(There is No Longer) Male and Female: PCOS and the Theological Aesthetics of Femininity, Part I

2 11 2013

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

I know that this scripture is considered out of context, but I am okay with that – just bear with me as I do some reflecting.

I am a prime candidate for make-up. I have black marks and what my father told me, in his fatherly duty to reassure his thirteen-year-old daughter that she was not becoming or was not at her root, a man. Lying to me – calling them “heat bumps” – so that I could survive the space that was middle school and petrifying to an overweight, African, and frankly, marked and scar-faced young girl going through puberty was the best thing to do.

I am a prime candidate for make-up because I have hair growing on my face. I have hair elsewhere whose growth I cannot control, but the aesthetic space that any girl can make her own personal canvas is her face. And when puberty happens and her body begins to tell her who she is for the rest of her life; that is scary. But what is scariest is that the time when she begins to find out how her face will look for the remainder of life contains a mustache and a beard. It contains hair that only men should have.

But she’s a woman. She is female. She is anatomically female, not a bit of this and that, but she is one thing.

But her body is confusing this message.

If it is s set in stone, then why is she dealing with what her male peers are?

Why is her chin scarring? Why does she have a faint trace of a mustache? Why does the hair on top of her barely grow and shed in chunks? Why? It is because she has this annoying hormonal imbalance called PCOS (more on this in a future blog post).

I wrote a post a few years ago about why I don’t give in to make-up. To make a long story short, I am not interested in the work and function of make-up. I think the idea of the face as a canvas is a fascinating one, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand make-up as a corrective (or “enhancer” as some like to name it). I want people to see my scars, because when they see my scars, they see me in my entirety – blemishes and all. They also can Jesus more clearly (but more on this later).

I have more thoughts on this that will make themselves known in due time, but right now I am in a place of confession and I confess the obvious – I know my face is a strange, unexplainable, and even masculine thing to experience (And I’ll call it what it is – if it is not readily identifiable as female, it becomes a thing). I cannot help it. And I also choose not to hide it. Because it is part of me and part of my story. It contains secrets to my understanding what kind of woman I hope and claim to be.

But further, I am seeing and hoping to hear more about how it is helping me understand the God I serve and worship.

PCOS is, like a said, annoying, but it can teach me so much about what it means to be a woman and a creature of God. Please journey with me as I reflect.

Weight, Don’t Tell Me! Jesus Died for Fat People Too?!

7 04 2012

*** I’ve been putting off a post like this for years, but I guess it’s time for the conversations to start flowing! ***

Sometimes what the Bible says seems crystal clear at first until that thing called contradiction forces its way in forcing you to question not God’s clarity, but your understanding.

Today was one of those days for me. Walking across campus to get my lunch, I passed by a swing-like seating area directly parallel to the dining hall. Filled with people enjoying the good weather and each other’s company I ran into a slight biblical dilemma.

Scripture says that Jesus considered the child among the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He even says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18, NRSV) And this is my dilemma.

I know the text is speaking to purity of heart and ability to see Jesus as one who can be trusted, who you can give all of your love to, the one who cannot fail you. You come to Jesus exactly as you are and completely release yourself to Him. I get that. Total trust. Check.

What I do not get are the finer details of these pre-pubescent spiritual teachers. They are mean, or rather, they are honest which in turn becomes identified as mean (by sensitive adults like myself! Haha!).

Walking to and coming back from getting lunch, I heard a young girl whisper to the five or so kids around her, “Wow, look at how fat she is!” and “There is that girl again, so fat!”

I get it. I am fat. And no matter how nice people want to be, they can’t say, “No, you’re not fat!” because it is untrue. And I am an advocate of truth. I will say that I am working on getting to a healthier weight, but until then, I guess I will have to continue to hear kids whisper (or quietly exclaim) the truth.

And I will be honest, this truth hurt! I wanted to call her ugly or tell her how rude she was but this would not work out for three reasons: 1) She could not have been more than 6 years old and many times what comes off of a six-year-old tongue is not filtered too carefully; 2) My response would have been inappropriate and juvenile itself (plus there were adults around watching the kids, i.e. saying anything to a stranger-child would have caused suspicion and trouble); and 3) She was right!

I am fat. But what she failed to consider was why I am fat. Sure there is the technical aspect of eating too much in general, consuming too many sweets (my biggest weakness), not exercising enough (apparently walking to class will not cut it), etc. But then there are other aspects that she would not be able to process and consider.

In that moment, the child sees that I am fat but she does not consider why I am fat. She saw the “that-I-am” instead of the “why-I-am”.

The funny thing is that this girl was not entirely wrong. Her “that-I-am” observation skills were true. She saw the facts and she stated them.

But there was no way she could see everything.

She acted as a child would: she did not know it all, only some of it. But she was humble, completely honest, truthful, and engrossed in the aesthetic reality of my appearance.

It is interesting that this is what Jesus wants from humanity. He wants us to see Him and state the facts. He is kind. He is gentle. And there is something about Him that is extremely trustworthy, so we go to Him and believe what He says and follow His commands and know that somehow they are for our good. We become engrossed in pure faith.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does show our shortcoming, our humanness. The best we can do is engage in blind faith, because we cannot see everything. We see only what our human vision tells us. The best we can do is humbly say, Lord, this is what I think I see and what I think I see is literally all I have to go by. This invites vulnerability, but also room for much error.

This is the downside of childlikeness, immaturity. The young girl saw the “that-I-am” and never thought to engage the “why-I-am.” Like this young girl the Pharisees see the “that-I-am” of many persons including the lame man (Mark 2), the bleeding woman (Matthew 9), and the man born blind (John 9) but fail to see the “why-I-am.” But the Pharisees prove even one step worse; they proceed to ignore the people around them. At least this girl allowed my condition to shock her!

The Pharisees know of these peoples’ conditions but can do nothing for them; therefore, over time, they do not see them. The “that-I-am’s” of these people do not phase them anymore. It has been filed away in the realm of forgetfulness along with these persons societal value, worth and importance. Like the young girl, the Pharisees let the “that-I-am’s” of people become their only definition and thus worth. But unlike, the young girl, in that moment the Pharisees have no reason to care about them anymore.

They are their condition, and this affects their spiritual and social participation.

This is terrible and sad and speaks to something very sinful in our human nature. People are forgotten or not cared for because they do not exist within a narrow norm. They are either forgotten or secretly despised.

I do not want this to be my fate. I do not want my appearance to be (secretly) disgusting to you. (I would have to devote an entire blog post alone to the secret and many times not so secret aesthetic musings we hold about each other within the body of Christ!)

I think it is unspoken in some churches and over-spoken in others (wrapped up in the language of “healthy spirit, healthy body” etc.) that the place of the overweight believer is a problem (and unfortunately I think it has less to do with their health and longevity as it does appearance and how a church “looks” not only spiritually, but also aesthetically).

Fat does not fit. It does not fit into the style of clothes that “this church wears.” It does not fit into the beauty and youth and energy a church is trying to convey. It does not fit into proper church clothes (i.e., it doesn’t look good in certain patterns of dress deemed appropriate). One’s “that-I-am” reality does not fit into a crucial aspect of the church, appearance. It does not fit into the constructed image of a pure, true Christian.

I press this issue of weight in the church because Jesus does not. For at least two decades I have wondered whether Jesus would be happy to or appalled to die for fat bodies: bodies that show “no concern for their health,” “don’t care how they look,” etc. Would Jesus want to die for bodies that apparently speak of that person’s negative life traits and attributes, their failures? I often wondered, would Jesus be okay with resurrecting a body that many assume shows a disconnect with “proper” spiritual and physical values?

