11 April 2017

Stormzy and Folk Christianity

I sometimes hear people talking about a post-Christian society in Britain. I think it’s a bit premature to talk like that, to be honest. I think Christianity is still present and recognised in our culture to a sufficient degree that the ‘post-Christian society’ label is too pessimistic. However, I do recognise that there are post-Christian communities – towns, villages, schemes, where any shared cultural and community life is totally unaffected by Christian truth. Where talk of Jesus, human sin and God’s salvation just does not figure.
 
But, I see a lot of Christianity around. If we’re attentive to culture, we pick up frequent references to the Christian message. Sometimes they pop up in surprising places. I’ve been reading a bit about, and listening a bit to, the grime artist Stormzy. Before I go any further, I’m not necessarily advising you to do the same… neither am I advising you not to. Anyway, read on. On his album Gang Signs and Prayers are two tracks entitled Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 & 2). Here are some of the lyrics:
Lord, I’ve been broken, although I’m not worthy, you fix me – now I’m blinded by your grace, you came and saved me 
You saved this kid, and I’m not your first, it’s not by blood and it’s not by birth, but Oh my God, what a God I serve
You can watch a public performance at the Westfield Shopping Centre here. Stormzy raps about being ‘God’s son, look at what God’s done.’ It seems on the face of it a bona fide declaration of Christian faith. Stormzy has said he wanted to make a beautiful gospel song, ‘to touch on the gospel side of things and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character.’ He’s spoken of church and clearly has some idea of the gospel. When Christians come across something like this they can, because of the familiarity of the ideas, embrace tracks like this. That’s what I did initially. But I think we need to be more discerning.
 
First, it’s interesting that Stormzy doesn’t mention Jesus (either on the track, or in any interview I could find). Sometimes we forget that the heart of Christianity is Jesus. Singing or talking about God, or the Lord, can be all well and good, but if Jesus doesn’t figure at the forefront of our conception of who ‘God’ or the ‘Lord’ is, then we’re not talking about orthodox Christianity.
 
Second, as Nathan Jones who reviewed Gang Sings and Prayers at Premier Gospel points out, alongside Blinded by your Grace (Parts 1 and 2)  are tracks with ‘plenty of bad language’ (there’s a fair bit of effing) and ‘unsavoury subject matters’. I found the few tracks I listened to contained quite a bit of in-your-face arrogance (par for the grime course), aggressive language and sentiments (including the repeated denigration of others),  references to guns and drugs, and the ever-present bare materialist-consumerist outlook of so much urban music. These tracks definitely don’t reflect the values of Jesus, or the Kingdom of God. In fact, they represent the values of a world that lies in the power of the evil one. So how can Gang Signs and Prayers contain this stark contrast? What are Christians supposed to do with Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace?
 
I think what’s going on with this album is a manifestation of what I think of as ‘Folk Christianity’. Folk Christianity is usually a label applied to syncretistic religion in places like the Philippines. But, I think it’s a valid label for here in the UK too, when Christianity  loses its place and people start to pick and choose which part of it they want to believe. It becomes a kind of superstitious, folk religion. I see Folk Christianity as a stage in the decline of Christianity in Western culture. God, life-after-death, prayer, heaven, blessing – these all seem to find a place. But these are combined with all kinds of un-Christian and anti-Christian beliefs. Things like the church, like allegiance to Jesus, like discipleship, like obedience to the way of Christ – these get lost.
 
