Prophecy and M.I.A.

Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!

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M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet

by

Pooja Upadhyay

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.

According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.

M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.

Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.

A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.

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Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.

Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.

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Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.

However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.

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This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.

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Bibliography

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.

Hirsch, Paul M. “Sociological Approaches to the Pop Music Phenomenon.” The American Behavioral Scientist 14, no. 3 (1971): 371-388. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/docview/194670965?accountid=8424.

“How M.I.A. is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Pitchfork. Nov. 23, 2015. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/967-how-mia-is-a-lifeline-in-times-of-terror/.

Jones, Gaynor, and Jay Rahn. “Definitions of Popular Music: Recycled.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 11. No 4 (1977): 79-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332182.

Lewis. Twitter post. Sept. 13, 2016, 1:10am. https://twitter.com/lewniverse/status/775607452653985795?lang=en.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 9:05. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” April 28, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeMvUlxXyz8&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DIeMvUlxXyz8&has_verified=1.

MIA, interview by Jian Gomeshi. “M.I.A. on Q TV (viewer discretion advised).” Q on CBC. YouTube video. October 18, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaK0YBA8Lss.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 4:42. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” February 17, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-Nw7HbaeWY&list=RDr-Nw7HbaeWY.

“M.I.A. talks about her music video “Borders” on Al Jazeera.” YouTube video, 3:58. Posted by “worldtown,” January 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTMQXBQMSU0.

“MIA: Pop singer M.I.A’s Interview on Channel 4.” YouTube video, 12:48. Posted by “Tamil News,” January 14, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezhPp5rK9UQ.

MIA. Twitter post. July 25, 2016, 1:02pm. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/757667438318260224?lang=en.

MIA. Twitter post. June 15, 2016, 7:05am. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/743081911703212032?lang=en.

MIA. Sexodus. Interscope, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOcRiv9BZwU.

MIA. Freedun. Interscope, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Nc1FdTD10.

Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music Culture. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. New York: NYU Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/j.ctt15zc8pw.

Yusuf. Twitter post. September 13, 2016, 12.44am. https://twitter.com/yuzi/status/775600934076448772?lang=en.

Upcoming Theology Research Seminar Presentation by Dr Sean Durbin

Information about an upcoming Theology Research Seminar presentation next Friday at the University of Auckland by Dr Sean Durbin from the University of Newcastle in Australia. All are welcome to attend…

‘It is what it is’: Myth-Making and Identity Formation on a Christian Zionist Tour of Israel

Dr Sean Durbin, University of Newcastle

Date: 2-3pm, Friday 17th July
Location: Arts 1, Room 201

235This talk will critically examine the ways that evangelical pastors and Israeli tour guides employ religious language at various sites of interest on a Christian Zionist tour of Israel. It argues that applying religious discourse to descriptions of seemingly ordinary sites such as landscapes serves to mystify and naturalise what are otherwise highly contested political realities, by reframing them as manifestations of God’s will. Second, the talk will consider the way these rhetorical techniques work to reframe the touring group’s identity as more authentically Christian in relation to other Christian groups who visit different sites of interest in the region.

Definition of marriage and religious freedom

Marriage à la mode, 1932. Part of Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 :Collection of albums, prints and negatives, Reference Number PA-Group-00048, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission has published a short and nuanced assessment of what Louisa Wall’s Definition of Marriage (Amendment) Bill means for New Zealand’s religious communities.

On the one hand, churches and other religious organisations can refuse to perform marriages that aren’t consistent with their religious beliefs (e.g. Catholics already won’t re-marry divorcees who haven’t been able to obtain an annulment from a Catholic church court). On the other hand, religious groups can’t discriminate in services that they make available to the public as a whole. The example the NZHRC uses is rental of a church hall. If you generally rent it out for weddings, you can’t refuse to rent it out just for gay weddings – any more than you can refuse to rent it to a specific ethnic group.

But religious opposition to the bill still pays a lot of attention to the following claims: (1) that churches rather than the state “own” the definition of marriage (so that the state has no business in changing that definition), and (2) that if the state claims that role for itself, it will then force religious groups to comply with it against their consciences.

But the history of New Zealand’s marriage legislation suggests that this horse has already bolted, and that, despite a lot of angst and religious ill-feeling, good sense prevailed and no one was forced to act against his or her conscience.

The case I have in mind is the Massey government’s legislative response to the Pope Pius X’s decree Ne temere (1908). This decree created outrage — some of it genuine, but much of it whipped up for sectarian ends — when it defined as invalid any marriage contracted between a Catholic and a non-Catholic before any authority other than the one appointed by the Catholic church. In other words, if you were a Catholic (even a lapsed Catholic) and you married a Jew in a synagogue or a Presbyterian in a Presbyterian service, the Catholic church did not believe you were married at all. In a society that still stigmatised “living in sin” and illegitimacy, this was a big deal.

(It’s worth noting in passing that the Catholic church actively discouraged all mixed marriages in this period. When celebrated they were deliberately treated as second rate – e.g. celebrated in the sacristy rather than in the church)

Although Ne temere recognised the validity of non-Catholic marriages conducted in non-Catholic settings (e.g. two Baptists in a registry office), the decree was treated as an affront by most of the New Zealand Protestant churches (understandably enough, one might think) and in sections of the New Zealand media. In fact the religious climate throughout the Empire was already thoroughly poisoned by political troubles in Ireland, and with little sense of inconsistency, the Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches formed committees to urge the government to defend “Protestant liberties” and to introduce legislation criminalising any imputation that a marriage recognised by the state was not a valid one.

In other words, major New Zealand churches asked the state to define marriage and to prosecute anyone who called the state’s definition of marriage into question. The results of that political lobbying have been enshrined in New Zealand marriage legislation since 1920Section 56 of the 1955 Marriage Act (the one Louisa Wall’s bill seeks to amend) includes the following:

(1)Every person commits an offence against this Act, and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $200, who—

  • (a) alleges, expressly or by implication, that any persons lawfully married are not truly and sufficiently married; or

  • (b)alleges, expressly or by implication, that the issue of any lawful marriage is illegitimate or born out of true wedlock.

(2)For the purposes of this section the term alleges means making any verbal statement, or publishing or issuing any printed or written statement, or in any manner authorising the making of any verbal statement, or in any manner authorising or being party to the publication or issue of any printed or written statement. […]

I am not sure how these threats were received by Catholics (and by some of their supporters among High Anglicans) when the legislation passed in 1920. I don’t know, either, whether anyone has ever been prosecuted under this section, and, if they have, what shape their crime took. I’m not aware of any secondary literature on the subject.

But it looks as though, despite differences over the definition of marriage, church and state (and church and church) have managed to muddle along. Despite a great deal of what Fred Clark describes as “Münchausens Martyrdom” (i.e. wildly exaggerated claims or prognostications of religious persecution by the state) church and state seem likely to rub along if the “Gay Marriage” bill becomes law. Just as New Zealand Catholics haven’t suffered notably for their reservations about certain mixed marriages, it seems likely that all religious groups in New Zealand will be left alone to police their own marriage regulations.

And if the churches now object to the state reaching autonomous decisions about the definition of marriage without undue religious interference, they should remember that they were the ones who asked the state to do so.