Honestly, I am still trying to get myself to stop wondering, but unfortunately I have not stopped yet. From the stories in Mark 2, Matthew 9 and John 9, I want to see and believe in the other side of what the Pharisees failed to see. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus in wrongdoing and wrong-saying, but what I want to see in these narratives is Jesus in right-doing. Jesus does not heal for Himself alone, (He certainly gets the glory which is crucial!) but He also heals so that the once-handicapped (or dead) person might believe in Him AND that others witnessing these events might believe in Him too.

Jesus never says anything about what these bodies look like. He never says, “Stand up, and go eat a salad!” or “Take heart, you need to take care of your body better!” or “Go! Join a gym!”

Mark 2 is especially touching. Jesus first says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (vs. 5) Jesus first saw the “why-I-am” in this situation. He never got hung up on the fact that this man did not look normal or healthy or whatever. He saw that this man’s heart and soul had something that plagued him far worse than his physical condition.

Jesus saw the “why-I-am” in this man and decided that he was not only worthy of being forgiven, but that he was also worth dying for. I would even say that Jesus saw the bigger “why-I-am.” He saw and experienced within His own life how sin was an evil, powerful force that could alter people’s beings and lives. Jesus knew this and thus decided that judging people based only on their “that-I-am” condition was futile. He attacked the root of the problem, and conquered it through His life-death work.

Jesus saw us as important enough to give up His life. I think this is what I want to know the church for. Growing up in church there were times that I wish I belonged “better” but I wish I had known that I was worthy enough. I wish I was not indoctrinated and poisoned by what the proper way of being a Christian was (spiritually, aesthetically, and ontologically).

I wish I knew that we are all worth dying for. We are all worth the same thing, Jesus’ death. I am definitely glad that I know now, and even if it will take me the rest of my life to truly know what this means, I am glad that I have latched onto the journey of finding out what this means.

Our looks, our appearance, our aesthetics have nothing to do with God’s grace. Jesus does not formulate truth by looking at humanity’s outward appearance, nor does Jesus assume that it is an individual act of recklessness that got us to the sinful state that we are in. Jesus looks at the totality of our lives and how sin has entered into everyone’s lives and says, “This is worth dying for.”

I am still working out my thoughts on the aesthetics of theology and ecclesial life, but there is something there, something troubling, that I hope to continue to discuss and expose until it can only cower under the light of Jesus’ truth.

The notion that if my body does not look like yours, there is something inherently wrong with it and me is a false one. This mentality and type of Christian practice is isolating and perpetuates sin, for no one looks the way they do (entirely) because of their own doing. There is always more to the story. There is always something in or on the soul that people literally cannot see. This mentality signals a childlikeness that we must move past.

We must trust in Jesus completely, yes, but we must also trust that what Jesus did, die for the entire world, means something greater that outward appearance. It means that no matter what we look like, Jesus saw it as valuable enough to die for. Jesus loved us that much. What I hope to ask until this evil is destroyed is, “Why don’t we try harder to get past our childish vision and live into God’s vision of love and acceptance?”



“On Hoods and Hoodies: A Theological Reflection on Clerical Hoods, KKK Hoods and the Hoodie”

3 04 2012

Trayvon Martin

 Over the past month I have heard numerous stories/versions of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old young man who was murdered walking back to the home of his father’s girlfriend unarmed. His death was shocking, sudden and a great source of outrage and anger to the African-American and American community at large.

Over one month later, his death is still sending shockwaves of cries for justice against his murderer, George Zimmerman, who after claiming shooting Martin to death out of self-defense that night in February, has been free ever since.

I, too, was shocked and angered. The conditions of Martin’s death and the details surrounding it are cloudy and sinister. Police reports failing to document the entire truth, differing neighboring witness accounts (from women and a young boy) and controversial statements being made about Zimmerman’s and Martin’s moral credibility further complicate how to receive this tragedy.

I have read something about Martin almost every day since I first heard the tragic news, but what I have been waiting for I do not think I have received yet: an in depth look at what clothing means and what messages they convey in the church. From a Christian standpoint, clothing is important as it conveys a particular message of sanctity or damnation. Clothing can do the work of distinguishing the holy person from the average person or even the blessed person from the cursed person. Clothing speaks a language all its own.

I wonder if the language of clothing can this be applied in this case as well. I hope to explore this a bit more and ask questions not only about the social implications of clothing, but also the theological implications as well as I believe that a deep, rich theological account of the symbolism present in this story could open up conversation about aesthetics in general. And hopefully this conversation can permeate the church with as much force as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin has.

A few days ago I heard Geraldo Rivera’s interview about the socio-aesthetic implications of the hoodie on young men, and read his subsequent apology, but I have not heard a theological reading of what this charged moment intertwining justice, death, and social implications was “wearing”: the hoodie. I myself do not have the time to offer an account that does this vast topic justice, but I wish to offer some reflections concerning the heavy meaning held within the (frame)work that the hoodie is (living within and) doing on both its wearer and its viewer in relation to their sanctity or guiltiness.

But before I think out loud through this post, I want to offer the disclaimer that I hope these reflections are not simply an exercise in “intellectual bandwagonning.” My purpose is not to exploit Trayvon’s death in order to further my thoughts or name. I do not want to “jump in on this” in order to give my two cents, sound important and never think about this again. I want to think further about this – what clothes do to and for people politically, socially and religiously. Please think with me as the only thing I have to offer comes from my perspective; but we all know that the world is so much bigger than myself!

Talking to one of my good colleagues/peers, Nathan Walton, about the strangeness of the hood/y/ie, last week, I could not help but wonder about the connection that what we wear on our bodies determines not only our reception in society, our jobs, schools and places of worship, but that what we wear has a strong affiliation with our longevity; what we wear, in a sense, can determine how long we can “live.” Our clothing becomes our timetable based on other’s perceptions of our self/being.

The hood and the hoodie both speak a particular and peculiar message, but often this message is read on multiple levels, whether the wearer intends for it to be or not. Although this blog and subsequent research are not research-extensive by any means, just observatory and experiential, I want to offer my thoughts on the significance of the clerical hood, the head covering of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as the hooded sweatshirt or hoodie. Clothing serves a number of purposes, a few of which I hope to examine more closely. I think it best to dive right in.

In thinking about these three forms of head-covering I asked myself, “What do hoods do?” Thinking through the function and work of hoods, I argue that hoods do three particular things. Hoods serve as a form of protection, a means of covering or altering one’s visibility, and a means of representation (including a form of expression and/or fashion). All three of these functions help determine the validity or falsity of the person wearing it.

Clerical Hoods

It is best to examine how these actions work out in all three forms of the hood individually, so I being with the clerical hood. In his work, Historic Dress of the Clergy George S. Tyack the first form of head-covering came in 1243 when the monks of Canterbury were allowed to wear almuces (“a tippet and hood lined with fur”) while saying their offices (40). The color of the fur lining the almuce became an indication of one’s function: the inferior clergy and monks had hoods lined with dark colored fur, silver-grey (the more expensive) fur signaled the “higher dignitaries” (40). In the 14th century, almuces became more commonly worn by laymen as they “discarded its use” and it became “an ecclesiastical dress, which in its origin and nature was not specially connected with the Church” (41). The hood transitioned from a sign of clerical office to a normative form of dress, but it may not have been solely a fashion move. Tyack reminds the reader of the conditions of (technological advancement at) the time as “…nothing was done to warm the churches…” and “…wooden shutters were the sole protection in the clerestory windows against the wind, rain, or snow” (41).

In Church Vestments: Their Origin and Developments Herbert Norris furthers the function of fur found within the hood explaining that before long the fur became exteriorized displaying the luxury and status of the clergy (174). The exterior of the hood named a new emerging reality where fashion would soon play a part. He states, “No longer was the erstwhile outer cloth [of the almuce] of sober black, now that it was a lining to the fur; rich fabrics and gay colours were used instead” (174). In the 15th century the fur-lined hood draped around the neck became a more popular ornamental innovation and the hood disappeared entirely (175-176).

