On Culture

A Failure to See Shades of Gray in The Black Church

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Churches have always been high on the tourist agenda. Visitors revel in the history of the Washington National Cathedral. They make pilgrimages to Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City to see the famous works of art. They crowd into Notre Dame to photograph its soaring architecture.

In New York, tourists can even sign up for a gospel tour, which takes them to the historic black churches of Harlem, such as Abyssinian Baptist Church and Mother A.M.E. Zion.

On any given Sunday, the tourists are easy to spot by their casual dress -- they may be headed to the Statue of Liberty afterward -- and the fact that most of them are white. Some are eager to see the exquisite stained-glass windows at Mother, which was founded in Lower Manhattan in 1796. Or perhaps they are looking to see the famed church ladies in their elaborate hats. Today, Easter Sunday, their millinery is sure to be extra special.

But mostly the tourists come to hear the gospel music. After the choirs have sung and just before settling into the morning's message, the minister asks anyone who does not plan to stay until he has finished to leave now, so as not to interrupt the sermon. The vast majority of the tourists quickly depart.

The ministers welcome these passersby with blessings from the Lord. But it is also clear why they have come: for the entertainment. The service is not so much a sacred ritual as a concert.

In the past week's conversation about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama and the scorching rhetoric that sometimes is delivered from the pulpit, much of the acrimony might have been avoided if white tourists were just as interested in praying alongside blacks as they were in listening to them sing.

But popular culture has largely reduced the black church to a caricature. It is often depicted as a historical set piece filled with saintly Negroes who turned the other cheek as they planned their dignified marches for civil rights. Or it's the Sunday morning party house -- a heated revival where the members fan themselves vigorously and shout "hallelujah," and the choir sways and sings.

Popular culture has provided us with the wisecracking, effete choir director from the movie "First Sunday" and an endless array of chitlin circuit musicals. At the other extreme is the noble James Farmer Sr. in "The Great Debaters." It's the middle ground that often goes missing, that place in which popular culture redeems itself by depicting nuanced individuals full of intellect and folly. Perhaps that's too much to expect from Hollywood, but it often looks as though there hasn't even been a good-faith attempt.

The 2005 film "The Gospel" was aiming for that higher ground with its Prodigal Son story set in a black church. But the film quickly disappeared from theaters before folks could debate whether it was an accurate depiction of church politics or even if the acting was any good. Tyler Perry has tried, too, but his characters have been two-dimensional at best.

On the global stage, our popular culture serves as a way of teaching an international audience about the lives of African Americans, and to a large degree it serves the same purpose at home for those white Americans whose circle of friends remains homogenous. Every religion suffers at the hands of those who would like to simplify -- or demonize -- it for the benefit of a personal narrative, political gain or simply because of intellectual laziness. Certainly, Islam has been simplified, stereotyped and mischaracterized.

But this moment of theological exasperation belongs to the black church. Popular culture has given us a shorthand for describing it. But it has failed to articulate the complex blend of the sacred, the political and the familial that distinguishes it.

We know from the history books that the civil rights movement was born out of the black church -- and its birth was filled with harsh and incendiary language. Time has allowed us to hear the righteousness of those words rather than the anger and discontent. But the modern black church is unfamiliar in popular culture. On any given Sunday -- after the tourists have left the sanctuary -- the preacher's sermon is filled with anecdotes and humor, tsk-tsking and indignation. He lays out personal challenges as well as societal ones. He shares his own failings as a way of assuring his congregants that he has empathy for their weaknesses. The minister shouts and jumps and pounds his hand on the pulpit.

On this Easter Sunday, the mothers of the church will wear their finest millinery. The altar will overflow with lilies. And the choirs will be in full voice -- some of them backed with enough drums and horns to put an R&B band to shame. But there would be even more to celebrate if, after the minister has preached his sermon and he urges church members to give their neighbor the right hand of fellowship, there were still a few tourists to greet.

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