Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Last summer, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, (as the Carters), finally released their long awaited joint album Everything Is Love. “Apes**t,” the video for the first single from the album, was nominated for a Grammy for Video of the Year and won the 2019 Brit Award for Best International Group. Their video features Jay-Z and Beyoncé in expensive fabrics with a phalanx of predominantly black and brown dancers in front of great works of Western art, like the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Venus de Milo. The video was filmed at the Louvre, an iconic location representing the canon of great Western art. Filming in those hallowed halls elevates the Carters’ work as entertainers, but more than that it highlights the ways in which those of African descent are excluded, hidden, or otherwise ignored from the “the great works of art” narrative. In their attempts to expand the narrative around who is an artist, what is beauty, and what is worth celebrating, Jay-Z and Beyoncé provide an important lesson to the Church which has similarly struggled to include diverse voices in its story.
The question of how we tell the story of Christianity is as much a question of belonging as anything else.With their choice of location, Beyoncé and Jay-Z declare that Africans and people of African descent have a place among the great works. Europeans are not the only ones capable of creativity, beauty, or wealth. Their presence in the Louvre, a place synonymous with the greatest art and artists in the world, highlights the ways in which those of African descent are often excluded from the pantheons of greatness, not because lack of impact or excellence, but due to negligence and/or the myth of white superiority. The video upends the Western-centric narrative by highlighting both the few pieces of art focused on black life and prominently centering African Americans in a new celebration of beauty and art.
The Carters highlight key pieces of African art, and also the way those of African descent are drawn in the shadows of great works of art. In other places, they recast prominent pieces of art with black bodies, Beyoncé appears in outfits meant to invoke the Italian Renaissance masters, madonnas, and Greek goddesses. A young black man stands on a horse like a Napoleonic general found in another painting; another appears as an angel found on lots of classical era buildings. The video contains African American women posed as young maidens and acts of intimacy between black men and women similarly positioned as works of beauty and imagination like Jacques-Louis David’s Madame Récamier and Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. These images center on black beauty and creativity, while challenging the prevailing Eurocentric narrative prevalent in the Louvre.
Similarly, the Church must upend the narrative that Christianity is a “white man’s religion,” by including Christians of color in both our stories of the origins of Christianity and our current cultural framework. Christianity told as the tale of a blond haired, blue-eyed savior whose teachings were only developed by white Europeans leads to the dismissal of Christianity by men and women looking for a faith of their own. In the Church, its urban apologists spend time defending against claims that “Christianity is a white man’s religion.” Its Bible study leaders, pastors, Sunday school teachers look for the stories of faithful Christians, theologians, and Bible scholars because some cultural references do not translate, such as repeated references to being sent to Africa as one of God’s hardest callings.
Beyond the missiological consequences, this narrow view of Christian history and orthodoxy is simply inaccurate. Many of the places in the Bible are located in the present day Middle East, so our pictures of those characters should reflect their brown skin. We should speak about Philip the eunuch as one of the first missionaries to Ethiopia and Simon of Cyrene, as a biblical hero who takes up Jesus’ cross while others stood by. Seminaries must stop teaching Church history as if it jumps from the apostles in the New Testament to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, with nothing significant in between.
In the video, Jay-Z and Beyoncé include great works from Egypt, not only highlighting the few pieces of African art in the museum, but also reclaiming Egypt as a part of Africa. That’s a lesson for the Church that often ignores the contributions from Africans like Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, and Athanasius who provide the foundations on which many of your favorite European theologians built. We cannot take the story of Christianity in bits and pieces. We need the whole story, as every aspect—places, cultures, genealogies, temple instructions—tell us something about God and who He is in the world.