Folk Christianity is a feature of Highland communities – amongst young and middle aged people. I think it’s actually more of a feature of these age brackets than amongst the elderly. I go to funerals, and talk to different folk, who have this Folk Christian worldview. It contains ideas of God in heaven, and how departed loved ones are with God, looking down (see Ed Sheeran’s ‘Supermarket Flowers’ for a great example of this). There are ideas of an afterlife, which are usually quite pagan. Sometimes it contains ideas of Jesus. It usually has some idea of prayer, and of the church (as a place to be for funerals and weddings). It seems to value Christian iconocraphy – the cross, the saints – and often has a place for the Lord’s Prayer. It identifies as ‘Christian.’ It contains a lot of spiritual ideas – miracles, ghosts, the dead as surviving somehow. Most of the time, you can see that these ideas are the vestiges of Christianity, but have been formed into a kind of Folk Christianity that bears very little resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notable by his general absence is Jesus himself. And all these are combined with a fair dose of superstition, and the kind of attitudes and behaviours that the apostles were warning Christians about in the early years of Christianity.
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV
I would argue against people who say that this kind of Folk Christianity is a total negative, or that it offers the church nothing to work with. I thank God that there are still vestiges of Christianity. We can use these vestiges, use this Folk Christianity as a way into speaking about Jesus and the genuine Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, God’s grace and forgiveness, and the way of discipleship. But my concern is that there are too many Christians in orthodox churches who don’t recognise Folk Christianity for what it is, and who are not critical enough of it, and who don’t challenge it enough. Which is why Christians need to be clear about the centrality of Jesus in our faith. To be provocative: there are too many people, even in Free Church congregations, who are too sketchy on the centrality of Jesus for our faith. That’s my opinion, based on my experience.
 
Going back to Stormzy, don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging whether or not his faith is genuine. I’m just saying that a Christian faith that is comfortable with aggression, the devaluation of sex through sexual obscenity, the demeaning of others, violence, the values of an arrogant consumerism – that doesn’t seem to me, on the face of it, to be a faith which is serious about Jesus. Nathan Jones hopes that Blinded by Your Grace ‘will make people think about God’s goodness in their lives.’ I hope the same. No bones, Stormzy is talented (and talent is God’s gift). I like Stormzy’s Blinded by Your Grace, but I’ll never feel totally comfortable listening to it. Jones also writes:
The Christian life is a process, one which is started by the gospel becoming central to all aspects of your life. For that reason, change is one of the most important components. It’s impossible to meet with Jesus and stay the same. Let’s hope and pray that as these artists continue to be open with their faith, they are also open to the change that we are all in need of.
I agree; I hope and pray the same. Jones also pointed out that Blinded by Your Grace sounds like ‘something you would have heard on a Christian rap album circa 2006.’ After listening to some of Gang Signs and Prayers, another track from that time came to mind: The Cross Movement’s 2007 track We Were They. Whereas I think Stormzy’s ‘gospel’ track probably represents a kind of Folk Christianity within black culture, We Were They is the real deal. Like some of Stormzy’s work, it’s provocative, even a little aggressive in places. But, it’s a challenge to those living within a black American Folk Christianity to hear the call of Jesus to put him at the centre, and to follow him in a repentant and obedient lifestyle of discipleship.
They stay the same, no they never change, ain’t nuttin strange… / They wanna hang, just wanna party, kick some slang, sip on some Bacardi… 
Think about this, then think about that / think of what they do, think of how they act… / they say God knows my heart, but that don’t get ‘em off the hook… 
They don’t want to learn, they just want to know… / They just want the watch, don’t want to know the time… 
They don’t want to become, they only want to be… / They just think he’s gracious, what about his wrath? 
They might not be sheep, they might be the goats… 
They say that they’re we, we used to be they / we had our last night, we live in a different day
The line about the watch is great, considering the in-your-face consumerist, exhibitionist attitude of a lot of urban music when it comes to blingy jewellery, including watches (Stormzy mentions Hublots on one of his tracks). Ditto for the Bacardi reference, which is also one of Stormzy’s on the same track.
 
Folk Christianity and Real Christianity are not compatible. That’s the kind of challenge we need to bring when we encounter Folk Christianity in our communities. Ministers especially, when preparing for, and conducting, funerals and weddings, need to gently but firmly put Folk Christianity in the spotlight of Jesus’s Gospel. Folk Christianity might give us a way in, but Folk Christianity is not enough.