Daniel White Hodge, PhD studied Hip Hop culture at Fuller as an FYI fellow with Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. His new book, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology will be released this August through InterVarsity Press. This article is an adaptation from the introduction and chapter 1.
Maybe you’ve noticed that Hip Hop often evokes strong reactions from Christians. Hip Hop doesn’t always make it easy for a Christian to look and say, “Wow, now there’s a people group I’d just love to learn from and minister with!” No, in fact, often people have quite the opposite reaction.
In turn, many run far from Hip Hop, never really understanding the culture, its people, and its message; moreover, some Christians even see it as “demonic”. When we’re willing to look closer, we might find that Hip Hop has a lot to offer the broader society. What, then, might it mean to both embrace and engage Hip Hop from a missional perspective?
The Hip Hop community is not necessarily the evil, violent, and hedonistic culture that the church has often made it out to be based on some of its representative voices. If we are to missionally engage culture, then we must begin to embrace Hip Hop’s good, bad, and ugly sides.
Culture & The Church
Over fifty years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr 1 laid down foundational work in his classic Christ and Culture that is extremely valuable in missionally engaging with the Hip Hop generation. I use this framework here for two reasons: 1) to see a broader understanding of Christian interaction with culture, and more specifically Hip Hop culture; and 2) to point out that God doesn’t always reveal himself in the ways we expect. Niebuhr observes several postures toward culture that Christians have taken over the centuries 2 :
- Avoidance: Christ versus culture; culture is bad, so leave it alone.
- Caution: Christ and culture in paradox; be careful, the “world” might influence you; in fact, how about you just come back to church now that we’re thinking about it, it’s safer here.
- Dialogue: Christ transforms culture; let’s talk about the issues at hand and see what happens; Christ might even “show up” in the mess!
- Appropriation: Christ of culture; Jesus is in every part of culture. We can see him in the good, the bad and the ugly. Christ begins to appropriate certain aspects of culture, like a song or a dance, that might not “fit” in a traditional church setting.
- Divine encounter: Christ above culture and the transformer of it; Jesus governs this world, both the sacred and profane. Christ begins to reveal himself even in the mire of culture. The divine encounter is about discovering God in a new way through culture.
Avoidance is not a friend to open and honest relationships. It tends to crush them because it says, “We really can’t be friends unless we both think, act and talk alike.” Avoidance is not in the language of the Great Commission, nor is it part of the gospel.
The notion that Christ shows up in strip clubs and foulmouthed battle raps is disconcerting. Yet Caution allows the Christian to venture out a bit and explore the world. Caution, however, does not really believe that God is in control and is actually based on fear. We end up forming what has been called the “sacred canopy” 3 : we can see out, but unless outsiders know the code, they can never come in.
But if we can somehow begin to move into Dialogue about theology and culture, then we stand a chance of embracing the “ethnos” (Greek for the word “nations” in the Great Commission) and beginning a new narrative. Dialogue can produce:
- Healthy discussions that do not always end in consensus
- Open minds that are challenged by new ideas and philosophies
- Authenticity in relationships without agenda
- The dismantling of the “us versus them” dIrene Chotomy
By dialogue, the church is able to see Hip Hop’s multifaceted and pluralistic theologies and not judge or criticize them, but work with them. A dialogue produces new critical thought and allows the “other side” a chance to state where they are coming from. Dialogue, for example, allows the Tupacs of the world to be heard, not disregarded prematurely based on their use of “foul language.”
While there isn’t necessarily a direct progression through these stages of interaction, the last two areas, Appropriation and Divine Encounter, seem to be the most missional areas for engaging a 21st century culture. Most Christians find Niebuhr’s concept of “divine encounter” conflicting because at times it is hard to imagine a God who would “condone” such profane behavior or language, but God does do some amazing things with “sinners” and those who have been labeled by church folk as “profane.” At this point, we are able to really see the depth of God working in Hip Hop through the murk and the mire; we see a God who has not given up on anyone and loves the pimp, the drug dealer, the prostitute, and the thug. In these two paradigms, we see that Heaven does in fact have a “ghetto for a G”! 4
American Christian culture also tends to misunderstand Hip Hop’s perspective on grace. Many rap theologians, such as KRS-One, discuss the issue of forgiveness from a “broken-vessel” perspective. Rap artists know their limitations as humans and as sinners, yet still wonder if Christ will forgive all of their sins based on the message that they—and so many other youth—have received in church. Other Hip Hop artists such as Ice-Cube and Lauryn Hill 5 contend that there is a God who forgives all sin and that all are equal at the cross. These artists have also spoken of Jesus talking directly to them to help reach this generation of young people. The difficulty in receiving these messages from these particular artists is their own irreverent spirituality. 6
Hip Hop culture minces no words, mixing the sacred and the profane in almost all of its music and lifestyle (Read Part 1 of this series for more context). The urban church has often seen Hip Hop culture as a “secular” entity that is devoid of God and any kind of spirituality. And yet a certain level of spirituality is reached when one is able to be open and honest with how they feel regarding life, love, culture, and Jesus. One of the spiritual messages of Hip Hop—“God loves you no matter what”—empowers Hip Hoppers to feel that they can help transform the world. 7
Having a divine encounter in culture means looking again at Hip Hop’s perspective on sexuality, film, music, language, relationships, and then merging those ideas with a biblical hermeneutic to discover new ways to understand evangelism, salvation, church, culture and even God. We move from being consumers of God’s love to participants in God’s loving kingdom. The divine encounter can actually happen when you allow yourself to find God in new ways; Hip Hop can be a place where God encounters you in mess, joy, pain, suffering, love, and this thing called life. The question is: are we willing to take that risk?
- Hopefully by now you will have had a conversation with your students regarding Hip Hop (See Part 1 action point 3). What did you learn about yourself after listening to that conversation? What did you learn about the youth you work with? Where are some connection points? What are some areas that are difficult to embrace? What are some areas that just seem too far out there to deal with? Where might God be showing up in the muddy middle? Moreover, where are some connections to your own muddy middle that might even connect with some of these youth and Hip Hop?
- Check this video out: http://www.youtube.com/user/7575505B#p/u/3/oxXxWlWu8CU Now, let’s talk: What points does Tupac make in relation to Christ and culture? What parts of Tupac make this message difficult to embrace? What did Pac mean by his faith to God? How was it contextualized for him? How did Pac pay homage to God? Explain that. How did Pac connect to the story of Job? How is this image of Tupac different than what has been portrayed in the media? What did Pac mean when he said he was doing “God’s work?” What connections did he make to Hip Hop missions? What do we do with all of this in the context of our own ministries?
Adapted from The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology by Daniel White Hodge. Copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com. http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3732
- Concepts adapted from Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1951). ↩
- Also check out JR Rozko’s article confronting Niebuhr’s paradigm here: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/2007/07/a-theology-of-culture-for-your-ministry/ ↩
- A term first used by Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy; Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967). ↩
- One of Tupac’s famous quotes, which came from his song, “Does Heaven have a ghetto?” In other words, can God handle me? Is there a place for me in this mythical place derived in Western minds that seems to shut me out just as it does in real life? Is God just another cop waiting to beat me down? Deep questions from the Hip Hop prophet Tupac. ↩
- See John Teter and Alex Gee, Jesus and the Hip-Hop Prophets (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003). ↩
- Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1998). ↩
- Michael Eric Dyson, Holler If You Hear Me (New York: Basic Civitas, 2001), p. 205. ↩