Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Religion, the Spiritual Marketplace, and Other News

It is fashionable among some scholars to use the image, or metaphor, of a marketplace to describe the religious dynamics that exist in the United States. Producers compete for consumers while consumers seemingly make rational choices about which producer to affiliate with or buy into. Producers attempt to gain a market share by diversifying products, by recalibrating what they offer, all attuned to the tastes and preferences of consumers.

In this scenario, Joel Osteen is one of the savviest of the religious producers in America's religious marketplace, competing with fellow producers like Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, and so many others.

Most of you are no doubt familiar with Osteen's book, Your Best Life Now, a handbook to divine blessing organized around 7 life principles. Well, not only can you read the book, when hanging out with family over the holidays you can play your way to your best life now. That's right, it's the "Your Best Life Now: The Game."

For those who live in the religious marketplace, this is a brilliant move. To my knowledge, this is the only major preacher in American history who has had a book turned into a boardgame. I'd love to hear confirmation if this is actually the case. In a way, this validates the sociological work of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, and exemplifies the perspective of R. Laurence Moore, among others.

In other news, the first book about Joel Osteen is due out soon. Written by Richard Young, it is titled The Rise of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. From news reports it sounds like a book that offers glowing praise for the man and the ministry; I'm not sure to what extent it sets Osteen in the context of American religious history and culture.

For more on that, I will soon unveil a project I'm working on with a sociologist at Tulane University....stay tuned.

Is Jesus Black?, Part 2

Well, "tomorrow" has arrived, though much later than expected.

After I returned from seeing The Color of the Cross a couple of weeks back, I reread Baldwin’s 1968 address to the World Council of Churches titled “White Racism or World Community?” The essay is poignantly sharp and prophetically accusatory, which is to say Baldwin’s critical comments contain a seed of hope, the possibility of redemption. Baldwin describes his life as a minister in The Fire Next Time and makes connection to this story in this essay. In my opinion, Baldwin’s prophetic voice resonates precisely because he left the church of his youth. Sometimes distance provides clarity, and deconversion sometimes results in faith. Such is the irony of life.

The operative dynamic in the essay is that of confrontation. Baldwin boldly confronts white supremacy in the church just as The Color of the Cross confronts the image, the aesthetics, in short the panopticon of a Euro-American Jesus.

Listen to Baldwin:
“Now it would seem to me that the nature of the confrontation, the actual historical confrontation between the non-white peoples of the world and the white peoples of the world, between the Christian Church and those people outside the Christian Church who are unable to conceive themselves as being equally the sons of God, the nature of that confrontation is involved with the nature of the experience which a black person represents vis-à-vis the Cross of Christ, and vis-à-vis that enormous structure which is called the Church….This has to do, of course, with the fact that though he was born in Nazareth under a very hot sun, and though we know that he spent his life between that sun, the Christ I was presented with was presented to me with blue eyes and blond hair, and all the virtues to which I, as a black man, was expected to aspired had, by definition, to be white. This may seems a very simple thing and from some points of view it might even seem to be a desirable thing. But in fact what it did was make me very early, make us, the blacks, very early distrust our own experience and refuse, in effect, to articulate that experience to the Christians who were our oppressors. That was a great loss for me, as a black man. I want to suggest that is was also a great loss for you, as white people” (pp. 753-54).

He goes on to interpret Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God as a “claim that was a revelation and a revolution because it means that we are all the sons of God” (p. 755).

Baldwin suggests first that a way forward is possible, though it will take a keen eye to see the panopticon and a bold resovle to risk confronting the ubiquity of a Euro-American Jesus. This, I think, is the kind of revelation Baldwin suggests could spark a revolution.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Is Jesus Black?, Part I

Is Jesus black? Is the son of God a person of African descent? A recent movie, The Color of the Cross, imagines – or rather argues – that Jesus is indeed black.

First brought to my attention by hip-hop intellectual and assistant professor of African American religion at UC-Riverside Jonathan Walton, I went to see this movie recently. It debuted on Friday, November 10. (For those not familiar with Walton’s work, you need to check it out. And you need to mull over his own thoughts about the movie.)

As I watched the movie, my mind went back and forth between what I’ve learned from my reading of James Cone and my deep interest in James Baldwin, two writers who each in their own way interrogates, deconstructs, and ultimately rejects conventional North American/Western images of a Euro-American Jesus. (My comrade Anthony Smith describes the white aesthetic of the Western Jesus as a panopticon and offers reflections here.) Cone makes a profound and compelling theological case borne out of his early life experiences in the American South, while Baldwin muses about the topic in reflections on the vicissitudes of life as a black man in mid-twentieth century America. Similarly, the music of Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu (and here) offers its own critique of society, with redemptive dimensions that pulsate through the beats and emerge poetically through the rhymes.

It is obvious – or is it? – that a movie such as The Color of the Cross would resituate Jesus of Nazareth as a “Black Jew” and therefore offer cinematic commentary on first-century Palestinian society. A laborer from the margins of Palestinian society who spoke funny, who claimed to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, who claimed to be God? It is also clear that in 21st century North American society such a film would interrogate the white supremacist structures of American society, and in particular the panopticon of many North American churches. To my knowledge no white church rented out theatres for their parishioners to see the movie, no white churches have screened the film in their churches and hosted discussions about what it can teach about Jesus’ life. Sadly, I’m afraid that such a response suggests that most white churches lack the humility to listen and will therefore lose an important opportunity to enact Jesus’ redemptive message and life. Pardon the pun, but in a year’s time, “the Passion” has subsided. Remember the fury and flurry of interest over Mel Gibson’s film?

The silence of the white evangelical community about this film attests to the prophetic power the movie contains. Do they (we) have eyes to see and ears to hear?

Tune in tomorrow to hear James Baldwin speak to these issues.