He’s an award-winning speaker, emcee, writer, and musician, moonlighting as half of the hip-hop duo The Iccsters (pronounced ‘icksters’) and director of worship at Irvington Covenant Church.
October 29th, 2012
from the News section of Motif Worship:
If you haven’t heard, the MWLN is the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network, a collective of worship musicians dedicated to honoring the diversity of the worldwide body of Christ in church worship music. That team put on a 2-day workshop/conference (in their planning, they jokingly called it a “workshonference”) to help equip and train worship musicians and pastors in how to more effectively lead their churches with a multicultural worship approach.
As part of that, Jelani was able to co-lead a breakout session along with Bridgeway’s music director Ronald Greene. The session addressed issues and techniques about how to get musicians to play together in worship, using both live and virtual instruments. In that session, he was able to do some vision casting for Motif Worship, explaining some of the benefits as well of the challenges of leading from a Yamaha MOTIF keyboard using accompaniment track patterns.
If you weren’t in attendance at the MWT, you missed a lot of great interaction around these issues. But don’t fret… you can always check out the MWLN website and the MWLN Facebook fan page to learn more about the MWLN Core Team and what they’re about.
June 29th, 2012
Racial incidents involving the N-word are still common. But here’s a three-part strategy for preventing them from happening.
* * *
At first, I was simply annoyed by the latest dust-up involving Gwyneth Paltrow quoting Kanye West and Jay-Z‘s tune, “Niggas In Paris.”
But after awhile, my heart sank a little. Regardless of the particulars of this story (was she at the concert? Did someone use her phone? Did it matter that she didn’t say the whole word?) stories like this persist because of a confluence of complicated factors and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Black people are not monolithic.
But I think I have a way to clear all this up. At the risk of oversimplification, I offer an analogy.
Let’s say there’s a kid walking home from school. And every day he walks past a house with a dog. This dog is loud and boisterous, but not particularly mean or dangerous. Sometimes he’ll come up to the kid on the sidewalk with a rubber ball, and the two play fetch. They both have fun; the kid goes on his way, everyone’s happy. Let’s say this happens fairly regularly, enough that the kid starts to get a feel for this dog.
What if, one day, instead of a rubber ball, he ambles up to the kid with an old gnarled bone in its mouth? He still looks like he wants to play. The kid has seen other dogs around the neighborhood playing with that bone. It looks like fun. So let’s say this one day, the kid stops, kneels down on the front lawn of the house, and instead of throwing the ball, he tosses the bone.
And let’s say this happens at the exact moment as a bigger, older dog comes around from the back to the front yard. The kid had never seen that dog before. But when that older dog sees the kid with bone in hand, he goes CRAZY. Tries to bite the child’s arm off!
Well, the kid drops that bone like a hot potato, runs away to safety, and vows never to do THAT again. But he keeps passing that house on the way from school, and keeps seeing that fun dog, looking at him with those cute droopy eyes, panting and holding that bone.
One day, he can’t resist. He grabs the bone and tosses it again. Immediately, the bigger dog comes ROARING back around, going for the jugular. The kid freaks out, drops the bone, and not having anywhere to run, he fights off the bigger dog with a stick. And while fighting off the big dog, the kid spies the smaller dog, sitting off to the side, smiling and barking playfully. He thinks this whole thing is hilarious.
Pretty soon an adult comes out of the house to see what all the commotion is about. And instead of scolding his dog, the adult starts scolding the kid! Eventually the adult explains to the kid that the reason why the older dog goes crazy over the bone is that his previous owner used to BEAT him with that bone. So when he sees the kid swinging it, it triggers all these horrible memories, and the older dog just loses it.
So as the adult explains, if the kid wants to keep playing with the dog, three things need to happen. First, the kid needs to learn that the bone is off-limits. Second, the older dog needs to learn that the kid is not going to beat him up just because he’s holding a bone. And third, the younger dog needs to stop using the bone to bait the kid, because it’s not fair to him or the other dog.
* * *
Now, realizing that this is just an analogy, that all analogies are flawed and imperfect, and dismissing the unfortunately patronizing overtones… still with me? Here goes.
In this analogy, White people are like the kid, younger Blacks are like the little dog, older Blacks are the big dog, and the bone is the N-word.
So it would be a LOT easier to avoid more embarrassing and potentially volatile racial incidents involving that word, IF:
1.) White people stop trying to use it
2.) Older Blacks stop being offended by it
3.) and Younger Blacks stop baiting White people into using it.
And yes, in this analogy, I’m the crotchety old man who reluctantly came outside to fix this mess and wants it dealt with as quickly as possible so that I can go back inside to watch TV.
First, let me talk to the White people for a moment, especially ones that feel like they’re hip, or that, like Donald Trump, they have “a great relationship with the Blacks.” Did you not get the memo? Did you not get to download Negraph, the iPhone app that lets you know whether it’s safe to say the N-word? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t. I don’t care what your Black roommate told you. I don’t care how many seasons of The Wire you’ve seen, or how many sketches from In Living Color or Chappelle’s Show you can quote. Not even if you’re Quentin Tarantino.
Yes, it’s a double standard. Yes, it’s unfair. Deal with it. You have plenty of other ways to engage with Black people that aren’t as provocative and incendiary as that one word. Why unnecessarily dredge up all that baggage just to score some irony points? (Yes, Sarah Silverman, I’m talking to you.) With all the things people of color have to carry in our invisible knapsack, it won’t kill you to suck it up and take this one.
