Does it matter if the lyrics you sing to worship God were written by someone with whom you have deep theological disagreements?
Christian rock star Vicky Beeching forced her fans to confront this question last week when she toldThe Independent that she is a lesbian. Her songs are among the most commonly sung in North American churches. But many within her Christian fan base believe gay sex and marriage are sinful.
Beeching has shared harrowing stories of struggling to shirk her sexuality. She even recounts participating in a traumatic exorcism at a Christian youth camp. Nineteen years after the failed attempt to purge the gay-ness from her spirit, Beeching chose to just be open and honest about who she believes she is.
“Old habits die hard,” Beeching told me via email. “I’m finally free from guilt and shame, but it’s been a very long road to get here.”
Beeching isn’t the first major faith-filled musician to come out of the closet or change his or her views. Many in the Christian music industry — like their book publishing counterparts — appear to be slowly and quietly shifting on the issue of gay marriage. This is a formative moment when many Christians are reconsidering the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage. And popular leaders within the Christian music industry could accelerate a broader swing.
Christian musician Vicky Beeching has written songs that have reached Gold status and hit the top 100 iTunes chart. But now the 35-year-old British musician is singing a different song about her sexuality. Beeching told “The Independent” that she is gay in an interview published on Wednesday.
Beeching’s star has risen in recent years as a regular commentator on the BBC and Sky News. She is an Oxford-trained theologian, PhD candidate, and has been influential in the Anglican Church’s debates on gender. She told me she plans to be involved in the two-year conversational process on sexuality happening within the Church of England, and she personally told Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby she was gay before the Independent interview. (She’s scheduled to have dinner at Lambeth Palace next week for dinner with the Welbys.) Beeching also says she plans to write a book–perhaps two–about her personal journey and what she believes the Bible teaches about sexuality.
Here we talk about her decision, why she plans to stay in the church, and what she wants to tell the many people who sing her songs.
RNS: After coming out as gay, “The Independent” said you may “become a key figure in the liberalisation of Anglicanism.” Is this how you see yourself?
VB: All I want to do is play whatever small part I can to help people rethink their beliefs around sexuality; to stir people to reexamine doctrines that need a second look. I don’t see myself as a “liberal” as I value the Bible highly and hold to many of the same views that evangelical Christians do. I just think we’ve misinterpreted the Scriptures that talk about sexuality – as many people did with the Bible passages about women in leadership.
For me, believing God can be in favour of same-sex marriage isn’t to dilute the Bible or become theologically liberal. It’s actually rooted in my very high view of the Biblical texts, as there is much in the Bible about relationships based on love, faithfulness, commitment and authenticity. Jesus taught, “You’ll know a tree by the fruit it produces” and “good trees can’t produce bad fruit, and bad trees can’t produce good fruit.” So if a relationship is displaying the traits of God’s selfless, pure, faithful love, the relationship is proven to be innately godly and not sinful.
RNS: You attempted to fight these feelings in early life and even cure yourself through seeing a Catholic priest and participating in an exorcism. How did this affect you?
In the early 2000s, Erwin McManus penned several bestselling books, saturated the Christian conference speaking circuit, and grew a vibrant church outside of Los Angeles called Mosaic. He became known as a leading voice among Christian creatives and religious innovators. But in 2008, at the height of his popularity, Erwin McManus slipped back into the shadows as quickly as he had sprung from them. No more books, fewer speaking engagements, and far less public interaction.
Six years later, McManus has decided to reenter the fray with the release of a new book, “The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art.” His message is simple: you were created to be creative. Here, we discuss this idea, how it applies to those who aren’t naturally artistic, and why he retreated from public life in 2008.
RNS: You wrote a whole slew of books between 2002 and 2008, but then you sort of disappeared from the publishing world. Why have you decided to write again now and why come back with this book?
EM: Yes, I made a shift in my life due to many variables and factors. A huge part was the toll on my family and my spirit to be the target of so many mean-spirited people. It really hurt my kids. I didn’t want them to turn from Jesus because of the people of Jesus. But they have both come to me and called me to be a voice for the moment of Christ again. My family is all in and has a deep passion for God and the church.
I also wanted to affect the world outside of the church and be a voice to an unbelieving world. We so often focus on Sunday and hope we are changing the world. I felt compelled to tell great art and tell great stories and allow beauty to point to truth.