I give this abbreviated background to signal the multi-functionality of the hood, or almuce, in Christian religious institutions. Not only did the hood function as protection from the elemental conditions of the weather, but it also morphed into representational purposes outside of clerical function. But it also plays with the notion of social visibility and invisibility. It soon became a marker of class distinction through decorative means. It became a fashion statement at the same time as it became a class marker. In this way, it could serve the function of distinction in obvious and subtle ways. It showed one’s office but also one’s economic importance. Clerical clothing bought into categories of separation and segregation, it signaled the “haves” from the “have nots” and the distinguished from the insignificant.

I would like to venture one step further. I believe that the almuce (hood) created perception as well as determined perception of others. It served as commentary signaling that the church’s internalized mentality through social indicators linked directly with their clothing. Perhaps the church reflected societal practice and standards in marking distinction with, not clothing itself, but the message that clothing type and quality designated ones worth, one’s sanctity or a lack thereof. Keep this in mind, as I believe this is extremely important.

The Klu Klux Klan

In his work, The Fiery Cross, Wyn Craig Wade argues that the Klu Klux Klan’s emerged initially as a club around the time of the Reconstruction in America as a defensive response against, “the radical legislation calling for the ‘the social and political emasculation’ of Southern whites…” (31-33) The mysteriousness of its name would be culminated in its dress as the first members dressed in sheets and pillow cases parading around town much to the puzzlement of the local people in their town (33).

They wanted “…elaborate and menacing costumes…” with ambiguous symbols coating them. Lofty cone-shaped hats concealed their heads and they soon punched out eye-holes for vision. The height of these hats were exaggerated to compliment their mysteriously outrageous loosely-fitting white outfit (33-34). Initially a club of practical jokers, the Klan soon turned its energy towards “emancipated blacks as a new course of butts for their practical jokes.” (35) But as it spread with great popularity, soon the Black target was no longer the victim of jokes, but profiling and great psychological and physical victimization (36).

According to http://kkk.org/, the functionality of the hood for the “ghosts of the Confederate dead” as they were known (35), serves different purposes, mainly as a tactic of intimidation, anonymity and representation. Primarily a tool of intimidation and fear towards Blacks, the KKK (as they are called), often communally dress in long white hooded robes. It is the threat of anonymity that works particularly well here for the KKK as the person(s) being threatened, harassed or attacked will not be able to identify their assailant.

The website reports that participants may not want to have been so easily identified as, “The membership included businessmen and men of the cloth, police officers and high ranking officials. Fearing their reputations may be tarnished by open support for white supremacy and the KKK, these members could conceal their identities by wearing the KKK hoods during rallies and other activities.” This may have been the case due to the questioning of the legality of their actions.

The white hood with a conical shape specifically emerged around the 1920s. Around this time as well different colored robes (including the hoods) emerged noting special designation and ranking within the larger organization.

The history of the KKK hood is an interesting one. Unlike the initial function of clerical robes, the KKK hood maintains a different sort of protection, a social protection. Worn with no intention to offer protection from the weather, the hood’s main function is towards anonymity. This connects quite well to the notion of visibility. The genius of the KKK hooded robe was the fact that it allowed visibility and invisibility in the same breath. Wearing hoods, the identities of its members are not immediately known by its victim, but the Klan as a whole is quite visible (this seen most clearly in the brightness of their robe). The function of the hooded robe is to initiate fear in the communities the KKK found bothersome and/or threatening. And this fear occurred through the masked face of the assailant and the communal presence of a sea of white. This sea is quite important as it highlights a notion of representation. As a community, the KKK is invisibly visible. They are seen only in the way they want to be seen, as a unit, as a people with particular values and goals with which to achieve those values.

I would suggest that the KKK hood functions much like the clerical hood. It communicates a means of designation and separation. It represents a people and their core values. It serves as religious garb making their actions and work, “sacred.” Their dress alone invokes religious support as many were Christians (some leadership within their church). In other words I want to argue that since the KKK believes that what they were doing is validated as an act of purifying America, that this “religious action” is, in turn, “valid” – for example cross burning and clergy participation within the organization. The hood then designates purity value. Those wearing the hood are on the right side of the pious fight, and those on the other side, damned. Unlike the clerical hood, the KKK hood’s functionality weaves into itself. It is serving all three functions at the same time protecting itself (and America) from certain peoples, through masked identity it designates borders of visibility through invisibility, and it serves as a representational caucus.

The Hoodie

Lastly, this leads me to ask the function of the hoodie. What work does the hoodie do concerning Black American youth? What role did Trayvon’s hoodie play in his death? What is it about a hoodie on a Black body that automatically announces it as “suspicious”…“up to no good”…and “on drugs”? I want to suggest that the hoodie also functions in three manners like the clerical and KKK hood, but first I want to examine the implications of particular types of clothing on Black bodies.

In her work, Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller argues that, “The history of black dandyism in the Atlantic diaspora is the story of how and why black people became arbiters of style and how they use clothing and dress to define their identity in different and changing political and cultural contexts.” (1) She defines dandyism is playing up a particular situation through clothing. Clothing serves as a means of changing or perhaps refashioning identity. She asks, “How has the representation of black people been transformed from images of dandified “luxury” slavery to that of self-fashioning black dandies whose likenesses are now ubiquitous on the stage and on the streets?” (1) In other words, are pieces of clothing carrying with it a message that the Black body has carried from slavery into the present? What is the hoodie doing for Trayvon Martin? Is it setting him back in a way? Rivera seemed to think so.

Taking a step back, my initial thought of the hoodie’s purpose is purely representational through fashion. It is an identity marker naming the wearer as one who is abreast on modern culture. In wearing it, they are making a fashion statement, not particularly tied to race, but tied to time period. The hoodie signifies youth culture; worn by rural, suburban and urban youth alike, it presents to society a statement that the wearer wears what they want, that they can fashion their own look amidst the continuous images of sophisticated fashion.

But I do not want to ignore Miller’s points. Maybe there’s something deeper here. How the Black body dresses itself may be dictated by an image of the past that the Black community may not be aware of today. Perhaps Black fashion is the result of a ghost, the haunting of Southern slave society. Perhaps it is a performative. Maybe it is both. Miller suggests that, “Stylin’ out, like any performative act, needs an actor and an audience; the audience can be anything from oneself in a mirror to fellow strollers on Harlem’s 125th Street to the international media. The messages sent out by the black well-dressed must be interpreted by their viewers; black dandyism takes on meaning as black style communicates moments of mobility and fixity, depending on who is looking.” (3)

Fashion requires an audience. Whether it is being “well-dressed” or following an urban image, the dress of the Black male is really important. It says something not only about communal perception but individual identity (3). I think that this is right. Like the clerical hood and the KKK hood, the hoodie is also doing some important sanctifying work. It is justifying a particular type of existence. It is validation of cultural expression. It says, “I represent my culture because I wear my culture.” Part of the sanctifying work that the hoodie does is performative, yes, but I argue that it performs a measure of redemption. The wearer is proud of their culture. They want to redeem the image the hoodie has produced so they wear it in order to make a fashion and cultural statement. The hoodie for the Black youth demonstrates a sort of pride – that you are proud to wear and even desire to represent your generation. It is a symbol of courage to represent a culture you were raised in. The hoodie is representational.

But the hoodie can also be protective. Specifically in the case of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie was protective in two measures. For Martin, his hoodie may have served as a means to protect himself from the elements. (For Rivera, I guess the hoodie would be justified in this case!) That night, Zimmerman denotes that it was raining. The hoodie literally served as protection from the elements.

But the hoodie also served as a safety measure through concealment. Martin’s girlfriend said that Martin put his hoodie on after seeing that Zimmerman was following him. Unlike the KKK, Martin’s means of concealment was not to protect himself. In order to shake Zimmerman, Martin conceals his head and proceeds to walk faster, and then run.

