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Archive for November, 2008

Walt Whitman and The Soul Children of Chicago, circa 1990.

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It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m grateful for so many things—a wonderful wife and kids, in-laws who actually like me, a place to live, a job to commute to every day, and a community of friends (through church, work, school, and the blogosphere) that is a tremendous source of encouragement and support.

I’m also thankful, most days, to attend a church whose members are a lot different from me in various ways. This occurred to me a few weeks back when I first read Philip Yancey’s latest column in Christianity Today about the signs of a healthy church. I was particularly moved by this extended passage:

As I read accounts of the New Testament church, no characteristic stands out more sharply than this one. Beginning with Pentecost, the Christian church dismantled the barriers of gender, race, and social class that had marked Jewish congregations. Paul, who as a rabbi had given thanks daily that he was not born a woman, slave, or Gentile, marveled over the radical change: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

One modern Indian pastor told me, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even the miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.”

Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life. Perhaps for this reason we tend to surround ourselves with people of similar age, economic class, and opinion. Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can come together. Just yesterday I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank and a breastfeeding baby who grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the sermon. Where else can we go to find that mixture?

When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other—and resemble me—the more uncomfortable I feel.

Reading that made me wonder, do I feel comfort or discomfort in my current church setting, and why? Have I settled in so much that I’ve grown deaf to the call for “unity amid diversity” that should challenge every Christian congregation in one way or the other? These are, I believe, important questions to ponder from time to time. In fact, I ponder them most Sunday mornings.

Unlike Yancey, I find that my discomfort grows not out of being in a congregation that resembles me, because mine most certainly doesn’t. Rather, my discomfort stems from the nagging feeling that I’ve simply settled for the status quo. When you are the diversity of a place (at least in a racial sense), it’s sometimes easy to grow complacent and feel that you’ve already done your part. But that isn’t necessarily so. I probably could be doing a lot more to make my church a more diverse place—whether it be reaching out to other people of color more often and inviting them to church, or speaking up about the continued lack of racial diversity in our congregation, even though we’re located in a very diverse community. I need to be prayerfully figuring out how to take my discomfort and turn it into something positive and redemptive. I need to get better at opening my mouth and sharing my perspective (which, I guess, I do here a lot) and not just accepting that “things will never change.” Yet, I need wisdom to know when to speak and when to “go with the flow.” Lord, grant me that wisdom.

I’ve also been moved this Thanksgiving week by a series of broadcasts on (suprise! surprise!) NPR that explore what it means to be an American from the immigrant perspective. So far, the series has featured insightful interviews with authors Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers speak poignantly of the struggle of finding acceptance in a country that both embraces and resists diversity, and of having loyalties to two very different cultures. You can hear in their stories both the pain and pride of “becoming American.” [Update: An interview with half-Irish, half-Turkish author Joseph O’Neill ran on Wednesday morning.]

As I listened, I was reminded again of Yancey’s words: “Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life.” Yet it’s what makes us stronger. It’s what makes us better. Without it, we cannot fully display the power of Christ’s gospel. 

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If you would indulge me for a moment (and hopefully not be too offended), I’d like to take time out from more serious topics to discuss … late-night sketch comedy and political satire.

This piece in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, which was inspired by this piece from The Daily Beast, once again got me to thinking about the sorry state of Saturday Night Live when it comes to non-white cast members. The emergence of Barack Obama on the political stage has really exposed the show’s weakness on this point. I like Fred Armisen, who currently does Obama on the show, but I haven’t been that impressed with his impersonation. His take on Obama feels flat, without much nuance or irony. It’s as if he’s so busy trying to look like Obama that he doesn’t feel the freedom to dive deeper into the character and make him his own, the way Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin.

Anyway, I’m not one to say the actor portraying Obama has to be an African American, but all of the best Obama impersonations that I’ve seen so far come from black performers. I’ve narrowed it down to two: Jordan Peele (formerly of MadTV) and a mostly unknown performer on YouTube called Alphacat.

I like both of them for their Obama-esque mannerisms and vocal inflections. Also, both performers are good at tweaking Obama on his smart-guy “coolness”—or what may be perceived by some as arrogance. But I can’t decide which actor has the edge. You can check out some of their work below and let me know what you think.

However, I must add this warning: This is not Christian comedy! So if you might feel a bit uncomfortable with crass humor and a dab of profanity (mainly in the Jordan Peele video), please don’t watch. And please forgive me in advance. 🙂

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Alphacat’s Obama After the Debate

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Jordan Peele’s Obama Slams Nancy Reagan—Again

I won’t embed this one on the blog, but you can watch it by going here.


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Amazing. First America elects an African American president, and now Bob Jones University releases a statement to apologize for its racist past. It’s cold here in Chicago. Are the temperatures dropping in Hades, too?

Okay. I’m just joking. I apologize for sounding cynical, because I’m not. My bumbling sense of humor often doesn’t translate well in the blogosphere. I’m actually thrilled to hear about this development, and I thank BJU alumnae Joy McCarnan and Camille Lewis for bringing it to my attention.

This is no small occurrence. Bob Jones University’s infamous history has long been viewed as emblematic of the bigotry and narrow-mindedness of Christian fundamentalism and, by extension, American evangelicalism as a whole. But now, BJU is repenting of its past. I was particularly struck by this portion of the statement:

For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.

