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I was raised in the “Black Power” era of the 1970s.
In many ways, the environment that composed the decade that was the ’70s was much like it is today.
It was a period of great social and political uncertainty, when the “Soul Music” of inner-city black ghettos was as much a clarion call for social justice as a means of setting just the right mood at block parties or cookouts in the park.
Among the many recording artists who would be considered the greatest within the Soul Music genre, is none other than the “Godfather of Soul”, the late James Brown.
During his prime, James Brown was regarded worldwide as “the hardest working man in show business”, having garnered such a reputation because of the large number of live concerts he gave and the tremendous energy he expended when on stage.
“When I saw him move I was mesmerized. I’ve never seen a performer perform like James Brown; and right then and there I knew that that was what I wanted to do with my life.”
The physical demands Brown placed on himself, his band members and back-up dancers over the course of a 2-hour – if not longer – performance, would put today’s most intense workout regimen to shame. The calories he and his troupe must have burned off during a single concert would be enviable, no doubt.
Yet, as impressive an entertainer as James Brown was, it might surprise you to learn that he was also quite a theologian.
No, Brown never attended seminary.
He possessed neither an MDiv. or ThD. degree.
The truth is Brown never earned so much as a high school diploma, having completed only a sixth-grade education. Which is cool, though, because Jesus’ disciples weren’t formally educated either:
“Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.” – Acts 4:13
Notwithstanding Brown’s lack of educational acquirement, one thing he did possess was a degree of biblical sagacity that equaled, if not exceeded, what countless individuals seek to acquire by attending some of the world’s most esteemed institutions of higher theological learning.
Despite the success he achieved over the course of his esteemed career, James Brown seemed to never lose sight of what is of ultimate importance to us all: the condition of our soul.
He once acknowledged that,
“You struggle so hard to feed your family one way, you forget to feed them the other way – with spiritual nourishment – everybody needs that.”
What gives Brown’s words such theological force is that they embody the same ethos to which Christ exhorts us in John 6:27,
“Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father God, has set His seal.”
Nevertheless, this world is constantly seducing us with ways we can improve on our current station in life (whatever it might be); and though there is nothing inherently wrong with that, the reality is such pursuits can – and will – distract and disorient us from what is most important in this life, namely, the next one (1 John 2:15-17.)
The so-called Godfather of Soul was absolutely right in opining that everybody needs spiritual nourishment.
Brown comprehended what many people, including Christians, often do not – that from the very millisecond we are conceived in the womb, each of us embarks on a preordained journey that will culminate in seeing God face-to-face (Job 31:15; Psalm 139:13; Hebrews 9:27.)
And Brown isn’t the only one who grasped this concept.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
The story is told of a wealthy businessman who passed away at an old age. At his funeral, the man’s accountant was asked, “How much money did he leave?”, to which the accountant replied, “All of it.”
This life is not all there is.
Unfortunately, however, the temptations and attractions of this world make it so that it is usually only at the funeral service of a relative or friend that we are reminded of this.
From the very beginning of our existence on this earth, the clock starts ticking. It is ticking for you even now as you read this.
The theology of James Brown is both simple and profound at the same time.
His words remind us that as necessary as food is for our physical survival, its benefits are limited only to this life; whereas spiritual nourishment profits us not only in this life but also in the life to come.
And you thought all James Brown could do was dance.
Humbly in Christ,