Freestyle Faith: Some Thoughts on Michael W. Waters' New Book
I am not a member of the 9/11 generation. Like most folks, I was shocked and saddened by it, but it was not my wakeup call that the world is full of tragedy and evil. Likewise I am not a member of hip-hop nation—what I don't know about hip-hop would, well, fill a book. So when I read the Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters' Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture, I'm encountering a voice that is decidedly not my own—but a voice I desperately need to hear.
The heroes of the Civil Rights Era are my heroes. I grew up in the segregated South as it was becoming the integrated South, and so I have always despised personal racism and institutional prejudice. I am a good white Southern liberal Christian who honestly seeks a world where we value and celebrate our differences as part of our shared humanity.
But even with my good intentions, I live in my own little gated community of church and culture. Except for the years when I was welcomed back to faith in an Episcopal Church in East Austin, a church founded and shaped by African-Americans excluded from white churches, I have tended to be surrounded by people like me—which is to say, people who are white, educated, middle-class, and unlikely to know any more about hip-hop than I do.
So when I enter into the Rev. Dr. Waters' new book, I am entering into a world of flow and adaptation, a world of improvisation shaped by deep thinking, feeling, and faith, and as I said, it's a world I need to inhabit more often.
Although the angle of vision may differ, what the book reminds me of is that our focus is the same.
We are both seeking ultimate meaning in a world that tries with all its might to distract us with secondary meanings.
And we are both operating through a hermeneutic of hope in the God who created us, redeems us, and seeks us always.
William Faulkner wrote in his Nobel Prize speech that the job of the writer is to capture the universal human themes that connect us all, and when an insightful writer like the Rev. Dr. Waters starts to tell stories, any superficial differences between us fall away.
What Freestyle captures in a fresh and flowing voice is universal human experience: we love, we parent, we seek to be faithful to our God, and we seek faithful responses to the world around us. In essay after essay, the Rev. Dr. Waters shares a word of wisdom, considers new thoughts he's had since the initial writing, and offers a prayer and a thought for ongoing engagement. Whether writing about his family, about his faith, or about culture, he writes in ways that engage, challenge, and comfort.
As interested as I was in his take on the spiritual possibilities of hip-hop—I write often about religion and popular music myself—I was especially drawn to his meditations on Black Friday, that post-Thanksgiving orgy of consumerism that assails Americans every year. It was a chapter that was instructive of both the Rev. Dr. Waters' method and his gifts.
On the one hand, his prophetic voice condemns our participation in this annual fight for bargains, but on the other, his compassion compels our attention to what our loss of community costs us.
It's truly a pastor's approach, calling us away from the things that do not satisfy, calling us to the things that do, and it's a voice I heard all the way through the book.
Michael W. Waters is speaking first to an urban African-American audience, but he is also speaking directly to me. He tells me, again and again, that God is love, that we are tasked with a response to that love, and that whatever we look like and wherever we come from, we have those things—and many more—that connect us.
It's a worthy message, and I am grateful for it.
To read an excerpt from Freestyle, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.