A Few Thoughts on “Selma” (Part 1)

Recently, several SEBTS faculty together watched the new movie “Selma.” We asked Walter Strickland, Special Advisor to the President for Diversity and Instructor of Theology, and Nathan Finn, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies, to provide their shared yet unique perspectives. In this first post, Walter gives his thoughts. Come back next week for Nathan’s thoughts. 

My nerves had already gotten the best of me before arriving at the box office. As I responded “Selma” to the question, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” my anxieties were piled high as I anticipated experiencing the struggle that affords me the opportunity to write this very review. In addition, as a Christ-follower, I wondered how Hollywood film writers would portray the role of Christianity in such an important historical epoch. As an African American, I feared the exaggerated dramatization of black stereotypes. As an American, I hoped the Selma narrative would be carefully placed into the larger story of the 1960’s. With every passing scene I was able to let my guard down and develop a new respect for the ongoing journey toward civil rights.

Selma is a reliable and compelling account of a three month vignette of the larger civil rights movement. Since the basic framework of the historical account is depicted, I am not particularly interested in mulling over the amount of artistic license taken in the dialogues with Dr. King and President Lyndon B. Johnson, and between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X, although it would be a fruitful study. My purpose is to draw our collective attention to the influence of the Christian faith in the Selma story, the “foot soldiers” of the movement, and the tensions between black civil rights organizations.

Christianity and the Movement

Selma wonderfully depicts the significance of the Christian faith among the participants of the movement. Secular historians and conservative Christians alike have a tendency to strip MLK and his followers of their Christian motivations and relegate them to being merely political figures. On the one hand, non-Christian historians tend to uphold King’s phenomenal humanitarian efforts as a sterling example of the power of the human spirit. On the other hand, conservative Christians discount the doctrinal fidelity of King’s faith because of its social and political orientation.

King once stated, “[In] the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.”[1] Selma masterfully captures King as a powerful orator whose powerful speeches were laced with biblical imagery and accented with a sermonic flair. King’s pastoral concern was exposed in an intimate encounter with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather as he reassured him that God grieved first when his grandson was murdered. In a vulnerable moment, King himself was shepherded by a dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, in a Selma jail cell.

The film demonstrated that King’s commitment to nonviolent methods was not a pragmatic application of a theory, but a commitment rooted in Christian love. Elsewhere, King declared, “Agape [love] is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. Biblical theologians would say it is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love men not because they are likable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them and here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”[2]

The Foot Soldiers

Selma subtly, yet powerfully, captured the oft-unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, the foot soldiers. Foot soldiers were the students, homemakers, janitors and construction workers who faithfully marched and sat-in at the call of the celebrated leaders like MLK and Ralph Abernathy. Without the nameless masses that fought for justice, there would have been nobody for MLK to lead to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and no large demonstrations of solidarity – including the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Selma began to give us a window into the untold number of personal sacrifices made for the sake of racial justice by common everyday folk. This is captured in Annie Lee Cooper’s tireless pursuit of the ballot box before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to town, and the stream of tears cried by Jimmy Lee Jackson’s mother on a lonely porch after the crowds dispersed. The bodily injuries sustained by the marchers on Bloody Sunday and the death clergy who heeded Dr. King’s clarion call to converge on Selma. My own grandparents sacrificed deeply on a black teacher’s salary to make the trip from Chicago to Washington to March with Dr. King 1963.

The burden of the foot soldier is seen especially in Coretta Scott King. Although she admits in the film that she wishes to do more, the reality is that every area of her life, like so many others, was affected by the movement. Large portions of her married life from 1955 to 1968 were lived at a distance, she lived under the constant threat of violence to her family and the lingering cloud of death haunted her daily. The film made clear that the reality of oppression was a grueling act that never came to an end. It was their lives.

Division in the Ranks

Lastly, Selma also captured the reality that the black community did not unanimously accept MLK’s methods of nonviolence. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began in 1960 as a student segment of the nonviolent movement under the encouragement and oversight of the SCLC. Whereas the SCLC was committed to nonviolence because of its theological convictions, it seems that SNCC espoused nonviolence because it was a proven political tactic. SNCC began to lose faith in nonviolent methods as they sustained more bruises, broken bones, attended a seemingly unending string memorial services and alternative voices like the more radical Malcolm X came onto the national scene.

By 1965, the year of the Selma campaign, SNCC was only a year away from appointing Black Power proponent Stokley Carmichael as chairman. Although SNCC was the only dissenting group depicted in Selma, other groups like the Congress on Racial Equality and the Nation of Islam grew weary of Dr. King’s belief in American ideals and his stalwart faith in the American people to do what is right.

