Kendrick Lamar: Rapper or Vessel?

The senior cheerleaders on the team I coach were the first ones to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar. They asked if we could put his song “i” into our pep rally mega mix. I listened to the free clip available in the iTunes store and said it sounded good. When the girls brought the mix cd to practice, my heart almost exploded into my chest. There was some language coming out of the speakers in our high school gym that was much too explicit for me to have approved. I labored for hours to censor the swear words out of the mix without distorting the sound too much. I was sweating, but I was successful. All of the students loved the song and the routine.

Now, with this experience in mind, imagine my shock when I saw that Revelant Magazine tweeted a link to an article titled “Kendrick Lamar: All I am is a Vessel, Doing His Work.” Um, there’s no way bknation_Kendrick-Lamar-hoodie.jpgthat this could be the same Kendrick Lamar who was rapping about the the mother “effers” who doubted him. Why would someone who uses that language be calling himself God’s vessel?  My mind went back to media debate from a few years ago, started when Kathy Griffin won an Emmy and declared she wanted to thank everybody but God. Huffpost Live discussed this claim and the thanks to God that celebrities give after winning awards, a video in which Gospel music producer John Murray states,  “I just want your work to be at least church appropriate. If you can’t necessarily perform your work or at least go to church without feeling like a hooker in church, I think maybe you shouldn’t be thanking God.” I felt like Murray should be sharing this statement with Lamar.

Then, I clicked on to read Relevant’s article. The article was short, only two paragraphs in length, but it linked to a profile of Lamar the New York Times published today. The profile, seemingly purposed to address the spiritual and politic implications of his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, shares the key aspects of his spiritual journey and relationship with God. As it turns out, Lamar considers himself to be “saved,” thanks to a grandmother of one of his teenage friends in Compton, California approached him in a grocery store parking lot following the murder of one of Lamar’s friends and asked if he accepted God. He goes so far as to call the woman an “angel for [he and his friends].”

Just because Lamar considers himself to be save, he maintains his humanity and recognizes that he is more susceptible to sin. This new album was a way for him to explore, reflect, and share the stories of his struggle. Joe Coscarelli, the author of the Times article, writes “[Fame] brought only more opportunities for sin and self-doubt, an internal chaos reflected not only in Mr. Lamar’s intricate stories but also in vigorous jazz- and funk-inflected production that builds on the smoother West Coast sounds of his debut.” Okay, so now, maybe  I can see how he would be working as a vessel. He’s sharing his constant struggle to do the right thing. Just because he isn’t what one would consider saintly doesn’t mean that he can’t be working to serve God.

As the picture to left of this picturuseyoue, which I conveniently found in my Facebook newsfeed when brainstorming for this post (coincidence?), reminds us, a servant of God doesn’t have to be perfect. If God found a purpose for Noah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, and David, it doesn’t seem so absurd that he might find a purpose for a rap artist who liberally uses the “F” word. Perhaps Lamar is correct, and he can share the stories on his album because it’s part of God’s plan. Lamar is quoted in the Times article as saying, ” I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music…My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” Lamar doesn’t seem to be too prideful for his own good; in fact, he seems humble and understanding that he is a part of something bigger than himself. He seems like he wants to contribute anything that he can.

Knowing this, I went back and took a closer look at the lyrics from the song, “i.” The intro verse of this song reads, “I done been through a whole lot: trial, tribulation but I know God. The devil wanna put me in a bow tie. Pray that the holy water don’t go dry.”  The first sentence demonstrates that all of the difficulties Lamar has gone through but asserts that he has never wavered in his belief that God was with him. The second line that mentions the devil, according to Rap Genius contributors, alludes to funeral attire, as bow ties are often worn by the deceased. Because he hails from such a high crime area, it seemed likely that he would meet a fate similar to the terrible one of his friend. He looks to God though, the “holy water” to protect him and prays.

A majority of the song continues, arguing that as long as you love yourself, you can then love the seemingly dark place that is the rest of the world, as it is “illuminated by the hand of God.

As I write this, I have the song playing, and my mom is still complaining about Lamar’s language and her inability to understand any words besides the “bad ones.” I, on the other hand, have realized that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, in addition to being religious and working to change the rap industry, Lamar doesn’t drink or smoke. He does say of himself, “From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad.”