Prominent evangelicals have unleashed a flood of criticism at “Noah,” the epic film releasing from Paramount Pictures on March 28 starring Russell Crowe. The naysayers claim that Christians shouldn’t see the movie because it differs in places from the biblical story in Genesis. Yesterday, for example, Rick Warren tweeted that he would not be going to see the film before deleting the message and adding another simply critiquing the movie’s coverage.
Which inaccuracies are these leaders most upset about? Most can’t say because they haven’t actually seen the film. All they know is that someone told them that there are deviations from the biblical account, and this is apparently grounds for a boycott.
Unlike some of the film’s fiercest critics, I’ve actually seen “Noah” and was able to sit down with the Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky for an intimate interview. I asked Aronofsky pointed theological questions; the amount of biblical and historical research his team conducted for this movie nearly knocked me off my chair.
Does this film follow every jot and tittle of the (surprisingly short) biblical story? No. But it is more accurate than portraits of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus hanging in many churches or the romanticized tales of Christ’s birth recounted by Christians around Christmas with details that have little or no textual support. And most relevant to this discussion, “Noah” is at least as accurate as other biblical films and television shows of late–productions, by the way, that many of these same leaders have lauded in various publications and from their pulpits.
The Bible narrative has always been one heck of a story. It reads like a mix of action thriller, period drama, romance novel, and the more apocalyptic parts, like pure fantasy. The gripping narrative sections of the text are part of the reason why the Bible is the bestselling book of all time.
But in 2014, we’ll discover if the Good Book is as captivating on the modern day silver screen as it is in print.
The scrappy Christian film industry has been budding for the last several years, proving that people of faith are hungry for content that speaks to the soul. But what many religious films possess in terms of spiritual content, they often lack in star power and budgets. This year, however, big studios such as Sony and Lionsgate are entering the fray by releasing films of, well, biblical proportions. To wit:
“Son of God” | 20th Century Fox (February 2014)
Reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, shocked the world last year when their History Channel series “The Bible” set cable TV records. Now, the Christian power couple has taken footage from that series and partnered with 20th Century Fox to create “Son of God,” a film about Jesus’ life that will doubtlessly attract churchgoing Americans. As the first film on this list to release, it may be helpful box office barometer for the others.
“Noah” | Regency Enterprises (November 2014)
A flood of publicity has already been created around the “Noah” film and its impressive $130 million budget. The cast includes Russell Crowe, as the sailor himself, as well as Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson. Darren Aronofsky of “Black Swan” fame directed the movie. If the trailer is any indication, it should be visually stunning while taking massive artistic liberties in creating details not found in the biblical narrative.
“Heaven is For Real” | Sony Pictures (April 2014)
Though not technically a biblical movie, Sony Pictures’ “Heaven is For Real” must also be mentioned because it will likely riff on popular Bible themes such as heaven, Jesus, and salvation. The film is based on the New York Times bestselling book by the same name and stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilley, and Thomas Haden Church. This story of a little boy’s life-after-death experience is not so coincidentally scheduled to release just before Easter.
“Exodus” | 20th Century Fox (December 2014)
Twentieth Century Fox has kept a tight lid on Ridley Scott’s “Exodus.” All we know is that the film is an adaptation of the biblical story of the ancient Israelite people’s liberation from Egypt. Christian Bale will star as Moses, and Sigourney Weaver will co-star. Critics won’t be able to help themselves from comparing the film to the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston. The question will be whether this film can duplicate the classic’s box office success.
“Mary, Mother of Christ” | Lionsgate Films (December 2014)
The long awaited prequel to “The Passion of The Christ” is scheduled to arrive before Christmas after a long set of delays. The cast includes the late Peter O’Toole, Sir Ben Kinglsey, Julia Ormond, and 16-year-old Israeli newcomer Odeya Rush as the holy mother herself. The hefty cast combined with a serious budget from Lionsgate and the backing of several Christian notables (including mega-church pastor Joel Osteen who gets an executive producer credit) give this movie serious box office potential.
The uptick in biblical movies is a testament to the ongoing power of those ancient narratives to capture the hearts and minds of the masses. And it also reminds us that Hollywood is driven by money more than by agendas. The Bible’s stories are an enduring draw, so Hollywood is doing what it has always done best—turning a buck by giving audiences what they want.