But what did Zimmerman see? Just the hoodie? I am not so sure of this. I want to suggest that Zimmerman saw Martin as suspicious because of the combination of this hood and skin tone. He identified Martin as a Black man in his late teens. In his 911 call, he identifies Martin as Black twice and in his description of Martin’s clothing, wearing a gray hoodie. Martin’s skin color was the first indicator of suspicion, but his clothing signaled something tragic. Trayvon Martin was not seen per se, but a Black suspicious teen who “always gets away.” His being in a hoodie subsumed his blackness. He was not only a Black male. He was a Black male wearing a hoodie further naming him young and thus affiliated with crime. In that moment the hoodie that Martin was wearing represented “a people,” the ones who always got away. Martin died that night because of who he was and what he was wearing – Black and Black dress. That was enough to convict him as one of those who broke into Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Martin’s death was only partially caused by his hoodie as it put an accent on a bigger perception of Black existence and location. Martin was Black. Martin was wearing a hoodie. Therefore Martin was out of place. Martin did not belong in that neighborhood. Martin must have been up to no good. Martin was perceived as a trespasser. And perceived trespassers have no protection, even if they are actually the ones being trespassed against.

Theological Wonderings

Hoods and hoodies all function on three levels, but I want to argue that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the perceived hood’s “functionality” of protection, determining visibility and representation are precisely the factors that led to his death. Martin’s hoodie sparked within Zimmerman an urge to protect his neighborhood and himself from any more robberies, it magnified Martin’s “visibility” to Zimmerman, and it placed Martin within categorical existence of/representation of the criminal, the hoodlum, the thug. Martin’s clothing played a role in his death only because of Zimmerman’s social conditioning to see Martin and his clothing together as a threat of death: social death, the death of safety and order and physical/actual death. (See Abdul JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject) Martin’s clothing signals the real killer, Zimmerman’s social edifice of prejudice.

The scary thing is, even if Zimmerman is not in a church, the mindset is. And this mindset kills.

The whole Trayvon Martin case makes me wonder about the role clothing plays in determining one’s sanctity, where they are allowed to be, and whether they are allowed to live/exist – as they are all connected. Are Christian churches engaging in this, performing this aesthetic theology, without realizing it or perhaps without caring what implications it may have for the body of Christ?

Martin’s death begs the question, what makes a body holy or unholy, beyond clothing even? What practices do we operate within that name certain bodies, peoples and aesthetics pure or impure? Why do we live into, endorse and revive these practices? Is Christ enough in someone or does clothing name Christ’s presence? What does Christ have to wear, to look like to suit our needs? What does Christ have to look like for us to feel safe in church, at home, in our communities, in society at large?

What about bodies cause us to dislike, move away from, separate from, segregate from and hate the bodies of others, even others within “our own”?

Trayvon’s Martin’s death highlights a huge problem about how we dress, and receive the dress and thus efficacy and intentions of bodies. But I want to push further because I believe there is a deeper tragedy going on about bodies, and this tragedy is certainly played out well and subtly within the body of Christ, within the Christian church.

Bodies are separated, but they are separated because they are attached to particular and separate beings. The being affiliated with the body makes the body mean something good or bad. The way of being, the way of life, the struggle, the success, the way to maneuver anything we are faced with is tied directly to our bodies.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has brought out something interesting to me: in Black churches, wearing hoodies to church is deemed just and holy when affiliated with a movement, but not otherwise. The dress of Black youth seems to be tolerated until they “mature,” “come to their senses” and “learn to dress properly.” In White churches, it is popular to pray for the people involved in the “tragic” Martin case but not adjust how church life is done in order to get to know those who are profiled by and feel displaced among the majority, for “getting to know” others first means “getting rid of” parts of yourself which steer people away from your church – and this is hard, a little too hard. Welcome is sacrificial work and for some reason, the church is not willing to sacrifice anymore. Sacrifice and welcome first involve giving up personal preference to make church feel safe for the person you hope to welcome and prayerfully become church with you. But again, it is hard work.

Many churches will argue that welcoming people unlike us is actually impossible. It is too hard to learn newer, more complicated music. Or it is too hard to sing softly or loudly. It is too hard to give up our “nuanced,” (read: cultural) way of worshipping so that others can feel fully present and have their “nuanced” ways of worshipping too. Separation just seems better (read: easier) for “all of us.”

Unfortunately, church has become about how we “do it” as opposed to how God is doing it. And the hoodie reveals this! Clothing is making a prophetic statement to the church to change its ways of existing and knowing and reading and receiving others’ existence. The hoodie screams do not call profane what God has called clean, for the wearer could be a child of God.

I am sure that you are wondering how I am able to directly link Zimmerman’s actions to the church as a whole. For me, it is about aesthetic (and thus righteous) profiling. It is obvious with Martin’s death that there is some “work” going on with clothing and who the clothing is covering. Honestly, the sad thing is that Trayvon would have looked suspicious to anyone, Hispanic, White or Black, because for some reason the body of Christ has let clothing like a hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers name a person dangerous. Anyone in that dress automatically becomes labeled: 1) a Black thug or 2) a young thug. Either way, they are a thug and thuggishness is affiliated with urban life and urbanness, blackness. Trayvon had both his skin color and his age working against him. He did not have to say a word; his clothing was the first voice to announce that he was both young and Black, and that that combination certainly could not be trusted. He had to be up to no good. What could have been to Martin, a fashion statement and preferential state of dress turned out to be the target sign on his back. He did not/did look a certain way, and thus he was immediately named “bad.”

This is a church problem because unfortunately profiling does not stop at the church door, because people do not stop at the church door. People carry ideas; ideas do not carry themselves. Ideas are weaved into our church life and practice and often the labels of holiness are attached to them – ideas exist distinctly in worship’s words and are dressed in spiritual language. Now, we have a great excuse to hate others – the Bible says so (or at least this is what the Bible is saying to them!)

Notions of holiness and order and proper behavior codify profiling, prejudice and hate. Societal practice is welcomed in the church more than the outsider is! The young person, the Black person, the whoever has to fit within certain categories of aesthetic existence in order to be deemed non-threatening – to holiness, to safety, to image, to reputation, to whatever.

This is harmful though. This thinking kills. If a younger person cannot express themselves stylistically through their clothing but instead experience limit, hate and disapproval in the church, how is the next Trayvon Martin not sitting in our youth group or after school program? It puzzles me how Martin’s case is able to be fully taken up as a rally for justice by churches who discourage the way he dressed. Are they not operating in the same work of profiling that made Martin a target in the first place?

For me, maybe the solution is for Black and White, for all churches, to pause for a second and think about what we are doing now, what we have “always done,” and what we plan to do after this case dies down. Because it will. And after the case dies down, problems of dress and people affiliated with dress will remain in church as a whole. We need to ask ourselves (and our teenagers and young adults): Will clothing matter to us in new ways? Will bodies under that clothing matter? Will bodies affiliated with particular forms for dress matter? If we cannot answer with great certainty a hearty “yes,” then I suggest putting the signs down and stopping the self-righteous prayer requests. If we do not change our reception of people and their dress, why do the rallies and cries for justice matter? What about the cries for justice within our own churches, communities and homes?

Dear church: This whole thing is as much about us as it is “Justice for Trayvon.”

I suggest that the body of Christ honor Martin, yes, but we must stop the rallies until some serious discussion is taken up on what clothing means for and to us. We need to start asking what their bodies and how they dress their bodies means for their spirituality, then our spirituality and why this is the case. We need to ask which bodies are present, and which are absent, and then ask why. So I will say it again – we need to put down the justice signs and take off the hoodies that we are only wearing because “everyone else is doing something” until we are actually ready to listen to, love, honor and respect those who wear hoodies. If the Trayvon Martin case is just about race, then his death is in vain. His death is about race yes, but it also about what we dress race in, and even the fact that we feel we have a right to dress race in “right/righteous clothing.” Martin’s death is about people being allowed to live, to exist and to be fully present.