If we can overlook some of his word choice, we can definitely see the good.

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Dear Lauren: A Research-Related Surprise! Love, iTunes.

As you may know, this week, I’ve been working on a series of posts about religion, Christianity, and music. The first post touched on my experiences with music in church. The second post reflected on my impressions of three recommended worship bands. With this post, I’m examining how I’ve unknowingly been a fan of some Christian music for years and the implications of my discovery.

The Discovery

iphone-what-if-its-notNow, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but my iPhone is like an additional appendage of my body. I take it everywhere with me, and I almost always have at least one app running throughout the day. Saturday night was no exception. While I was getting ready to go to a designer bag bingo fundraiser, I set my phone on the bathroom counter and turned the volume up as my iTunes Music app shuffled through my library. Relient K came on as I was steadying my hand to put on eyeliner. That’s when I heard the line.

“But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”

Good thing I hadn’t started drawing on my lid yet, because if I had, I’m certain I would have poked my own eye out in surprise. That line sounds extremely Christian, I thought as I put the eye pencil down on the counter. I started the song over and listened. Other lines from the song “Be My Escape” that struck me included the following:

  • “He’s told me the way and now I’m trying to get there.”
  • “I’m a hostage to my own humanity”
  • “I fought You for so long. I should have let You in.”

This may or may not surprise you, but in high school, I went through a major alternativRelientKRelientKe, pop punk music phase. Relient K’s Mmhmm was among one of my favorites. I had always thought “Be My Escape” was a song about a desired relationship, a song about a guy waiting to finally get the girl. Was I naive? Or just blissfully unware?

Perhaps because I’ve been researching religion and spiritual journeys lately, the lyrics so obviously reveal the speaker’s connection with God. I’m going to claim that I was unaware. As it turns out, Relient K is classified as Christian rock band.

The Findings

Formerly unbeknownst to me, Relient K’s second album, Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Gospel album. Soon after, the band broke into the mainstream music scene in 2004 with the release of Mmhmm, an album that went on to peak in the top 15 of the Billboard 200 chart.

Adownload (1)fter sitting back and reading through lyrics of my favorite songs on Mmhmm, my favorite of the band’s albums, I feel like the band is having a conversation God rather than discussing love come and gone. For example, the song “The One I’m Waiting For” sounds, at first listen, like a song about a young guy wanting the popular girl and being rejected. “And she’s so confident that she’s what everybody wants. But nobody wants her to know that.” This girl is admired, and the singer is left in the cold, alone, tapping his foot in anticipation for the rest of eternity. “And I’m still waiting for you to be the one I’m waiting for.”

However, a more nuanced listen might suggest that the guy in the song isn’t just waiting for the girl to like him; he’s waiting for her to change, waiting for someone who would be worth waiting for. Waiting. For. Could “the one I’m waiting for” mean more than just waiting for her to be good enough for him? Could it mean waiting for her to be the one worth waiting until marriage for? Ah! Abstaining–there’s a definitive Christian value.

This discovery sparked further discoveries, as I scrolled through my iTunes library to see if anything else in my library related to Relient K.

I came across Anberlin‘s “Paperthin Hymn,” which shares the line “When life is in discord, praise ye Lord.” H220px-Paperthin_Hymnmmm.

I went to work on researching Anberlin and found that many of the band’s members call themselves Christian but that Anberlin doesn’t recognize itself as a Christian band. However, they also imply that some of their songs may have Christian messages. In an article cited on Beliefnet, lead vocalist Steven Christian (I promise, that’s his real name) shares, “I just simply write about life experiences, and when God comes out, then God comes out … But I’m also not going to inhibit that or I’m not going to try to create that feeling just to sell records to more Christians or talk about God less just to sell more records to the general market.”

The notion that their songs may also be interpreted as religious is also supported by the fact that the band was Tooth & Nail Records, a known force in the Christian music scene.

Much like Anberlin, Switchfoot, creators of the song “Meant to Live,” which declares “Dreaming about Providence and whether mice or men have second tries. Maybe we’ve been livin’ with our eyes half open. Maybe we’re bent and broken. We were meant to live for so much more,” is also often described as a Christian band. The members, also like Anberlin, work to reject this classification. Lead singer Jon Foreman, as cited on CTK Blog, states, “I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”

Once again, I receive clarification that, yes, that so much more we are meant to live for might mean Heaven. It might mean God. The band writes and believes as they see fit, whether they have a label or not.