Now, to the older, more conservative Blacks who always blanch at the N-word. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, because I understand the legacy of oppression and disenfranchisement that this word carries for you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry that same connotation to everyone, particularly the younger Blacks (who I’ll get to in a minute). The fact is, languages are fluid, and English is no exception. The English we speak today bears little resemblance to the English that was spoken two centuries ago. You have to come to terms with the fact that when people use that word now, they don’t mean the same thing, at least not in the same way. Yes, it might be disrespectful… but only in that context.
I grew up in the ‘80s watching The Dukes of Hazzard and had no idea that the Confederate flag was at all connected to slavery. I just thought it was a cool paint job on the General Lee. The flag didn’t have any negative meaning for me because my elementary school classmates never gave it much symbolic weight. (Fine, I wasn’t much of a history student.) It wasn’t until my mother informed me what the flag meant that I understood. And when she did, she didn’t bite my head off or forbid me from watching the show. She had enough grace to understand my ignorance and factor it into her response. (Although she drew the line at buying me the lunchbox.)
And now, the younger Blacks. Let me say for the record… you all really oughta know better.
I put myself in this category, because I loved watching The Boondocks along with plenty of other friends of many races, and that show had more N-words-per-capita than an old Richard Pryor routine. In my defense, I will say that The Boondocks was much more of a criticism of contemporary Black culture than it was a celebration of it. But I guess not everyone was able to enjoy it on both levels. Some of our more simple-minded folk just laughed at it for what it was, not realizing they were the targets of the satire. Sometimes, like the infamous Read-A-Book video, it’s hard to know where the line is between mocking something and glamorizing it.
And I guess that’s the point. In our supposed post-racial world, it’s hard for White people to understand what’s acceptable cross-racial behavior when we send so many mixed signals. So it’s reckless and irresponsible to use the N-word so freely when we know how hard the PC police come down on White people who say it.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that no matter what role you inhabit in this little analogy, it’s always easier to address someone else’s behavior rather than your own. But there’s a reason why Jesus tells us to first remove the plank from our own eye… because if we don’t, that’s all anyone else will see. They won’t be able to receive our correction because our own failing will be so huge in comparison.
So consider this a public service announcement.
White people, don’t use the N-word. Older Blacks, stop being offended by it. And younger Blacks, stop baiting White people into using it.
There, it’s done. Now onto fixing our political system…
May 18th, 2012
Few sitcoms have reinvented the genre like NBC’s Community. Featuring sharp writing and an ensemble of talented actors, Community is widely considered to be the most innovative, daring comedy on television. On its face, it’s about seven community college students of various personalities and walks of life as they navigate their futures and attempt to preserve the friendships they developed as members of a de facto study group.
But more fundamentally, Community is about television. Creator Dan Harmon infused the show with a metaphysical, self-aware sensibility that takes the standard cliches and tropes in television and gleefully distorts and subverts them. Not only is fictional Greendale Community College full of memorable characters that collectively and palpably depict the zany milieu of the postmodern college aesthetic, but Harmon and his writing staff have, over the last two seasons, injected a healthy dose of parody and satire. What has resulted is a gleeful, adventurous romp of a show that tackles a variety of genres and formats from week to week — from science fiction to spaghetti westerns to musicals, documentaries, heist films, and everything in between.
Community is a wildly unpredictable lark of a show, like nothing else on television.
Which is why so many fans were dismayed at the news that Dan Harmon was ousted from the show.
Low ratings are the obvious culprit. Critics say its layers of humor and genre-bending made it difficult for Community to attract new viewers, and I can see their point. (My sister once tuned in during an episode styled as a Ken Burns PBS documentary, and was totally lost.)
But low ratings don’t tell the whole story. During May sweeps, Community dominated headlines because of a spat between Harmon and cast member Chevy Chase, a feud exacerbated when Harmon leaked an angry voicemail from Chase to the press. The public fallout, reminiscent of last year’s epic Charlie-Sheen-Chuck-Lorre meltdown, embarrassed everyone involved and served to further cement Dan Harmon’s reputation as a caustic, vindictive control freak.
Lest you think I’m being too harsh, Harmon admitted as much in a blog post:
I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘it has to be like this or I quit’ roughly 8 times a day.
Classic Dan Harmon. While it’s undeniable that his hands-on, iconoclastic style gave the show its distinctive voice, it’s equally clear that it also led to his downfall. As such, there’s a terrible irony in the creator of a show called “Community” being given the boot because he couldn’t work well with others.
Frankly, if the management at Sony thought that Harmon was no longer worth the headache, they should’ve just canceled the show. Instead, they tried to have it both ways — saving face by giving their little cult-classic show another chance, while getting rid of the critical element that made it so special in the first place. And if Harmon’s telling the truth, they squandered whatever small chance might have existed for Harmon to collaborate with the new guys by failing to give him the basic courtesy of notifying him directly of the change.
What we’ve got here is – say it with me – a failure to communicate.
This is one of the reasons why we need more Christ followers in Hollywood – to demonstrate that there’s a better way. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul laid out a blueprint:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4 (NIV)
Here we can see that it’s not enough to just dig in and leverage your way to success. In the kingdom of heaven, success is measured by how well you live out your call to love God and others. In practical terms, it requires better relationship management.
