The Critical Cleric

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015 •

 

        

I often say nostalgia is the luxury of those who've had the benefit to live long enough to remember better days and the older I get the more I believe this as sentimental feelings about past times tend to visit me more often as the years go by.  

Almost instantly sweet feelings of nostalgia flood my soul whenever I return to the neighborhood where I grew up or visit the church where I first encountered God or eat some good baked turkey wings and collard greens that remind me of my great-grandmother's dining room table.  But most often I get reminiscent feelings when I'm listening to music.

It doesn't happen all the time but occasionally I'll hear a song or encounter the work of an artist whose music has a vintage quality that opens up the memory channels of my soul and invokes familiar vibes of melodic good times.  This is what I experienced when I recently had the opportunity to listen to an album titled Transparent Reflections from the talented rapper known as NoFlesh

When I tell you this album is a legit reminder of hip hop's golden age, I'm telling you no lie.  Every one of the album's 17 tracks is filled with lyrical cleverness and hip hop musicality that reminds you of some of the 90's best urban music.  In many ways the album puts you in the mind of the conscious, jazz influenced, eclectic music of Boogie Down productions, Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr.

There are those who might describe the album as Gospel rap and/or Christian Hip Hop due to the fact that NoFlesh's lyrics are laced with the language of faith and Christ centered consciousness.  Personally, I don't find these labels fair or appropriate.  Just because an artist has significant lyrical content on a particular topic or issue doesn't automatically merit their entire album being labeled in those terms.  For example, rapper Future has heavy "dope game" content but his music isn't formally labeled as "dope dealer hip hop" and rappers who spit heavy about their real and desired sexual encounters don't have their music labeled as "sex rap."  So why is it rappers who give lyrical attention to matters of faith and inspiration are labeled in some special category?

From my viewpoint, Transparent Reflections is simply a soulful rap album.  It falls in the long line of albums that use rhythm and rhyme and strong beats to tell a story about what it means to be human in contemporary time and space.    

Without question, NoFlesh makes no attempt to hide or shy away from his clear faith commitments and Christ centered beliefs in his music.  After all, in addition to being a recording artist and MC, he is also a Christian scholar and long time pastor of a vibrant church in Carrolton, Georgia.   On the album's 15th track, titled "Money", NoFlesh brings together all of these identities and shows his skills as a rapper/urban theologian with his lyrical critique of prosperity gospel preachers and their message.  You can check out the track below.   

 

                                                                        

 

What I like most about NoFlesh's album is its ability to weave matters of faith and empowerment into his music without being corny and/or too preachy.  And very possibly the hottest thing about Transparent Reflections might be the broad range of subject matter that it manages to cover with style and hip hop groove.  With extreme ease NoFlesh brings together in his lyrics diverse topics that stretch from weed smoking, the temple of Dagon and the Lord of the Flies to Christian discipleship and socially marginalized families. 

In a real sense, Transparent Reflections can be described as a really good attempt to help reclaim the heart of Hip Hop in a time when many feel contemporary Hip Hop is saturated with music that amounts to little more than a bumping beat, ratchet lyrics and a catchy hook; and as someone who admittedly listens with a happy heart to what is often called "trap" music, I can say that NoFlesh's album is a welcomed addition to a hip hop scene too often lacking in substance and depth. 

For all these reasons I hope you'll check out this album given to us by one of the rap game's freshest and most talented voices.  I guarantee if you do you'll find yourself on an enjoyable musical journey through the struggle and strivings of the human heart which is among the highest praise I can offer about any album. 

You can purchase the album on itunes by clicking this link "NoFlesh itunes page"

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Thursday, July 02, 2015 •

 

On June 30, 2015, Dr. Randall Charles Bailey, one of the nation's most distinguished biblical scholars, retired from his post as the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

I first encountered Dr. Randall C. Bailey during the first semester of my first year as a seminarian at the ITC when I took his introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament course.  Prior to taking his course I hadn't heard of Randall Bailey though I would soon find out that he had previously taught just about all of my former pastors.

I remember sitting in the auditorium the first day of class and overhearing one of my classmates tell someone that she heard "Dr. Bailey will take your Jesus."  At the time I didn't know what this meant but I remember thinking to myself "if your Jesus can be taken by a seminary Bible course then you're probably better off without that Jesus anyway."

