Reflecting Black - Michael Eric Dyson (Post 1)

Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism
Michael Eric Dyson
My reading selection started with James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, a cornerstone of contemporary liberation theology.  After that, I moved into Cornel West’s Prophetic Fragments, a collection of social, political and theological musings from a contemporary scholar, civil rights leader and theologian.  Michael Eric Dyson’s Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism is another step away from strict theology, toward an integration of social concerns with popular culture, religion, politics and everyday life.  This integration is at the heart of black theology, and stands at odds with traditional Western Protestantism, with its dualistic separation of “sacred” and “secular.”  Black theology asserts a ubiquitous understanding of God’s presence, activity, manifestation and prophetic voice in the life of black people. 
It’s with this understanding that Dyson’s Reflecting Black fits into the cannon of my Black Theology reading.  The next several books following will be more specifically theological in nature.  Dyson’s introduction opens with this affirmation of the diversity and complexity of contemporary African-American culture, and Dyson’s commitment to a constructive criticism “from within,” rather than destructive and vulgar critiques from those outside of black culture.  This constructive criticism from within has led to friendly attacks from Dyson’s contemporaries, like Cornel West, but Dyson’s commitment to and affinity for black culture is undeniable.  Several of his most popular books are weighty apologetics for hip hop legends Tupac Shakur and Nas, among others.  Dyson writes:
Loyalty to race has been historically construed as primary and unquestioning allegiance to the racial quest for freedom and the refusal to betray that quest to personal benefit or the diverting pursuit of lesser goals.  Those who detour from the prescribed path are labeled “sellouts,” “traitors,” or “Uncle Toms.” (xviii)
Dyson explains that the intolerance for cultural critique stems from an understandable historical mentality.  Black slaves did not “expose their differences to the threat of exploitation by white masters.” (xxiii)  And that threat remains real today, referring back to Cornel West’s concerns about the divisiveness and co-opted loyalties of modern black conservatives.
Along with essays on hip hop culture, the postmodern spirituality of Michael Jackson, and the plight of black men in America, Dyson provides a review of West’s Prophetic Fragments and an essay on political correctness on seminary campuses.
More to come…

Coming Soon: Michael Eric Dyson

My next text is Michael Eric Dyson's Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism.

Dyson has his masters and doctoral degrees in religion from Princeton University.  He is the author of sixteen books, including Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right? and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. 

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Final Post)

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write an additional post (or additional posts) on my reading of West’s Prophetic Fragments.  The first three posts have dealt with the tone of West’s writing, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of the breadth of subject matter he covers.  With so many short essays, it’s impossible to do West justice. 
There are a few areas I still want to cover, however.
First is West’s aggressive dealings with black conservatives.  As black conservatives emerged as a political force (albeit a minor one) in the early 1980s, West’s response is consistent into the present-day, and his observations remain relevant.  West criticizes black conservatives for being fueled by wealthy, white, conservative political think-tanks.  While recognizing and affirming the desire among black conservatives to be recognized for the quality of their work, not the affirmative-action-fueled identification by race, West argues, “they overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans by the quality of their skills rather than the color of their skin.” (57)  Basically articulating that it’s admirable to want to be judged on a level playing field, but American history demonstrates that privileged whites haven’t been interested in that level field: “The new black conservatives assume that without affirmative action programs white Americans will make meritorious choices rather than race-biased ones.  Yet they have adduced absolutely no evidence for this.”
West acknowledges that racial discrimination is not the sole cause of black marginalization and poverty, and he openly criticizes black liberals for positing an incomplete approach to the American black predicament.  West addresses the social and spiritual needs of black communities, and the failure of government programs to provide vision forward.  This failure, however, does not refute the role of government in addressing social disparity, and black conservatives highlight it as a means of delegitimize liberal black leadership and civil rights progress in general.  Although racism may not be the only cause of the contemporary black predicament, it is certainly one of them – and an important one.  Black conservatism rejects this as an excuse, to which West concludes: “Black liberalism indeed is inadequate, but black conservatism is unacceptable.”
Next, West delivers an impassioned treatise on the intellectual, spiritual and imaginative failure of contemporary theology in Christian Theological Mediocrity.  He writes, “The distinctive feature of Christian thought in our postmodern times is its mediocrity.” (195)
West argues that such mediocrity stems from two realities.  First, Euro-American Christianity has experienced a “failure of nerve,” in which American and European theologians demonstrate an inability to respond to the eclipse of American dominance, the upheaval of the 1960s, and the failure to adequately address patriarchy, racism and imperialism.
The superficiality of liberation theology’s success resides in its own ideological inevitability.  It fills an “intellectual vacuum.”  Beyond Cone, Moltmann and a few others, West argues that the theological effort toward constructing a fully realized liberation theology has been inadequate.  Within this inadequacy is a refusal to engage the difficult questions of western theologians’ own experience of power and dominance.
There is as much talent around today as there has ever been.  The question is whether the postmodern realities of education, culture, and politics will permit this talent to flourish.  Without this cultivated talent, the Christian presence in this country will not only remain mediocre; this presence also will become, more than it already is, a menace to the Christian faith. (196)
Cornel West is a fascinating figure, primarily because of his personal commitment to “organic intellectualism.”  By his own definition, an organic intellectualism is actively involved in the world, making pragmatism out of theory.  By contrast, “traditional intellectualism” resides in academia, theoretical and detached from everyday life.  This pragmatic commitment leads to a strategic engagement with popular culture.  How does one engage and change minds if they aren’t listening?  While West’s academic work is challenging and potentially controversial in a right-leaning, white-dominated society, his sound-bytes are carefully constructed and self-aware.
West’s most recent Twitter Tweet is:
There’s too much poverty and not enough self-love. If you don’t love yourself, you’re in a world of trouble. @cornelwest
Not exactly militant neo-Marxism or radical black liberation, but West knows how to engage the world and keep ears and eyes open, whether they be viewers of Fox News, CNN and Bill Maher, or readers of Playboy and New York Magazine.