Part of the reason why I really identify with Harmon is because of his self-identification with Aspergers Syndrome, which he discovered in attempt to more deeply research one of his characters. As someone who also has a deep convictions that sometimes result in emotionally inappropriate ways, I am keenly thankful for the people in my life who have adjusted to me, and helped me adjust to them, so that we could continue in functional relationship. This, to me, is the essence of effective personal community development, something that other creative types would be wise to embrace.
Because in the end, community is so much bigger than the fate of some sitcom. But even the people who make sitcoms need to learn to work well together.
May 14th, 2012
[interview originally written for UrbanFaith.com]
In a nation where pro sports are the most socially acceptable form of religion, what happens when a pastor’s other job is shepherding NBA fans over the internet?
David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as pastor, husband and dad. But unlike many pastors, his other job is as the managing editor of BlazersEdge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers. Part of the SBNation, Blazersedge stands apart from other sites because of the rich sense of community its members provide.
And in the center of it all is Deckard, the man known to the masses simply as “Dave.”
Portland native Jelani Greenidge sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview, covering the curious intersection between faith and sports.
Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background in how you got into these roles. How would you describe your faith background? And how did you come to be affiliated with Blazersedge?
Hah! I could tell a thousand stories about each of those things.
I grew up in a very non-churchy-type family. I sang in a Catholic boys choir when I was ten or so, and that was it. But my high school choir director took a job at a downtown Portland church and I wanted to sing with her after I graduated, so I started singing in that church choir.
That’s where I got my first inkling that God was a decent person to know and that faith might be part of my make-up. I went from that to a summer as a counselor at a church camp, then another, then youth directing, then to seminary.
So be careful what you do! God is sneaky like that. You go in one day just wanting to sing a little and BAM! You’re working for the guy for life.
I’ve been a Blazers fan since I was quite young. It’s all I cared about as a kid. I went through all the ups and downs. When the internet came in vogue I got mixed up with an e-mail group talking about the team. A friend was blogging for the local paper’s website, and he became part of the group.
He had to leave for a short emergency trip and asked me to fill in for him for a few days. I did and got the bug, then started my own site. Casey Holdahl, now with the Blazers, was running Blazersedge.com at that time. He left, and contacted me about taking over Blazersedge.
I was honored, and the rest is history. So be careful what you do! You just start chatting about the Blazers and do a favor for a friend one day and BAM! You’re the managing editor at the biggest Trail Blazers site in the world.
As for the tenets of my theology, it’ll either take a billion words or none. Personally I think theology suffers when placed in the abstract, such as, “I believe in Doctrine X.” So often that’s a shorthand way around knowing people and God, instead of an invitation to know both better. Doctrine is like underwear. It’s indispensable, but meant to support the rest of the stuff you’re wearing. If you’re just into flashing the doctrine in public, people should run.
I’m Lutheran, if that helps. But even people within a denomination usually don’t know or understand its teachings fully. The best thing to say is just, “Let’s talk about God and life and such and you’ll get the idea.”
A few years back, I was trying to explain to my wife the significance of Blazersedge in general, and your role in particular, in the life of an average Blazers fan. And I think it was after reading a commentary you wrote that touched on the whole Erin-Andrews-hotel-room thing that, in my attempt to contextualize the situation, I referred to you as “the internet pastor of Blazer nation.” Is that a fair label, informal or not?
I haven’t heard that one before! I suspect plenty of people would bristle at that, either because the pastoral relation implies voluntary consent or because the entire idea is anathema to their worldview. However it’s accurate to say that my outlook (read: faith) determines how I speak, how I react to folks, and in general how the site functions.
Oddly enough, most people misread the role faith plays. They assume that our site’s non-profanity rule stems from a religious source. I am not overly offended by swearing in personal conversation, nor do I find it more ungodly than a hundred other things people do every day. The no-profanity thing is out of concern for public decorum and being welcoming of all people without having something as insignificant as swearing get in the way.
That’s where the real faith issues come in: diverse voices are welcome, you’ve been given power to add to this conversation, use that power for good, and frame your assertions to welcome others as you’ve been welcomed. People get banned at Blazersedge for one reason: they’re exercising their power of speech for the good of the self, hurting or ignoring others in the process. That’s a statement of faith — valuing the neighbor as oneself translated to internet conversation.
In my writing I try to be fair and thoughtful, to treat my subjects like real people and not just objects, and to do justice to the topic instead of writing to gain ratings for myself. I try not to take things too seriously, as a sense of humor is an asset to faith. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between my on-site life and the rest of my life. I try to write in such a way that I could be held accountable for what I say. So I guess in that way you could say that my approach is pastoral. But it’s found more in example than preaching. I’m not the center of attention. Just like church isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering God together, the site isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering the Blazers together.
The best compliment I get regarding faith—and it happens reasonably often—is when Blazersedge folks find out what I do for a living and say, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, but that makes total sense now that I think about it.” Instead of faith being this distinct moment with a distinct person separate from “real life” it’s breathed in organically in the course of doing what you love. It’s not about me or you, it’s all around, filling the space between us and making things good whether we realize it or not.
Accountability, justice, decorum, diversity… these are universal principles that people can relate to, both inside and outside the church, which is probably one reason why people often equate intense sports fandom with religion.
