"First, I want to thank God "
For decades, those words have been uttered by black performers from gospel artists to gangsta rappers on every awards-show stage, whether their lyrics encourage optimistic praise or are phrases that need to be bleeped.
But Sunday night, Jay-Z stopped himself short, almost correcting himself, to change the direction of his praise, and the object of his thanks for bringing him, his wife and success, from an amorphous God to the infinite and elusively defined "universe."
This deliberate departure and clear redirection from the rhetorical, if not sincere, language so common within the black community is notable. It points, in part, to the fact that in the current day, there has been so much splintering and diversity of beliefs within African-American culture that this artist felt it necessary to clearly distinguish between any obligation to or belief in a God other than himself and the undefined but clearly present "universe."
In light of the persistent presence of Judeo-Christian iconography in the naming, imagery and lyrics of many of these performers, it is hard not to see the comparisons and contradictions. Whether it's wearing obscenely large, diamond-encrusted crosses, adorning their exposed bodies with tattoos of Christ, trotting out the crucifix as a prop or posing in front of The Last Supper, it's easy to wonder if they actually embrace the idea of a higher being -- God -- or are evoking his image and name in various forms to keep making the money and the bling that seem to be the real god being served anyway.
Clearly, there is an inherent contradiction in naming oneself "Jay-Hova," or "H to the Izz-O, V to the Izz-A" -- a play on the Judeo-Christian name of God, "Jehovah," which many Jews and Christians consider sacred -- and then acknowledging in an acceptance speech that there is a God other than you to whom you may owe thanks and homage. This could justifiably give rise to the necessary real-time retraction issued by Jay-Z on Sunday night.
Similarly, if you have named your latest project "Yeezus," as rap artist Kanye West has done, and repeatedly proclaim yourself to be "a god" in your lyrics, there can be little room for the traditional understanding of an all-powerful God who is spirit and to whom Christians believe that all prayers, worship, obedience and thanks are due.
But if you reject the idea of God as most in the African-American community -- even with all its denominational, cultural and geographic variations -- have traditionally understood him, which is in the Christian context, the question for many of us may become this: Why cast yourself in the image of a deity that your very self-naming and lyrical work deny and negate? In short, if you proclaim that you are "a god," why continually play on the imagery, rhetoric and belief system that you are loath to endorse?
The reasons for continually doing this seem pretty clear. Since black people are your primary audience -- and as we know, both culturally and from documented research, black people are religious -- you co-opt religious symbols to appeal to them and to make money.
Automatically thanking God is probably a cultural phenomenon as much as a religious one, since most black folks either grew up in a church or were raised by a mother or grandmother who did.
But I would offer a different possibility that can be found in the words of French scientist and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, "There is a God-shaped hole in each of us that only God can fill."
If this is so, then it is possible that the continual references back to a Christian God, and the seeming attempts by these artists to make themselves into modern-day pop gods, are a fundamentally human response to a God that does exist beyond human, physical bounds; and that these may be seen as attempts to fill this hole even while the artists intellectually and artistically reject the idea that such a void actually exists.
The bottom line for many Christians is that it would be far preferable for popular secular icons to leave Christian identity and iconography alone altogether, rather than taking them and shaping out of them new graven or human images.
Frances Cudjoe Waters, a United Methodist pastor, wrote this for The Root; she blogs at BTransformed.com.