Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Peculiar Use of the Term "Gospel" Among African Americans

Yesterday's flurry of posts regarding the Time Magazine feature article, "Does God Want You Rich?" has me once again thinking about an issue that's troubled me for a while. It's the use of the term "Gospel." In particular, it's the use of the term "Gospel" among African Americans

My thoughts aren't complete... but there is something incredibly peculiar about this word in the African American experience. What I mean is... the word is used most often to designate a genre of cultural production as much or more often than it's used to refer to "the Good News," propositional, historical, and efficacious truth about Jesus Christ.

So... there is "gospel" music. Listened to any lately? Conspicuously absent in the vast majority of it is any actual meditation on the Good News. There is lots of celebration, remembrance, testimony, and exhortation... but very little "sacred head now wounded." Don't get me wrong... I crank gospel music semi-regularly. But I'm troubled by the moniker when attributed to the content of these songs. There is no Gospel in them.

Okay... then there are "gospel" plays. There is a whole "chitlin' circuit" of such productions, usually bouncing from local civic center to civic center, and sometimes featuring a former entertainment celebrity (singer) rumored to have turned Christian as a big attraction. The stories are generally the same... lazy, good-for-nuthin man causes grief to desperately hopeful and struggling "Christian" grandmother, mother or wife (more frequently girlfriend). Events move on... someone has a "breakthrough" and begins to "act right" to the pleasure of everyone. Lots of crude humor passed off as "keepin' it real," "you know that's how it really is" commentary. In all the commotion... cheap laughs, sappy emotionalism, and occasional moralism... no Good News.

Then there are "gospel" movies. Tyler Perry's wildly successful Madea plays turned big screen hits (Madea's Family Reunion) are packing folks in. Perry has gone from homelessness to a $5 million dollar mansion on the strength of his creations. Go 'head on, fella. Joining him in the effort are films like The Gospel, featuring "gospel" recording artist Donnie McClurkin. Donnie has had an interesting life as well... but in my mind he is rather notorious for wildly-popular Good News-denying lyrics like "a saint is just a sinner who fell down... but got up." What?! Is it any wonder that these so-called "gospel" films have virtually zero Gospel content? Plenty of moralism to go around... but no Good News.

And tonight... I spent about 30 minutes watching a video called The Gospel Comedy All-Stars. It's an obvious attempt to replicate the success of Def Comedy Jam for Christians... to deliver "clean" comedy to the saints. Saints should laugh. I laughed through a few really good parts. But I also had to overlook a number of plainly crude parts that were regular "comedy" without the expletives. My 8 year-old daughter ought to be able to watch and enjoy a genre called "gospel comedy." I found myself having to explain and refute too much. Turned it off. But not before it was painfully clear there would be no Good News-related content. Not even a quick "gospel presentation" at the end of the video. Just as well. There's no greater demonstation of the peculiar use of the term than the phrase "Gospel comedy." That's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one! There is no comedy in the Cross! Joy... yes. Laughing matter comedy... not an ounce! And then to include an idolatrous term like "All Stars" to boot... well it's obvious that the Lord of Glory isn't being considered with this use of the word "gospel."

The peculiar quality of all of this, for me, is only exceeded by its deep sadness. My people in the flesh are perishing by the millions for lack of knowledge. And I'm stressing African Americans here, because as my wife pointed out, we would call it "Christian" movies, plays or music if it were marketed to our brothers of lighter hue... again the peculiar association of the term's misuse with African Americans. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans venture into these movies and plays and buy millions of musc cds, and for their efforts they receive no accurate or meaningful information about the Son of God who shed His blood for the redemption of sinners! That's tragic. And I shudder to think of how many folks will on that day say, "Lord, Lord, we made movies and plays and music in your name, for your glory," only to hear the Son of Righteousness respond, "I never knew you. Depart from me."

Affirmations and Denials
I affirm that the Lord of creation endowed man with a capacity to produce culture and art, and that this gift is a good gift to be cultivated and used for His glory, to help man to worship God in the beauty of holiness.

I deny that the music, plays, film and other art forms commodified as a "gospel" genre has any legitimate association with or bears any resemblance to the biblical term, historicity, and content of the Good News of the electing Father sending His only Son to redeem through His blood and to unite with Himself a chosen people sealed and preserved by the Holy Spirit of God as His portion for His glory and pleasure and their everlasting joy!


Anonymous said...


Thanks you for this post. This has been an issue I have thought a lot about but have had problems articulating.


Shawn Abigail said...

Is it a problem that is particular to African-Americans, or is it a problem with our society in general? People used to say "and that's the gospel truth" when they were lying to you, but now we're far too Biblically illiterate to use such expressions.