Once the course began it didn't take long to understand why Dr. Bailey had developed a reputation for being the ITC's resident "Jesus Taker."  In reality, his reputation had very little to do with Jesus and more to do with his commitment to critically engaging the biblical text and calling into question many of the ideologies and ethics put forth by biblical writers.  This commitment disturbed many of the more theologically conservative and fundamentalist students who viewed Dr. Bailey's scholarly approach as an affront to their faith.

On the other hand, I along with many others, found Dr. Bailey's views and critical perspectives to be refreshing, intellectually stimulating and underappreciated.   So much so that I personally went on to take 3 more of his courses and serve as his teaching assistant my entire last year of seminary.

Over the last several years since leaving seminary Dr. Bailey and I have remained in close connection and fellowship and during this time I've developed a great admiration for Dr. Bailey as a mentor-scholar-teacher.  In all of these capacities I've witnessed him demonstrate a distinguished level of professionalism, dedication, and service that can clearly be seen in his teaching, scholarship, and contributions to the church and society over the last few decades. 

Early Scholarship and Black Theology

Dr. Bailey began teaching at the Atlanta University in the School of Social Work in the 70's and went on to obtain a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology and a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Emory University's Graduate Division of Religion.  In 1981 he began teaching at ITC as an instructor and steadily moved up the professorial ranks for 3 decades until in 2011 finally becoming the first Distinguished Professor in the history of the Interdenominational Theological Center. 

Early in his career Bailey's focus was doing scholarship that would further the goals of the black theology movement.  This was the work of using biblical scholarship as a tool to advance liberation and freedom in the church and society.  In many ways this focus was the result of Bailey's commitment to the black church tradition which is where he experienced his adult conversion to Christianity and later became an ordained Baptist minister through the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.   

As Bailey sought to make his own scholarly contributions to the black theology movement, he used the work of legendary black biblical scholars like Charles Copher and Cain Hope Felder and early feminist biblical scholarship to help him develop his voice.  A major aspect of this early Bailey scholarship was furthering the work of uncovering and recovering the presence and contribution of African people in the Bible.

One example of this early scholarship was his assertion that Africans in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were not lowly and inconsequential, as some white scholars have suggested.  Instead, he argues that Africans in the Bible were viewed as the high standard of evaluation and measurement for ancient Israel and the early church; which is why the nation of Egypt has such a pronounced presence in the biblical narratives.  

Ideological Critic and Bible & Sex Scholar

By the 90's with the rise of postmodern deconstructionist studies Bailey began to be greatly influenced by ideological criticism.  This opened the door for him to begin to critique the biblical text as a religious anthology with a mixed bag ethics.  From this would emerge one of the most controversial and noted aspects of Bailey's scholarship which is the bold assertion that many parts of the bible do not promote justice and liberation. 

For example, while many scholars view the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 as a beautiful hymn of praise that demonstrates Mary's joyousness to be used of God to birth God's son, Bailey has a different viewpoint.  In his assessment, Mary is a teenage girl whose body has been used without her consent, therefore that makes it a dangerous song of how women religiously justify their being abused by appealing to faulty notions of spiritual piety.  Moreover, the narrative depicts a God more concerned with birthing a male child than protecting a young woman's body.     

[Not exactly what you learned in Sunday school, right?]

This interpretative claim and those like it are why Dr. Bailey's classes are often filled with lively debate and verbal exchange.  It's also why his classes have been the catalyst for a number of intellectual and theological awakenings among his students. 

In recent years, Dr. Bailey is most widely recognized as one of the nation's leading scholars of the Bible, Sex, and Sexualities.  For over two decades he has spent considerable time writing, speaking, teaching, and thinking about interpretations of sex and sexualities in the biblical text and how those interpretations either promote or demote human liberation and sexual expression.  In particular, he's given special attention to advocating for queer biblical studies.  This is the study of using queer, feminist, postcolonial, historical-critical and other contextual interpretative methods to explore queer themes in the Bible. 

One example of this work is Bailey's reading of the Genesis 39 narrative of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.  According to Dr. Bailey, based upon word studies and literary structure the real conflict between Joseph and Potiphar's wife is Joseph's sexual relationship with Potiphar which he flaunts in the face of Mrs. Potiphar.  Similar to this are his readings that Jonathan and David were sexual partners and that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was more about the sexual abuse of daughters than homosexuality. 

