Watching “The Book of Clarence” shows we’ve been losing our organized religion

I never heard of a biblical comedy-drama until seeing the trailer for the Jeymes Samuel film “The Book of Clarence.” Samuel’s 2019 Netflix cowboy flick “The Harder They Fall” was extremely impressive, so I knew I would be somewhere, at some movie house checking his new work. 

While sitting in a jet-black theater well after 10 p.m. on a weeknight, enjoying “The Book of Clarence” –– laughing embarrassingly at the age-old biblical references like “the amount of money sandals cost and how Jesus probably gets them for free because he’s the Messiah” – I constantly found myself distracted. 

The distraction had nothing to do with the writing, acting or the plot, as the film is full of humor and easy to follow – but my grandma Thelma “Fam-ma” Gill. Fam-ma was my biggest distraction. Fam-ma is not alive; we lost her in 1997, and no, I didn’t get a visit from her ghost. I was distracted because I kept wondering what she would say, if she saw me enjoying this movie, which may have been considered blasphemous back in the ’90s. 

The film follows Clarence, (LaKeith Stanfield) and his best friend Elijah, (RJ Cyler), two poor Hebrew men in A.D. 33. The duo lose a chariot race due to various unforeseen circumstances. This puts Clarence in debt to a loan shark named Jedediah, who could potentially kill him if he doesn’t settle up. In an act of desperation, also after experimenting with opium, Clarence comes up with a plan to fix all of his problems by imitating the most popular guy in Jerusalem who happens to be the savior, Jesus Christ. 

“Wake up.” Fam-ma would say on early Sunday mornings, around 7 a.m. “Let’s go.” 

My grandma was as smooth as steam-pressed silk. She did not have to yell or force us grandkids to come to church, because if we were not ready, then she was leaving on her own, and that rarely happened. We loved Fam-ma so much that we just wanted to be around her, so even though most of my cousins who stayed with her frequently thought church was boring, we would still go on occasion. And we felt like royalty when we entered the building because my grandma was a very respected woman in the house of the Lord. 

She was one of the lead singers on the choir, a founding member, and made fried crabs that were so good, it wasn’t strange to see the greedy reverend at our small dinner table on weekends. This may not sound like a big deal now, but having the reverend at your crib back in the ’90s is equivalent to hosting the Obamas or Beyoncé today. Or maybe how a white person would feel about hosting Taylor Swift. Preachers, with their cash-stuffed pockets, processed hair, custom suits and long shiny Cadillacs were the hoods’ biggest celebrities. It’s funny now, because even though the pastor had to know that we didn’t have a lot, it never stopped him from filling up his plate as if he was never going eat again. He probably could’ve financed our dinner with his pocket money but never chipped in, and this never seemed to bother my grandma. 

Churches were the epicenters of the Black community and to be taken seriously at all times, which is the main reason I enjoy the idea behind “The Book of Clarence” so much.

Fam-ma was of a different time, from an era where you can have a beautiful life without being surrounded by fancy material possessions or even the bare necessities at times, as respect in the church was the currency she valued. This basically means that even though by definition she was financially poor, grandma was rich. For context, you have to understand that having respect in the church was a big deal. 

Churches were the epicenters of the Black community and to be taken seriously at all times, which is the main reason I enjoy the idea behind “The Book of Clarence” so much. The fact that we can freely make jokes about church, even though we were raised to believe that church was not a joke. If you needed marriage counseling, you went to the church, if you are struggling with a class in school, you get tutored by someone at the church. As a matter of fact, if you needed a small business loan, letter of recommendation, or a lawyer who could represent you for free, you went to the church. The churches had a history of filling in the many places where society failed Black people. So, in many ways, it was not a joke.

For African Americans, the foundation of our religious experience originated during slavery. The word of God was the only thing that allowed captured, enslaved African people to survive the horrors of chattel slavery as it gave them something lovely and positive to look forward to after being, beat, humiliated, overworked, raped, degraded, separated from their families and sometimes murdered. The idea that they will only be slaves on earth, but if they are obedient and convert to Christianity then they will get to live glorious lives in heaven after they die. Ironically those same religious teachings came from the very people who were capturing and enslaving the Africans. Delusional scholars like Cotton Mather who wrote “The Negro Christianized: An Essay to Excite and Assist That Good Work, the Instruction of Negro Servants in Christianity,” and Richard Baxter who wrote “Baxter’s Directions to Slave-holders,” published text encouraging white slave owners to own as many slaves as possible – telling them that they even though they were stealing, punishing and beating Black people, it was God’s work and spiritually justifiable as long as they introduced the subjects of their torture to Christianity.