In a post, you once compared sports teams with churches in the sense that they are both public trusts that have strong traditions, but at the end of the day, the people who work there are still responsible for making their own choices and protecting their own financial interests. You were trying to balance the perspective of fans who expect loyalty from their sports heroes, but treat them as fungible assets if/when they don’t perform up to expectations (i.e. Ray Felton).
In your opinion, is there more loyalty in the church compared to the sports world? Should there be?
Oh yeah, Felton was about as fungible as it gets.
Back in the day multiple ties bound people to their church. Doctrine was part of it but social ties, ethnicity, and survival in this strange New World (cultural, if not actual in the form of propagation) made church all but inescapable. If you came here as an Italian Catholic you couldn’t very well flip to a British Episcopalian without losing your identity and community. As descendants in successive generations identified as American those ties loosened but even then the idea of American and “good, church-going person” were intertwined. You might not go to your grandparents’ church but you went to some church…at least on Christmas and Easter.
In the post-60’s world folks began to question what it meant to be American, even. In most groups ethnic ties had disappeared, now national ties were following. Then came instant global communication and all of a sudden you didn’t have to be tied to local neighbors at all. You could talk to anyone, get anything you want, with the push of a button. In this environment churches have become fungible. Only those truly interested in faith (or too stubborn to let go of the old culture) remain engaged. Even among those, most won’t remain at a church that doesn’t closely align with their personal convictions.
In spirit, loyalty is still a part of the church relationship. In practice it’s at an ebb…it has to be taught where it was once assumed.
There are good things about this, though. Those cultural and national ties overwhelmed faith back in the day. Church served the cultural perception rather than transcending it. Faith bound in service to anything but God is not faith at all. We don’t have to worry about that now. People participate in church because they desire a relationship with God, not because it’s the thing to do. Oddly enough, it’s far easier to hear God without all the cultural expectations getting in the way. I actually prefer the small, wandering group of faithful seekers to the large congregation of “good people” set in their ways. We’re just now rediscovering what faith is supposed to be.
I’m not as conversant with loyalty trends in sports but I suspect pro leagues, at least, follow the same trend. We’ll always have diehard Steelers or Blazers fans just like some folks will always be “church goers.” But most folks have a myriad of choices for their leisure time and disposable income. Teams can no longer assume their fans will follow. The fans that do remain tend to be more knowledgeable and involved and demand more from their teams.
In this way I think churches can take a cue from sports. It’s not enough to have the name anymore. You have to show quality to keep folks engaged. The uniforms still said, “Trail Blazers” in 2011-12 but few fans felt that Felton and company reflected true Blazer basketball. Their complaints and rejection of the product reflected that. For years people of faith have been willing to swallow almost anything that claimed a “Christian” label no matter what it said. If some idiot gets on TV and says he’s for God or a presidential candidate shows up at a church one Sunday they’re supposedly “on our side.” People of faith need to be more discerning. You’ll know where a person’s coming from by the fruit they produce. It’s not enough to divide the world into teams and then say you’re on the right one. Your claims and actions have to do something good in the world before they can be considered godly. Otherwise the uniform you’re trying to claim doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I think it was Seinfeld who, in a moment of existential gloom, referred to sports fandom as essentially “cheering for laundry.” There are few things more disaffecting than the realization that your emotional investment is not going to yield the dividends you hoped for, and that’s true in the church as much as it is in sports.
Speaking of which, many fans will look at the 2011-2012 Trail Blazers season as The Year the Dream Died, with Roy announcing his sudden retirement, Greg Oden being waived, Nate McMillan being fired, etc. And when I think about some of my episodes of basketball-related frustration (the Western Conference Finals in 2000 come to mind), Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief strike a familiar chord.
Do you find much correlation between the work you do as a pastor to walk your parishioners through grief and the way you help Blazers fans cope with wave after wave of disappointment?
There’s overlap, for sure. Grief is grief. I remember the Western Conference Finals loss in ’91 almost like a death. It was, really…the death of a dream. It hurt. We certainly do our fair share of putting things into perspective, reminding that there’s goodness that circumstances can’t touch, that there are reasons to believe, that the important part is taking the journey together instead of the lumps you take on the way.
But the role of journalist/analyst and pastor/counselor also differ significantly. At the end of the day my role at Blazersedge is to speak the truth as I see it. I make bold proclamations about the Blazers’ prospects that I’d never make to a person sitting in my office in crisis. In counseling it doesn’t matter what you know and feel, it’s what the person in need knows and feels. They’re in charge of, and have ultimate responsibility for, their own truth and situation. Sports are more predictable and less important ultimately. They also lie outside of the domain of any individual. Abstract truths become more valuable in that kind of situation. Truth is truth in this venue in a way that isn’t possible in interpersonal relationships.
I find myself contradicting the popular wave of opinion at Blazersedge far more often (and stridently) than I’d contradict a parishioner making decisions about their own life. When the Blazers started this season 7-2 but still evidenced serious holes I went ahead and spoke out about it. I probably wouldn’t do that so baldly in church because people need to figure that out for themselves.
The other overlap is trolling. Trolls blossom on websites and in churches alike. I must admit having to deal with trolls online has better prepared me for the unhealthy, bad behavior that people sometimes evidence in church. Whatever unfair tactic they’re using, I’ve probably seen it before. I’m much more forward in pointing out those things now than I was before my online experience.
