The syncretistic practice of Christianity within the traditional African American church is well known, and in some settings, cherished. The line between “Christianity” and secular African American culture is not blurred; it does not exist. Positively, some sociologists and historians have suggested that, historically, this is due to the inseparability of the slave church and slave culture. Slaves were able to survive the brutality of antebellum slavery due to their Christian faith, and the slave church was the rallying and unifying point of the slave community. Negatively, the gray matter of African American Christianity is most evident in the democratic process of Presidential elections: My Christian position on the life of the unborn and the Biblical teaching on marriage have no place in my decision-making when it comes to the election of a President. He is African American, I am African American; nothing else matters.
The blurred nature of what is distinctively Christian and what is African American is commonly displayed at our national, non-Christian music and video award shows. It would be typical for an African American artist, who is receiving an award for a song or video full of lyrics and/or scenes completely contrary to the moral standards of the Gospel, to receive the award with the words, “First, I would like to thank my Lord Jesus Christ for…” giving something related to the talent of the singer or the award itself. The thanksgiving, though obviously hypocritical, is received with great acclamation, seemingly without the hosts or audience being put off by the references to the Lord among the secular throng.
Yesterday, I watched the last hour of this year’s BET Music Awards show, a show I had never previously watched. Compared to what I have seen on other awards shows in the past, somewhat expectedly I found the BET show very much affected by the passing of Michael Jackson. There were many tributes given to the King of Pop. They ranged from snippets of his music before commercial breaks, to words of tribute from the various artists and emcees on the program. Some of the tributes honored the enduring nature of his race-transcending music. Other tributes virtually deified him.
For example, the legendary Soul Train host, Don Cornelius, referred to the artist as the “immortal Michael Jackson.” To this my oldest daughter immediately retorted, “Well, I think this week we found out, clearly, that he was not immortal.” Yet many in the BET audience expressed agreement with Cornelius.
The artist Wyclef Jean, who received a humanitarian award, spoke of a long hoped-for meeting with Jackson. He said he had planned his words for this exciting meeting, but “when [Jackson] showed up, I shook his hand and lost my voice completely. That is the affect this man had on people.”
Other artists quipped that “[Jackson] meant so much to us and to the whole world,” and that he was “often imitated but never duplicated.” One artist referred to him as “a musical deity.” Never mind those suspicions surrounding children, the dangling of the baby out of the window, the constant changing of his facial appearance, and Jackson’s other self-destructive behavior; Jackson was an entertainment god.
There was a very odd moment in the television program when one of the members of the O’Jays used some very foul language while honoring Michael. The award show’s technicians attempted to mute the word, but were about a half-second too late, so the entire listening TV audience heard the word. The foible produced roaring laughter among the audience and some momentary blushing on the part of the entertainer who made the mistake. I was wondering if anyone had noticed that only a few moments before, when the O’Jays stepped on stage to receive an award for lifetime achievement, two of the men began with words of praise like, “I would like to give honor to God, to whom be all the power and glory,” and “First, we would like to thank God for all the blessings bestowed upon the O’Jays.” The member who slipped with the curse word ended the acceptance speech with “God Bless….” I guess Michael can be honored while foul language is used, and this can happen to the praise of God. This is not simply gray. This is where you wish you had not made the switch from analog to digital.
I think, however, the tale-telling sign of African American Christian syncretism was revealed at the award show in a different manner. This year, the vast majority of artists did not mention God at all. Instead, where you might have expected thanks to be given to God, thanks was given to Michael Jackson. It is not that Jackson was being thanked for empowering the artists, but simply that a great amount of thanks being given at this year’s show was given to Michael. Thanks to God was eclipsed by thanks to the King of Pop.
I can only imagine how many words of honor were given to Michael Jackson from African American pulpits this past Sunday. It would be my hope that Michael’s death would have provided many opportunities for African American pastors to point out the errors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For Michael, along with the artist, Prince, are the Watchtower’s two most well known members, both are African American, and the Witnesses love to prey on African Americans. Many African Americans equate the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a Christian denomination. Christ’s name would be honored by pointing out that Michael’s hopes did not rest on God the Son, and that there are many like him within the African American community who are in need of the message about God the Son coming into the world to save people from the wrath of God due to their sins. I suspect, however, that much praise was given in the name of the Lord for Michael Jackson. Prayers might even have been offered from pulpits for the comfort – rather than salvation – of Jackson’s family members, who also are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The death of Jackson shows that African American syncretism never was; in truth, what appears to be syncretism is a comfortable atheism. Many African American church-goers are fine with Christianity as long as we, as African Americans, can bring our cultural gods with us. We see no problem with our secular artists, their words or their behavior, as long as our fellow church members see God’s blessings as being consistent with our entertainers’ debauchery. Yet, I hope that the death of Jackson will help awaken the Black Church out of its syncretism—that we will view the lives of entertainers with discernment rather than with bliss, and give worship to the King of Kings alone. Only one of them is immortal, and he is to be worshipped. This should not be a gray matter. This should be a no-brainer.
UPDATE: Someone kindly emailed me to say that MJ converted to Islam. I have been searching the web. I find reports here and there, but nothing that can be substantiated. Some reports suggested a trip to the Middle East led to a conversion. Others suggested one of his brothers intorduced him to Islam. All that I know for certain is that Jackson was raised as a Witness. If you can find the correct information on a profession of Isalm, please forward it to me. Thank you.