**Disclaimer: if you are the kind of Christian who is soft in the underbelly or the proud owner of what boxers call a ‘glass chin,’ then you are not going to like this post at all, and you will like me even less. While I would not like to fall out with you, I have never been less interested in courting popularity, so I will accept my exit from your sphere of existence. If however, you have lived long enough to know that truth hurts sometimes but the worst thing we can do is cover it up, then there may be something here for you that heals even as it wounds. Thank you and God bless!**
So the church members are now finally going to catch a break from me. Because if my own parents – decades-long and very senior laypeople in our Bible-believing church – can put the cultural and the emotional first before truth by principle on certain aesthetic matters – then it makes sense to me that certain ideas – “toys” (as one very good friend of mine puts it) – just don’t ever get given up easily. Especially for adults.
You need to know what I’m referring to for that to make any sense. Here’s the story: last week, I attended a concert of the increasingly renowned Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste who were undertaking their very first UK tour. Now, this is very relevant because this entire orchestra’s existence is due to religion – an offshoot of Christianity founded by the conductor’s grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, who said some things that many Christians of a certain stripe would agree with (e.g. “to sing is to pray twice”).
The second half of the concert featured the last two movements from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – a ‘secular’ classical music masterpiece if ever there was on, given the specificity of the programmatic (this is in fact a technical word) agenda on the part of the composer. Google it for yourself to find out more.
My parents have at various times in the past expressed very serious reservations about me playing jazz, but neither of them had a problem with cheering on an all-black symphony orchestra (supported by the Halle Orchestra, no less) in a performance of music which represents an ideology that is totally antithetical to Christianity. They are both (finally self-confessed) fully-fledged neo-colonials who will always prefer various European artistic products to those of their own indigenous heritage, but if (I’ll now be ‘crude’ so that you don’t fail to get the point) black people can excel at the white man’s music, then this is cause for unfettered joy!
Aesthetics first, Biblical principles second. My parents are in excellent company. My church is slap-rammed, chock-full of neo-colonials who don’t know that this is what they are, but that’s a story for another time. [Oh, and if you make the mistake of thinking that I’m anti-classical music, you have no idea…]
Now, no-one is more qualified to talk about my parents than me. But if anyone thinks that I regard my parents’ collective error of processing on this matter as the kind of unfortunate error that others would not have committed, you need to know that there are a whole host of chronically inept constructions that I have seen in the black Christian church communities that I have seen at very close quarters over my entire life.
Now, ‘ineptitude,’ per se, is one thing. ‘Wilful ignorance’ is entirely another. And there is a reason why I refer to the black Seventh-Day Adventist community here in the UK as ‘UK Blackventism.’ I’ve just seen something on TV that has prompted a whole sequence of thoughts that has led to this blog post.
But this time, it’s not ‘aesthetics’ that come first. It’s ‘culture’ first – Biblical principles second. Let me explain.
Some time ago I preached a sermon in a Seventh-Day Adventist Church entitled ‘Against Invictus.’ Let me summarise: the film Invictus was based on Mandela’s recognition and use of that poem as something that kept him free inside his own head even as he was physically imprisoned on Robben Island.
Here are some salient lines for Christian purposes (note that these should set alarm bells ringing if you are a Bible-believing Christian):
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
Interesting. That’s the first verse. And the way that actor Morgan Freeman renders those lines in the film adds real weight and force. Can a Christian say ‘Amen’ to that?
Now, the last verse:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Now, to keep this blog shorter, I will hereby include a link to another site that will inform all interested parties about the seriousness with which we need to think about ‘I AM’ from the point of view of Christian faith. But if you are even vaguely familiar with Exodus 3:14 and John 8 56-58, you will know that ‘I AM’ is a very serious expression.
Have a look at the logo for the Invictus Games:
Okay, that’s one of the subsidiary logos – now look at it in context:
I’m sure you get the point.
When I tried to explain during the sermon that despite the amazing achievements of Nelson Mandela, there was and is a limit to how much of a true hero and role model he can be to Bible-believing Christians because as far as he was concerned, there was no ‘God’ – only the POSSIBILITY of ‘gods’ and in any case, it was HIS soul that was ‘unconquerable’ as fas as he was concerned, this provoked a major hoo-hah after the service. Several people did not get what I was saying, but by the end of the afternoon service it was clear that they did not want to get it. Nelson Mandela’s a hero – end of. So…you’re saying that he didn’t give God the glory? No, my brother, something is wrong with you. He’s a hero. What’s your problem?
I praise God for those few souls who actually got the message and for the head elder whose calmness and perspicacity and insight eventually brought calm to troubled waters. And for those of you who have followed this properly from the beginning, here’s my point: my own parents have toys that they don’t want to give up, even for principle. How can I be too upset that the same is true of other church members?
And it has forced me to ask: what toys do I have that I have not wanted to give up?
Over the last two months I have discovered some real answers to this question in my own life that make me increasingly sympathetic to those who look at the church and refuse to be part of it. But I also know that secular life may be religion-free, but it is anything but problem free. I do know, however, that while I applaud the strength, courage, and resilience of the veterans from our armed forces who have sacrificed much, I wish that they had not lost their limbs fighting geopolitical wars that advance the interests of a few while humanity in general pays the price. I believe in a greater ‘I AM’ who gave His life so that one day there will be no more wars. No human being can ever truly be the master of their fate, because they did not bring themselves to life and they cannot choose when they will die. Invictus is ultimately a fantasy.
But until the Church offers a better framework for learning who God really is, this lie will have to suffice for many people. Until we are the kind of church community that is described in Acts 2: 42-47, we will continue to baptise people and then watch them leave because we promote doctrine over fellowship, evangelism over discipleship, prophecy over Jesus (and if I didn’t believe in prophecy, I would not be a baptised Seventh-Day Adventist, so don’t play the fool with me on that one – please!) and glorified acceptance over true Biblical faith.
In short, they are going to find the truth DESPITE us – not because of us!
As black (and not just black) people who CLAIM to be Bible-believing Christians, we need a better class of hero than Nelson Mandela or the poet who wrote Invictus or even the awe-inspiring stories of those who have overcome disability in many ways – not just the participants in the Invictus Games of 2014. We also need a better class of role model than the world’s first all-black symphony orchestra who are promoting their own unique brand of extra-Biblical faith and whose engagement with European classical music is all about self-betterment than the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How do we expect to offer a credible witness to the world when our cultural and aesthetic choices have clearly trumped the gospel in our own lives?
If you’re not making any religious claims, then of course you should find inspiration in all those things. But if you are a Bible-believing Christian – as am I – then we cannot work in the same way as the secular world when it comes to role models, for we have one who is above all others…
…a fellow by the name of Jesus Christ…
…the Alpha and Omega, the one and only I AM.