Thursday, December 30, 2010

Keeping the "soul" intact

A recent column by Lynn Varner of the Seattle Times, inspired by the recent death of soul singer Teena Marie, suggested that she wasn't better known in part due to her genre.

I'm not willing to say that.

For openers, according to many folks, Marie was the first white act to be signed by Motown Records. That's not exactly true -- the Detroit-based band Rare Earth, while on its own label, had its records distributed by Motown (best-known song: "I Just Want to Celebrate"). Besides, there have been white soul acts since the 1970s -- two of my all-time favorite bands are Tower of Power (which I will see tomorrow night) and the Average White Band. Heck, even Elvis borrowed heavily from African-American culture and never hid that fact, though by today's standards his act was fairly corny.

Rather, the musical separation has to do with radio formatting, which became more of a factor in the early 1980s and is a fact of life today. And let's not forget MTV, which was launched in 1981 as Music Television and where image became as important as, and in some cases more so than, musical skill. (Many folks believed that it didn't play black artists due to racism -- the reality, however, was that it was a rock-pop channel that leaned toward British new wave which was already focused on videos.) In the 1970s, when I came of age, any good song of any genre and performers of any race were likely to pop up on Top 40 radio, with ABC's "In Concert," NBC's "The Midnight Special" and "Don Kirschner's Rock Concert," broadcast here in Pittsburgh on the CBS affiliate, also showcasing talent across the musical spectrum.

But there's a cultural separation as well which, when and where I was growing up, also had political implications; to this day I still don't see African-Americans similarly crossing over to play rock (read: "white folks music"). When the Bus Boys, a new-wave band with only one non-black member that broke out in the early 1980s, hit the scene few noticed, and the hard-rock Living Colour never made much of a splash either. More to the point, I was about the only African-American kid I knew who listened primarily to progressive rock and Top 40, eschewing a steady diet of soul music, simply because I didn't want to be limited, whether musically or socially. However, as a result I did get the reputation of being an "Oreo cookie," and I guess I became one.

So I think it's not just a matter of "who's stealing from whom" -- after all, many white performers have embraced not only soul but the blues, jazz and even hip-hop. As far as I'm concerned, we need to learn to appreciate each other's music as well as the culture from which it comes. Perhaps it behooves us African-Americans to get into rock, classical or even country -- not that we have to stay there but simply to appreciate how they do it.

Back in 2003 I began working a lot with an all-white "oldies" vocal band that I had profiled for the Post-Gazette the year before, and on one gig the other two horn players also were African-American -- before we got started that night the trumpet player noted that irony because with such acts often the singers were black and the musicians were white. We all knew that it didn't matter because everyone was having a good time and we were being paid. And that's the way it should be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More random thoughts ...

-- recently reported that African-American candidates for mayor in Chicago have asked former president Bill Clinton not to campaign for former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who is seeking the same post. The story referred to him as "the first black president," borrowing a statement by writer Toni Morrison.

However, that phrase has to be placed in context. Morrison actually meant that, during his "scandals" and subsequent impeachment, he was "guilty until proven innocent" -- just like many African-American men accused of a crime. It had nothing do with his popularity in the black community, which to be truthful wasn't all that much until the impeachment; it rallied around him only due to the contempt that most African-Americans have always had for the conservative movement, which runs the Republican Party and led the charge to try to have Clinton ousted for having the gall to get elected in the first place.

-- It seems as though such movement has found another "cause" -- suggesting that too many people are in college and should forgo the price tag, which I will agree is ridiculous. And perhaps there actually is a glut of students attempting post-secondary education that may not need it; although I do have a degree, two generations ago I would not have needed college to become a writer.

However, guidance counselors back in the 1940s tried to steer my father and his sisters away from a college-prep curriculum in favor of trade school even though they were indeed college material -- and that had to do with their race and socioeconomic background. My grandmother paid a visit to Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, where they attended, and fought to get them admitted to classes for the college-bound, and all of them eventually did get some post-secondary education.

I'm reminded of a speech that Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute made some years ago, telling an audience, "You don't need to send your kids to Harvard." Someone in the audience responded, "Then why do you send your kids there?" There was no response. Take that for what you will.

-- Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that I've always been extremely hard on the conservative movement; not only do I believe that it's usually wrong on the issues and subscribes to bad data and history but also tends to be extremely defensive, dogmatic and inflexible. However, of late I've had a number of conversations with a few members of my congregation whose politics lean right but who nevertheless come from an honest place and are willing to admit that they may not have the whole story; I'd even be interested in starting a political discussion group, perhaps a Sunday school class, with one of my "opponents." (Heck, I need to learn, too.)