Distinguished Service and Scholarly Legacy

The choice to be a radical-status quo-challenging biblical scholar is not easy because you're constantly pushed to the margins and demonized for your views.  Dr. Bailey has had to deal with this reality most of his career.  But that has never deterred him from his mission to set captive minds free and I'm personally grateful for this because once upon a time I was one of those minds.      

Over the years there have been a couple people who've questioned me about why I continue to support and associate with such a "polarizing figure" as Dr. Bailey?  My answer is always the same, "I don't agree with all of Dr. Bailey's views but what I know for sure is that at the core of everything he believes is a genuine love for humanity and a desire to see all God's children live in freedom and equality which is enough reason for me to remain honored to call him my friend."       

Without a doubt, the Interdenominational Theological Center is losing a scholarly giant and as a result the institution won't be quite the same without him.  The fact is there aren't many credentialed biblical scholars running around these days with Dr. Bailey's quality of intellectual engagement, originality of thought, and willingness to give voice to scholarly opinions and voices that are often marginalized in mainstream theological thought.  

Nonetheless, the good news in his retiring is that he leaves a legacy of distinguished scholarship that will not soon be forgotten.  To his credit he has nearly 100 scholarly publications, dozens of special lectureships and professional awards.  He has held offices in scholarly Guild Associations, in Ecumenical Councils, and has taught courses and lectured in institutions on three other continents beyond North America.  He has also been fortunate to preach in churches of several denominations on five continents.  Perhaps, most notably, he has helped mentor future generations of Black Theological Scholars; and along with other faculty members at ITC assisted over 20 students in gaining admission to PhD programs in various theological disciplines.  Of these 12 have already received their degrees and are performing in significant ways in the church and the academy.   In addition, he has also mentored a number of pastors and church leaders who are presently engaged in creative and liberating ministry. 

This is the rich legacy that Dr. Randall C. Bailey leaves behind and since he's only retiring from ITC and not from life service, I'm glad he'll have the opportunity to add to this legacy. 

So my prayer is that God would grant him many more years of courageous truth-telling, scholarly production, and fighting on behalf of religiously and socially disenfranchised groups because Lord knows the church and our society desperately need voices like his.       

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015 •

Last month I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the legacy of one of Atlanta's most beloved black restaurateurs "Ms. Ann", the originator the America's best burger. Read and share!

The creator of America's best burger died recently. Her full name was Annie Bell Price; but to those who knew her and loved her famous burgers, she was simply known as "Ms. Ann." For forty-plus years, Ann was the owner and head cook-in-charge of an Atlanta snack bar that made her a local icon and respected restaurateur.

Ms. Ann, known mostly for the oversized big body sandwich, better known as the "Ghetto burger," was one of Atlanta's best kept culinary secrets until The Wall Street Journal in 2007 named her Ghetto Burger the world's greatest burger. Now, the modest burger joint that Ms. Ann began in 1971 is an internationally known destination for a goodly number of foodies and hamburger lovers who visit Atlanta each year.

In fact, over the last decade Ms. Ann's growing national reputation made her snack bar one of the most culturally and socially diverse dining scenes in Atlanta. On any given day at Ann's bar you could find a local politician, corporate executive, minister, college student, neighborhood derelict and family member all waiting in line to dine at Ann's altar of greasy goodness.

Even high-profile celebrity figures like Sean "Diddy" Combs, Robert Duval and food critic Raymond Sokolov, just to name a few, have taken the journey throughout the years to Atlanta's eastside to experience Ms. Ann's gastronomical joy ride.

I've personally eaten at Ms. Ann's snack bar more times than I can remember. I was first told about it by some college buddies of mine who told me I wasn't a real resident of Atlanta until I had eaten a Ghetto Burger; and then they proceeded to make a bet with me that I couldn't finish eating one in a single sitting. They were wrong.

I took one look at the mouth-watering, artery clogging Ghetto Burger that made Ms. Ann famous and I was transported to a burger paradise like none other. Needless to say, I victoriously finished it all and became a loyal customer.