I not only possessed Christian music, but I enjoyed it.

The Meaning

If anything, my findings about some beloved songs from my high school days seems to have proven a few things for me.

1. Christian music isn’t something only for the highly devout. It doesn’t live in churches. It lives and breathes in our society. It’s enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike. It can interpreted as being about God. It can be interpreted as being about a relationship. It can be interpreted as the listener so chooses, meaning it appeals to a wide audience, and that’s key for success.

2. Christian music doesn’t have to be evangelical. It doesn’t have to be working to convert or change its audience. It can simply be about the artist sharing his or her feelings and his or her concerns. If others happen to enjoy it and relate, that is just a bonus.

3. Christians can clearly still have an edgy side. Guitar riffs, loud drums, and somewhat abrasive sounds can be found on each of these bands’ albums. It’s not something made for the stereotypical old church lady, a small Sunday school student and a teenager. It  can just appeal to the teenager.

And even though I’m not a teenager, it still appeals to me, and I will continue to rock out to it as I drive with my windows down.

No Way! Rock bands? In Church?!

Can you make a list of all the things the above images have in common?

I tried, and I came up with the following: a stage, lights, a backdrop, drumsets, guitars, microphones, and a massive crowd. It seems as though all the pictures depict rock concerts, and, as a sit behind I computer screen, I’m wishing I was part of the fun.

If I told you one of the pictures was different from all the others, would you be able to spot the difference?

In case you can’t, the picture that displays the insignia “FOB” is a photo from one of Fall Out Boy’s, yes–the mainstream pop punk band, shows. The other three are pictures from Hillsong, Citipointe Live, and Jesus Culture worship concerts. Yes, you read that correctly. Three of the photos are photos of worship bands, and yes, I did say I wish I was a part of the fun.

This past Monday, I decided I would do a series of posts on music in the Christian community after being inspired by the blogger weallseektruth’s suggestion that I listen to some popular worships bands, specifically those mentioned above. To get myself in the right mindset, my first post in the series shared my experiences with worship music and hymns up to this point.

I have since listened to several songs by each of the artists, and I would like to share my impressions of this new-to-me genre in hopes to connect with anyone who is as curious about it as I was.

1. Hillsong United

2e53fb39858620e0ae421c57d605b485Hillsong United is global megachurch, Hillsong’s, resident worship band. The band has 13 current members, ranging from guitarists, keyboardists, and percussionists. Of the 13 band members, 5 are singers, though they are not called singers but,fittingly, worship leaders. Since 1998, the band has produced 19 albums.
Their most popular song on Spotify, with over 19 million plays, is titled “Oceans (Where my Feet May Fail)”. It was the band’s first radio single and held the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart for 26 weeks.

In terms of the lyrics, the song is about putting trust in God, even in the face of the unknown. The bridge, which is sung six times consecutively, reveals the singer’s unwavering faith that there is nothing to fear when following God’s calling. “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders. Let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior.” Not only is there nothing to fear, but together, the trust and the challenge, the lyrics assert, will make the speaker’s faith stronger. Repeating the bridge 6 times might seem like too much to an average listener, making the song almost 9 minute long, the repetition serves to prove that the speaker’s trust and dedication.

The song, sung by worship leader Taya Smith, features soothing guitar, powerful drums, and repetitious tambourine strikes. I, however, actually prefer an acoustic version the band recorded for Relevant Magazine that I found on Youtube . It’s so calming that I listened to it for about 20 minutes on repeat while reading yesterday.’

2. Jesus Culture

Jesus Culture isBand-033 a 7-piece band that has released 7 albums in the last 7 years. They expression their purpose on their church’s website, as a band meant “to bring people into an encounter with God’s love through worship and to disciple them to transform society.” Each band member works to live a lifestyle of worship and hopes that the music will provide listeners with a unique experience of God’s work.

Their most played song on Spotify, with nearly 4 and a half million plays, is “Love Never Fails.” This song is one about God’s grace and mercy, expressing that God’s love is never-ending, even in the face of tribulations. The repeated bridge in this song proclaims, “You make all things work together for my good.” Jesus Culture seems to be focused on reminding listeners that God has a plan and that there is no need to fear. God and His love will take care of all.

