Last week I promised some posts on Christians who are currently navigating the larger entertainment world. Here is the first installment. I’m going to begin with two incidents, involving two female Christian singers, that caused some kerfuffle around the 2014 Grammy Awards. First of all, as some of you may have picked up on the interwebs, there were several performances in particular that were especially offensive this year. One was an obscenely sexualized number by celebrity couple Jay-Z and Beyonce. Another was a so-called “wedding ceremony,” including same-sex couples, officiated by a female celebrity with a temp license and blasphemously set against the stained-glass backdrop of a church service.
Natalie Grant and Mandisa are two of the most popular female vocalists in contemporary Christian music. Some of you are probably already familiar with Grant’s work on a couple of Gaither videos. Mandisa may be less familiar, but she was a stand-out on American Idol s0me years back and has since enjoyed a successful career on the CCM circuit. What else do these ladies have in common? Both were nominated for Grammys in categories for the best Christian song/record of the year. Also, both chose to make a public gesture distancing themselves from the culture of the Grammys.
In Mandisa’s case, she had already chosen not even to attend the ceremony. Here is an excerpt from what she had to say on her Facebook wall:
I have been struggling with being in the world, not of it lately. I have fallen prey to the alluring pull of flesh, pride, and selfish desires quite a bit recently.
“Don’t fall in love with this corrupt world or worship the things it can offer. Those who love its corrupt ways don’t have the Father’s love living within them. All the things the world can offer to you—the allure of pleasure, the passion to have things, and the pompous sense of superiority—do not come from the Father…” 1 John 2:15-16a (The Voice)
I knew that submerging myself into an environment that celebrates those things was risky for me at this time. I am taking steps to renew my mind to become the Heavenly Father-centered, completely satisfied with Jesus, and Holy Spirit-led woman I felt I was a few months ago, but I’m feeling a bit like an infant learning to walk again on shaky legs. Perhaps being alone with Him as my name was announced was protecting myself from where my flesh would have tried to drag me had I been up on that stage. It gave me time to focus. With what I do for a living, and the doors that have opened for me to sing about Jesus on mainstream platforms, I take the phrase from John 15:19, “be in the world, not of it” seriously. God never taught us to stay in our safe Christian bubbles, completely separating from those who do not share our faith (see 1 Corinthians 5). After all, how else will people come to know Him, if not by His children? We must live, look, and speak differently so that we shine (see Matthew 5, Philippians 2, and 1 Peter 3)! I can’t force my morality on anyone else. What I can do is live my life in such a way that reflects well on my Savior, stand firm in my values, and do all of these things in love. If God can use this Grammy win to advance His Kingdom, I’m all in!
To be clear, she did throw in a couple of qualifiers in the rest of her post that tempered the force of this message. For example, she introduced it by emphasizing, “Yes, both times I have gone to the Grammys I have witnessed performances I wish I could erase from my memory, and yes, I fast forwarded through several performances this year; but my reason is not because of them, it’s because of me.” She also left open the possibility of attending in the future if she felt ready for it. So, it should be obvious to any of her detractors that she is trying very hard to be the salt and light the world needs. While I would encourage Mandisa to, if anything, take an even harder position, I was encouraged that she didn’t feel self-conscious about pointing out the dangerous allure of what the Grammys embody. It’s clear that she’s alive to those problems, and I applaud her for, however gently, drawing a line.
Natalie Grant kicked off an even greater ruckus by her actions. She did attend the Grammys with her husband, but they chose to leave early. She took to Facebook for these brief reflections: “We left the Grammy’s [sic] early. I’ve many thoughts about the show tonight, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I’ll say this: I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.”