I challenge the body of Christ to ask itself, “Would Trayvon be fully a part of this church? Would he be loved for who he is and how he dresses, respected because of his voice and spirit, listened to when he gives great ideas or asks great questions, and cherished because he is comfortable in who he is here?” If the answer is “maybe,” “no” or “I do not know,” then we need to ask God and ourselves “why not?” Then, we need to get to work.

The Wisdom of Proverbs (Proverbs 3:9-10)

17 12 2010

Proverbs 3:9-10

9Honor the Lord with your substance
and with the first fruits of all your produce;
10then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.

These verses remind me of the prime texts some preachers would use to preach a Prosperity Gospel that doesn’t really honor God. Their sermon or lesson begins off as something legitimate but then quickly turns into something that exerts “God has to fix your credit”, “God will give you a check in the mail”, “God shall eliminate your debt” and the list goes on and on. These things aren’t entirely bad and I’m sure they are the wish of every single person who has some sort of school loan or mortgage to pay (I have gone through periods where I literally prayed that God would send me a check in the mail to cover this or that. But over time I realized that this type of testimony is most likely the exception more than the rule which says something awesome about our God that God doesn’t do the same thing for everyone). Trusting God to be present and active, working out our problems is not a bad thing at all, but the misrepresentation of God and the misunderstanding of our purpose through our misunderstanding of God is a bad thing, a moral mistake.

If our hearts are so consumed with stuff like debt, aesthetics, or buying the best Christmas gifts so we can get praise and feel good about ourselves for five minutes, then we’ve succeeded at honoring ourselves but we haven’t done a good job in honoring the Lord. Sure, we can argue that our concern and love for our appearance and the material well-being of others is not about us, but it’s about making others happy. But at best this is a weak argument avoiding the deeper layers of true motive and honest intention.

Where Prosperity preaching goes wrong is the order in which they approach the text. They speak about God first. To be fair, it doesn’t always begin with money. In fact, it begins with exploring God within the text, but then what God does for us takes over and becomes the focal point of being God’s child, worship, church, tithing, etc. God doesn’t remain the focus but we place ourselves as the focal point of God’s word.

With this text even the Prosperity preacher would engage God first: “Tithing is a form of honoring God with our substance. We pay respect to, we worship the Lord fully through what we have. Giving to, supporting, and upholding the church should be your first priority if God is first in your life. And even if you’re new the faith or church hasn’t clicked all the way for you yet or if you’re still learning the word of God, tithe now and God will build up something in you in time. God will honor your sacrifice.”

And this is legitimate, but it is ultimately a set-up for our reward, what we receive as a result of honoring God. The rest of the sermon may entail exhortation that “Tithing opens up the floodgates for financial reward! You will be blessed with more than you can imagine! You will receive material and financial blessing that only God can give! God multiplies spiritually so that we reap those rewards when we honor God and give ten percent! God sees the little that you are willing to give and multiples it beyond what you can count. God will turn that seed you sow into the church into a plant that you can feed off later. Like the widow who gave her last in 1 Kings 17, God will not let your oil and flour run out!”

And this is true, but again, this is not the focus. When we praise God for what God is going to do more than we praise God for just being God, something is amiss. When we question that God has randomly provided $100 for our electricity bill rather than sending a check in the mail to pay our $15,000 credit card debt, something is wrong. We are not the focus. We need to remove ourselves from the center. We need to get off the throne and reposition ourselves at the foot of the throne. The text says that if we honor God with our substance, the stuff from us, what lies at the heart of our cherished things, and give God the best of it, then we will have plenty. If we give the best of our time, writing, art, singing, cooking, administrative skills, business savvy, warmth, smiles, hugs, prayer, love, and even stuff like clothing and money, then we will get enough to eat and drink, enough to live off of. We will get enough, we won’t always get it all, but we will get enough.

Perhaps we need to shed the “exception” mindset and preaching that we wish for and thus place within God’s word and embrace the “rule reality”. The reality is, God works amidst our working and 9 times out of 10 it won’t be with what we dreamed of.

God gives enough. If we ask for a 3 story house, God gives us a three-bedroom one story condo. If we ask for a Mercedes-Benz, God will give us a Honda we can name Mercedes. If we ask for $200,000 to pay off loans, God will give us a job that makes enough where we can begin to pay off those loans over the course of time. If we ask for a husband or wife, God will keep us single another 10 years to be sharpened and made wise, kind, loving, and ready for that person (if that is what God even intends for us…maybe we should ask God to show us what we are supposed to be doing and get busy doing that instead).

I think pastors who make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year are an exception; they are like kings who owned tons of land and money and had influence were. Perhaps this pastor-king parallel provides a warning of us moving away from God towards governance by people (let’s learn from Israel).

I think that true prophets and prophetesses are exceptions; they do not claim their title with joy but remorse for their life is a continuous cycle of rejection because of the message they not only give but carry within themselves. Their office isn’t one that was designed to be exploited for conferences, but their office imprints on their lives loneliness and pursuit. As they pursue God, they are pursued. They are chased, hated, stoned, and killed. They aren’t accommodated, they are exiled. Modern day exhorters claiming to be prophets should consider this; the prophetic office is not one to be utilized for fame or feeling that you’re finally existing within a “purpose”. We have to be very careful about this…  

I think that checks can come in the mail, but that they will most likely come as a salary reimbursement God withheld from you until you needed it. I think that your debt can be paid, but that it can be done the old-fashioned way, with a job. I think that you can get a nice car or house if God gives you the wisdom to save and pay for it yourself. God holds, changes, draws from and utilizes things we first step out and do. God blesses our commitment to live faithfully, not lazily. God blesses the foot we put forward by giving us more stable ground to walk on. But we must walk, sometimes run, sometimes limp, but it is us making the decision and taking the action to move forward. I believe that God never lifts us up on a cloud to fly above and way from our problems; we’re not Elijah. And we don’t want to be. Elijah received this rare event after a life-time of fulfilling his difficult prophetic calling. Hard work is involved in the blessing, heck, work is involved in the blessing.

I know what I’m describing isn’t exciting blessing, but it is the blessing of “plenty and bursting”. God gives us plenty and this plenty bursts forth so that others may see what God has done and inquires about our God. And God is introduced as a faithful Father, a loving Provider, and a Keeper of our minds and bodies so that we may honor God with our beings. God is not the debt-eraser, but the sin-eliminator. God is not the house-giver, but the mercy-granter. God is not the love-doctor, but God is love.  

Don’t get me wrong, God owns everything. I’m sure God could give us money and a comfortable lifestyle, but I’m not sure God would want to. If getting what we want means that we look to God as Provider only, that we curse God to be Jehovah Jireh alone, we’ve moved away from the purpose God created us for, to worship God. Our purpose isn’t to exist comfortably, but to be God’s, not to belong to money or comfort. If getting what we want implodes a religious pluralism within our beings where the money-god and comfort-god take root alongside God, then it’s not worth it. God can’t be limited to financial healer or “blesser” alone. God is too God to be limited. So I ask that God not give me what I want, but only what I need. I ask that God give me “just plenty” so that I may burst forth with joy and gratitude that a loving God who already did it all in dying for me and my sins loves me enough to still give me anything at all.

I guess it’s about perspective. But I’m afraid that humanity is too fickle to promise not to worship what we get. Therefore I don’t want us to get it all, but just some of it. I want us to do what we are supposed to do anyway giving God our substance and produce: our time, family, and talents and anything else that means everything to us. I want us to give back to God what God has already blessed us tremendously with.