700 Club Reminders... What lies have you bought into?

Yesterday I went to my mechanic to have my car worked on.  While in the waiting room, I was distressed to find the 700 Club on TV.  There were too many people sitting there (transfixed) to suggest changing the channel, so I resorted to posting the following on Facebook...

I'm once again stuck in front of the 700 Club while my car is serviced. The plight of minorities and marginalized people becomes so much clearer when listening to this monologue: the conservative religious right has totally self identified in America as an endangered, "persecuted" minority. As long as this delusion exists, there is little hope for the liberation of genuinely marginalized groups, and the Gospel is bound and gagged.  
...It's easier to understand my own adolescent conservatism given the strategic consistency of this Christianized reinterpretation of current events.  
...But progressives: take hope! Most conservative Christians I know simply haven't heard another way of being, or haven't felt "permission" to see Jesus Christ through another lens. Love, gentleness, patience, kindness... These fruits of the Spirit change hearts and eventually, minds... And ultimately: the WORLD!  
...It's interesting. There is a strong anti-corporate, holistic-health ethos to this program. There is ground ripe for common cause (which I said at the start of the Tea Party, and could have almost walked alongside Occupy if Progressives had seized the opportunity) but the voices behind 700 Club and the religious Right are ideologically and financially beholden to Conservative think tanks and massive conservative political dollars. I guess that's a problem not unlike the Democratic corporate establishment.

I let Pat Robertson's tone get the better of me. Conservative Evangelicals are my church and family of origin, and I love them deeply. But I grieve at the way I see people I care about manipulated spiritually and emotionally for what are clearly political and economic motives.

I'm not so naive as to think Democrats aren't under a similar spell. There is too much fear in conversations about religion, politics, and culture. If "perfect love casts out fear," then the tone of our rhetoric and our hearts has to change. 

Jesus said, "If you know what these words meant, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent."

There is deceit coming from every corner of our consumptive, corporatized culture.  What lies have you bought into?

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Post 3)

In a short and sobering essay entitled “Winter in Afro-America,” West describes the economic and spiritual crisis afflicting contemporary black Americans.  The crisis “is an effect of the international crisis of capitalism.” (35)

Earlier today I was e-mailing an old friend I met online years ago while discussing “emerging Christianity.”  I mentioned that the emerging church conversation had led me to overt liberalism, but that liberalism itself felt like a failed experiment (to echo critiques of 20th Century Marxism).  For me, that’s not because the ethos of contemporary liberalism doesn’t resonate with my heart and my values.  It does.  But the liberal/progressive movement feels as though it’s run out of steam, even in the age of a black president. 