Trolls are never fun, but it seems like in both venues (in church and in NBA basketball) the line between trolling to get a reaction and genuine conflict that’s a byproduct of passion and enthusiasm … seems like that line gets blurrier and blurrier.
And now, with the intensity of the NBA playoffs, tensions are running really high. It seems like every year there is at least one high-profile incident of violence and/or poor sportsmanship, and it seems like this year we’ve already had several (Metta World Peace, Rajon Rondo, Amare Stoudamire).
What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of the playoffs, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds and/or souls? How do you enjoy it and still have some sort of life balance? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?
I don’t know that I’d want to presume.
I suppose I’d say that the idea that you can be one person in one venue and a different one in another is overblown. I’m thinking primarily of the internet here but I suppose it also applies on the court. Your environment will influence your choices. I root for Blazers players to do things on the hardwood that I’d be horrified by in real life. For instance, you’d get plenty angry if a guy stood in front of you trying to stop every single step you made towards a goal in life. It’s much better when Nicolas Batum does it to Chris Paul on the court.
But even allowing that environment determines methodology, you’re still either going to conduct yourself with honor for the greater good or you’re going to make it all about yourself and how you can get ahead. You can’t let that self-serving, “screw everyone else as long as I get ahead and look good” mentality take hold. As soon as you start basing your decisions on that, it’ll color the rest of your life. You can’t really pretend to be a jerk without actually becoming one. That’s true whether you’re clocking somebody from behind on the floor or abusing someone on a website. Act in ways that honor the people around you no matter what the venue (even when arguing or playing against them) and you’re going to bring something good to the world. That’s true whether you’re playing sports, talking about them, or just watching them while your kids say, “Daddy, can you play with me?”
Now, if you want to get into an interesting discussion, start thinking about your average church—not the people in the church, but the organization itself—and ask, “Is this institution honoring, supporting, and serving the people around it (even people it disagrees with) or is this institution serving itself so it can look good?”
One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective in both fields: folks seem to value being right more than enjoying the experience and each other. Both sports and faith are communal endeavors. Yet people use their knowledge to try and prove they’re better and/or more correct than the other person. This is silly. What’s the point of following sports at all if you’re not enjoying it with the people around you? The striking phenomenon from the ’77 Championship in Portland wasn’t just the title, rather the massive parade and community unification in the wake of the event. Fandom requires company to reach full flower. When you destroy the community to exalt yourself you’re winning a Pyrrhic victory at best.
The phenomenon is even more ridiculous when applied to faith. If any of us could have gotten it right, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for us. God would have simply said, “Nice, Bob! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to get it! Come on up to heaven, you perfectly correct dude, you!” Since Jesus, you know, died for our sins that seems to imply the necessity, and thus our falling short. In many ways arguing about who’s the most correct is arguing who needs Christ the least…a curious argument for Christians to try to win.
Missing the greater picture in favor of making your point is a bad idea whether you’re in an online forum or in church.
It seems like it all comes back to the question of “how do we build, sustain, and reflect authentic community?” In what ways can you see the communities of sport and faith combining for the greater good? There are church leagues, and I’ve also seen a few Christian music events before/after sporting events, but can’t we do better? Where’s the innovation in this area? I guess I’m asking about both existing partnerships as well as hypothetical ones. After all, the league has the “NBA Cares” campaign, and all kinds of churches across numerous denominations launch service projects large and small to have a positive impact on local, regional, even international levels. Given this, you’d think there would be more crossover, so to speak. Why doesn’t this happen more? Or is it happening but just not making headlines?
There’s always potential. Every year we hold “Blazersedge Night” where the people of our community donate to send underprivileged young folks to a Blazers game. Last year we exceeded 700 kids and chaperones sent so we know people are willing to participate in something good.
I think you’ve hit on the main point, though…it has to be something good, as in “service to others.” Much of the overt “Christian” presence I see online (and I use the term loosely) makes me shudder. People screaming at each other, dividing the world into camps and picking fights, gloating over people’s misfortunes and saying, “I told you so”. It’s not everybody, of course, but it doesn’t take too much of that to turn the name sour. I had to spent years online showing who I am and what I’m about before I was overt at all about my profession. The field has been poisoned enough that when people hear the name “Christian” or “church” they’re just as likely to run or scroll onward as to embrace or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we all need to make.
That accomplished, I suspect there’s plenty of room if an organization were to engage in a sports-related service project without demonstrating self-interest, rather self-giving. People are eager to participate in greater purposes. They bridge the disconnect we all feel in this fast-paced, “communication-lite” world. Folks are looking for something more meaningful than a Facebook status update, not to replace the new media, but to supplement them. Churches could certainly be part of that conversation, building connections between the world at large and people in need through the communal exercise of sports.
March 15th, 2012
[Editorial note: This post was written originally for UrbanFaith.com, which has a much bigger audience than this blog. But for the sake of immediacy, I decided to post this here first.]
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”
If you haven’t already seen it, San Diego-based not-for-profit organization advocacy group Invisible Children recently launched a video campaign called KONY 2012, designed to raise public awareness and attention toward their goal of seeing U.S. forces capture abductor and child-soldier-exploitationist Joseph Kony .
Now that the KONY 2012 video has already reached over 80 million views in a really short time, the campaign has entered the national conversation. As such, there is a commonwealth of informed voices coming out of the woodwork to shoot it down offer informed rebuttals to their strategy. (Here are several such examples, including two right here on UrbanFaith.)
