Tag Archives: The Musical Jesus

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.

Recommendations:

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

Musical Jesus: Sounds of Liberation – Lukewarm by Grace

As we all know, Rod has just been tearing it up here at Political Jesus with his prophetic series on syncretism between Anabaptist and Black Liberation Theologies (AKA #Anablacktivist!): see Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: An #AnaBlacktivist Manifesto

I’d like to take this time to bring to your attention a song I’ve known for a couple of years now and I’ve always known it as an beautiful, maybe even adorable ( featuring a group of young girls doing mature vocal runs) with raw vocals. The song entitled “Lukewarm” by Grace , coupled with Rod’s Anablacktivist series has caused me to see the issue of being a “lukewarm” believer in a new light. Of course, in the American Protestant Church, being “lukewarm” has traditionally been understood as being “on fire for the Lord!”. Especially in Pentecostal/Charismatic congregations, it would seem as though this is used as a sort of justification /motivation for revivals and revival season.

Looking at this within the context of liberation theologies, especially, being lukewarm, seems to mean the aligning of the church – a group of theoretically prophetic, “salt of the earth” , confessing believers- with worldly forces of empire. Perhaps being lukewarm is , moreso, serving the infamous “two masters” (both God and money)… Perhaps the greatest rejection of a lukewarm spirit, then, is seen when Christ is on his fast in the desert and is tempted by the Enemy by visions of opulent, immense empire. In rejecting this temptation, Christ sends the message that no one true child of YHWH may straddle the fences of empire and the peaceable kingdom. The American Evangelical Church could be said to be quite lukewarm in their inconsistent endorsement of “christian values” to preserve Constantinian civil religion. Often seen as an admonition of
earthly pleasures and fear of “loss of salvation”, I believe that in rejecting the lukewarm spirit- we are liberated to commitment to Christ’s Kingdom.  Could the lukewarm spirit even go further to apply to the balance between narrative theologies and historical context (as defined in Rod’s Anabaptist/BLT series)? Can one truly bear the fullest righteousness/desires of the YHWH by a commitment to only narrative theology but not its historical context…or vice versa?( only acknowledging history of Scriptures while ignoring how they might apply to the particularities of contemporary communities around the world)  Something to meditate on- these young ladies say it best:

 

Musical Jesus: The Curious Case of Equivocation!

 

Equivocation is defined by the Google dictionary as “the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself; prevarication.” I am no theologian or church historian but I have often thought on numerous occasions that equivocation is amongst the terrors of modern Christianity. Just think of this sentence:

“Jesus Christ came so that we might be saved” – How many times have we heard preachers say things like this without unpacking it or providing any context!? Did he come to save us from the pits of hell, from socioeconomic and moral depravity or what? And so when that’s all the sunday preacher bothers to say ( mega church “pastors” tend to do this most it seems), you have your myriad members of the congregation each with their own conception and assumptions of what the phrase might mean- and when you have “popular Christian culture” (i.e. Trinity Broadcast Network), specificity will be left up to prevailing/dominant theology. In a way, equivocation allows for prevailing ( and often oppressive) theologies to remain the status quo.

As to how this belongs in Musical Jesus, there’s a new gospel song that was released shortly before the turning of the New Year. Conveniently coinciding with the mantra of “New Year, New Me”, the song “Greater is Coming” by Jekalyn Carr has become yet another mantra for many black women proclaiming the Christian faith as we kick off 2014.

Have a listen:

Video link to youtube: here

The lyrics can be found: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jekalyncarr/greateriscoming.html

It’s pretty incredible, musically, especially considering that Ms. Carr is only 16 years old!

The idea of “our greater coming” within the context of liberation theology  and much of political Jesus  and that there is a “pressing, shaking, and beating in the Spirit” are powerful ideas. Our greater is coming because of the Resurrection – a greater world being one where we “shall lack no more”( another lyric in her song), one of global peace, harmony, love, ecological harmony,and one where cultures are blessed by one another as opposed to being torn apart by one another, all humanity is one big family – essentially where God’s kingdom has come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  This song could be taken as a message of the spirit of the Triune God preparing humanity through the Church, collectively ( especially for and through the least of these) for a greater, better, brighter reality. Immense!

However, given my own association with many who have declared this their New Year’s anthem, I am quite aware that these are not quite the things that they are thinking of while this blares on the radio.

Dr. Keri Day in her incredible book Unfinished Business, essentially captures the way I believe an alarming degree of black church-going women interpret this song ( while many black men like this song, this song tends to speak to the experiences of black women).

In Chapter 6 of her book, entitled “A New Kind of Prosperity Gospel”, Dr. Day, details the “tension between hope and blame”- she does this using the famous Bishop T.D. Jakes and his messages ( due to his audience being predominantly black women).

Consider the following passage (Pg. 112),

“For instance, Jake’s Thou Art Loosed conference tries to persuade women, particularly the black women who make up the majority of his following, to be victorious within a system that attempts to subjugate them. He also encourages them to cultivate their own futures and to trust God and themselves to overcome any setbacks in their lives. This is a refreshing and empowering message for black women in an American  culture that denigrates and devalues them and vilifies them based on their economic and cultural position. Many women attend Jake’s conferences and become resolute in their belief in themselves as subjects and moral actors with agency within their lives… Unfortunately, while it attempts to aid persons to self-actualize, it simultaneously ignores those structural inequalities that undermine any attempt at self-actualization”

In another passage (pg. 113) Dr. Day further states,

“Simply put, Jake’s message does not acknowledge that working-class and poor women are often unable to make their efforts to flourish count within the larger market forces at work in their communities and the world. When I attended some of Jake’s meetings, I would often overhear black women (who attend his conference yearly) speak of their ongoing poverty with shame because they felt personally responsible. They believed it was a sign of their lack of faith, which is simply not true. Rather they were entrapped by market forces that continually frustrate their attempts to thrive and flourish.”

In not so many words, many of the black women who earnestly sing along to Carr’s “Greater is coming” believe that their greater is greater self-actualization within an oppressive system, but I thank God for folks like Dr. Keri Day that realize the greater would really be the abolishing of this oppressive system and its forces through such things as Poor People’s Campaigns  and subsequent establishment of a system that affirms all.

Even worse are those that believe “their greater” is simply entering into the wealthiest uppercrust of society , and living that “American Dream” – in a white supremacist society, all too often, “their greater” really just means “their whiter”.

My how powerful equivocation can be- so powerful that it can render theologies as far as the East is from the West. As far coercion is from reconciliation. What do you do when you listen to a song that could mean something so different in your view, but you know the majority of the people listening to the song attach a completely different meaning to it? Personally, it’s hard for me to get past the mental block of how I know the majority (and maybe even the artist herself) interprets the song, it can ruin it for me. But there are a number of songs like this that could be so beautiful and empowering in light of the gospel of Christ the liberator.