My favorite aspect of this song is that it is a live recording, and so the crowd singing along in the background is audible. It is a reminder that worship is a community experience, meant to be shared. While it may be presented in a “concert-like” experience and sounds like a sing-along, it’s more than that. It’s the sharing and perpetuation of a message in the form of celebration and song.

3. Citipointe Live

CommissionThumbCitipointe Live  hails from Citipointe Church in Brisbaine, Australia, and hope to see God glorified across globe. They look to “influence the world for good and for God.” They are a 5-piece band who have produced 9 albums since 2004.

Their most played song on Spotify, with 285,878 plays, is titled “Commission My Soul,” from their 2009 album under the same name.

Commission My Soul” shares a strong evangelical message, though in the lyrics, the speaker addresses God as the other songs did. It seems to be working to give purpose to one’s own life by helping others. “My life a living sacrifice,spirit empower me to set the captives free. My life is an offering.”

I have to say, I actually prefer the lesser played song, “On Top of the World,” which seems more similar to the other band’s works, declaring the greatness of God’s love with a strong upbeat rhythm, community singing, and lots of clapping from worship participants.

Final Thoughts

I found myself enjoying the worship music much more than I ever thought I would when I first starting hearing of the genre.  Maybe it was the comfort of guitars and drums.  Maybe it was the fact that It’s not overtly religious on the instrumental side; it’s very different from the single organ used for accompaniment in my church. It’s soothing and relatable while sharing valuable messages. At risk of sounding like a cliche, I felt at peace both physically and mentally while listening.

I’m now beginning to wonder, because it is so different, modern, and relatable, whether or not the intentions are both to praise God and make worshipping a more engaging experience than, say, that of the very tradition-focused Catholic mass. This is not to say that this would be a bad thing, but because many of the bands share similar goals about creating experiences between God and worshippers or listeners, it definitely seems like developing a new way of connecting is important.

Will it be something I listen to regularly as a soundtrack while I work? Probably not. I don’t think I’m around it often enough to reap the benefits of the community experience in which it seems so deeply rooted. I have, however, saved certain songs, especially Oceans (Where My Feet May Fail), for when the spirit moves me.

True Life: I Don’t Sing at Church

Sister ActNuns, choreography, pop renditions of hymns: we’ve all seen the iconic movie Sister Act, a film that injected a declining California Catholic church with the fun of Vegas-style entertainment. Maybe if Whoopi Goldberg had been my music teacher, the title of this post would have been different.

About a month ago, my family went to mass together for the first time in years. We sat in the pew, and I took one of the Breaking Bread 2015 hymnals from the shelf in front of me. I scoped out the board of hymnal number and bookmarked the page of each song that we’d hear during the service that day.

After each song was announced, the lone singer across the church rose and the organist pounded the keys to begin. Using the book as a guide, I sang along. And, allow me to clarify: by sing, I mean mouth the words practically under my breath. To be absolute, I never sing at church. It requires a level of confidence I just have never been able to muster. I glanced around at the surrounding pew occupants. I was in similar company. Everyone’s mouth was moving, but I didn’t hear any notes. No one was responding with the Responsorial Psalm.Sister Act 2

Not until the Gospel acclamation, when I heard someone behind me belting the words, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluiaaaa.”

Curiosity got me, and I turned around in search of the powerful voice.

That voice was small but mighty. The person behind it was young, probably no more than 8 years old. He held no hymnal; he used his hands for emphasis. He seemed to be moving because he was so moved. His mom, who must have noticed me looking, put her arm across his shoulders and smiled at me. I panicked. Did she think I was judging him? I didn’t want to give the wrong impression, so I made sure to smile back before I turned around again.

I wish I could say I was so inspired that I sang the next hymn aloud, but I did not. I had heard a powerful voice, but it wasn’t my own. I wasn’t yet moved to sing.

Then, over the weekend, blogger weallseekhope’s post about worship popped up in my reader as though to give me some musical education. I’d heard the word used as a verb, but now it was being used as a noun. Jasmine equated worship with music. She talked about a worship team, and I became curious again.Was my church the only church of voiceless singers (I mean mouth-ers)? Were there more people as passionate about singing for God as the little boy who sat behind me last month? She informed me of the following:

…we do worship during church service, usually before the sermon, to prepare everyone’s heart to listen and receive the message.