In this way, the film industry is a mirror reflecting what society desires: sex, violence, and great stories with a touch of God in the mix. In 2014, we’ll find out just how much they crave the latter.
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Trailers for the first three films listed are available for viewing:
Yes, he’s from Tacoma, Washington. Yes, he played baseball in college. Yes, he loves Frosted Flakes. But, if you’re like over 25 million other YouTube viewers, you probably know Jefferson Bethke from his viral video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Bethke’s new book, Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Good Enough explores some of the themes from the 2012 sensation. Here, we talk about religion, his critics, and why he still thinks Jesus hates religion.
JM: Jeff, your spoken word YouTube video has had over 25 million views. Why do you think it resonated with so many?
JB: That’s a great question. I still am not entirely sure. But if I had to speculate I think it resonated because I think there’s this constantly growing chasm in the 21st century western evangelicalism and this vibrant, beautiful, revolutionary, new creation oriented world Jesus launched at the resurrection you see more predominantly in the scriptures. Even though it seems like a caricature, reading YouTube comments on many religious oriented videos, would show that many people’s Christianity doesn’t go much farther than “don’t get tattoos, don’t drink beer, and never swear or curse.” I think my generation has constantly felt this almost awkward vibe when reading the New Testament and then looking up into the landscape of modern evangelicalism and saying, “really? This is the same thing?”
JM: Not every Youtube sensation can or should write a book like you have. Can you say something about the thinkers who have influenced you and why people should listen to what you have to say?
It has been said that there are as many kinds of New Yorkers as there are people in the Big Apple. But one might also say that there are just as many New Yorks, by which I mean, everyone has their own version of why they love (or hate) the iconic city.
Compelled by my own version of New York, I’ve decided to relocate there from my home in Atlanta. It wasn’t an easy decision, which is perhaps why it was nearly three years in the making.
My roots run deep into the red clay of Georgia. Generations of Merritts have called this part of the world “home,” and memories from my childhood and adolescence are scattered around like wedding rice. I have found a loving faith community here that has walked with me through some of the darkest nights of my soul—a wonderful gift that cannot be purchased on either eBay or Etsy. And yet I’ve decided to step away from this and head to what E.B. White called “The Capital of the World”.
One of the primary motivators is my profession. At the end of the day, I am a writer who wants to continue writing until I am either not physically capable of performing my craft or the marketplace decides they will no longer pay for words. There are few greater cities on this spinning globe called “earth” for a writer to live.
There are 1,926 listings of publishers in New York on YP.com. New York is home to media conglomerates including Time Warner, the Hearst Corporation, Viacom, and News Corporation, as well as some of the biggest newspapers and magazines in the world. Nearly every major book publisher has offices in New York City. So the opportunity there is great.
But New York is also a place where cultures and ethnicities and ideas collide. One cannot afford to self-segregate and self-insulate in comfortable cultural or religious echo-chambers like other places.
As White once remarked,
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”
There are also spiritual impulses behind my decision. Christians have formed a felt presence in New York City for as long as its existence, but in recent years, the city’s evangelical community has quietly flourished. In some ways, New York City represents the fringes of the Kingdom. The faithful there are asking questions that others are not yet asking and attempting to discern what following Jesus might look like in a pluralistic, postmodern context.
This excites me because my work as a writer—particularly my column at Religion News Service—is devoted to exploring those spaces where the Christian faith intersects culture. In New York City, religion collides with music, art, politics, public opinion, and current events with regularity. Rooting myself in this richly diverse context will enable me to better probe the questions of faith others may be afraid to ask.
I nurture no illusions that New York is a glittering, perfect city of promise. It’s cramped, impractical, and bitterly cold much of the year. The city is also famously expensive, and the amount I’ve been paying toward a mortgage for the last five years will now earn me a tiny bedroom shared with multiple roommates. I fully expect that life there will be filled with soul-crushing pains and spiritual awakenings. In that way, it will be like every other stage of my life.
And yet, one day when I look back on this decision and survey the friends I met, lessons I learned, conversations I had, frustrations I weathered, and even the tears I’ll cry when I say my goodbyes, my prayer is that my heart will echo the sentiments of O. Henry: “It couldn’t have happened anywhere but in little old New York.”
