Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tyler Perry: The Art of Speakin' "Christian-ese"...

Paul Scott

I once asked my homie, spoken word artist, James Washington how it is that a thugged out brotha like him gets invited to speak at churches all the time and a (relatively speaking) clean cut brother, like me, can't even make it past the front door ?

"Simple," he said. "You don't know how to speak Christian-ese."

Christianese- a type of dialect that will make black folks give you the shirts off their backs. Master the language and African Americans will follow you to the ends of the Earth.

Just ask Tyler Perry, multi millionaire producer extraordinaire.

Over the last decade, Tyler Perry has made a fortune with his Gospel plays, television sitcoms and movies. His next film "Medea Goes to Jail," to be released February 20th, should be another blockbuster as he continues to follow the same formula that has been his bread and butter. Also, there is hardly a night that you can turn on your tv and not see his sitcoms "House of Payne " and "Meet the Browns."

Maybe it's just me but I don't see what's so appealing about Tyler Perry's newer stuff. I mean the plays were funny enough the first couple of years when they first came to dvd but somehow the comedy got kind of old and when it was transferred to tv and the big screen, something got lost in the translation.

However, I'm probably in the minority on this one because come the weekend of the film's release, black church folks across the country will make pilgrimages to their local theaters to get a look at Medea.

Perry, is not the first one to use Christianese to move black folks.

Historically speaking, the Portuguese and other European exploiters first used the language as justification for slavery and later the colonization of Africa.

It was perfected by the slave owners as Christianese was used to inspire the enslaved Africans to pick cotton from sun up to sun down with the hope of a reward in "the sweet by and by."

During the Civil Rights Era, black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King became fluent in the dialect as they were able to convince thousands of black folks to join hands and sing "We Shall Overcome" as they were being bitten by police dogs and doused with water from fire hydrants.

Even today, politicians borrow very heavily from the language as they know one short speech at a black church will translate into a lot of votes come election day.

The strange thing about Christianese is that you don't even have to practice Christianity to speak it. Writer and motivational speaker, Iyanla Van Zandt sold a ton of books to church folks before they realized that she was not a Pentecostal evangelist but a Yoruba priestess.

Not only have entertainers turned the art of speakin' Christianese into a muti billion dollar industry but they have also shown that black folks will forgive a multitude of transgressions because a performer says "Thank you Jesus" at an awards show or puts one Gospel track on an otherwise vulgar cd.

Even with Tyler Perry's movies, how many good old sisters of the church who demonize all forms of Hip Hop bust a gut laughing when Medea pulls out a pistol or rolls a blunt?

The main problem with most Gospel plays that appeal to church folk intellect is the lack of substance. Opportunities to increase social awareness and to explore the depths of theology are replaced with weak story lines and slap stick comedy routines that went out of style with Amos and Andy.

I am not saying that performers like Perry, purposely, dumb-down their productions to reach their target audience but it is a common perception that , for many church folks, their theological understanding does not grow beyond the elementary Sunday school level and their biblical understanding is only a steady reaffirmation of what they learned before they were 10 years old.

So, a Gospel play or TV show can be totally secular but one well placed "Negro spiritual" will make it a big hit with black folks. Not to mention the warn out themes of "the prodigal child returning home," "praying for a good man," or " a sudden conversion after years of substance abuse."

Although, some may argue that these are, indeed, experiences that black folks go through, this is not the black experience in its totality. These are just symptoms of a greater problem that stems, at least partially, from the failure of African Americans to understand the full dynamics of African spirituality and the African American religious experience in the context of the social ills that we have faced in this country.

This raises the age old dilemma as to whether African American film makers are obligated to give us what we need or what will rake in the most dollars at the box office.

Maybe there are socially redemptive values in Tyler Perry productions that I just don't get. Perhaps somewhere between watching Medea threaten to whip somebody's behind and the grand finale that usually includes a Gospel group sing -along, some lives are changed for the better which would make the $10 spent on a movie ticket well worth the sacrifice. Could be that I just don't get it.

But then again, I don't speak Christianese.

Paul Scott, the Hip Hop TRUTH Minista," writes for No Warning Shots He can be reached at (919) 451-8283 or

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