Once again, about as harsh as baby bath. Yet Grant immediately faced severe criticisms from secular and Christian liberals alike. One particularly odious reply on Christ and Pop Culture went so far as to suggest that not only “should” Grant have said nothing about leaving, but she shouldn’t have left in the first place! That author linked positively to an equally shallow piece on the “redemptive possibilities” inherent in Jay-Z and Beyonce’s number (oh, if only I were making this stuff up—suggestive image advisory, by the way). Herewith, a sample of the monumental stupidity that apparently now qualifies as insightful Christian cultural commentary:
Grant’s decision to leave, and her decision to post on Facebook about it, were probably well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they were wise. In fact, maybe it wasn’t just her many thoughts about the evening that were “better left inside her head” — maybe she should have also left inside her head the very fact that she had those thoughts.
Grant’s post opened the door for conservative media outlets to denounce the night and affirm her “bravery.” Her post opened the door for liberal media outlets once again to decry the judgmentalism of Christians. It opened the door for a lot of hate and name-calling to rush in.
Despite her best intentions, I fear that Grant’s post comes across as holier-than-thou. As my friend Laura Turner tweeted, “It reminded me of Christian friends who asked others not to cuss around them in HS. So showy.”
I can’t help but wonder if a more appropriate response would have been to leave without saying a word. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to do our praying in private? And when we do good works, not even to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing?
I can’t help but wonder if a more appropriate response would even have been to stay. Christians are not so holy that we can’t bear to be around offensive behavior — and we shouldn’t expect a secular event to conform to our standards of morality. Jesus was holiness incarnate and he happily rubbed shoulders with the most despised sinners of his day.
Astute readers may notice that this woman is using some language reminiscent of what I quoted from Mandisa above. But there is a key difference—Mandisa recognizes that there is a limit to what she can handle, and that it does not compromise her witness in any way to protect herself from “being around offensive behavior,” while Ms. School-Marm is not-so-subtly hinting that it does.
The one and only good point raised in the midst of the blather was that Grant should have known what kind of a show she was going to get before she attended in the first place. This is true. Grammy-goers have been afflicted with the likes of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga in years past, so why is Grant only realizing mid-2014-ceremony that she and the Grammys don’t mix? One could argue that Mandisa’s behavior was more consistent. However, this is not an argument against Grant’s choice to leave the ceremony this year. If anything, it’s an argument that she shouldn’t have attended any of the other years either, but better late than never!
Naturally, Grant felt she had to offer a follow-up answer to the volley of backlash, some of which specifically demanded that she address the homosexual issue. This was understandable on her part, but personally I favor the Benjamin Disraeli approach: Never explain, never apologize. Nevertheless, she graciously remained firm in her convictions:
I’ve judged no one. I hate no one. And I believe that every person has been created in the image of God. I will never stand on a street corner and wave a sign, I won’t use my platform to engage in political arguments that will only divide and not unite. I will continue to pray that my life will be my message. I do have my own personal convictions that I live by, and I will continue to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord. (Philippians 2:12)
See? Sweetness and light. But sadly, even mushy middle buzz phrases like “wave a sign,” “unite and not divide,” etc., weren’t enough to keep Grant from the kind of reverse legalism exemplified by her Christian critics. Of course, she lacks the cynicism/savvy to take this as a signal that there’s no point in trying to bend over backwards like that in the first place. But God bless her heart for standing her ground in her own way.
Both Mandisa and Grant handled their platforms exactly right. While evidencing a genuine compassion for lost souls, they provided public illustrations of what it means to keep oneself unspotted from the world. And against the peer pressure of their hipster brethren, they gently pointed back to the Scriptures. Meanwhile, I was shocked all over again (though I shouldn’t have been) at the lengths to which some people will go to avoid the appearance of “legalism.” I was irritated all over again by their embarrassingly ignorant, re-hashed use of the line that “Jesus rubbed shoulders with sinners.” And I was reminded of the need for tougher culture warriors to encourage and back up quieter souls like these two sweet ladies. The good instincts they displayed should be affirmed wherever possible.
Next time, I’ll explore the question of how well a Christian can maintain his integrity when he is even more deeply embedded in the mainstream culture.