But this is what can happen when you attend as diverse a church as I do; you realize that you have to make room for people not like yourselves. I would argue that such diversity is essential for the survival of the greater church.

-- Today I realized just why so-called "word/faith" theology is so heretical. The idea, of course, is that if something doesn't happen that you want and even prayed for fervently your faith must be lacking.

Ephesians 2:8-9 reads: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis mine] -- not by works, so that no one can boast." In other words, the faith you have in Jesus Christ in the first place actually comes from God. Essentially, that theology is saying that the faith that God gives is insufficient and that you have to generate it yourself and thus defeating the purpose of faith, which A.W. Tozer defines as "looking to God."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The REAL story of the Nativity

Today is Christmas Day, of course, when we mark the birth of the Savior of the world and Head of the Church. As such, we spend most of the previous 40 days recalling the story surrounding the birth -- the circumstances and even the political implications.

That said, let me give you the lowdown on what really happened, culled from several sources -- it may be very, very different from what you've lived with for all these years.

What's not subject to debate is the obvious -- Jesus the Messiah was born in a Bethlehem stable some 2,000 years ago to a engaged teenage girl named Mary who had never had sexual relations and that she and her fiancé Joseph had gone there to be counted in the Roman census.

Virtually everything else, however, is wrong.

For openers, she really didn't have to go, legally; however, he took her anyway because tongues were likely wagging in their hometown of Nazareth due to her "condition" -- in fact, had they been caught in the act they could have been stoned to death. And they were likely in Bethlehem for weeks or even months before the birth.

Why was there "no room in the inn"? Bad translating.

Joseph and Mary would have been taken in by at least one of his relatives and not have to have gone to a commercial inn in the first place. Homes in that part of the world consisted of two rooms -- one, where the family lived, and two, the guest room (mistranslated as "inn") -- but keep in mind that other relatives were also in town for the census.

So what about the stable? Well, it was on the first floor of the house, the humans staying on the second floor. It's very likely that Mary went downstairs to give birth because she wanted some privacy, again with all of Joseph's kin running around; the feeding trough -- er, manger -- was built into the side of the house and thus made a natural crib.

Another inaccuracy: Angels did appear to shepherds; however, they spoke, not sang, their message. Although no one knows specifically the date, it's pretty well established today that it wasn't in December -- and, by the way, it doesn't snow very often in the Middle East! (So much for "The First Noël.")

As for the Magi, they probably came from Persia. How would they have known to look for the baby Jesus? Well, remember when Israel had been taken into captivity about four centuries previously one of their choice young men was -- the prophet Daniel, who had told the story of the coming Messiah of Israel, and it was kept alive all that time amongst a pagan people. (It's interesting that the story of the Magi appears only in the Gospel according to Matthew, which was written to Jews -- implying that He would also be the Messiah of the Gentiles.)

They're not numbered, either -- three refers only to the number of gifts they brought. Nor were they present at or shortly after the birth; recall that when they arrived Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in the house where they were staying. And also remember that Herod had all the baby boys ages 2 and younger killed, which should give you a idea of just how old Jesus was when the Magi arrived.

That said, as festive as we make His birth today, recall His ministry, death and resurrection 30 years later -- and also His bodily return (not even He knows when that will be).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gays in uniform

Earlier this week President Obama signed into law legislation that allows gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services, with predictable outcomes. Progressives are hailing the new policy, which replaces "don't ask, don't tell," enacted during the Clinton Administration and which itself replaced an outright ban.

Meanwhile some conservatives are apoplectic, right-wing columnist Star Parker writing, "I cannot think of anything more dangerous to our national security and the ongoing strength of our nation than the collapse of our sense that there are objective rights and wrongs."

The truth is, as in many cases, is probably somewhere in between.

It's naive to believe that gays haven't served in the military even when they were officially prohibited -- I haven't myself, but those that have can tell you of fellow soldiers/sailors/airmen who they knew were, though closeted. And they'll tell you that it probably wasn't an issue -- they were there to do a job. Simple as that.

On top of that, hundreds, possibly thousands, of servicemen and -women were discharged once their sexual orientation became known, even though they wanted to serve and despite the chunk of change spent on their training.