Captured African people listened to their slave masters, became accustomed to believing the God that was forced on them and through the years it became tradition.

Captured African people listened to their slave masters, became accustomed to believing the God that was forced on them and through the years it became tradition. The same tradition that would never allow my grandma to question the pastor who proudly ate at her dinner table for free, without any intent to ever contribute anything – not chips, not a bag of ice, no plastic cups or anything other than praise like, “Girl you sure can fry some crabs!” My grandma saw that pastor, a man whose job it was to spread the word of God, as an extension of God. I just saw him as a bum. 

Some of us grandkids, mainly me would question this. “Why is this bum eating for free? I’m hungry! I want a plate! Why do I have to wait?” I would get yelled at or sent outside for these kinds of comments. In a way, I felt like Clarence – taking on this idea of the place of God in the midst of oppression. Does God truly love me if God allows me to starve around people with full bellies? People with enough money to eat better get decide to take food away from me. 

I tweeted  a funny meme that was sent to me the other day relaying this message. It’s a picture of a Jesus-like man holding up a small child, that reads, “Sorry kid, I gotta go. I know you must be hungry, but someone at the mall is praying for a parking spot.” Because how does God choose? How does God choose who gets to be rich, and who gets to be poor? And why did a poor a kid like me have to grow up in a neighborhood full of drugs and gun violence and death? Do I deserve this?

As I got older I began to question religious leaders and how they can represent God, while collecting money from people who live in poverty and then parking shiny Cadillacs in front of them every Sunday. These guys clearly had money and never shared enough with their congregation members, who were often struggling in my opinion. I had no problem tearing down the men at the top of this profession; however, I never questioned God. And I don’t know if I didn’t question God because I grew to be such a strong believer or because my grandma instilled those religious values in me early on, that fear of questioning a higher power, or if it was a combination of it all. The end result kind of looks like me almost never stepping foot in a church, and I am not alone. 

According to a recent poll conducted by Barna, “Teenagers today are the most non-Christian generation in American history as only four out of 100 teens hold a true biblical worldview.” 

Hip-hop, which is known to be an edgy genre but always rooted in religion has even gone off of the deep end. Mega stars Meek Mill and Drake released a song called “Amen” with lyrics that praised for “Real N****s and Bad B****ches”

Now there’s a lot of bad b****hs in the building (Amen)
A couple real n****s in the building (Amen)
I’m finna kill n****s in the building (Amen)
I tell the waiter fifty bottles and she tell me say when
And I say church (Preach)
We make it light up like a church (Preach)
She wanna f**k and I say church (Preach)
Do Liv on Sunday like a church (Preach)

I don’t think one factor can pinpoint this historic transition; however, I do believe generations of young people were sick of seeing their moms and grandmoms starve while religious leaders went back for extra plates. The combination of capitalism and its effects on how churches are ran in addition to our need to always want more pit us potential members and followers against pastors. Also everyone has followers now, not just pastors.

Back in the day you had to be called to preach, meaning that God had to come to you in a dream or vision and instruct you to be a religious leader. That meant preachers used to be the only guys who got paid to dish out knowledge cocktailed with biblical literature. Open your phone today and you’ll see how many of your friends who aren’t preachers spend their time staring into the camera dishing out knowledge that can often be spiritual as well. You don’t have to be called by God anymore; everybody’s a motivational speaker, everybody is some kind of religious expert with a strong testimony, everybody’s a master critic, everybody is an expert whose opinions deserve to be sold –– or at least in the opinion of the person dishing opinions.

This reality makes church less serious and gives us the luxury to poke fun at it, which is how I imagine “The Book of Clarence” got made – a biblical tale full of beautiful women, smoking weed, scamming and a whole lot of laughs that us kids, who was taught to never take church as a joke, can laugh at now. I wonder if the changes in society would have moved my grandma, and if she was alive, allow her to sit in the theater and watch the film with me. 

The sum of all of this leaves me with one question, being that if religious culture can change this much in my 40 years of living, will there even be any churches left in the next 100 years? 

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