Featured: The Universe Bends Toward Justice – Obery Hendricks

January 11, 2012


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Holding together his main chapters on Gospel music (“I Am the Holy Dope Dealer”), Biblical interpretation (“The Grapes of Wrath and the True Vine”) and political conservatism and economics (“A Camel through the Eye of a Needle”) is the author’s view on how Jesus and his early followers engaged the religious and political leaders of his day. In Hendricks’s view, “The Gospels were written from beneath the heel of dominationist might, by dominated folk, with other dominated folk in mind.”  Thus, when Jesus proclaims freedom for the poor, blind, oppressed and prisoners in Luke 4 at the commencement of his ministry we should hear a revolutionary announcement of experiential freedom.  In the New Testament anything or anyone that hinders this Gospel message will eventually oppose the message and those who bear it.  These opponents are religious or political, anyone from the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians to the Ephesian city council and Roman officials.

Throughout this book Hendricks is unafraid to identify those he believes hinder Jesus’s revolutionary Gospel, especially those who publically identify with Jesus.  This explains why the opening chapter unexpectedly addresses “the problem” with contemporary Gospel music.  To understand what is problematic Hendricks first looks at what African- American worship has historically been.

Yes, the euphoric, the celebratory, the praise-filled runs in black people as deeply as marrow.  Yet it has never been the only blood coursing through our veins; praise and celebration for deliverance, without a concomitant critique of the events and conditions that black people looked to the Lord to deliver us from, has never characterized the heart of African American religious expression… That is, until today. [Italics in the original.]

Hendricks, clearly a student and deep admirer of the genre, differentiates between the Spirituals of the past and today’s Gospel music which was brought into existence at Pilgrim Baptist Church so many years ago.  The Spirituals – think Go Down Moses, Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, and Marching Up the Heavenly Road – were born from the communal experience of slavery.  The songs were sung and lived by a people in the face of devastating oppression.  Out of this experience came songs of resistance and liberation that drew especially from the Old Testament narratives of justice and exodus.  Acknowledgement of oppression and “prophetic critique of the race-based system and sensibilities that produce and perpetuate that oppression” were essential elements of these songs.  Singing these songs, whether in the fields, the hush arbors, or, eventually, in church buildings of their own, was a prophetic word against the world’s evils and a proclamation that the liberating God would vindicate his people.

Hendricks’s critique of contemporary Gospel music has resonance across American Christianity whether or not the reader has personal familiarity with the black religious experience.  Unlike the historic Spirituals, “in Gospel music today seldom is proclaimed the God of liberation – just the God of escape.”  Beginning with Thomas Dorsey, Gospel music held out hope to the congregation.  Like the Spirituals, this hope sought to “lighten the load of a people already inundated daily by more bad news at the hands of systematic racism than any people should be asked to endure.”  Unlike the Spirituals, this new form of worship music avoided almost all prophetic critique, seeking instead to offer spiritual comfort that would allow individuals to endure their hardships.

While Professor Hendricks directs his focus towards the black religious experience, his critique is clearly applicable to those of us from dominant American culture.  Pay attention next Sunday.  How many songs address the societal injustices faced by many in our country?  Are the praises expressed from the corporate experience or from an individual’s perspective?  Is hope expressed for what God has done for our disembodied souls, or does it include immanent hope for those Jesus addresses in Luke 4?

From this critique the author next articulates a hermeneutic “from below” before forcefully confronting politics and economics that, in his view, oppose the Gospel Jesus proclaimed.  In these last chapters Hendricks is especially exasperated by those in power – politicians and economists particularly – who claim both Christianity and policies that hurt the disenfranchised.

There were times throughout The Universe Bends Toward Justice when I wondered whether Hendricks views Jesus solely as a revolutionary for us to follow.  In other words, is it Jesus’s teachings alone that confront the religious and political elites of our day?  In the final few pages his view is clarified.

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