In all honesty, I can't say definitively what made Ms. Ann's burgers so special. Lots of places sell gigantic double cheeseburgers, fried with massive pieces of onion and topped with bacon, a little chili sauce and lettuce and tomato. The only thing that I've been able to conclude is that other places just don't have Ms. Ann's "burger cooking hands" or her secret seasoning that she kept as guarded as a winning lottery jackpot ticket...........

Continue reading the remainder of the article at the Huffington post site by clicking here

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Monday, December 01, 2014 •

I was asked to share my thoughts on Thanksgiving day and Matthew 25 for ON Scripture and the Huffington post, so I did. Check it out! Remember, truly thankful hearts should lead to serving hands. ?#?TruthOnTheLoose?

I love Thanksgiving.

I love the food, the fellowship, the friends and family, the football and did I mention that I love the food. Unashamedly it might very well be my favorite holiday. Yet, despite all my warm feelings about Thanksgiving, I am not blind to its historical shortcomings.

As Jane Kamensky says, "...holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now." I think she's right about this. In so many cases, our national celebrations and observances are mere expressions of our collective aspirations and not our actuality. One clear example of this is the history and practice of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As it goes, every year people throughout this nation gather for a commemorative feast of sorts where we give praises to God for the individual and collective blessings bestowed upon us. This tradition goes back to the 17th century when the New England colonists, also known as pilgrims, celebrated their first harvest in the New World.

On the surface, this seems harmless enough but a closer reading of history tells a more dubious story. Continue reading by clicking here!

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Thursday, September 18, 2014 •

Check out my latest Huffpost piece. This time I take on the Tavis Smiley and Black America controversy over the Obama Administration. As many of my friends know I have not agreed with much of the recent (as in the last several years) public criticism of Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West. For the most part I've found it to be dismissive, simple-minded, and in some cases down right nasty. But I'll you read the post and see what I really think.

Tavis Smiley used to be the darling of black America. Once upon a time his keen critical commentary, ubiquitous media presence and undeniable charm brought delight to the hearts and minds of many black Americans. No matter whether he was providing social commentary on Tom Joyner's morning radio show or conducting interviews on his television talk show, Smiley's voice and views seemed to always find a large ready audience in the black community. At the height of his popularity, Smiley hosted a highly celebrated, nationally televised "State of the Black Union" symposium that comedian Chris Rock once hilariously called "the annual black people listen meeting," which featured some of the best and brightest of the African-American community.

But things changed in 2007, when then-Sen. Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president of the United States of America. Since this time Tavis Smiley and many black Americans have been engaged in what can only be described as a lovers' quarrel. As the story goes, many in the black community either turned on or tuned out Smiley when he persisted to publicly challenge, criticize, and correct President Obama for not putting forth a "black agenda."

While Smiley has argued that his critique of the president has been rooted in principle and based on his love for black people, many black Americans still aren't buying it. In their opinion Smiley's critiques are nothing more than insincere verbal attacks that stem from envy of President Obama and too much love for himself and his own legacy.

This quarrel was reignited last week when Smiley, during an interview on Huffpost Live with Marc Lamont Hill, said, "The data is going to indicate that black people lost ground in every single leading economic category during the Obama years." As one might suspect, Smiley's assertion did not sit well with many black Americans, and they have effectively put Smiley back in the dog house of public opinion.

Over the last several years I have watched this lovers' quarrel with a burdened heart and bewildered mind. On one level the dismissive, and in some cases downright nasty, nature of the discourse has made it difficult for my heart to watch this soap opera unfold. Instead of simply disagreeing with Smiley on the issues, far too many individuals have opted to engage in simple-minded labeling, like calling him a "hater" or comparing him to a "deluded teenager in love with the smell of his own piss," as Stanley Crouch did back in 2010. This type of carrying on, though entertaining to some, does nothing but cheapen the discourse and distract from the real issues. Moreover, this type of rhetoric attempts to reduce all of Smiley's years of service to this one political moment, which, in my view, is unfair and intellectually dishonest.

Continue reading the entire post by clicking here....

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Sunday, August 24, 2014 •

Recently, I was asked along with several other preachers, to provide a brief written reflection of what I would preach in regards to the recent police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Obviously I had strong feelings about this subject given my race, gender and background. Perhaps my primary feelings were weariness and sadness over the continued perils of African Americans in the US. Which is why my sermon was called "Confessions of Tired Black Preacher". The other contributors and myself have received positive feedback on our reflections. I hope you'll take time to check them out. My contribution and the link to the entire article is below.