Maybe we would preach a Prosperity Gospel that emphasizes tithing 100% of our best qualities, our best abilities, our time, our love, our concentration and attention. We would preach a Gospel that sees our best as unable to be enhanced with money, but with and through God. We would preach giving God us first and foremost and what it would feel and be like to experience this; what joy, happiness, love, and kind-heartedness we would not simply feel but be. We would be like God. What if Prosperity was a process of becoming God-like? One thing is for sure, there would be enough for everyone.

Prayer: Lord, I pray that our transformation to be like and look like Jesus doesn’t come to us through the mail or a debt cancellation or a tummy tuck, but that it comes quickly and slowly all in the same moment into our hearts, a peaceful and painful process that yields a different kind of wealth unhindered. Lord, may we rejoice in enough. It’s in the name of the Savior who is enough and more than enough, Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Ambitious Young Adults and All Things Pimped

8 11 2010

My generation knows foolishness. But back when we were adolescents and teenagers, we called it cool. Or we called you a fool for not thinking it was cool.

Well actually some of us still do. Or is it many of us?

I remember MTV very well in the 1990s and early 2000s when they actually showed music videos broadcast on awesome shows such as Total Request Live counting down the top ten videos of the week. It was a staple to sit at the feet of the televised idol and have our faith renewed in the coolest music, artists, clothes, houses and cars out there.

Yes, to pre-pubescent and post-pubescent beings, material things were the future. Being grown up entailed having things magically appear, remain in good condition, and look good in our lives without those pesky things called bills, mortgages or car notes.

Yes, the kids of the 1990s and early 2000s saw and coveted the best of the best simply because those our eyes saw on TV living the life, walked in them, flashed them, lived in them, and rode in them.

The first sign of our being on our way to stardom, fame, fortune and an easy life was in our cars, our rides. If we had an old, beat-up, run-down car, we would be the butt of many jokes, but if our parents or our savings worked with us, we’d have a start-up accessory to our glamorous, ambitious lifestyle.

I was one of those kids with a run-down car. The second child to receive the Ford Escort, it was losing the battle with teenage driving. The inside was breaking apart, the paint was starting to chip a little, as I saw my classmates getting cars made in the 2000s, I became more embarrassed of “Ford,” that’s right; I was so embarrassed of my car that I did not name it like practically all of my classmates did for their cars.  

I was embarrassed of my car and soon became obsessed with a show that I knew would solve all of my teenage problems: Pimp My Ride.

Launched in 2004, “Pimp My Ride” was a car-revitalization show hosted by well-known rapper, Xzibit. He would surprise unsuspecting young adults who were working hard but not realizing their dream of unmitigated wealth yet. Many lived at home with their parents, or rented – in other words they didn’t own a home, but were working their way up. They had ordinary jobs and looked ordinary except for their horrendous vehicles. They would demonstrate just how bad their cars were as they would enter through the passenger side or window since their driver side door wouldn’t open, their ignitions needed forks and other contraptions to work, the interior fabric of their cars were worn so thin that the metal framework at the bottom or side of the car would be dangerously visible, wires would be exposed, mirrors were missing, windshields were taped; you name it, these poor young ambitions Californians suffered from it.

Their car needed severe work, but they could not afford it. Their salaries wouldn’t allow them to. So they sent into a video tape (yeah, not a DVD, we weren’t there yet) of their car’s condition and Xzibit would show up to their houses with the surprise of their life: their car would be improved lavishly. It would be pimped!

I didn’t realize what was going on until recently, flashbacks of the show randomly rushed through my mind. Wait a minute, I thought, was this show really called Pimp My Ride? We all know what “pimp” implies. Are we really using it towards cars now instead of women? There was something wrong the show’s title as disrespecting of the terrible notion, practice and industry of pimping. It is simply linguistically irresponsible.

Since I’m no English major, I went to my trusty friends at dictionary.com to look up the definition of “pimp”.



1. a person, esp. a man, who solicits customers for a prostitute or a brothel, usually in return for a share of the earnings; pander; procurer.

2. a despicable person.

To pimp:

–verb (used with object)

5. to act as a pimp for.

6. to exploit

Pimping although in the show’s context, used as synonymous with “drastically improved” ultimately has a root in a type of exploitation. It’s despicable action. This seemingly good thing being done for these young adults is actually birthing a confusing message of material wealth. It is drastically approving the appearance of something, although the “owner” isn’t improved at all. It’s all about appearances. I don’t know much about sex-trafficking, which I believe pimping and prostitution is, but the property of the pimp, the lady, would dress up an extravagant sexually suggestive ways and thus draw attention to herself. Her appearance and “work” would ultimately profit the pimp financially but his social, sexual and machismo issues remain untouched. He uses his “property” to appear wealthy and well off.  In pimping, appearance is industry.

In “Pimp My Ride” hard-working young souls with cars on their last leg are given the cars of their dreams, but what if their dreams are dreams of appearances? What if the car improvements are saying something false? The car-pimping gives the owner what they thought they would enjoy or like but don’t need. They are transformed from ordinary people with dying cars to ordinary people with excessive cars and subsequently pseudo-embellished lifestyles. Now they have to keep up appearances with their car. They are sucked into and trapped into a system of aesthetic embellishment.

Car-pimping highlights a false dichotomy. This exploiting prostitutes the image of the hard-working young adult to their fantasy image. This is my problem with “pimping”: it is not only damaging to the one being pimped, but it advocates for a certain lifestyle that is unhealthy and often unattainable. It is a demonic fantasmal agent. It perpetuates fanaticism and anthro-centric purpose with no satiability. The owner can never be satisfied.

Furthermore, it furthers the “power of pimping” to encapsulate and thus convert the car’s owner. The car owner is now prostitute; they appear a certain way and attract attention for their own end and ultimately another’s end. The young-adult turned prostitute is now being pimped too. They are now exploited to look like something they are not in order for the body shop, MTV or whoever to receive the overall good ratings and benefits. The pimping doesn’t stop with the car but latches onto the hard-working ambitious young adult herself and exploits her being, her life, her ambitions with a over-zealous car-concealment. Like make-up (you can disagree with me here if you want to), the car is concealed in something to look better but the real issue at hand, safe transportion, isn’t simply treated; it is made to look like something else and thus its purpose has been highjacked by the appearance of appearance.

All this material and aesthetic prostitution is the pseudo reality of a televised-created-world and often ecclesially-created world.

Pimping has become commonplace in society. People who engage in excessive plastic surgery pimp their appearance. People who unnecessarily spend money and time on weaves, make-up etc are pimping their God-given appearance. People who spend money they don’t have to wear clothes that speak false divinations over their lives are pimping their state of existence. And all this pimping is towards a goal of a certain appearance, not a reality.

This pimping is unfortunately also readily and happily adopted into church dogmatics. What is the church doing with this obsession with appearance and materialism as their young adults (and older adults) are being pimped into an industry and reality that remains out of reach and necessity? Little. What is the church doing when wealth and the appearance of wealth begins the pimp its own members, leadership, pastors?! Encouraging the message of false hope, happiness, and false faith.

Unfortunately in my experiences with black churches, they accept the pimping in their material life and gladly take on a prostitution role. Oftentimes, the black church worships the prospect of the material instead of God’s wisdom, but attribute the pimping of their bank accounts, cars, house, clothing, jewelry, pools, vacations etc. to God’s blessing hand.

But the black church may disagree with me. One might argue that God is blessing this ordinary person with extraordinary things. An incredible God deserves incredible praise. He made a way out of no way. He is giving a “Job blessing” to those who have suffered without a Benz, three-story house, TIVO, 5 TVs in their house, the latest 4G cell phone, the BEST church suits and church hats, the finest silk lapkins! (lapkins = lap napkins women whose skirts are too short in the pulpit wear in order not to overexpose herself and subsequently tempt the men of the church causing the men to fall and stumble…but it’s for HER own good, really! *sarcasm*)

I respectfully disagree.