Most of these criticisms are, rightfully, engaging the biggest questions concerning the issues of what is best for Uganda, the limits of awareness and advocacy work, and the role of NGOs in Central Africa in general, and how these interact with the larger economic and foreign policy interests of the U.S. government. These are some of the most important issues surrounding the KONY 2012 campaign, and should be debated fiercely.
But I have a much more fundamental issue with the campaign, and it’s with the word “famous.”
Taken from the Youtube page, here is IC’s own description of the KONY 2012 campaign:
KONY 2012 is a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.
Can you see the inherent contradiction there?
Now, more than ever, perception is reality. And in today’s hyper-saturated world of media, I’m not sure how possible it is to make Joseph Kony famous without inadvertantly celebrating him. When in the history of public activism have people ever rallied around a personified symbol of opposition without raising the profile of that person?
After all, there’s a reason why, if we go back to the obscenity controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew in the early 90s, Luke fans and anti-censorship activists never went around wearing T-shirts or putting posters with the images of former attorney and censorship zealot Jack Thompson. They never wanted to give him any more exposure than necessary. (And believe me, if there’s anything Jack Thompson wanted, it was more exposure.)
So even if, after painstaking research and deliberation, one were to decide that another military intervention to remove Joseph Kony would be in everyone’s best interests, it’s still a huge leap in logic to conclude that the best way to make that happen is by affixing posters and stickers to public structures with his name and/or image on them.
Because even if we ignore the potential social costs of such civil disobedience (going in at night at blanketing our cities with propaganda could be viewed as overly aggressive or even illegal depending on how and where you go about it), the question must be asked – is making Kony famous even a good idea?
It used to be that fame was desirable as a consequence of living a life of significance or achievement. You wanted to be famous for something. Curing cancer, winning the Super Bowl, writing the great American novel, et cetera. “Baby, remember my name,” right?
Over time it became clear that to be famous in the 21st century doesn’t require any particular skills or achievements. People like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have made whole careers out of being famous for being famous — in their cases, being born into famous families. But now, with the KONY 2012 campaign, what we’re seeing is the term “famous” being used in a totally opposite way, to be famous for something really bad.
If only there were other words in the English language that could express this idea – oh wait, there are. Words like “infamous” and “notorious” do the job quite well. To paraphrase a scene from a favorite Sports Night episode, there’s a big difference between famous and infamous. One’s famous, the other’s infamous. That’s why they have those words.
That’s why this whole “make Kony famous” thing doesn’t sit well with me.
Considering how much Twitter has been incorporated into today’s political process, part of me wonders if the biggest reason why the KONY 2012 went viral so fast was because the name “Kony” makes for a great Twitter hashtag. I know he’s a terrible man and has been brutalizing children for decades, but still. It’s no secret that they deliberately chose an election year for this campaign, because it should be the kind of thing that politicians across the aisle should be able to agree on.
But what happens after 2012, especially if he doesn’t get caught?
I suspect he’ll become the new Che Guevara – just another polarizing, countercultural figure whose actual life will become distorted in order to fit the dominant political or social agenda of the day.
And not to pull a Jesus Juke, but every time I see or hear “make KONY famous” I keep thinking about the Chris Tomlin tune, “Famous One.” If Kony is our new standard for fame, then maybe Tomlin needs to record it again under the title, “Famous-For-All-The-Right-Reasons (And-None-Of-The-Wrong-Ones) One.”
Maybe that wouldn’t work on Twitter, but I’m a big guy – I could probably fit it on a XXL T-shirt.
Who’s with me?
November 29th, 2011
After playing through it, I can confirm firsthand that the latest Batman video game is an amazing experience. Batman: Arkham City is a technically facile, immersive, fantastic voyage into the world of Batman lore, and it gives gamers and onlookers alike the sensation of what it would actually look, sound and feel like to become the Caped Crusader.
I can understand why millions of fans dive deep into such games, because it’s a powerful simulation of wish fulfillment. Every kid fantasizes about becoming a superhero.
But what I can’t understand is why, after playing through this game, anyone would actually wish to be Batman. Because there’s a lot about being Batman that really sucks.
First of all, there’s the fact that nobody knows your actual identity. So most of the populace either thinks you’re a weakling, or resents you for being wealthy. (Thankfully, Batman doesn’t have to deal with any Occupy Gotham protesters.) Then there are the numerous side missions, initiated by various citizens who need your help, which require you to navigate out of your way to find and assist them.
Plus there’s the danger lurking around every corner. The plot of Arkham City, the sequel to the 2009 hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, takes place in a district of Gotham populated by violent criminals and walled off from the rest of the city. The Joker may be Batman’s arch nemesis, but he is only one of many super villains you encounter. As circumstances dictate, occasionally you’re required to forge alliances with them, never quite being sure of when they’ll repay your collaborative efforts by trying to kill you.
It’s an exhausting, thankless, tortured life.
Acclaimed speaker and pastor Efrem Smith once preached a message to a group of church workers where he encouraged them to walk in their gifting and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To illustrate, he contrasted the approaches between superheroes Batman and Superman. Superman has actual powers that he was born with, and those powers can save people. He operates from a place of assuredness in his ability. He was born to do it. On the other hand, Batman uses gadgets and combat training to compensate for his lack of actual super powers. And he operates from a place of pain, punishing criminals in his city as a way to vicariously avenge the violent death of his parents, a loss he suffered as a child.
