I know that a lot of Christians feel like the church has been under attack for years. Many feel like Christianity and the institution of the church has been marginalized in mainstream culture and that those who carry the torch are oftentimes singled out for unfair attack and scrutiny. And while I reflexively reject that persecution complex, I have seen a few things recently that have made me think twice. And no it is not trivial matters like saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in a nod to multi-culturalism in commerce. It is scandals like the disgusting spectacle of Bishop Eddie Long in recent years and the on-going conversation that it sparked in social-media and even in media over the airwaves was disturbing. I am not sure how anybody can conclude anything other than that this was a disturbed and delusional man- a legitimately tragic figure in the tradition of the Greek theater. The media played nice with him in the end but speculation that he died of AIDS was rampant. Irresponsible and mean, yes, but widespread nonetheless. Years of homosexual activity- including gay sex with very young men that were in his congregation and under his mentorship was reportedly set forth in court records when the alleged victims sued him years later. Of course nobody but those involved knows the details. But if I were on a jury and he was being tried for being a creepy hypocritical pervert he wouldn’t have a chance. I’d vote to convict and wouldn’t leave the room until everybody else was voting to convict him too.
And that is part of the problem. Because of men like Eddie Long, non-Christians or non-church-goers have developed a level of hostility toward the church and enthusiastic Christians that is both unfair and unhealthy for our culture. Because Eddie Long was out there crusading aggressively against the rights of gay people while evidently living a private life that involved not just having gay sex, but grooming adolescent boys into young gay lovers, many folks outside the church were good and ready to stone him publicly and anyone who would speak in his defense. And while I agree wholeheartedly with the condemnation, I can see clearly where it can go too far and undermine the value that the church still has and the role that it can still play in the lives of young people and for our society. This is particularly true for black folks. The church is in our DNA. The Christian faith and the black church have been central to the black American experience in a way that it is hard to overstate. So where is the answer to bridging the cultural divide that has some people reflexively criticizing religion and the church and others judging non-believers with scolding skepticism at every turn? I think the answer is in the person of one of our greatest R&B artists from the Motown era. Marvin Gaye lived this conflict and arguably died because of it.
Marvin Gay was a talented artist, a visionary social commentator and a troubled soul- which is to say that he was beautifully human. Many of us know enough of his personal story to understand how complex and nuanced he was and how his experiences influenced his art. His experience of growing up the son of a fiery Pentecostal minister gave him a foundation in the church that was about as influential as the sun is on earth- it was absolutely everything.
After Marvin became a star as a world famous crooner, balladeer and soul singer that religious foundation showed up full force in his groundbreaking album “What’s Going On?” where he openly cried out to God for guidance and mercy during the turbulent times in our nation and in his own life. His expression of love of God and devotion to God was as unapologetic as it was soul stirring. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the poignant messaging and the emotional delivery on that album. At bottom, it was GREAT music that has stood the test of time. The running time is 35 minutes and 38 seconds and it can forever change a hardened heart. The lesson in Marvin’s life and in this great work of art is that Marvin had become committed to a life of secularism as his star rose. The pleasures of sex, alcohol and illicit drugs had become a core part of his identity- as any activity taken up on a daily basis inevitably will. Marvin was living the “rock star” lifestyle of excess that has been celebrated and propagated despite the fact that it almost always seems to result in premature death, a stretch in prison, the loss of a hard earned fortune, or the loss of one’s very soul- or some combination of those sour realities.
So Marvin had become the guy that is so often mocked by non-church goers for hanging out in the club getting high all night long and then running to church in the morning to praise God. That sharp critique has been floating around black social circles forever and happens to be the one area of clear consensus between church-goers and those that routinely pass on the praise every Sunday. Many years ago I had the misfortune of attending a party with a friend where some twisted soul began to play an audio-tape he made of a woman participating in group sex with him and three other men. The guys in the room took great pleasure in listening to the girl explaining her need to finish them off soon so she could be at choir practice as she was being passed from one man to the next to perform oral sex. They laughed raucously but the whole thing made me sick to my stomach. I am not a moralistic crusader and my church experience has been lighter than most. But the idea of taking pleasure in this young woman’s internal conflict was sickening to me and the visibly heightened pleasure of those men enjoying her moment of personal crisis and debauchery left a scar on my psyche- and all I did was heard the damned tape.
But while these men were reveling in this young woman’s fall in the moment, it was easy to lose track of the larger and more significant point: Despite how low she was in that moment, somewhere inside of her she STILL wanted to go to praise God. She STILL wanted to continue her journey to be closer to God. She STILL wanted to TRY. As messed up and confused as she had to have been on that day and in that hour, she was not giving up on God and evidently she was still praying that he would not give up on her. Just like Marvin Gaye, her dramatic descent into flesh worship could not kill that connection- a connection so strong that her spirit could lead her to go and kneel before God mere hours after she had knelt before a group of men who were committed to her debasement. That is a measure of devotion that is hard to fully quantify.
In my view, the Marvin Gaye Christian should not be mocked or reviled by anyone- the committed church-goer or the committed secularist. The fact that they are putting forth the effort to self-actualize on their spiritual journey should be respected and emulated. The Marvin Gaye Christian probably represents a greater number of people than either committed church-goers or committed secularists realize. These people believe deeply in God, have some foundation in organized religion, yet are “in the world” and live their lives walking the line between the two. If we can take a break from vilifying people who see the world differently than we do, we could see that the world is beginning to evolve toward balancing the elements of our being that are beautifully human with a deliberate march toward our Creator. Consider this: Pope John Francis is reportedly on the verge of allowing Catholic Priests to marry- reversing centuries of religious law and practice that forced healthy men to live lives committed to celibacy. That is entirely unnatural and hasn’t worked out well at all. Evidently, the new Pope understands that human beings have needs that cannot and should not be filled as an element of service to God. A wife can do things for a Priest that rosary beads, ritual rites and crucifixes simply cannot. Perhaps if this reality had been recognized centuries ago, they would not have had the scourge of sexual abuse stain their institution and ruin countless lives. So at bottom, embracing the Marvin Gaye Christian is about being real about the complexity of our humanity and celebrating the continuing effort to reach our highest selves in spite of ourselves. And nothing could be more productive, constructive and God-like than that. Rest In Peace, Marvin.