Color me intrigued. It appears music in church can more than the transitional segue for mass than I have always classified it as.

She also recommended that if I wanted to see first hand what she meant by worship that I check out bands such as Hillsong United, Citipointe, Jesus Culture, and solo artists like Kari Jobe.

This confession, then, is the first in a series of posts about music and religion. My next will share my impressions of the recommended bands and artists. If you have another that you think I absolutely must check out, please leave a name or link in the comment section!

And, of course, I can’t end a post that opened with Sister Act without a grand finale. What have you sung for Him lately?

Extremism: The Commonality between ISIS, “Jesus Camp,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Snow hit New Jersey Thursday, and school was closed for two days. Translation: I was off from work  and afforded the luxury of what to do with my free time. As you may have seen from my previous post, I spent Wednesday night preparing for the storm by watching Jesus Camp, a documentary about a Pentecostal Evangelical children’s summer camp. I spent Thursday reading Writing Ethnographic Field Notes and preparing to write about my observational experience in my campus’ student center. Friday, I decided to do some more research on religion in pop culture. Translation: I spent a lot of time scrolling through Twitter and a lot of time watching Netflix’s newly released original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I had no idea this would actually become a productive task.

As I learned in just the first episode, the lead character in the series, unbreakable_kimmy_2701_NAKimmy Schmidt, was kidnapped by a fanatical “religious leader” of a doomsday cult who convinced four women God had brought the apocalypse to Earth and killed everyone but those who lived safely in their underground bunker. The show, then, picks up 15 years later, when Kimmy is rescued by SWAT team members and begins trying to make sense of life above ground by re-evaluating flashback experiences to her time in the bunker.

Three hours, and 6 episodes in, I was wondering why someone who seems so intelligent (for only having an 8th grade education) would believe this ridiculous message. Twitter, surprisingly, was there to answer my question when I received the following tweet in response to one about my blog.

While it was relevant, I hadn’t really tweeted anything about Islam. In fact, my knowledge of Islam is extremely limited to things I’ve heard in the media–things about Islamic extremists. I clicked the link in good faith, thinking I might learn something applicable to my research, even though it seemed more like a spammer trying to get traffic to his page than anything else.  What I found was a link between the facts I’d garnered about ISIS from the media, the documentary I’d watched, and the doomsday cult that captured Kimmy Schmidt.

Yes, I recognize that it may seem extremely unsympathetic of me to make a comparison between a group that is violently and publicly killing Christians and a comedic sitcom about a nonsensical cult, but hear me out. The issues at the heart shine light on some very important concepts in religion. I am not working to justify the actions of any extremist group but merely working to help us understand why the followers of extremist groups might do what they do in the name of God.

In the article “Belief vs.Trust” by Dr. Safdar DushanTappeh, as tweeted to me by @islamrevisited, Dr. DushanTappeh argues that in every religion “there are always some notions, rules, and rituals that cannot be explained rationally and the religious person is expected to blindly swallow them with the added flavor of belief and trust.” This would explain why we, as bystanders, can’t wrap our heads around the actions of self-proclaimed religious groups that seem so blatantly anti-religious. His thesis, then, argues that this blind trust is the same corruption religion was formed to confront. With this argument, religious belief and religious trust are not the same.

DushanTappeh moves to define the following two terms in his writing:

1. Belief: The foundation of religious thought, the unprovable principles around which a religious man or woman will structure his life. 

2. Trust: The reliance a religious man or woman puts on the source of beliefs, whether divine creator, religious text, or religious leader.

The problem with beliefs is that while they are the foundation of religion,they have to come from somewhere. A religious person often looks to his or her religious leaders for guidance in understanding and practicing beliefs. This seems logical and valuable. Religious leaders are trained in interpreting and sharing religious texts. Why shouldn’t they be trusted by their congregations? Well, it is important to remember that interpretation is subjective. And one thing I will always remember from my English professors in college is that some interpretations can be wrong, particularly those that take parts of the works out of context.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq andisis-army-700x430 al-Sham), according to Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlanticfollows a “distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.” ISIS isn’t Islam. ISIS is leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s version of Islam. Islamic State’s chief spokesperson, as cited by Wood, juxtaposes biblical punishments with modern violence by calling Muslims to “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”

So, yes, ISIS is attracting psycopaths and adventure seekers, but it’s central messages are derived from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam. The messages are just being skewed by Baghdadi, and the followers are misplacing trust in him.