Knowing this about Batman, it’s clearer than ever why his character has endured and become such a fixture in American popular culture. Whether it’s classic superheroes like Batman, renegade agents like Jack Bauer of 24, or even vigilantes like Brian Fodor, (a.k.a. Phoenix Jones of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement), people love to see others fight against the insurmountable tide of evil and corruption. Even if the evil in question simply in the form of rude passengers or airline bureaucracy, we love to see people stick it to “The Man” and exit on their own terms.
But these are not exactly Christian responses.
Even if we ignore for a moment Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek doctrine from Matthew 5, there are plenty of places in the Bible where characters take matters into their own hands, and it rarely turns out well afterward. Moses killed an Egyptian because the man was mistreating one of his people, and as a result, Moses had to flee the kingdom he grew up in. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Hivite man, and in response, her brothers deceitfully murder all of the men of the city, exacerbating an already fractious set of tribal alliances that eventually descend into war.
But these wrong examples don’t mean that the desire for vengeance is wrong. If all sins are illegitimate ways of meeting legitimate needs, then it stands to reason that vengeance is a legitimate need.
The apostle Paul told his charges not to take revenge, not because revenge is wrong, but because it’s counterproductive to Christlike, sacrificial living. In so doing, he quoted a short verse from a longer passage from Deuteronomy where the children of Israel are being prepared to walk into their inheritance, and Moses is trying to give them a broad portrait of the God that has covenanted with them thus far. This God is described as one who is not only omniscient and omnipresent, but omnipotent — a God who relishes visiting his judgments upon the wicked in order to demonstrate his glory and power.
Exacting vengeance shouldn’t be an option for Christians, not because doing so is wrong, but because He’s the only one who’s good enough, righteous enough, and powerful enough to really do it justice.
So for a man to usurp that role, even someone as powerful as Bruce Wayne, is like a three-year-old trying to make cheesecake. Better to leave that to someone who knows what He’s doing.
That doesn’t mean Christians can’t enjoy good entertainment. It just means we have to know where entertainment ends and responsible moral behavior begins.
As for Batman: Arkham City, the ESRB rating (“T for Teen”) is there for a reason. While the fighting is exhilarating, there is coarse, suggestive language throughout, especially involving the more scantily-clad female characters of the game (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy). Also, during the third act of the main campaign, the game deviates thematically from its urban origins and delves into the realm of demons and the supernatural. It’s not gory, but it is very intense, and not for the faint of heart.
Assuming you follow the age guidelines, though, Batman: Arkham City can make for great recreation.
And in the theology department, it’s not half bad either.
“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.
Well God, you can have it.
After a few days of being Batman, I’m wore out.
July 19th, 2011
(editor’s note: this post was originally written about a year ago, and I”m just now getting around to posting it.)
Despite being a worship leader (and thus, professional Christian) whose job includes assessing and incorporating popular praise-and-worship choruses into our weekly church music set, I don’t listen to much of that style of music at home.
There are many reasons for this, but most just have to do with the banality of most forms of evangelical church music. Much of it has sounded the same stylistically over the last decade: corporate pop-rock with other cultural expressions casually included in the fringes.
Also, because the ways that church musicians discover and implement music tends to be pretty self-contained and insular, many times it’s not just the same sound that you hear in churches all over, but the same actual songs.
There are many good reasons for this, actually, and I do not wish to elevate originality as the prime directive as to what makes for good worship music in churches. There is a lot to be said for helping people to feel comfortable, and few things are more comfortable than being able to sing a song that you know and like, particularly if you are in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment.
(Considering how generally unchurched the Pacific Northwest tends to be, I would guess that, in this region, many if not most people who find themselves in church on a Sunday morning consider church to be, to some degree, lacking in familiarity or comfort. Which is not such a bad thing, I guess… there are inherent dangers in churches becoming too much like coffee bars or health clubs. But I digress.)
Add to that the overarching trend of more popular Christian recording artists doing their own renditions of these songs, and my reasoning for not listening to much praise-and-worship at home becomes clearer. Because of overexposure and because of our heightened sense of musical appreciation, people in my position often come to regard certain popular praise-and-worship choruses with a certain level of disdain, which can range from bored disinterest to full-on visceral loathing.
(As a matter of fact, last summer I had the privilege of getting together with a group of similar musicians, praise-and-worship leaders at multiethnic churches. And one of the first icebreaker questions was something along the lines of, “what song do you hate the most right now?”)
All of this is necessary backstory for you to understand the significance of my choosing this song as my jam of the moment.
“Blessed Be Your Name,” by Matt Redman, is an insanely popular song in churches. Right now it’s listed at #3 of the Top 25 CCLI charts for the U.S., and it’s probably been somewhere in the top ten for the last five years or so.
Because of this, I’ve heard and sang this song many, many times.
But the first time I heard this recording from Ashmont Hill, the family quartet named for their Boston neighborhood origin, it was as if, forgive the cliche, I heard it again for the first time.
Anytime any artist covers an already enormously popular song, there is a dual challenge involved.
On the one hand, you want to make sure that you’re putting your own mark on the song. The last thing you want is to sound just like everyone else, especially the person who made the song famous. Otherwise, why would people want to listen to you? They can just listen to the original.