In 2013, West said in an interview that black civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, “have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kind of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people.” (  Such “insider access,” the forbidden fruit of power, always undermines the liberation of all marginalized people.  But how can we blame the marginalized for being tempted when finally coming within reach of the thing that has eluded and exploited them for centuries?

I don’t have the vantage or context to affirm or criticize West’s biting rebuke against President Obama and his allies.  But the underlying critique of corporatism and unchecked capitalism parallels my own frustration with today’s political landscape. 

Liberals and conservatives keep hurling ideological grenades at each other, stabilizing the geography of American culture while rabid capitalism goes unchecked.  Those in power remain in power, regardless of the (R) or (D) following their names.  Both political/social poles are dominated by the same plutocracy, but neither camp sustains a meaningful prophetic word.  It’s easier to attack gays or fundamentalists, rednecks or godless bleeding hearts.  And this is the outrage at the heart of the “Occupy” movement, albeit so poorly articulated, so easily mocked, and so efficiently neutered. 

Where is the outrage, now?  The media is on to discussing celebrity weddings and twerkings.

Until poor whites are able to recognize that the fate of poor blacks (and other minorities) is interwoven with their own – that civil rights for the marginalized undergird the rights of all people – those with political and economic power will easily continue to dominate and exploit lower economic classes.

Reflections on the Heart of the Gospel (from some old notes)

I found all these handwritten quotations from my journaling in 2012 when I last stayed in Mt. Angel - at  the Queen of Angels Monastery.

In their meditation library I found all sorts of quotations like these, revealing the heart of God.

It's interesting to reflect on them now, as I've been reading black liberation theology.  There is nothing very radical about black liberation theology, not really.  Except that it is so shocking how the Gospel has been robbed of its inherent radicalness.  We are surprised when the Gospel doesn't conform to our capitalism, our consumption, our politics, priorities and values.  It becomes offensive to our senses.  Counterintuitive.  Unpragmatic and unreasonable.

Pope Francis is (rightly) getting a lot of credit for his words on compassion, and his challenge to the First World.  But these words shouldn't be surprising.  They are the heart of Christian Orthodoxy.  Care for the suffering and liberation for the marginalized is the Gospel.  Here are some beautiful demonstrations:
"You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich." 
     - St. Ambrose 
"Those who make private property of the gifts of God pretend in vain to be innocent. For in this retaining the subsistence of the poor, they are murderers of those who die every day for want of it." 
     - Pope St. Gregory the Great 
"Who is the covetous man? One for whom plenty is not enough. Who is the defrauder? One who takes away what belongs to everyone. And are not you covetous, and are you not a defrauder, when you keep for private use what you were given for distribution? When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not - should not he be given the same name? The bread in your hand belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let not belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute. All you might help and do not - to all these you are doing wrong." 
     - Basil the Elder 
"The disease was this - that Christians who would be horrified to have their devotion to Jesus questioned, did not in fact find him very interesting." 
     - Frank Sheed
"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come, uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst... It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room." 
     - Thomas Merton

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Post 2)

Prophetic Fragments
The singularity and intensity of Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation is understandable not only because of the immensity of the problem he addresses, but also because of the nascence of liberation theology when it was first written.  The broader the scope, the harder it is to go deep.  For example, a black liberation theology, in its radical foundations, cannot be distracted by the [valid and important] concerns of other marginalized people, or alternative approaches (read: less radical) to black liberation.  It’s within this matrix that Cone writes:

White Jesus… tells blacks that love means turning the other cheek; that the only way to win political freedom is through nonviolence; he even praises Martin Luther King, Jr., for his devotion to him, though he knows that King was always his enemy in spirit that he chose King because he thought King was the least of the evils available. (38)

Cone still acknowledges, “it is beyond question that it was King’s influence and leadership in the black community which brought us to the period in which we now live, and for that we are all in debt.”  His argument, which is hardly politically-correct today, is that the path of nonviolence is not the only relevant and even Christian way to fight for liberation.