What about the folks who felt squeamish about bunking with or showering in front of someone who might be gay? The assumption here, of course, is that gays can't or won't control their impulses. (Perhaps they ought to have more sympathy for women whom men ogle with impunity.) I've played on sports teams with fellows who might have been gay -- I don't know for sure, nor do I care to -- but don't obsess over it.

However, I don't see it as a civil-rights issue per se. Even now too much focus is on sex -- and American society is arguably the most puritanical in the Western world -- and not enough on serving the country.

My own personal position, formulated as I write this, would be to have left DADT in place. After all, if sexual orientation didn't really matter we wouldn't need to talk about it and if incidents happen they should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

No special interest

I find it amusing when, during campaigns, political candidates for a legislature talk about fighting unnamed "special interests" whenever they get to Washington or (insert the state capital of your choice). It's not simply that they're entrenched in the power structure.

The reality is that just about everyone that belongs to any organization is connected to at least one "special interest."

Are you part of a trade union? A professional organization? An industry group? A Christian ministry, whether liberal or conservative? If it maintains offices and lobby groups in a capital -- sorry to say -- it's a "special interest" that's protected by the Constitution. In that context, "special interests" are bad only if they aren't yours.

And isn't that the way things go? The "tea-party" movement made a lot of noise this fall in large part due to complaints over "government spending," but when pressed to specify what should be cut its adherents can't. And doing so would be hypocritical anyway, considering that they actually benefit from it. A high percentage of tea-partiers have college degrees, likely paid for at least in part out of government largess; others are on disability (which means more government aid). I seriously doubt if such folks will pay any of that money back.

But I digress -- if just a little. Do you ever go to an arts festival or construction site and see a sign with "Rep./Sen. So-and-so" as one of the sponsors? Well, guess what, folks -- that's your tax dollars at work. And it turns out that the lobbyists we say we hate are responsible for either your entertainment or someone else's ability to bring home a paycheck. Does it sound ridiculous that even the late liberal lion Ted Kennedy would support the building of military aircraft that even the Pentagon said it doesn't need? Not if doing so would provide jobs in Massachusetts.

So you can complain about "special interests" if you want to. But as the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New boss, same as the old boss

Those of us who tend toward cynicism wondered how long it would take before "tea-party" candidates would break their promise to "change Washington" and succumb to the siren song of lobbyists and earmarks.

According to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, it's already happened. Here's the story:

Therein lies the problem with political rhetoric. Either these folks were deluded into thinking that they could overcome such "special interests" or they were simply telling people what they wanted to hear to get into office in the first place.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

The seduction of American evangelicalism

Has anyone noticed the secularization of the modern conservative movement -- that is to say, that the leading lights of today's political right are no longer evangelical Christians? With Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy all dead and the rest of the "religious right" virtually irrelevant, it seems that "Christian influence" on that side of the political fence has waned.

There's one problem with that outlook: Consistent, comprehensive, historic Biblical Christianity, especially acting as an independent prophetic voice, never truly existed there. Ever.

That sounds nutty except for one fact of history -- the modern conservative movement, which has existed since the mid-1950s, was secular from the word go; evangelicals, generally apolitical, weren't involved until the late 1970s, when they were recruited by conservative fundraisers. And that had the effect of compromising what it truly meant to follow Jesus Christ, suggesting that doing so could be reduced to a few "cultural issues" that -- coincidentally -- could raise a lot of money for the sake of Christian "values."

Of course, it never occurred to us that the secularists would concede on such things as abortion and gay rights, which they really don't care about, in order to win our votes on economic issues and "big government," which have little or nothing to do with authentic Biblical faith. The truth be told, the secular right would have never bothered with us it we didn't have money ourselves and thus had interests we felt we needed to protect.

And therein lay the seduction.

It's become clear that non-believers are now telling us what being a Christian really means. These days we don't need to watch Christian TV to get our daily dose of "Christian" propaganda -- the Fox News Channel will do nicely. Some years ago a friend told me about a conversation she had with someone who had suggested that Richard Mellon Scaife, the right-wing financier and publisher of the Tribune-Review, was a Christian; I assured her, "Scaife's no Christian." This is also why Christian involvement in the "tea-party" movement is so problematic.

So what does that mean? Well, we need to rethink, revisit ... and repent. II Corinthians 6:14 warns us not to "be yoked with unbelievers," and we've clearly violated that maxim. But what about "values?", you may ask. What about them? The devil will give us those -- so long as people don't see Jesus.