In summary, Selma offers hope as we continue in the marathon for racial equality. The resources of the Christian faith are as available to us now as they were to those being attacked by dogs on Bloody Sunday. The film allows us to see how far we’ve come since 1965 and although progress may seem slow at times it is possible. Lastly, I’m encouraged by brave citizens “fighting” for their ideals. I walked into the theater nervous and I left nervous because like those in Selma, I need to be ready to stand for what I believe when the time comes, at great costs to myself and my family.

________________________

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1. ed. Clayborne Carson, 1.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Power of Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 13.

Four Things I Love about Black Culture (Including: How African-American Worship Makes God Deeply Happy)

In light of the near approach of the Martin Luther King national holiday, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting upon some of the many things I like about African-American culture. I’ll limit myself to four comments, saving the best reflection for last.

My first three reflections were stimulated by reading Angela Nelson’s essay “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture.[1] Nelson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, defines black popular culture as, “an arena of daily life in any culture that actualizes, engenders, operationalizes, or signifies pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement according to the beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions of people of African descent in particular but also other racial groups in general” and then goes on to comment upon seven aspects of black culture: the city, food/cuisine, rhythm, percussiveness, call-response, worship service / party, and middle-class ideology. As I read Nelson’s article, and reflected upon those seven aspects, I found myself profoundly grateful for all that African-Americans “bring to the table” in the United States of America. I’ll make three comments reflecting upon Nelson’s essay and then make one final and significant comment reflecting upon Christian Scripture.

Food & Cuisine

As Nelson notes, one noteworthy characteristic of black culture is “soul food,” a cuisine typically associated with African-Americans in the Deep South. Soul food is often referenced in literature and music. For my part, I cannot imagine life without soul food. I grew up in farm country, in Sampson County, NC, where soul food was a part of life. Some of my best memories involve the meats (ham, bacon, BBQ, fried chicken), vegetables (fried or stewed okra, bacon-flavored greens), starches (candied yams, hush puppies, cornbread), and desserts (pies, cobblers) of southern African-American-inspired soul food. While many suburbanites find themselves profoundly grateful for whichever are the trendy urban foods for this particular week (e.g. cucumber sandwiches, fava beans, arugula, or pesto), I’ll reserve my deepest gratitude for the memory of fried chicken, collards, yams, and cornbread. (I’m pretty sure this disqualifies me from being a “foodie”).

Rhythm & Percussion

Rhythm is central and essential to black music. “African Americans,” writes Nelson, “use rhythm to articulate their moral, theological, and philosophical beliefs. Rhythm, the essential element in black music, philosophically communicates ‘religious’ experience in African and African-American culture and helps its ritual participants reach ‘communitas.’” Rhythm is particularly significant for rap because it gives rap its unique movement and momentum. Nelson cites Tricia Rose, who demonstrates that the lowest or fattest beats in a rap song are likely the ones that the most philosophically significant or emotionally charged. Whereas Western music finds its uniqueness in melodic and harmonic structures, African American music finds its uniqueness in rhythmic and percussive structure.

Likewise, percussion is central and essential to black music. Percussive instruments are those that can be struck, slapped, or shaken and include activities that range from playing the drums to the “human beat box.” Nelson notes that black music is not only an activity but a technique that involves the percussive use of the voice. We see it when black gospel singers sing with mouths wide open, making their consonants short and their vowels long and intense. We see it when rappers speak/sing their words by hitching their heavily descriptive and metaphorical lyrics to a distinctive rhythm.

For my part, I love the sounds inspired by the black community, whether those sounds come from gospel choirs, rap, or hip-hop. Allow me to list three ways in which I am grateful. First, gospel choirs. If it weren’t for the black community and their gospel choirs, we Americans would be left with little else but white guys in flannel shirts strumming guitars. And who wouldn’t agree with me that we are far better off having learned from African-American singers how to really “throw down” on a hymn or song?

Second, Christian rap and hip hop. One of the most creative and faithful forms of worship to have arisen in recent years is Christian rap, with rappers like Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and Lecrae unleashing some of the most powerful and profound lyrics available in CCM today. May their tribe increase (I wish I were part of the tribe. But, as a general rule, professors who have no rhythm, possess no percussive skills, and who wear sport coats with elbow patches, aren’t included as part of the tribe. So, unlike Tony Merida or Owen Strachan, you’ll find me watching from the sidelines.)