On the other hand, you don’t want to make it so different that the song is completely foreign and unrecognizable. You want to honor and pay respect to the songwriter by including some of the elements that made the song popular in the first place. You want the song to feel familiar, and yet distinctive all the same.
In Ashmont Hill’s cover of “Blessed Be Your Name,” this delicate balancing act is achieved in spades. It’s high-octane rock, but with a definite gospel feel to it; the perfect convergence of top shelf session players, textured chord structures, and electric vocal arrangements. Especially for people like me who appreciate gospel music and contemporary Christian music (which is the nicer way of saying Black church music and White church music), this recording is a great example of a bridge tune, something that can help draw people from disparate backgrounds together.
I’m not gonna lie… before I heard this arrangement two years ago, I was through with this song. Didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to sing it.
But afterward, it came alive in me again. And considering the message of the song, that as Christians we have an opportunity and a responsibility to honor God despite our circumstances… I am grateful for its resurgence in my spiritual life.
Big ups to Matt Redman, and the brothers and sisters of Ashmont Hill, for bringing today’s jam of the moment.
June 27th, 2011
As I sit outside on my friend Vanessa’s summer patio, I’m imagining being one of those people who do the big mega-home tours, not for fantasy wish-fulfillment, but because they’re actually looking for a home.
Obviously, I have no idea what that’s like. If I did, I would be way more famous, because I would have since bought my way further into the spotlight than what is probably healthy, so once again, it looks like God knows what He’s doing.
Nevertheless, when I go to these things with my wife, I periodically imagine what kind of parties I would throw if I had one of these places, because that’s what you do when you own a 5,000 square foot home. I imagine what it might be like to meet my neighbors, and after disabusing them of the notion that I’m in the entourage of a professional athlete, to invite them over to our place, to show them, as Montell Jordan used to say, how we do it.
Which means that, loathe as I am to admit this, I couldn’t bring myself to play any hip-hop. Not that hip-hop isn’t mainstream (thank you, Dre and Jay-Z) but when you’re Black, upper middle class, and looking to make a first impression, you make sure to cross anything off of the list that might give your suburban White neighbors cause to mentally associate with you with plummeting real estate values. Sad, but true.
So having vowed to temporarily leave all the bass-rattling rap anthems off the playlist, I would probably have some light jazz going on in the background, mostly classics… Coltrane, Ellington, Montgomery, etc.
And then at some point, I would gather the guests around to sit down at my piano, where I would play.
And since this whole thing is an exercise in fantasy anyway, I would play this song, by George Duke, “My Piano.”
I would sit, looking handsome and stately, and play the song’s intro with as much style and je ne sais quoi as possible, and then right at the 40-sec mark, the guitar would come in with an island lilt, and then a big kabuki curtain would drop, revealing the rest of the rhythm section behind me (it’s a large house, people wouldn’t even notice).
And as the band and I play, people would slowly rise, and the dance instructors that I planted ahead of time as guests would start dancing and encouraging others to do the same, and the place would slowly morph from being a classy affair to being a real live party, with people, y’know, enjoying themselves and the people around them.
Somewhere, in the recesses of my mind, that exact scenario (or a variation thereof) plays out, every time I listen to “My Piano,” by George Duke. And that’s why it’s today’s Jam of the Moment.
March 28th, 2011
(This poem was written to me by my friend James, after he witnessed a particular exchange I had with my uncle at a church function. Without unpacking all of my personal history, I can say that I found it to be deeply moving and personal. If you know James personally, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At any rate, the way these words connected to my past and present was really valuable to me, and helped to compensate for any latent awkwardness over the idea of a dude writing a poem for another dude.)
March 3rd, 2011
This song make me giddy.
Yes, absolutely giddy. I love everything about “I Feel For You.”
I love the staccato sample intro of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s voice saying, “Cha-Cha-Ch-Ch-Chaka Khan.” As an 8-year-old budding rapper, I probably repeated this phrase incessantly. (Perhaps my sister Camille can weigh in on this.)
I love the fact that the song is, let’s be honest, mostly much about sex (or at least sex appeal), and yet there is a delightfully innocent quality about them, especially compared to the over-the-top, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination lyrics from today’s R&B balladeers.
(Yes, R. Kelly. I’m talking to you.)
I love the fact that it’s so unabashedly a relic of its time, the mid-80s, when hair was big, drum machines were just becoming popular, and rapping and break dancing were these newfangled fads showing up on MTV and eventually VH1 and seen in films like “Krush Groove” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
I love imagining that, as the song found rotation on radio stations across America and hip-hop culture began slowly penetrating the consciousness of middle class America, legions of White parents began wondering exactly who Chaka Khan is and why their children would want to rock her, whatever that means.
I love the harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder.
I love the synthesizer rhythms, and the piped-in crowd noise (which was state-of-the-art audio post-production back then).
I love the fact that the song was actually written and recorded by Prince, long before it became a chart smash, and if you listen to the original you’ll see hints of the greatness that would later emerge.
I don’t even mind it on karaoke night, as long as whoever’s up there is having fun and tries not to slaughter it too badly.
As I finish this one, I’m sitting next to the one to whom this song applies for me, and she’s awesome. I feel for her… all the time.
So for that reason, Chaka Khan’s signature 80s hit is today’s jam of the moment.