In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

Recently, many of BJU’s students and alums have implored their school to issue this kind of public declaration, and I believe a major campaign was underway to publicly challenge the school to acknowledge its past sins and take a stand for racial reconciliation. (I’d welcome some folks more knowledgeable than I on this matter to chime in.) Camille Lewis, who was a part of this reconciliation effort, says she and others were thankful for, but genuinely stunned by, this development.

A few of you have asked my opinion of the statement, particularly whether it seems a little too strategic and convenient. Is it genuine or just a stunt to counteract the unwanted controversy of that alumni campaign? I have no idea, though I would hope this gesture is just the beginning of a greater, ongoing effort by the school to pursue racial and cultural diversity and model the kind of Christian unity mentioned in the statement. I think the school has now obliged itself to become a leader in this regard.

Though some call me naïve, I’ve generally tried to take a “give them the benefit of the doubt” approach to things like this. I want to assume the best from BJU’s leadership. I have no right to judge their motives. Instead, I want to rejoice in the potential for reconciliation that’s happening here. I hope that this noteworthy act will cause an outbreak of grace and unity throughout the church, which still struggles with sins of segregation and intolerance that extend way beyond Bob Jones University.

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Yesterday, NPR aired the final two installments in its excellent conversations on race and the presidential election with a group of diverse voters from York, Pennsylvania. I know we’re all tired of talking about the election by now, but this was a very worthwhile and revealing series on issues that likely will generate even more intense discussion in the coming years. Check out the fifth and sixth broadcasts, and go here for a roundup of the entire series.

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One thing I loved about Barack Obama’s campaign was the way it brought people together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, you name it. But it wasn’t just American voters who were inspired by Obama’s message of hope and reconciliation. As we now know, people from all around the globe celebrated Obama’s presidential victory. Check out this post at The Assimilated Negro blog for a stirring gallery of photos from around the world with people’s reactions to the news of America’s new president.

I think the world has always revered the U.S. for its freedoms and accomplishments. But for the first time, I think the world witnessed the American ideals that we always brag about being truly realized in a most significant way. We finally chose a leader whose narrative and skin resemble a greater fullness of what America is all about.

I know some of you are not Obama fans, so I won’t belabor these thoughts. But I will add (at the risk of sounding too much like Michelle Obama) that I gained a new appreciation for my country on Tuesday night. I occasionally get chills when the National Anthem is played or when I see U.S. military servicemen and women getting off a plane at the airport. But seeing the American flags waving Tuesday night, the rainbow of men and women, and our new president-elect made me feel more patriotic than I ever thought I could. I just pray that God will use this enthusiasm and spirit of hope to do something profound and lasting in the life of our nation—and in the world.

Anyway, I’ve been carrying these feelings around with me ever since Election Day. So it’s no surprise that it’s affecting the way I listen to music. Earlier today, I started jonesing for some Tchaikovsky. In case you didn’t know, I’m a big classical music fan, especially composers from the Romantic period. Back in college, Tchaikovsky was my indisputable favorite. His heartrending melodies and dramatic intensity were the perfect match for my sometimes melancholy and hyperactive college self. I’ve since added Brahms and Sibelius to my list of all-time favorites, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is still the gold standard for me as far a Romantic-era composers go.

So what does Tchaikovsky have to do with Barack Obama? Well, as I sought to fulfill that Tchaikovsky jones, I wondered if there were any good video performances of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture Francesca da Ramini, so I logged on to YouTube. After stumbling through a few unexciting renditions, I finally landed upon an incredible performance from late last year by the Teresa Carreño Youth Symphony Orchestra of Caracas, Venezuela. Led by a fiery young conductor named Manuel López Gómez, these young men and women “tore it up!”

If you’re familiar with Tchaikovsky’ s Francesca da Rimini, based on a tragic character from Dante’s Divine Comedy, you know it’s a thrilling (perhaps over-the-top) piece of music, filled with pounding syncopation and swirling strings that evoke the flames of hell. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing the work performed live, but I always imagined it would provide quite a workout for an orchestra and its conductor, and that’s definitely the case with this dynamic Venezuelan ensemble. While poised and professional, these kids are clearly feeling the emotion of the music. You can see it in their body language and the way they throw themselves into the performance. By the end of it, I was reminded of how transfixed I was upon seeing the Soul Children of Chicago gospel choir for the first time. It was back in 1991 at Wheaton College. To watch and hear those joyful African American children and teens transform that initially stiff Wheaton crowd into a congregation of unabashed worshipers was something to behold. These Venezuelan youth performed Tchaikovsky with that same energy and exuberance. Please watch the performance below (in three parts) to see what I’m talking about.

Then I thought about the fact that here I am, an African American nerd listening to young Venezuelan musicians perform a classical Russian composer’s interpretation of a medieval Italian writer’s epic poem. This, of course, speaks to the power of great art to transcend time, genre, and culture. But, for me, at least during this historic time in our nation, it also says something about the power of diversity, bridge-building, and multicultural harmony—the notion that we’re all connected. The same values and ideals that first got me excited about Barack Obama way back when.

Francesca da Rimini Part 1

Francesca da Rimini Part 2

Francesca da Rimini Part 3


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