If Charles Dickens were reviewing Steve McQueen’s new film, “12 Years a Slave”, he might begin, “It was the best of religion, it was the worst of religion.”
The movie, set to release on October 17th, is based on a true story about Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is duped, drugged, and sold into slavery on a Southern plantation. The cinematography is breathtaking, the cycle of despair and hope is gripping, and the depiction of the mistreatment of slaves is so unsparingly brutal that it often forces one to turn away. But the film is as much a commentary on religion as race.
“12 Years a Slave” expends a lot of energy throughout its 133-minute runtime exploring the way white Christians in the American South used scripture and their faith to perpetuate injustice. After Solomon arrives on a sugar cane plantation, his master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), gathers all the slaves to read scripture and deliver a sermon in which he quotes from Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Since audiences have just witnessed Ford purchasing and thereby separating a female slave from her children, the hypocrisy is stifling.
When Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the oppressive owner of a cotton plantation, the commentary deepens. Epps quotes Luke 12:47 to his slaves: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” He then shuts the Bible and says, “That’s scripture.” Epps takes this verse literally and whips the slaves who pick the least amount of cotton each day. When he has a good harvest, Epps attributes it to “righteous living”; when the crops die, he claims it must be a “biblical plague” brought on by his slaves’ unrighteousness.
McQueen seems to be making a point about how people pick and choose the verses they live by and how those verses should be applied. American history demonstrates this is true. Many Christian clergy advocated for slavery and, as historian Larry Tise notes in his book, Proslavery, ministers “wrote almost half of all defenses of slavery published in America” and believed the Bible taught that white people could own black people as work animals.
Sadly, the examples in history don’t end with emancipation. Many American clergy vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws. In the 1950s, The Alabama Baptist newspaper editorialized, “We think it deplorable in the sight of God that there should be any change in the difference and variety in his creation and he certainly would desire to keep our races pure.”
We’re still witnessing the tendency to use scripture to acquire power and oppress people in countries like Malawi and Uganda where same sex relationships are illegal and punishable by law. In Uganda, legislators were considering an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that prescribes the death penalty or life imprisonment for gays and lesbians. Christian clergy in Uganda and some evangelical evangelists from America supported the bill.
Christian history, both past and present, is a sobering reminder of our tendency to manipulate the scriptures in pursuit of personal or political goals.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t a religious jeremiad, however, and McQueen is careful to present the redemptive side of religion as well. On the plantations, slaves in the film often find solace in their faith, expressed in the singing of spirituals and hymns. The same force that causes them to despair ironically brings them hope. And the character of Bass (Brad Pitt) roots his criticism of the institution of slavery in the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness. Bass eventually helps free Solomon.
Michael Fassbender, who was raised Roman Catholic, told me that the film attempts to portray religion as “a double-edged sword.” He said that he experienced religion as a positive force in Ireland where Christians helped build the education system. And yet, he says, he can’t deny how some Christians have twisted religion at times to perpetuate injustices like slavery.
“People have used religion in ways to control groups of people,” Fassbender told me. “Religion is a powerful force. It depends who decides to manipulate that, in whatever form—good or evil.”
This perspective should particularly resonate with Christians because much of the Gospels tell of explosive conflicts between the Pharisees and Jesus. They are more than personal disagreements, but rather clashes between those who insisted on using religion to control and One who rightly saw faith as a freeing force. The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is, to some extent, the chasm between slave owners and abolitionists. “12 Years a Slave” forces audiences to enter this tension and determine which side of the chasm they are on.
“I think the film is showing what [religion] is, how it was used for good, how it was used for bad, but everyone can recognize the overall power of that,” Chiwetel Ejiofor told me. “But it is for the individual viewer to see where that balance is.”
As it is with audiences who view this film so it is with all the faithful. History is littered with the carcasses of those who’ve been victimized by people who’ve chosen to use religion as a means to a selfish end rather than an end in itself. “12 Years a Slave” reminds us that every generation has a choice between a faith that crushes and oppresses and one that uplifts and liberates. As audiences explore this “Tale of Two Religions”, they are urged to choose and choose carefully.
Bishop T.D. Jakes is one of America’s most prominent religious leaders and pastor of The Potter’s House, a 30,000-member congregation located in Dallas, Texas. But Jakes is far more than a preacher.