SFB said...

I have lived in several predominantly African-American/multi-ethnic urban neighborhoods in my life (I am Caucasian). The odd thing is that it seemed totally acceptable to many, if not most, of my African-American neighbors to listen to filthy secular rap and R&B music all week, but then to break out the McClurkin/Franklin/Adams 'gospel' music on Sunday. I once performed an interesting experiment with some Kirk Franklin footage from a news program I had taped. When the segment showed Franklin's audience dancing, I muted the sound so even the shallow 'gospel' lyrics were silenced, then I watched my wife's reaction as she saw men and women in the crowd gyrating in so many sensual ways. When I told her this was supposedly a 'Christian' concert, she nearly laughed out loud. She couldn't laugh all the way; it was too sad. Neither can I; it's depressing to see what passes for 'gospel' these days, when some of Jonathan Edwards' most devoted congregants were African-American.

Rob Whatman said...

I read through your post with interest but not a little bemusement. So this comment is in some ways written as a kind of defence of 'gospel music'.

Nearly every piece of African American gospel music I have heard is clearly grounded in biblical messages, and certainly uses biblical reference in its lyrics, just the same as other forms of devotional hymn. Indeed, except for the arrangement, they have often been one and the same, old Wesleyan or CofE hymns, the only other difference being the colour of the participants. Generally speaking, the themes are likely to include: the power of Jesus Christ as Our Saviour; relation of the struggles of our lives to those of Jesus, and requests to Him for the strength to endure; references to the various captivities and trials of the Israelites. So we have Old Testament and New Testament themes clearly represented. Where is the music of black churches lacking?

Outside of Christian Metal, something I doubt you approve of, I seriously doubt that many worshippers want to sing ever more brutal descriptions of Christ on the Cross as part of their regular worship. When people come together for worship, they come to thank the Lord for his gift. What else can be asked? A song is not the entire Bible, and noone should expect it to be.

I was concerned by your allusions to the Judgement Day, and your opinion of the likely fate of worshippers who head or produce 'black gospel' branded materials. None may know their fate. However, in defence of such people, surely they are not deliberately leading people away from God, even if some may think there is not enough Good News in their work? May good Christians produce absolutely no devotional work during their lifetimes, but simply live their Good Life. To produce movies showing somebody who was lost now learning from a person who sets a good example by actively living a good life, practicing virtues demonstrated by the disciples, may not be works of art, but surely is a positive thing?

Lastly, why are there black churches and African-American congregations, 'gospel music' classified as black, and 'Christian' music classified as ... not-black? I contend that the distinction has very little to do with concerns about religious content, but is grounded in the more ugly human failings of racism. Back in the early C20th, black artists were either going to sing and record 'gospel', or they were going to make a 'race record'. The concept of 'gospel music' had a very real element of here-and-now transcendence, defying contemporary problems of colour, wrapped within its meaning. I cannot see how this harms the spiritual message.

In conclusion, unless one is convinced that faith concerns only Salvation, and that the Gospel has nothing to offer our daily lives on this earth, I suggest that expressions of faith should tackle and grapple with our trials and struggles. A 'pure church' cannot divorce itself from considering human life as it is, however distasteful, and the methods of spreading the Word should include the seeker more than exclude the sinner if it is to be spread to all who need it.

Sorry for such a long post, I rambled on a bit! It certainly gave me a lot to think about, even if we disagree perhaps on certain points!


Rob Whatman

FellowElder said...

Thanks for your comments. Thoughtful reflections here. Perhaps the quickest way for me to respond is to say I think you viewed my critique with a wider lense than intended. The post was about the "peculiar" use of the term "Gospel," not about the general biblical themes of "Gospel music" or the ways in which that music functions in the experience of African Americans. I would certainly agree that in traditional gospel music you find rich biblical allusions and often clever messages regarding suffering, resistance, freedom, and hope. But those themes are NOT the gospel. That's the point of the post. Lots of smoke... almost no fire. And yes, I think there will be an accounting before God for how we steward the Gospel and steward our gifts in service to the Gospel. Whether we serve the Gospel or another "gospel" will be revealed on that day. And yes, I tremble at the thought that many who have been moral, good people, will find that they have never actually trusted in the finished work of Jesus Christ. And I shudder at the thought that many will hear those dreadful words of our Lord, "Depart from me, for I never knew you." And many will hear those words though they spent hours upon hours listening to, singing, and watching "gospel" music and plays and movies. The term "gospel" is not a generic synonym for any "biblical theme or allusion" we may find in our entertainment. That's the point of the post, and on that score, I think the music is seriously lacking. And what is lacking is understanding.