- Header image courtesy of Beyond Belief Media. (Adapted from the Christ Pantocrator icon in St. Catherine's monastery, Sinai, 6th century.)
“The Op-Ed: Oprah Edited” by Drew Dyck: OK, I know I just picked on Oprah not too long ago, but . . . let me do it just once more! Like this guy, I can’t help but notice the vast discrepancy between the Oprah gospel and the gospel of Christ. Oprah’s cultural influence is immense—she has redefined spirituality for today’s generation (and apparently now also has her own branded chai blend at Starbucks)—so I think we should honestly consider the advice she dispenses and critique it where necessary.
“Black Jesus”: This new TV show is in its first season on Comedy Central’s late-night lineup. Rated TV MA (for mature audiences only), it’s set in present-day Compton, California, where African American Jesus is on a mission to bring love and kindness to his neighborhood.
“Sympathy for the Devil: Satan, Sin, and the Underworld”: This new exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University depicts Satan and his realm through five centuries of prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, which “reveal the archfiend’s transformation from a horned and cloven-footed fallen angel to the debonair Mephistopheles to the evil hidden within those responsible for the horrors of modern society.” Hyperallergic has a nice write-up on it.
“Carry That Weight,” a performance art piece by Emma Sulkowicz: Since September 2, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying a mattress with her everywhere she goes to visualize the burden she’s been carrying since her sophomore year, when, she claims, she was raped in her dorm room. A bedroom is supposed to be a private, safe space, she says, but now hers is neither: it is the site of a trauma, one that she has decided to make public as she protests her school’s alleged mishandling of the case (they found the accused to be innocent) as well as draws attention to the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses across the country. See also the piece she wrote in Time magazine in May.
I’ve been studying the Psalms lately, the church’s original hymnal. I’ve also been studying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the composition itself, and its reception history—particularly its “Ode to Joy” theme. So I’ve been thinking a lot about joy, and the struggle for it, which is something the psalmists expressed a lot, as did Beethoven in his masterwork.
Because the topic of joy has been at the front of my mind for the past month or so, I’ve been alert to its appearances in my RSS feed. And this week, I came across a video promoted by W. David O. Taylor—of musical artist Latifah Phillips singing her rendition of the popular kids’ Sunday school song “Down in My Heart” (“I’ve Got the Joy”).
From the first bar, you’ll notice a distinct difference in mood and tempo from what is traditionally played as a bright, fast, peppy tune accompanied by clapping: Phillips sings slowly, somberly, in a minor key. The dirge-like music seems to contradict the words. But actually, the pairing makes sense as an expression of that common spiritual experience that John Piper calls “the dividedness of the heart.” In a 2006 sermon, Piper preached from Psalm 43, showing how the writer of this psalm deals with the disjunction between what he knows to be objectively true (God is my refuge) and what he subjectively feels (God has rejected me). This psalmist’s process involves first praying for spiritual light and truth, then praying that this light and truth would lead him to God as his exceeding joy, and lastly praying that he would be able to express his joy in God.
In Phillips’s song, the speaker, the pray-er, is moving through a similar process: she reminds herself of the joy that is hers regardless of the circumstances she faces. She doesn’t put on a happy face; that would be inauthentic. She deeply feels the pain of her situation and expresses that pain to God. But she holds on to the joy of Christ that indwells her, claiming it as her own.
At 2:40 in the video, a bridge cuts in, loud and raw:
I can’t understand
And I can’t pretend
That this will be all right in the end
So I’ll try my best
And lift up my chest
To sing about this joy, joy, joy
Then in the chorus that follows, she sings, “I will be happy”—future tense—instead of “I’m so happy.” Happiness is different than joy: happiness is fleeting and dependent on temporal factors, but joy is deep and abiding, and Spirit generated. Joy is an inner state. The speaker recognizes that circumstances change all the time, and she trusts that God will bring her through this present trial. But no matter what her surface-level emotion is, was, or will be, she’s got a deep joy, always, down in her heart.
He is the one
who cooks his food in huge palm-oil pots.
Thousands of people have eaten,
yet the remnants fill twelve baskets.
If we leave all this, and go wandering off—
if we leave his great gift, where else shall we go?
Afua Kuma (1900-1987) was a well-known oral poet in Ghana who used her gift of language to praise the name of Jesus. Baptized into the Presbyterian Church with the name Christiana Gyan, she grew up under the teachings of Christianity, the daughter of Akan farmers. Later in life she joined a Pentecostal church, where she was encouraged to pray aloud during the services. In this setting, at the age of 70, she voiced her first spontaneous praise poem; the congregation was amazed and moved by the poetic skill and theological insightfulness coming from this elderly illiterate woman. For the next seventeen years of her life, Madam Kuma was called upon to recite her praise poetry in church and at prayer retreats and Easter rallies, leading her fellow Akan Christians in the worship of Jesus.
Twi oral literature scholar Akosua Anyidoho points out that Madam Kuma’s poetry bears many similarities in form and content to amoma, a genre of Akan praise poems recited to chiefs (75ff.). Traditionally, amoma performers are male court attendants who have been selected from specific lineages and trained in the art of fine language. Madam Kuma was one of the first women to compose in this genre, and not only do her poems break gender barriers, they also remove amoma from their court context and insert them into the realm of the church. Rather than praise earthly rulers, Madam Kuma’s poetry praises God in Christ, of whose court she is a member, and who alone deserves honor and glory. (According to her daughter Beatrice Fantoaa, Madam Kuma once refused the invitation of a chief who had invited her to perform his praises at the commissioning ceremony of a public building; she said she would not perform to honor a human being.) Continue reading