By Wendi Bernau
During the fall and again here in the winter, I have been doing some guest teaching at one of our local UMC churches with a series I call "Finding God in Culture." For this six week class, I facilitate discussion of selections from a particular art genre such as visual arts, music, or poetry. This local church had been doing a sermon series on music, so they asked me to focus my teaching at their location on music. In the fall, we talked about music that was written purposely to be sung in churches, and this winter we looked at popular culture music—artists who are not part of the "Christian Music Industry" but who are songwriters and performers on the so-called secular stage, singers who are not constrained by the rules or wishes of a religious institution. I find that there is great theology to be mined from people who are free to challenge the status quo, and, to some extent, I consider these artist prophetic in that they often sing about what they see as truth, what is broken in the world, and sometimes why it's broken or why it's so important to fix it.
I intentionally choose the four pieces that will be considered each week as well as the overall arc of the class. The typical pattern begins with an introduction to what we are setting about doing theologically, setting some ground rules for discussion, and using some samples that will engage them and invite them to be open to alternative viewpoints. We progress through brokenness to the Trinity: God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit; spend a week on Christian living and end with thoughts of Heaven—what, where and when is it? In addition to the arc, I am intentional about choosing a diversity of pieces to talk about: different time periods, different styles, trying to balance gender, theological perspective as much as possible. I explain to everyone that my goal is not to make them like everything we talk about, but to be able to have some conversation about what its claims are. We try to avoid judgment of the quality and focus on the possible meaning and the efficacy of its presentation.
In this one particular class on pop culture music, during the Holy Spirit week, we looked at a series of songs by Bruce Springsteen and comparing the lyrics with an eye for any transformative change that is apparent in his lyrics and style over time, from 1975 to 2014. For people familiar with Springsteen's career, this is not a surprise and we had a lovely conversation about the power of God for healing and if not reconciliation, as least strength and overcoming. As the flip side of that coin, we also watched and listened to two songs by Kanye West from 2004 to 2012. West's lyric is particularly challenging to the church (the two songs in particular were "Jesus Walks" and "No Church in the Wild") and the videos are both violent and disturbing as well as including strong language. I was nervous about including these, but deemed it necessary if we were really going to be serious about listening to prophetic voices.
One of the participants in the class is a man whose wife was in the first part of the class (church music) and she brought him along to the second part on pop culture. He is a singer-songwriter himself and strikes me as the type of guy who is not going to be going to any frou-frou Bible study at church. This was confirmed during our conversations, as he was thoroughly engaged in the discussion, and a particularly avid proponent of social justice and a critic of the church's under-attention to the needs of the communities that need the most. Indeed, West's lyric led us to a very fruitful discussion about how difficult it is for those of white privilege to be able to understand the worldview of the black community, but to speak a theology that resonates with their experience, as West puts it "in the wild." In that song, he doesn't just critique the church for not doing enough, but he asks the question: can a gangster's prayer be heard? If we tend to mould God into a bigger better version of ourselves, what kind of God would a gangster see? Surely, God would be like the big guns: someone strong and powerful, surrounded by supporters who can help them rise above the danger of the ghetto - lectures on humility, obedience, forgiveness, surrender: these are of no [evangelical] use in that setting.
At the end of the class, this same man thanked me for bringing West to class that day because he said, "if I were going to listen to music about God, I would never have thought to choose West - I had no idea he had so much to say about this."
That is what "Finding God in Culture" is all about.