Our God, is a good God, a King over all the earth, the Ruler of all, in complete control, but our God is not irresponsible. I personally don’t believe that God would bless someone solely aesthetically so that they would fall into being used to purport a certain unattainable message of wealth.

Now, of course there isn’t a follow-up show to see how the young adults on “Pimp My Ride” are doing with their new-found aesthetic. Perhaps the pimped out car with the play station in the back, speakers, rims, interior TV’s, refrigerators etc. impacted this young Californian’s life so much so that they got a high-paying job, bought a house, got married (and lived happily until they), had kids. But I doubt it. The only thing I could foresee with this “blessing” would be the lottery-affect: friends, families and foes appear out of nowhere wanting what you have and secretly hating you for it while the profit has already been made. The car-owner took the deal, umm, I mean, the blessing and now their souls cannot rest as trouble, jealousy, greed, coveting, pride enter their lives and remain with them as long as that car does. They are soul-tied to it.

I don’t know if God would bless someone to simply live in hardship and not experience positive change or growth in any other area of their life. The car doesn’t give someone a higher paying job. A higher paying job would allow the car-owner to afford an operative car –  it may not be a BMW, but it will serve its basic purpose.  

I think aesthetic blessings are the work of the church’s imagination and deception of what it means to be a Christian on earth – being Christian is hard, long, painful work of self-transformation, not stuff-transformation. Many churches are promoting a work where appearances replace true positive change.

And it’s terrible work. Expensive work. Excessive work. It will cause extraordinary expenses that one will not be prepared to pay for.

(And let me be clear, this is not only a problem with black churches, it’s simply where I’ve seen this done the most. I would argue the same thing is happening with white wealthy churches who hoard their wealth. They want to appear a certain way instead of live with their basic functions and distributing the rest elsewhere. It’s hard to do that because wealth and the appearance of wealth has a firm grip on so many of us in the church, black or white.)

So maybe we should be content with our Ford Escorts or Toyota Corollas as long as they serve their purpose and get us where we need to go so in our hard work we can learn responsibility, careful spending, realistic goal-setting and that wealth and the appearance of wealth may not always be God’s urging but our own. Maybe we can live into Godly responsibility and consider our neighbors higher than ourselves instead of treating ourselves to the appearance of wealth but the reality of multiplied hardships.

To be honest, shows like “Pimp My Ride” and “Trick My Truck” are also doing something else that I alluded to earlier. The term and process, “pimp” used to describe ownership of sexually engaged women are now applied to objects, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me. In pimping, in sex-trafficking, women ARE objects. They are made-up and sent out, changed forever – and not for the best. I think the church should speak out against the concepts behind these shows instead of engaging in the “cleaner or lesser” form of prostitution wrapped up in language of blessing and God giving you a “nice” car to demonstrate how God is King and as God’s children, we should be rich like the King too. What we don’t realize is that God has so that we can have. God doesn’t hoard, but God freely gives to us, God’s children. God is rich because God created everything; we can’t do that. God is rich because God is powerful enough to enter into flesh and be perfect. We can’t do that. So let’s take what God gives us and give thanks instead of demanding things we don’t need. It is ONLY by God’s grace that we have anything. Let’s retire from the pimping industry and begin to force its retirement elsewhere. Pimping is often preached from the pulpit. Prostitutes influencing people to prostitute themselves towards a materialist end-goal are proof-texted with scripture. Pimping has become a spiritual practice: it’s all over the prosperity Gospel. Let’s eliminate prospertiy as our salvation and simply cling to the Gospel.

Even though, our God owns land, vineyards and houses, God owns them only so that we can take part in them. God wants us all to live within our means so that we can all live. Material accumulation isn’t living well. It’s living aesthetically. If for nothing else, think about what your wealth or pursuit of wealth is about. If it’s not about honoring God by turning right back around and giving it to someone else, then it’s not for you. You haven’t gotten the memo yet that we are in God’s image and that images are copies. God has so that God can give. Are we doing the same? God gives so we must give. God doesn’t appear any way; God is. And as God is, so we must be.

Jesus Did Miracles, Why Can’t Dr. Miracle?

13 09 2010

The Commercials

Take a look at this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/user/drmiracles#p/a/u/1/-AyHvYWpINM

Now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7V4G_87iOE

And now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oblcI5uqck

What do you see?

The Message

In twenty seconds or less, each of these advertisements narrate something profoundly common and yet distinctly disturbing: kinkiness, nappyness, unkemptness in black hair is unacceptable. In twenty-seconds or less, a frightening pattern of a white aesthetic is pitched and fed to a black woman by, get this, a black man, or rather a black-man-arm. A black arm (and deep voice) miraculous emerges from a mirror (or from behind a plant) with the solution, the miraculous product that will perform the magic of straightening out her hair which in turn will straighten out her life. It is a miracle that will eliminate the hair problem and pronounce beauty on the former victim now turned victor. What’s worse is that this white aesthetic is additionally affirmed by black men and black women alike. Both parties agree that the black woman’s hair needs to be and look a certain way for it to be acceptable and beautiful; and both agree that this product from Dr. Miracle will get this poor, lost woman to her aesthetic destination.

What these commercials don’t narrate is the well-known and unknown message being sold: straight hair is a miracle and Dr. Miracle the said miracle-worker. Dr. Miracle’s products pronounce a continuation and perpetuation of performance by black women, egged on by this mysterious man; this is the aesthetic norm that many black women are captive to, a norm that relegates her hair, her look, her natural aesthetic encouraging her to buy into a different aesthetic.

Even if this is the first time you’re seeing these commercials, I can tell you where to find a steady stream of them. If you’ve ever watched the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into one of these Dr. Miracle Hair and Skin Care commercials. Curious about the origin behind this product I went to the website and could not find a picture or any information about the founder, president or CEO…nothing.

I had to do some Google-digging and came across some interesting stuff. According to the New York Times, Dr. Miracle was founded by Brian K. Marks; this is what he looks like.

He’s white.

The Structure of Mediation

This complicates the aesthetic picture just a bit, or perhaps allows the Dr. Miracle narrative to fit into the natural mold of the white-male mediated beauty aesthetic. Beauty is mediated by the figure behind the product. The Caucasian male determines what beauty is through shaping the aesthetics of Caucasian women and deeming that the norm. This norm is inherited by the African-American male. He may prefer lighter skin, smaller hips, longer and straighter hair on his female companion. What choice does the African-American woman have but to cater, to adjust, to deviate from her norm in a rash attempt to look pleasant, beautiful, a bit more white?

Without hesitation, even with a sense of severe urgency, she takes the product from the black arm and black voice with no face. In that exchange is a contract co-signing her ugliness. In that exchange she confirms that her body is an emergency that needs some serious help. She accepts the solution from a faceless figure seeming to have all the answers. What she does not account for is the body of the arm. The arm and voice may be black, but the body of this “Doctor” is a white male’s body. And this body purports this extension of white aesthetic. What she doesn’t see is that her being is a market; she ingests the message that there is plenty on and about her body that “needs” to be fixed, changed, shaped, re-sculpted. What she doesn’t realize is that her “look” is being handed down to her from a Caucasian puppeteer (perhaps a subtle re-emergence of black face) capitalizing off of her insecurity and pressure to appear beautifully white.

The “doctor” character on the product packaging is a black man signaling this hierarchical mediation from white male to black male and ultimately down to the black female. The product  packaging is only a means to ensure safe delivery. Certain concepts of normalcy infiltrate the black female consciousness about her own body using her own kind.