This is the same way, in my opinion, the children in Jesus Camp, misplaced trust in Becky Fisher who called them soldiers in a war for God. This is the same way Kimmy Schmidt believed Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who declared the world was ending. Believers see an authority who is telling them something terrifying, telling them they have a duty, and. perhaps out of fear of God, they listen, even if it means going against their gut instincts.

Extremism in religion is problem caused by misplaced trust. This insight probably won’t help us solve the problems extremism creates, but it might help us understand why it seems to overtake rational, moral human thought.

Jesus as Commander in Chief: a Look at the Documentary “Jesus Camp”


One nation, under God

As a teacher in an American public school, I stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag with my students every morning. When it’s over, I sit down in my desk chair, and separate church and state. I focus on my curriculum, teaching about reading literature, writing arguments, and learning language. I very rarely consider how America as a nation of Christian principles in its earliest of years.

It’s when my tenth graders read early American literature, including works by the PuritImage courtesy of amyisvip@blogspot.comans and pastors from the Great Awakening, such as Jonathon Edwards, that I am reminded of America’s Christian roots. As we read the “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon aloud together, the students are quick to note the fire and brimstone quality od waiting eagerly to drop those who are supposed to be his children to their eternal life amid furious flames? They can’t sof the text. They passionately point out that it sounds scary and intended to make listeners feel guilty. A wrathful God? A Geem to wrap their brains around it. They get the figures of speech, but they don’t get how anyone could have believed it. They don’t get how anyone could have been moved to act on behalf of someone seeking vengeance. I see their point, and then I suggest that we cannot pull this kind of sermon out of its original context and into our time period because our societies, lives, and ways of thinking are so vastly different.

After watching Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I’m not so sure I can make that claim anymore, at least not in good conscience.

I watched Jesus Camp at the recommendation of a classmate, Jess. When she learned I was doing research on religion, she told me it was a must-see. I was so intrigued that I watched it within a day of her lending me the DVD.

The documentary follows a children’s pastor (Becky Fisher) of a Pentecostal Evangelical church and three attendees of her summer camp, Kids on Fire (which has since been shut down). Becky Fisher, however, was not in the first five minutes of the film. Mike Papantonio, of the Ring of Fire radio show, though, was, and to say he left me confused would be a gross understatement. He began talking on air about “these guys” who are following some new brand of religion and generating war in the name of god.

I wondered:I thought this was about Jesus. Why is he talking about jihad?

Turns out, Papantonio wasn’t talking about Islamic radicals; he was speaking of radical Pentecostal Evangelicals who are building an army of Republicans in the United States. What a claim to make. I knew instantly that this was a documentary about extremes. The directors were creating this spectrum straight out of the gate by juxtaposing Papantonio with Fisher, who spoke next, encouraging the children to whom she preached, “This is a sick old world. Get your tools, and fix it.”

What tools, exactly Ms. Fisher? Surely she couldn’t mean the hand grenades and machine guns of 5 year old Islamic soldiers to whom she compared her own congregation by stating a desire to see Christian children being as radical as the young in places like Palestine and Pakistan who are willing to put their life on the line for their God. The war imagery continued when later in the film as Fisher posed questions, including this antagonistic example, “Take these prophecies, and do what the apostle Paul says. Make war with them…This means war. Are you a part of it, or not?”

By thphotoe looks of the camouflage face point on the children dancing and chanting to worship music, they most certainly are. They even recited choreographed battle cries: “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. That’s the Trojan battle cry.”  This camp seems to be a boot camp, turning out soldiers who will save America and bring the nation closer to God.

Kids. Guns. War. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to become angry with the film. Kids stood, gaping, at their pastor. Tears streamed down their faces as they were reminded of the dangers of sin, and classic childhood heroes, such as Harry Potter, were condemned as they would have been had their stories been a part of the Old Testament. I was reminded of Edwards’ “Sinners” sermon. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what good could possibly come from making children cry in church. What good could come from making children fear the God who is supposed to love and forgive them?