Cornel West is a product of both James Cone and Martin Luther King, Jr.  In fact, Cone’s endorsement is on the back of my Prophetic Fragments book jacket.  But West wouldn’t dream of critiquing King.  The first essay in Prophetic Fragments is “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual.”  West begins:

Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most significant and successful organic intellectual in American history.  Never before in our past has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind to social change with such moral persuasiveness and political effectiveness. (3)

In exploring King’s broad cultural and religious priorities, West illustrates the marriage of personal salvation and piety to political liberation and social justice.  Cone writes, “Black theology rejects categorically white comments about the sins of blacks,” (Black Theology of Liberation, 51) but West expands:

The black church put forward perspectives that encouraged both individuality and community fellowship, personal morality and antiracist political engagement, a grace-centered piety and a stress on Christian good works…  The black church tried to hold together both the dignity and depravity of persons in such a way that God – like Yahweh with the children of Israel – identifies with the disinherited and downtrodden, yet even the disinherited and downtrodden are sinners in need of conversion and sanctification. (6)

Of course Cone is right: it’s outrageous and inexcusable for any privileged group (read: oppressor) to dictate moral expectations to marginalized people (the oppressed).  But West demonstrates how King and the religious mores of the black civil rights movement affirmed the need for personal redemption, even of the oppressed.  This is the dynamism of the Gospel.

Finally, West holds no illusions about King, and rejects an illustration of na├»ve optimism.  King was a pragmatist, and his nonviolence was a pragmatic decision inspired by Gandhi, as much as it was a natural outpouring of his religious commitments.  “King was convinced that despite the racism of the Founding Fathers, the ideals of America were sufficient if only they were taken seriously in practice.” (11)

After the recent death of Nelson Mandela, I watched a television interview with West, where he denounced the media and pop-culture’s “Santa-Clausification” of Mandela: “We turn the revolutionary into an old man — a huggable old man with toys and a bag, smile on his face, no threat to anybody, domesticated, tame. And no longer really full of the fire.”  In fact, Mandela endorsed armed resistance and insurrection against the apartheid South African government.  Like Cone, West recognizes more than one legitimate way to move forward the cause of human rights and liberty.

More to come...

Prophetic Fragments - Cornel West (Post 1)

Prophetic Fragments
For years, I’ve been reading articles and watching bits and pieces of interviews with Dr. Cornel West.  He’s provocative, brilliant, and hilarious (watch him on Real Time with Bill Maher).  On one documentary he compares philosophy to jazz and the blues.  In his memoir, he describes “being true to the funk of living today.”  His words are fleshy and visceral, and his wit is quick and cutting.

If you haven’t been introduced, here’s a bit from his website:

Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual.  He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University.  He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton.  He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris.  He has written 19 books and edited 13 books.  He is best known for his classic Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and his new memoir, Brother West:  Living and Loving Out Loud.  He appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span as well as on his dear Brother, Tavis Smiley’s PBS TV Show… West has a passion to communicate to a vast variety of publics in order to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.

So as familiar as I am with West’s public persona, I hadn’t taken the time to crack one of his books.  I’ve been excited to start with Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations in the Crisis of American Religion and Culture.  And after reading James Cone’s singularly-focused A Black Theology of Liberation, Prophetic Fragments is indeed that: quick, fragmented, and provocative.  This is a collection of dozens of essays on a wide variety of topics, from a reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. as an “organic intellectual,” and a discussion of black-Jewish relations, to pieces about the work of Hans Frei and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

In his introduction, West writes:
The crisis in contemporary American religious life is profound and pervasive.  The crisis is profound in that it deepens as Americans turn more desperately toward religion.  The crisis is pervasive in that it affects every form of religiosity in the country - from Christianity to Buddhism, from reform Judaism to Islam.  To put it bluntly, American religious life is losing its prophetic fervor.  There is an undeniable decline in the clarity of vision, complexity of understanding, and quality of moral action among religious Americans... The principal aim of this book is to examine and explore, delineate and demystify, counter and contest the widespread accommodation of American religion to the political and cultural status quo... This accommodation is, at bottom, idolatrous - it worships the gods created by American society and kneels before the altars erected by American culture. (ix)
The man’s perspective, worldview and intellectual capacity are all staggering, as is the grace and wry humor he brings to his writing.

More to come…

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