Beloved, with great lament, I must say that far too many black churches—and a certain enterprising preacher from EX Ministries—are casting stones on yet another gifted prophet and artist. Personal Jesus: A Reflection on Tonex is an ode to Tonex’s classic urban anthem. As Kanye West says, folk need to get the roses while they can still smell them. In this case, I am extending an honorary ring pop to Tonex. I will offer musings—some theological, some not—on every song from Pronounced Toe-nay.

Finally, beloved, I want to say one more thing. There is a certain gospel artist who “denounced” Tonex at his live DVD recording. Understood. You are entitled to your own theological opinion. But, and I am sure you probably know this already, your career would not be possible without Tonex. What you said hurt him (I imagine), and pierced my soul with a Psalms-like lament. I do not know if you have apologized to Tonex, but if you have not my brother, you really should. Jesus would.

So glad I know you, and don't know of you
‘Cause you a friend of mine,
I talk to you all the time
So glad I know you, and don’t know of you
You’ve always been by my side
And you’re my personal, personal, Jesus
- Tonex


I love Tonex to death. Anyone who knows me well knows that the ringpop CD—next to my Bible—exerts the most formative influence on my theological imagination. Tonex, despite his flaws, is a prophet sent from God to tell the truth about life in urban America. I will defend this claim to anyone with the temerity to challenge it. Check out Tonex’s corpus; he is dum prolific.

Concerning The Naked Truth, I will only make one point. His sexual orientation does not bear on his capacity to offer up songs that glorify the triune God in the earth. Homosexuals, after all, are human beings too, fashioned in the imago Dei—despite Bayard Rustin’s disappearance from many Civil Rights historiographies; despite what horrifying baseball bat beatings at Morehouse College would have you believe; and despite older black males’ tendency to reduce womanist theology to the rants of “lesbos”. I digress; let us return to Mr. Nureau Ink himself.

Personal Jesus convinced me of Da T.R.U.T.H.’s eloquent proposition (my paraphrase): yes, I can serve God early/ like I’m 13 going on 30. Furthermore, Personal Jesus as a track on Pronounced-Toenay, stands within the audacious transition of African-American evangelicalism (the type that some of our mainline white brothers and sisters find threatening: think Riverside Church and Derrick Bell’s Faces At the Bottom of the [Progressive Religious] Well).

Personal Jesus shook speakers in folks’ jeeps and took over San Diego streets in the late 1990’s. More specifically, it appeared on an independent release that he sold out of his trunk in 1997 (how hip-hop is that?!?). Three years later, after a heated label bidding war, he dropped that “holy ‘indo” with the commercial release Pronounced Toe-nay in 2000. This tune, Personal Jesus, is an anthem for a generation of black Christians who, unfortunately, don’t know many spirituals and hymns, but—thankfully—love Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Yolanda Adams, and Mary Mary.

Read the lyrics closely, and discern a sweet serenade about a Deity who is, strangely, like a close companion. What an audacious proposition! You mean…the Savior of the Universe….also desires to be….my friend?!? My God, my God, my God. It makes me want to leap for joy!!!! To riff of Dr. Aaron L. Parker (my pastor), Tonex’s claim that Jesus is personal is about a God who is transcendent and immanent, who is absent and yet present, who is a Sacred Stranger and yet the Friend of the lowly.

And then, there is Tonex’s great phrase: “So glad I know you, and don’t know of you”. Often, in religious studies departments—and sometimes seminaries—we idolize dispassionate objectivity. We lift up an ideal of distance from the object under discussion. But this ideal—all too often—is an idol! I’ll be damned, literally, if I come through seminary and come out saying I merely know of God. I want to know God, as Tonex says in another song, in all the fellowship of his suffering.

A Brief Aside: What type of theologian is Tonex?

In one interview Tonex asserts the following: “People forget that I’m a pastor first. Most people don’t know that I have theological training”.

Tonex, it seems to me, is a biblical and pastoral theologian with an accent on healing and a healthy theology of the body—think SavedSexySanctified. Tonex constructs provisional frameworks for knowing God that are rooted in implicit pragmatic philosophical commitments and a hip-hop tinged willingness to bring Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Marvin Gaye into conversation with biblical texts for the healing of the body of Christ and the world. I will unpack this claim as I look walk through other tracks on Tonex’s album.

Simply knowing of God—and not actually knowing God—may be commendable epistemologically, but is lamentable spiritually. Like Tonex, I am so glad that I know Jesus Christ as the Master Teacher, the Dependent Disciple Maker, and the Friend of the OutKast (Shoutout to Andre 3000 and Big Boi). I resist non-relational talk about God. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, Savior of the World, and so many our superlatives—all of which, of course, he surpasses. But there is one descriptor that is precious to me: the Spirit-kissed prophet from Nazareth is my personal Jesus. This wellspring of intimacy with Jesus renews my civic engagement, recharges my commitment to serve the body of Christ, and reignites my desire do good to all as I have opportunity.

Postscript:

Please stop comparing Tonex to so-called “secular” artists. Most people who say artists secular, I suspect, are subscribing to conceptual frameworks that they do not fully understand. Think about what secular means for yourself. Tonex is, in the inimitable words of Cornel West, a voice and not an echo. He is not Prince, Kanye West, Michael Jackson, or whomever else. He is, instead, as good as—perhaps better than—these artists, depending on one’s criteria.

Signing off,
Andrew Wilkes