The Lie I First Heard at Church (An Open Letter)

My Dear Fellow Artists Who Also Are Christian,

In my last broadcast on Periscope, I’ve come to realize that most of my life has certainly been informed by a lie that I first heard at church. I’d suspected by now that it was a lie, but I wasn’t completely sure until I’d signed off the app last night. I don’t think the church knew it was a lie, when they told me. After all, it’s a very old lie, and a very popular one too.

The lie goes a little something like this: “You cannot sing ‘secular’ music and be a minister. You have to choose.” I learned this after getting in trouble for singing Michael Jackson’s “Another Part of Me” at my church when I was 9-ish. “You need to use your gift for the Lord,” mama said. A lot of my church family said things like that. And that often seemed to certainly mean singing Jesus songs–exclusively.

I tried only singing Jesus songs for a while, but life kept getting in the way. Heartbreaks, and new adventures, and moves across the country kept wringing my insides like wet rags. I ached with inspiration until my emotions slipped through my lips in their most organic form: melody, lyric, and rhyme. I’ve simply never been able to help it: I’ve always had more to sing about than Jesus.

And I’ve often felt a bit embarrassed about that. The Church never seemed to have much use for my love songs, or songs about spontaneous trips to New York, or songs about chasing my dreams, or songs about the pain of objectified women might feel, or songs that tell the truth about the neighborhood. At church these were cute, fun, or necessary detours (at best) from my true “anointing” of being a “psalmist”. My songs in the key of life would never resonate with my church family like the poems forged from the spiritual angst of my highschool/college days. My Jesus-song-catalog was my important work, my deep work, my highest expression of ‘worship’–at least that was the message I often got from the church. That’s not to mention the occasional angry and judgmental email from strangers about how wrong I am for writing about life; or, hearing my friends worry amongst themselves that “maybe Andre is losing his focus, because he’s writing a lot of love songs lately.” And I could regale you with 1,000 tales, of how I learned to be embarrassed about the scarlet A (for “Artist”) I’ve had to wear in certain religious circles–all because of the lie that there is a secular world from which sacred things could be parsed (or vice versa).

The other “world” is no more free from this lie than the church. Almost every industry person I’ve met has tried to make me one dimensional: a bedroom crooner, a begging balladeer, a brainy sex symbol. Because the world that thinks it is secular is convinced that the people are generally antagonistic toward religion, and that people would be generally uninterested or put off if they could see that one’s faith was showing (something like being caught with my fly unzipped). I’ve been told everything from, “its fine that you’re a Christian but keep it to yourself” to “you need to compromise your integrity to get ahead in this business.” “You have to choose,” they said. So you see, my fellow artists who are also Christian, the lie exists in many places. 

For years, I’ve seen cracks in this lie. 

From the Christian side: the opening scenes of the Bible describe God’s building of the cosmos in the very same language the ancients used to describe the construction of a temple. That implies that, if you believe that God created the world, that God created it as sacred space. Moreover, it implies that God built that sacred space with the intention of living there (that is, after all, what temples are for). Even the infamous Garden of Eden, where sin is thought to have “entered” the world, is temple imagery. Somehow we’ve dodged the fact that the first chapter of the Bible conveys God meticulously placing the everyday “stuff of this world” into this sacred space that God created. He placed dirt, and honey badgers, and strawberries, and pelicans, and palm trees, and sting rays in the temple we call “this world”. 

And He put humans in there too–with their skin and armpit hair, and bones and internal organs, in that sacred place that we call “this world”. He told them to cultivate it, enjoy it’s fruit, make babies (yes, have sex) in it, work jobs in it, and care for its creatures–and all of these things, that so characterize the human experience, are to take place in that sacred place that we call “this world”. These very things, that so characterize what it means to be human, are referred to as “avodah” in the original language of Genesis, meaning “to do the work of priests”, or “to worship”. And God looked over ALL that He had made–this world, in all of its earthy glory–and said ‘It is very good’ (Genesis 1:31). He celebrated it. He celebrated it because He made it. Because He made it beautiful. Because He made it sacred. 

How then could we possibly believe that we can separate our worshipping and the everyday stuff of human living into neat little categories, when God has called the world sacred and human life (when done skillfully) worship? When God Himself celebrated this world and all that it means to be human in the beginning, how can we label art that celebrates and conveys the reality of our human experience as non-essential? How can we not see that art is, in itself, a way that we participate in God’s life, since God decided that the word He created MUST be beautiful AND sacred? For the Christian, to live–and every detail of what that means–and to worship must become the same thing. I’ve long seen this crack in the lie I first heard at church. 

And I saw a crack in the lie as it was echoed in the world that thinks it is secular. In a world of people that don’t realize that my faith could not possibly be private. If I understand this world as God’s sacred place, that I have been invited to cultivate and add beauty to, then it must necessarily inform the way I work, and live, and relate. There is no way to keep my Christian beliefs from tampering with my life, not if I take those beliefs seriously. It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I believe that this world is God’s temple, and that everything I do is either an act of worship or vandalism, but it’s no big deal really.” That wouldn’t make any sense. That IS a big deal. And so the lie I first heard at church, but also heard echoed in the world that thinks it is secular, has always been the needle’s eye through which I had long been unable to fully travel. 

For all of those reasons, and more (believe it or not) I’ve always suspected that the lie I first heard at church was cracked. 

But last night, on Periscope, my suspicions were confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt. Periscope is a live-streaming social media app, that allows me to sit down at my piano and broadcast whatever I’m doing to whomever is currently using it. I’ve been broadcasting every single day, singing R&B songs–some originals and covers. I’d mentioned that I’m a Bible teacher, but up until then I’d not really shared that side of myself with my audience. The lie said that people would unfollow me if I did. The lie said I would confuse my brand. The lie said I had be slick about how to package it. 

But I wasn’t slick about it. 

I couldn’t be.

I sat down at my piano and got real: “some of you have asked me to do some worship music, but I’ve been nervous to go there, because…” I said as I explained the lie to my viewers. But none of them were alarmed, not even those who don’t share my faith. “I’m not a believer, but your music comes from a real place,” one viewer said. “I’m an atheist, but I’m not judgmental,” said another. They trusted me, because they had seen me. So I began to play a Jesus song. All of a sudden, the people who had only known me as an R&B artist started sharing things they were struggling with and singing along. They started encouraging one another and offering their prayers for one another. I began teaching, and sharing my perspective from the Bible on the viewers’ conversation, while still playing the piano. Once and for all I had observable proof: the choice between sacred and secular is a false one. I asked if they would like to do some Jesus songs again soon, and got a resounding yes; but not one person asked “will you only do Jesus songs from now on? (Either because they wanted that or didn’t want that). No one was alarmed. There was no fear, or judgment, or confusion, or even rejection. All there was, was beauty. Because the notion that one must choose is a lie.