bible as “the Word of God,” something that is free of ideology with one clear message, is a bourgeois bias (page 26). The Bible as “the Word of God” conceals, according to Mosala, the fact that the text is a product of “complex and problematical histories and societies” (20). I believe this scathing critique, while aimed at James Cone, can rightfully be applied to the subject of Cone’s dissertation topic, Karl Barth as well.

Mosala takes Desmund Tutu and Allan Boesak to task for their liberationist hermeneutical leaps, and existential uses of Scripture without acknowledging Scripture’s oppressive passages. For Mosala, the problem with Boesak’s reading of the Bible as an ideological text starts with Boesak’s defense of the decision by God to leave Cain a landless nomad (a refugee if you will). However, Mosala notes, that nearly all scholars agree that Genesis 4:1-16 was written around 10th century BCE. It is not a matter simply of Cain killing his brother, he is punished, end of story. The gaps in the story tell us something about the ideology behind the author’s intentions. For one thing, Abel is a shepherd, and shepherds in the ancient near east were titles given to the kings along with the ruling class (priests, nobility).  The 10th century BCE was also the time when the ruling classes during the Davidic monarchy expropriated land from the masses, leaving their fellow Judeans homeless. In this instance, Boesak’s (and I would include McLaren’s and Suchocki’s) reading of Genesis 4:1-16 is a collusion with the oppressors (33). Therefore, it could be said that Cain and Abel is a story to justify the Yahwist author’s defense of the people becoming landless– since of course, only the royalty and the elite are pleasing before the LORD (34). Scriptural evidence for this taking of land includes II Kings 21 and II Chronicles 26. The royal scribes producing the history of David’s triumph worked to apologize for the economic changes taking place, from the more egalitarian pre-monarchal tribal setting during the time of judges, to a socio-economic structure where the king is in charge of a tribute system that exploits the poor; remember, YHWH did warn the Israelites that this would happen (1st Samuel 8). Large, privately owned estates, latifundias as they were called, began to appear as the peasant class lost their power. In reading Ezekiel’s eschatology, (chapters 40-48), I am now beginning to wonder if Ezekiel, while part of the priestly class himself, he does call for the egalitarian distribution of land among the people (Ezekiel 48: 1-29). Just something to think about.

Speaking of priesthood, Mosala also takes Tutu for task for using “the one royal priesthood” as a metaphor in his Hope and Suffering, since a royal priesthood is a code-word for ideological landed nobility (39).  This reminds me of theologians such as Hauerwas and company who rely on similar language, with all the talk of virtue ethics and community, that maybe some theological projects are inherently going to favor the gentry.  It also makes me want to reconsider readings of 1st Peter 2:9; perhaps it would be more emancipatory to read 1st Peter 1 & 2 together, that the notion of diaspora (1st Peter 1:1), homelessness, is connected to discipleship, for the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58 NRSV).  This may even cause us to re-think Jesus as our High Priest-King, once we filter through the historical definitions of what it meant to be a royal scribe.

As for Mosala’s reading of black liberation theology and Genesis 4:1-16, there are a few issues that I need to air out. First, while I side with Mosala, that there is no meta-narrative in scripture, and that the idea that there is a meta-narrative in the Bible is ultimately a middle-class bias that supports the ruling class within the church. However, Mosala is driven by his own Marxist & materialist meta-narrative that does not see its own blind spots. Contemporary theology views Jesus as the primary Word of God, and Scripture secondary, and that the Bible can only be considered the Word of God as far as it refers to the mission of Christ. Secondly, materialism comes from a form of naturalism that ignored the immanently transcendent presence of the Living God in creation.  It is the unquestioned pre-supposition of God’s existence (for better or worse) that differentiates modern black theological projects from others, i.e., there is little engagement with non-theistic thinkers (in my view).  Thirdly, what we know about the history of the ancient Near East is very limited, and while it is helpful, it is not a foundation that laypersons can rely on.  In other words, it is a view mostly accessible to the academy.  Now granted, there are many laypersons who are interested in historical criticism.  It is just very difficult to make it plain.

So, I ask, did Abel deserve to die?  Is Cain the victim after all?

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