Then I remembered. I remembered the extreme spectrum the filmmakers set out to establish at the start of the film. This film was not to speak for a nation. It was not meant to speak for Christians across the U.S. It was meant to reflect the practices of one community–to inform.

While I disagree with many aspects of the teachings portrayed in the film, I think it was valuable to watch, as does Rotten Tomatoeswhich gives the film an 87% fresh rating. The documentary presented radicalism in a non-aggressive, non-threatening way to viewers. We tend to hear about radicalism the most in relation to groups with ties to Islam.  This is not to say that Evangelical Christians are radical terrorists, but, as mentioned above, there are striking parallels in the language used. Rather than fear Evangelical radicals the same way Americans fear radical groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, we can benefit from recognize the power of doctrine on a young mind.

I think we, as a nation, tend to be scared of what we don’t know. Not every child is given the same choice we might be. Jesus Camp gives us the opportunity to know and understand before we make blanket judgments.

Religion vs. Jesus: An Age Old Debate, as Slammed by Jefferson Bethke

Last Wednesday, I was scouring YouTube for a video to use in my classroom for the students’ Watch It Wednesday do now assignment. Usually, the videos are news clips, but I wanted to switch it up a bit for entertainment’s sake, so I was looking up videos on controversial topics–spoken word poems on the purpose of compulsory education and standardized testing. While watching these videos, I noticed something in the “Suggestions” sidebar that piqued my interest, a poem called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by a young man named Jefferson Bethke.

The title is certainly a version of a phrase I have heard many times, a phrase heard from kids, teenagers, and adults alike.

Oh, I’m not very religious, but I believe in God. 

Oh, I believe in God, but I can follow him and pray to him from my house.

Oh, I don’t know how I feel about church, but I definitely believe in some kind of after life.

One could chalk up this sometimes apathetic, sometimes disgruntled, sometimes outright rebellious attitude to an overabundance of rules and doctrine in various churches. Speaking from personal experience, I know that Catholic church has what I consider to be very heavy-handed rules about birth control and family planning. I know several churches, especially Southern Baptist churches, have rules and beliefs about drinking alcohol. I understand that religions develop and share these rules as interpretations of the Bible and, therefore, connected to the word of God, but for someone who wants to believe or become involved with a church, but the blanket enforcement of what seem like arbitrary rules makes religion appear to be more a way to control people than to develop a close relationship with God.

As you watch Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word poem, he addresses these concerns by addressing contradictions between being a member of religion and being a true disciple of Jesus.

Bethke compares religion to a list of chores, suggesting that it’s a way to ensure believers behave the same way rather than focusing on their individual relationship with God. He iterates that churches should welcome the broken, those who don’t follow the rules because they are the ones who need guidance, and yet he recognizes these are the people who often feel most out of place and rejected by the “good” members of the church. He ends his poem by stating religion and Christianity are two different claims.

“Religion is man’s search for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” 

This is a powerful statement that makes clear God is looking to save. God is looking to help. It shows that organized religion may not share that same purpose at it’s core or that the mission has gotten too muddled with time and the human mind, an argument emphasized again in this word cloud of Bethke’s poem. Religion and Jesus are the largest words, most used in the poem, but Jesus is larger, which suggests that He is more than doctrine. He is more than religion.

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Now, I’m sure someone might think that by posting a poem expressing views on religion as Bethke did might suggest that he is not a true Christian, but it is important to remember that this single video has received, at this time, 29, 020, 448 views. His YouTube channel has over 500,00 subscribers. He actively posts videos about living a Christian life, mostly geared toward millenials. He shares views on dating as a Christian, living as a Christian when you don’t feel God, and problems or conflicts between modern American culture and Christianity.

He seems interesting and dedicated, proof that a person can question church, question religion, and still be a disciple of Jesus. He illustrates that there isn’t a one-size fits all religious life. I highly recommend checking out his channel and watching a few videos. Most aren’t longer than 7 or 8 minutes.

His slam poem was published to YouTube in 2012. It’s success inspired his 2013 book release, Jesus>Religion. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday, and I am looking forward to seeing what else Bethke has to say.