Pastors and Bible teachers rarely tell the story of Christianity in all of its diversity. People are uprooted from their contexts and their culture as if those things are extraneous to God’s work in their life. When we tell only part of the story, we miss something essential for our growth and our own understanding of who God was and is. Christians of color cannot be the only ones to bring up the ways in which our ancestors are often excluded from the narrative of Christianity. The legacies of Augustine, Athanasius, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, Charles Octavius Boothe, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Septima Clark, and Frederick Douglass, to name a few, belong to all of us. When we exclude these stories, the whole Church loses.
There are social and cultural consequences too. Even as more people become attuned to ongoing racial injustices, many struggle releasing the myth of white superiority, simply because they are unaware of the contributions of non-Europeans to Christianity, world history, and culture. At the MLK50 celebration co-hosted by the Gospel Coalition and the ERLC, a prominent white pastor shared that most of his congregation was unfamiliar with the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to American history. This lack of familiarity reinforces feelings of superiority over minorities.
Most will believe that because they are not outwardly hostile to minorities that their feelings of superiority are invisible, but those attitudes appear in the dismissal of the ongoing systemic injustice, chalking it up to a lack of work ethic, rather than consideration of how redlining, blockbusting, the War on Drugs, lynching, and discrimination might have contributed to opportunity gaps or income inequality. These harmful attitudes appear in apathy and color blindness that pretend not to see difference in order to remain comfortable, and they emerge in paternalistic attitudes and offers of help when a posture of humility or of a collaborator is warranted.
The Church is not only missing important church fathers and mothers, but a deep and rich theological understanding of suffering, eschatological hope, lament, discipleship, joy in the midst of pain, justice, and political engagement with a proper distance from Caesar. We’ve seen new Christian authors emerge with works on how to live biblically in Babylon, as if this is suddenly a new condition modern Christians find themselves in without considering there are saints still who sang “How Great Thou Art” on Sunday after a relative was lynched on a Saturday. There are folks alive today who can speak to what it is to still have hope, to cling to “His unchanging hand” despite present circumstances. We the Church are quick to dismiss those voices because they do not fit our narratives about where theology comes from. The interesting thing about the common assumption of European superiority when it comes to Christian orthodoxy is that it is wrong. A recent study by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research found that African Americans are considerably more orthodox than white Christians.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z did something extraordinary in filming a piece of undeniably and unapologetically black art in the Louvre. Not only did they highlight the people of color often hidden in the shadows and the lack of representation among the great works of art; they also showed that great works of art were still being created by people of color—art worthy of inclusion in the narrative. It is also worth noting that the Louvre subsequently created a tour based on the music video that has drawn larger and more diverse crowds to the museum (visitor numbers hit a record high 10.2 million last year). Similarly, a fuller narrative of Christian history may help the Western Church reach new generations as America grows increasingly more diverse and exposure to historic Christian culture dwindles.
The question of how we tell the story of Christianity is as much a question of belonging as anything else. Are people of color guests, or did they help build the house? Guests behave much differently in someone else’s house than they behave in their own. In someone else’s house, they play by the rules the owner sets, they eat from the owner’s predetermined menu, they sit on the owner’s furniture, and they are granted entrance when and how the owner decides. Co-owners get to partake in those conversations and deliberations.
Treating Christianity as if it is a Eurocentric religion means those with more melanin in their skin will always be guests. The challenge with this is that no one wants to be a permanent house guest. People leave and build their own homes, and that is exactly what many Christians of color are doing: self-publishing their own books, starting their own organizations, churches, and conferences where they get to set the menu because they are unwelcome in the mainstream narrative of Christianity.
There is not a problem with building spaces free from the constraints, hurts, and challenges of majority culture. But for the Church, we are called to demonstrate oneness as the Trinity demonstrated oneness, according to John 17. Oneness, then is obviously not about sameness or about always sharing physical spaces; it is about relationship, a shared narrative of origin, and an essentialism of each person to work and contribute toward the mission of the whole. Just as Beyoncé and Jay-Z reclaimed the Louvre for artists of color, all Christians should reclaim the story of Christianity in which all Christians see themselves reflected as both co-laborers and heirs of God’s redemptive work in the world.
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