Third, mainstream rap and hip-hop. While there is much with which to disagree in mainstream rap and hip hop, those art forms have served as powerful venues to entire communities to express their beliefs, feelings, and values. Even when these artists’ music are consciously and profoundly non-Christian, the Christian community is well served to pay attention to these art forms as a way of loving and understanding their neighbors.

Call-Response & Celebration

Nelson builds on the work of linguist Geneva Smitherman to elucidate two aspects of black culture that we see come to fruition in African-American worship services. The first aspect is the communication pattern of “call-and-response,” which involves “the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interactions between speakers and audiences.” Nelson notes that this aspect helps the community to “establish and maintain spiritual harmony, to maintain a sense of group solidarity, and to validate aesthetic and cultural values.” In worship services, African-Americans one up their white counterparts (“amen, brother”) by actually preaching back to the preacher (“Ha! Help ‘em Lord. That’s the point. Come on!”). The preacher purposely evokes feedback from the congregation, hoping to “wreck” them by making them feel the sermon rather than just hearing it. The call-response aspect meshes well with the celebratory aspect of black worship, which Nelson notes can be compared to a party.

One of the things I love about African-American culture is this celebratory aspect, which can be seen not only in worship services but also in every day laugh. My black friends know how to laugh. They can laugh at themselves and at each other, and can do so without being offensive or being offended. And they sing. They sing alone or in groups, in private or sometimes even in public. I’m not a historian, and I can’t trace this theme of black culture comprehensively or with great precision, but I know this penchant for  “laughter and song” stems at least in part from the days in which black Americans were slaves. In the midst of chains, beatings, and poverty, the African-American community was able to experience a sort of redemption and freedom through laughter and song.

God Sacrificed His Son to Display His Glory in Racial Unity

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of the end times, in which there are Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). I want to make two points from this chapter, both of which speak to the existence of the African –American community in the United States.

First, God killed his Son in order to achieve racial unity and undercut racial arrogance. At one point in the chapter, as all of heaven’s inhabitants are gathered around the throne, we are told that “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is the culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race of person in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by white Americans and black Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans) and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.

Second, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. Revelation 5 describes a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. He will receive worship not just from every continent, and not just from every country, but from every type of person he has created. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified and universal worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a far corner by a paltry and limited group of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations. God takes joy in the existence and worship of the African-American community. It makes him deeply happy.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.



[1] Angela Nelson, “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture,” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 8:1 (Spring 2009).

 

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Briefly Noted: James Pierson on the State of American Higher Education

Who knew? Noteworthy conservative critics such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball no longer stand alone in their critique of American higher education (for dismantling core curricula that stand at the headstream of Western tradition, desperately seeking to be politically correct, emphasizing the trendy over the proven, and allowing liberal thought to have a stranglehold over the academy). James Pierson’s recent article, “What’s wrong with our universities?” (The New Criterion) examines three recent liberal assessments of the state of the American University, and prospects for the future.[1] The liberal critique is interesting, according to Pierson, precisely because it joins critiques long-held by conservatives.

Pierson first discusses Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids­­-and What We Can Do About It (Henry Holt & Co., 2011). This book is written with “the premise that higher education has lost its internal compass and can no longer fulfill its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans” (19). Writing from the standpoint of the pre-1960s view (old-school liberalism) that democratic education and liberal arts should operate in tandem, the authors observe several ills in American higher education: emphasis on faculty research rather than on teaching, the multiplication of superfluous administrative posts, and the depreciation of the liberal arts. Although the authors’ observations are helpful, Pierson argues, the authors do not offer much evidence to substantiate their claims (20). Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting indictment of American higher education and offers some controversial proposals for remedying the ills.

Second, Pierson treats Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (U. of Chicago Press, 2011). Arum and Roksa claim, in the light of a good deal of complex data, that “college students are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors are passing us by in measures of achievement and rates of college graduation” (22). As Pierson states, “though burdened by the social science excess of data and methodology, Academically Adrift is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students” (22). Although the authors’ diagnosis of higher education is nothing new, their proposals for improvement are focused and helpful.

Third, Pierson discusses Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010). Taylor published this work as an expansion of his 2009 op-ed in The New York Times. In line with other critics, Taylor is troubled by the emphasis on faculty research at the expense of classroom instruction. The primary distinction of Taylor’s book is his analysis of the impact of the “Great Recession” on America’s universities (25). The negative of the book, according to Pierson, is that it does not provide a robust constructive proposal.

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first installment of a new series at BtT. “Briefly Noted” will consist of brief notes about ideas, literature, and events that might be of interest to our readers.]


[1] “What’s wrong with our universities?” The New Criterion 30 (Sep. 2011): 17-25.