Strangely enough her insecurities are solidified by other black women who have also conformed to the same norms and now deem her as ugly if her hair is not relaxed or straightened like their hair is. They have both bought into the product that advertises against their natural look and advocates another look. The solidarity is somewhat awkward and misplaced, with traces of self-rejection, self-importance, competition and unity under a contradictory cause. The black women in these commercials do not affirm beauty outside of straightened hair, but the solidarity rests in the assimilation to straight hair. They both fall into a space of beauty that only whiteness can truly inhabit so they powder it on their face, and rub it in their hair in a desperate attempt to be as white as possible until the next time they need it. They fight off everything black about them until they need the product one more time. They change what they can. In solidarity tied to rejection, labeling as ugly (or reverting to their natural hair texture), and desiring to be sexually acceptable to the black male, these black women nervously (and even confidently) adopt self-hate and subtly spew it on one another.  

The black woman is introduced into the aesthetic that a Caucasian man has set, pressured to look unlike her natural self and perform into a white female aesthetic endorsed by the black male, and peer-pressured into maintenance of this aesthetic from similarly conforming black females.  

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Oh yeah, Jesus

This entire Dr. Miracle campaign is showing us that we’ve moved dangerously far away from what Jesus wanted us to value. The black woman falls into their downward spiral where she doesn’t know that she’s accepting a message that her transformation into a white aesthetic is a miracle that only a white man disguised as, then through a black man can work. She falls into a religious trap that prompts her to worship in order to receive her miracle. Thus the white man becomes her miracle worker, a savior of sorts, a god.

Jesus wouldn’t approve of this savior guy. As Dr. Amy Laura Hall would say, “that job’s been taken.”

I’m no expert, but I don’t recall Jesus performing any miracles on hair, or nails, or make-up. He never invited a prostitute to the table to eat and fellowship with Him in order to extend an ambiguous hand to her and in His best Barry White voice, explain how this product will work wonders on her hair.

Jesus certainly performed bodily miracles like healing (my favorite parable is in John 9), but the purpose extended a bit deeper than looking or even feeling good. He gave people back their lives and introduced them to a new life centered on believing in Him. He never wanted the focus to be the miracle itself, but the provider of the miracle. He wanted the people He encountered and loved to focus on Him.

He did not advocate focusing on one’s “problems” or “shortcomings” in order to fix them for three weeks at a time or one $800 sew-in at a time. Jesus never miracled a relaxer or a hair weave.

Jesus advocated love outside of the normal understanding of aesthetic. He lived a new aesthetic where things like love and charity, mercy and grace were the trends people were in awe about and in need of. He painted pictures that had no picture except through human action and genuineness.

Dr. Miracle does miracles, and Jesus does miracles. I guess the difference between them is that Jesus jumped over the hoops instead of jumping through them (or perhaps Jesus destroyed the hoops that have been re-constructed by the greedy platform of the black hair market). Plus He didn’t have money to gain. Plus He loved us so much, black women and white women, black men and white men alike that He only cared what our souls looked like and not our hair.

The White Tennis Aesthetic

10 09 2010


 As an avid tennis fan, I’ve learned that everything in life relates to tennis.

As a fan of theology inherited from such greats as Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter, I’ve learned that there are tons of things that speak theology that we simply have to train our ears to hear.

Everything relates to tennis, everything relates to theology.

Even tennis outfits.

At first my reaction to Venus William’s dress was one of embarrassment (see left-hand picture above). I asked aloud: what is she wearing? What is she trying to prove?

But as the matched wore on and the majority of the comments issued were that her dress  made her miss that volley or affected that backhand, I noticed something. The commentators were being unfair and in her outfit alone, making excuses to criticize and take cheap shots at her game (she won the match by the way). Outside of the matches where she wore two similar outfits which received passing comments of its shortness came courtesy of the Huffington Post, it’s flair from Lifestyle, its unconventionality from CBS News, all culminating with the slide show of Venus’ most controversial and interesting outfits from Bleacher report – all attempts to draw negative attention to her outfit, which somehow either directly “paralleled her talent” or “spoke of her flimsy judgment”.  

After processing her outfit, I came to a realization: I was being just as unfair as the commentators were for doing what many black people automatically turn to out of fear of judgment: secretly hope that her outfit was not received by Caucasians as misrepresenting the entire black race. I didn’t want people in the “classy” sport of tennis to have a bad perception of black people based on this one outfit.

I’ve repented since then.

I repented because I realized that her outfit had nothing to do with me, with us, with the black race, but it has everything to do with her and what we – commentators, true fans, enemies, and fans simply because she’s a black tennis player – place on her as prerequisites to be a black tennis player: a tight mold that only gives her the freedom and space to act and dress like a typical tennis player, a white (European) woman. I re-placed her into a mold she’s probably been trying to break out of, escape and deal with since she came stood out in the professional tennis scene in 1997.

I realized that her fashion was not about shame falling on an entire race, but it is about the fact that shameful fear can cause me to turn on someone who is advocating through her body and how she presents her body that different is okay. She doesn’t have to cater to a certain way of being and looking on a European surface; this exposes the expectations wrapped up in and bound to white women’s bodies that, I was afraid to point out, Venus (and Serena) cannot fit!  The mold is too small, too white, too one-dimensional.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. Some have begun to see that something about tennis fashion speaks to tennis culture. The only commentators who had something fairly concrete and positive to say about Venus Williams (Serena Williams) and tennis fashion came from two men. Commentators, Chris Muther (a white gentleman) and Bomani Jones (a black gentlemen) on ESPN commentary somehow got it! They, in an innovative and honest way, gave truthful (not judgmental) commentary about Venus’ other controversial outfit from the 2010 French Open. Muther said that she was willing to express herself, she was willing to be herself and “take a racquet to” the normal white way of dress.

Venus and Serena Williams are doing and saying something with their unique outfits and disregard for the backlash that we, especially theologians would do well to pay attention to. They are being themselves. They are showing people that molds are made to be broken, especially when they do not cater to your body and being.

As Dr. Jennings would say, they have entered into something only to break it open from the inside. They have a mission to destroy the norm and live out something radical and more holy, more honest, more honorable to themselves and to who God made them to be. Dr. Carter would include that their outfits and bodies push against the norms of whiteness and white performance in a game that they have been present in for a decade, but are only currently being noticed (through negative press).

Venus and Serena Williams are portraits of a God who is diverse and an artistic Creator. They are arguable the face of tennis because they are unique living into, not just with, their bodies, the color of their skin, the color of their flesh toned spanks, the fit of their tennis outfits, the curves of their arms and the texture of their hair. They are talked about so much because the tennis world has not quite figured out what to do with them. After winning numerous titles, comments must come from somewhere and unfortunately it’s centered around the way they dress their bodies.

They have infiltrated tennis with no warning and have changed the excitement around the game forever. And it was a violent infiltration, but an atypically violent one. Venus and Serena are not colonizers, they are settlers. They do not aim to force their aesthetic on others, but simply wish to have their own and it be respected and live in tennis harmony with the rest of their majority European surroundings.

Venus Williams, in commenting on her flesh-colored spanks under her 2010 French Open outfit said something so captivating that I’m still processing its exquisiteness. She said her outfit was expressive and that the flesh-color made it more beautiful.

The flesh color is beautiful. I think Jesus would agree. Refusing to submit to a certain aesthetic even in one’s undergarments is certainly making a statement about the appreciation of flesh and its skin tone.

Venus and Serena Williams (and even the style of play of Jamaican newcomer Dustin Brown who had the commentators at a loss for words with traces of condescension and disdain in the comments they did offer), I salute your mere presence and efforts to be you in the tennis world, no matter how controversial that is. Maybe we who are taken aback by unique fashion and clothing should be taken aback by our surprise. Maybe we should be surprised that we’ve been so calibrated to operate in a white tennis aesthetic that we cringe at any deviation from that norm.

Maybe we shouldn’t cringe at the black wave of candor and distinctiveness, but applaud it. Perhaps the idea of love and acceptance will take over and we’d worry less about who’s wearing what and come to grips with the notion that tennis culture is being pressured to step outside of a European standard and live atypically.

Tennis has been changed because of the Williams sisters; it looks like that trend will continue.

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