Unless you have been on another planet, you are aware that the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl L.
You also probably know that National Football League MVP Cam Newton was sacked six times, knocked down a dozen-plus times and ended the game in a state of frustration and even rage. This followed, of course, weeks of public discussion of whether many fans don't approve of his joyful, edgy, hip-hop approach to celebrating life, football, his team and his own talents.
This led to the press conference from hell, when Newton -- forced by the NFL to take questions in the same space, within earshot, of the Broncos' victory pressers -- had little to say, while his eyes said everything. A sample:
What's your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn't play the way it normally plays?
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."
You get the idea. With that as a backdrop, let's move into GetReligion territory -- in the form of a long, long Vice Sports piece by Eric Nusbaum about the Newton family and, especially, a Sunday morning spent listening to the superstar's Pentecostal preacher dad, Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. The headline: "The House that Built Cam."
While it may sound strange, my goal here is to compliment this piece for seeking out Cecil Newton's voice yet, at the same time, knock the final results because I suspect that this feature only includes the parts of the preacher's message that fit into a familiar stereotype.
You know the stereotype: The African-American church is all about style and self-help sermons, rather like Oprah in a pulpit. Thus, the emphasis is on how Cam Newton is truly the father's son, yet with no hint about whether the quarterback remains fully connected to, well, the Father and the Son. When the quarterback steps to the line of scrimmage, what are all of those prayers about?
Newton, Sr., made it clear that he was not interested in helping Vice crank out the "same tired story about his son." That would be a story about his son's University of Florida arrest for possession of a stolen laptop, the honor-code violation and the pay-for-play scandal at Auburn University, which involved their church's finances, as well. No one mentions Cam's girlfriend and their new baby.
Instead, the story focuses on a few minutes out of what was clearly a long sermon by Newton, Sr. At one point the preacher says it's time to conclude and then he rolls on for 30 more minutes. The magazine is not interested in most of this, since that's probably all the Jesus stuff.
The theme here is self-empowerment and celebrity style. Here is half of the template in action:
Holy Zion Center of Deliverance would exist with or without Cam Newton, whether or not he was a superstar football player. But a few moments earlier, sitting in his office, Cecil Newton had mentioned that this church was a sacred place for him, not just because of the word of God but because of his family. This was the village that raised his sons. If I was going to write something about this place, I had to understand that. In a way, being there for Jesus and being there for Cam were the same act, because religion and family were just that deeply intertwined.
A few minutes later, the tormented look having disappeared from his face, and the disciplinarian tone having been discarded in favor of the slow-building cadence of a preacher, Cecil Newton would be stalking around the room with a microphone; he would have the boys in the front row of the church hitting the dab. Even if they primarily are here for Jesus, they are here for Cam, too.
No question that the preacher has style. As Nusbaum notes, the closest thing he had ever seen to this style of preaching was "watching clips of ministers from the civil-rights era, or hearing Bobby Womack or James Brown records." Ah, there's that view of the black church again -- politics and style.
This brings us to the key message here. This is long, but crucial:
Live with God, he commanded. And he sang, and he danced, and the keyboard jumped. "Life is too short to live it based on other people's expectations," he said, which maybe was a line meant for me. Because after that, he talked about his son Cam. He spoke about Cam's own struggles when he left the University of Florida after facing the fallout from his arrest and the prospect of yet another season backing up Tim Tebow. He transferred to obscure Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, "where it ain't nothing but cows." Cecil spoke about being yourself, no matter what people thought.
"Gone are the days of just preaching 'What did Peter say? What did John say?'" Cecil explained to me later. "It's now about what we say that is going to empower people. Those are farfetched characters in the minds of most people sitting in the congregation. Who is Peter? What did he say? We can exegete the scripture and use theology and all that but how does it apply to now? Two thousand-plus years later? What does that really mean today, for any ethnicity? How does it apply to us and how do we grow and gain from it?"
It was about showing your faith and living it together as a community. Call and response. Dancing. Needing to take a drink of water or wipe your face with a towel in the middle of the sermon. Even hitting the dab. I remembered that Cam's high school quarterback coach Slaton said he thought that Cam's playing and leadership were influenced by watching his father preach. In the moment, it made sense to me. Cam wasn't in church that day, but I could definitely see how church was in Cam.
So there is the bottom line and, apparently, it doesn't involve anything specific about Jesus. Well, maybe it did. What was the sermon actually about? What did the bishop actually say? At the altar call, and you know there was one, what were people asked to affirm?
No, this is all about the black church that the media knows and loves so well. You know, this church:
This is where Cam Newton comes from: an institution where being African-American and excellent, African-American and respected, African-American and optimistic are normal conditions. A place where, unlike the NFL, and unlike our society at large, a black man is fully visible, and fully human.
That is true. That is important. But, friends and neighbors, I would be stunned if that was the whole story on this Sunday in church. Instead, the big idea here is: "Being there for Jesus and being there for Cam were the same act."