As an associate professor of ethnomusicology and Black World Studies, my most important goal is not just to convey knowledge about my areas of expertise, but to encourage the basic human act of critical thinking. While it is important to convey and contextualize information about the history, the aesthetics, the art and culture of the black world, my ultimate mission is to nudge my students to develop the skill and the ability to really think analytically, reflexively and thoughtfully about what they read, watch or hear. In other words, I want them to acquire and domesticate the art of critical thinking as a part of their intellectual repertoire.
After they leave my class, I want them to be able to watch a blockbuster film, listen to that “hot” new track on the radio and read the breaking news headlines with a studious eye and a critical ear that interrogates all the layers of meaning that are embedded in all the subliminal messages that surround us every day.
For example, I want my students to know that we may be consumers of pop culture, but we do not have to be consumed by it. We can taste it, chew it and digest it carefully, and we can certainly learn to spit out the junk that will do our system no good. This, to me, is what scholarship and academia should embody. I have come to realize that learning to apply the skill to critically think about the world around us may be an uncomfortable experience for individuals who have lived life at face value. Why can’t we just simply enjoy the music?
Some of my students insist that a rap song might be crude and misogynistic, but it sure has a good beat. So I encourage them to get behind the beat, to interrogate “the text.” Who is making the music? Who is profiting from it? What are the larger social consequences of the lyrics on a generation of local and global listeners? I’m not asking my students to boycott the media; I’m just asking them to think carefully and independently about what they are presented, and I want them to apply that to all the kinds of texts they encounter in formal and informal settings. It can be a lonely exercise and one that is likely to test their comfortable assumptions and even rock their worlds.If I expect that of my students, I should expect no less of myself.
So when I recently focused my critical thinking lens on my Christian faith, I was shaken. Up until about a year ago, I had wallowed in that age-old assumption that the Bible is one of those untouchable monuments that you stare at reverentially. I grew used to hearing those passages, not really thinking deeply about them because there is some unwritten law that if you question the Bible, your Christianity is compromised. So all these years, I’d been a critical thinker about everything except my reading of the Bible. I had never delved deeper than a gentle scratching of the surface.
I began to recognize that just as the hypnotic rhythms of pop culture can draw a lethargic reaction, the harsh immovable structures of religion can engender a spirit of complacency. Inspired by what I expected of my students—independent and critical thinking—and convinced that the wonderful intellect that makes us question and critique the world around us is indeed a gift from God, I picked up my text—a new version I had discovered called The Message Bible—and began to read again.
At first, the new questions tapped gently on my conscience and as I dug deeper, those questions tugged determinedly at the veil that had covered my critical gaze into the Bible for so many years: Why is there a cold edge to some of the stories? Where is the voice of the women? And my biggest question—why are some of the stories so antithetical to the compassionate nature of the God I have come to know and love? My musings have led me to the conclusion that the Bible was indeed inspired by God, but written by human beings—the same species that write the histories, the literature, the screenplays and the rap songs we question in all our critical readings of texts, art and media.
This experience of critically thinking about my own Christianity has shaken me, but miraculously, it has not stirred doubt into my faith. Critically thinking about the Bible has been refreshing and reassuring. I treasure the Bible as the document that serves as a chronicle of my faith, but I have moved to a better place that embraces Christianity not as a religion, but as a lived faith. Because if faith is the belief in the unseen, I have chosen to believe in the character of God. The God I know delights in watching me critically think about my world and my place in it.