“I cannot be pigeon-holed,” he told me in our interview this week.
Since 2008, he’s been working as a producer and writer of feature films through a partnership with Sony Pictures. His movies include the box office hit “Jumping the Broom” and the remake of “Sparkle” starring Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston. He’s the bestselling author of numerous books including, most recently, Let It Go: So You Can Be Forgiven. In October, Jakes’ new talk show, “Mind, Body, and Soul”, debuts on BET.
Though his projects are varied, the theme of family connects many of them. Jakes intends to uplift families with his books and films, and he speaks to family issues through his sermons. In two weeks, more than 40,000 will attend his MegaFest conference in Dallas where he hopes to bring a special word to America’s many flailing families. Here, we talk about what he believes is causing the breakdown of American families and what he plans to do about it.
JM: A lot of Christians talk about how the “breakdown of the American family.” As a pastor, you deal with family problems all the time. Do you think the American family is in serious trouble?
TJ: Absolutely. There’s no question about that, and the stats bear it out. It has hit the minority community hardest and first, but first means it won’t be last. It’s spreading to the general populace as well.
JM: You’ve got your MegaFest conference coming up in Dallas. I know you hope to draw families, not just individual attendees. How do you hope to use your platform through that conference to build up and encourage American families?
TJ: I’m so excited about it. First of all, people of all colors are buying tickets and that puts black families and white families in the room where we can attack the problem together. It is our shared problem. Our problem is your problem, and your problem is our problem. We are on the same boat.
One of the things I hope to do is to point out the fact that fatherhood is seldom modeled to men. And it is hard to be what you cannot see. You and I can walk down to any department store and find a figurine of a mother holding a baby, but we’d have to work hard to find a picture of a man holding one. We’re not modeling fatherhood in art or film or in our own homes.
The fact that we are male enough to produce a child does not make us man enough to raise a child, especially when we are asking men to play a role for which they have no script. My solution is to show men that it is not as much about showing the bad job some have done but lifting up men who do a good job, so we can see what we’re trying to be. Until fatherhood is modeled, our men will continue to shrink away from it and the stats will continue to worsen.
The real power of MegaFest is in the car ride to the event. It’s in the hotel after the event is over. It’s dads taking their kids out to get something to eat and spending quality time without work getting in the way. Because family is in little things. Having raised five children, the things they remember are not the things I paid the most for; they were the little silly things. They were the times I cut up their steak or pancakes in a restaurant. So I’m calling families to a big event so they can have little things together.
While in prison on federal drug trafficking charges, Galley Molina wrote the movie I’m in Love With a Church Girl, starring hip-hop artist Ja Rule and Michael Madsen of Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill fame, which is scheduled to hit theaters October 18. The film is accompanied by a powerful soundtrack with songs by some of the top Gospel and Christian music artists of our time, including Israel Houghton, Darlene Zschech, Lalah Hathaway, Anthony Hamilton and many others.
More than a trafficker-turned-children’s-pastor, Molina is now CEO of Reverence Gospel Media and is busy producing films, albums and even a new sitcom. An ordained minister, he serves weekly at his home church and believes everything he does within the entertainment industry must be part of his personal ministry to inspire and serve others with his testimony. Here we talk about his film, finding God in prison, and the sitcom he’s developing with Israel Houghton.
JM: Galley, did you grow up as the “stereotypical” street kid headed for trouble with the law? Tell us about your journey.
GM: No, I actually grew up in an upper-middle class home. My parents were self-employed: my mother owned a hair salon and my stepfather was a bar/night club owner. I was a pretty good student. I did a little college, was heavy into music, band, choir, and became a D.J. and started making records. I was actually the one in my entire family that was not expected to get trouble. I was the “golden child.”
For me, it happened like this: I was a D.J., and I used to make tapes—shows my age!—for people. This guy moved in across the street from me. He was a young guy and he didn’t live with his mom and dad. There were nice cars in the driveway and all that. He started coming over when I was in my garage and he was actually a really cool guy. We became good friends and I started out by going to a few places with him, meeting a few people, etc. The next thing you know I’m in the drug game. I quickly rose up the chain and became a supplier. The rest is history.
JM: Help us get inside the head of a young adult who traffics drugs. Are you thinking about consequences? Are you thinking about the damage it does to others?