Admittedly, in the spirit of the late Reverend Dr. Vernon Johns who once preached the sermon "It's safe to murder Negroes," I was quite tempted this coming Sunday to preach a sermon of my own, titled "It's Still Safe to Murder Negroes." But upon further reflection I've chosen to homiletically respond to the police shooting of young Michael Brown and the ensuing outrage of the Ferguson black community with a sermon titled "Confessions of a Tired Black Preacher."

Generally speaking the sermon will invite hearers into my struggle as a young black male preacher in the United of States America, as I try to understand what the message of the Christian gospel has to say to the perils of racial prejudice in our times. The substance of the sermon will be my attempt to show that the Christian gospel calls us to directly confront racial and ethnic prejudice in all of its various forms. Though I will use various historical, theological, and artistic sources to make this point, my primary source will be the New Testament Book of Acts (chapter 10, verses 9-35). By using these verses which contain the story of how the Apostle Peter was confronted and then convicted by the Spirit about his prejudice against all non-Jews, I hope to inspire listeners to confront the prejudice in their own hearts and communities. I also hope to show through these verses that the gospel requires us to confront and change systems of racial and social privilege that continue foster feelings of mistrust and animus among various groups.

Finally, I hope to encourage the hearers not to give up or get weary. But to keep fighting the good fight until justice rolls down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Click here to read all the reflections......

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Saturday, July 26, 2014 •

For the past two years I've been asked to write an article for the annual Theological Education edition of Presbyterians Today magazine. This year I wrote about the provocative subject of whether Jesus would go to seminary. Check it out and tell me what you think.

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Saturday, July 05, 2014 •

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a video project produced by Emory University that focuses on faith and church financial administration.  The purpose of the video is to give persons preparing for pastoral ministry some understanding of the financial challenges and issues they may face while leading a congregation. 

When I was initially asked to participate I was apprehensive but I'm glad I did.  With all of the corruption and financial deception taking place in contemporary churches I think seminarians need to know that there are some churches trying to do the right thing.  Moreover I think all congregations need to be more open about the potential perils of leading a congregation in our current complex world.  Thankfully, this video accomplishes both of these goals. 

Please take some time to watch and share.  It might bless your life, especially if you're someone preparing for ministry or just starting out. 

 

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014 •

 

 

I love ESPN's show First Take. Watching Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith debate and sometimes holler at each other about sports and other stuff is one of the best parts of my mornings. In addition to being consistently entertaining and insightful they are also hilarious. And it would be a crime not to mention the show's moderator, the lovely Cari Champion, who makes the hard job of keeping Skip and Stephen A. on topic look easy.

But despite how much I love the show, I must admit that I have a nagging bone to pick with Mr. Bayless and Mr. Smith.

Longtime viewers of the show will know that while the rest of the universe has almost uniformly labeled San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich the best coach in the National Basketball League, Skip and Stephen A. have defiantly declared Doc Rivers to be the best. However, since the Spurs systematic dismantling of Lebron James and the Miami Heat in this year's NBA finals, it appears Skip and Stephen A. may be covertly trying to change their tune about who's the top coach in the league.

Continue Reading at Huffpost......click here!

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014 •

Last month writer Ta-Nehisi Coates almost singlehandedly reignited the reparations conversation in this country with his The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy blog piece. By making the case that black social peril and inequality in the United States of America is mostly the result of the legacy of white supremacy and African enslavement, Coates has effectively initiated a new debate in public discourse about the virtues and vices of reparations.

Among the many insightful aspects of Coates' arguments is his assertion that African enslavement and white supremacy were in part substantiated and justified on Christian theological grounds. For many of us, this is not new news; but it did get my mind to thinking again about the role Christian theology has played in advancing black social inequality.

It is a historical fact that one of the primary supporting institutions of African enslavement was the Christian churches. Many of the churches provided the theological and ideological basis on which enslavement functioned and thrived. For this reason I argue that the Christian church was as complicit in the atrocity of enslavement and the advance of white supremacy as any other party; and as result the contemporary Christian church must take responsibility for helping right the wrongs that it helped perpetuate in US society and culture.

And this brings us to the issue of reparations..................................

Continue reading this post on Billy's HuffingtonPost blog page

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