Thanking God at the Grammys
By mark geil
February 12, 2008
The 50th Grammy Awards, broadcast Monday night on CBS, might have set a record that nobody noticed: “Fewest ‘Thank you God’ Speeches of All Time.” Possibly because the night’s big winner, Amy Winehouse, was in absentia (Latin for drug rehab), and possibly because the broadcast was so heavy on performances and so light on actual awards, the sum total of winners sending their thanksgiving on high was a paltry one. And maybe that’s a good thing.
The speech in question was only the second of the night, when Alicia Keys accepted the Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance. “Thank you first to God, because God has gotten me through such a tremendous journey, and I want to thank you for that.” She followed with homage to her grandmother and thanked her mother before closing with a plug for Keep a Child Alive. The speech was compact, sweet and sincere. It did not, however, start a trend. Though Ludacris had the Staples Center saying a collective “Amen,” Israel Houghton sang the words “only You, Lord Jesus!” beneath an illuminated cross in an all-star gospel number and Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli sang an extended operatic prayer, the “Thank you God” speeches were one-and-done. Without the usual litany of insincere platitudes from scantily clad and possibly inebriated artists, all the references to God seemed well-placed and genuine, and none made me cringe.
What happens when an insincere person credits God? Is the reference largely ignored, or does the world add one more perceived hypocrite to an already lengthy roll? D.C. Talk quoted Brennan Manning before a song about hypocrisy, saying, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” The unbelieving world has an appetite for hypocrisy which makes those who profess Christ, whether by a thank-you speech or an interview or even a record label association, accountable to that profession of faith.
On the other hand, the world tends to honor sincerity. If the insincere thanks were missing, let’s consider what was sincere at the Grammy ceremony. Dave Grohl was charming when he gave thanks to his daughter, Violet, for a Foo Fighters Grammy. Beyonce and Tina Turner seemed authentic in their mutual admiration for one another. The inimitable Aretha Franklin was so sincere during the gospel bit that I could scarcely understand a word she sang. Herbie Hancock was genuinely nervous on the red carpet in anticipation of his piano duet with Lang Lang, pointing out that he hadn’t practiced regularly in some time. Even Amy Winehouse looked sincerely flabbergasted when she won Record of the Year, as if unaware that the cameras were still rolling while she formed a rugby scrum with her band. Maybe that’s the challenge with sincerity in the public eye: the cameras are almost always rolling, which necessitates the need for an unnatural persona.
The challenge for professing Christians is this: secular artists never claim to be moral, so their sincere moments are sweet while their insincerity is mostly amusing spectacle. Christians in the public eye are a target of the masses who long to crack what must be a public persona, to see the hypocrite hiding inside. The scantily clad chanteuse giving thanks to God? Amusing. The Christian artist who routinely thanks God experiencing a moral failing? Shark bait. The pastor with a manufactured tear rolling down his cheek? Even worse.
It is clear that, for the benefit of the faith, Christian artists, like church leaders, must let their actions reflect their words, lest they be harshly judged by the world. But what is the Christian fan to do, we who are called not to judge the speck in another’s eye while we ignore the log in our own? I believe we tend to watch and judge and condemn just like all the rest. We shake our heads at Kanye West, who mixes a gospel message with profanity, and who follows a moving tribute to his recently departed mother with an outlandish absence of humility. We try to figure out how sincere Carrie “Jesus Take the Wheel” Underwood is when she belts out a vandal’s revenge song in shining patent leather.
Here’s a thought: Christian artists should be as real with their flaws and their humanity as they are with their proclamations of praise. And we should let them. And while we desire repentance and salvation in everyone we encounter, public or not, we must not be so much like the world that all we see is darkness. The world may be a dark place, but it’s not beyond God’s reach and His ability to use it for good.
If the world seeks the fault, the speck of insincerity, perhaps we should seek the shining glimmer of goodness. When we stop looking so hard for the flaws in others, we allow God to use their words, their actions, and even their songs to minister to us. Maybe then He can use us to minister to the same world we try too often to judge.