Monday, January 2, 2012

The Hip-Hop Church, by Smith and Jackson

My friend Harry Riggs once said, "books choose you." So recently I was reading James Cone's book The Spirituals and the Blues and a book that is on my list to read next is Thomas Oden's How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Well, "in between" reads, an old friend of mine who came to Christ in the late 90s and who was a Hip-Hop DJ for a number of years passed on this book The Hip-Hop Church . I was intrigued, especially given the titles that I was working on, and had a sense that this book had chosen me. I'm about halfway through currently, but I've found myself extremely enlightened to Hip-Hop culture and some of its redeeming benefits. In much of the book Smith and Jackson describe the influence of Hip-Hop not only among black kids and not only among black and white urban kids, but among a huge percentage of youth in general. How often have I seen the middle-class white kid listening to rap and wearing FUBU attire, baggy pants, etc.? This caught my attention to think intentionally about not only my 14-year-old foster son who is African-American and also from the "hood" of Lincoln (as much as there might be a hood in Lincoln) but also of the middle-class kids I've been around over the years. What is it about Hip-Hop through rap that has such a powerful influence among youth?

Well, Smith and Jackson pull no punches going after both the black church and white church and church in general for making certain assumptions about Hip-Hop by simply labeling the music "worldly" and withdrawing from it as a result. The authors challenge the Church to study the music of Hip-Hop much like Paul intently studied the cultural forms of Athens in Acts 17. They challenge us to approach the Hip-Hop world as a missionary might approach a foreign country and culture by seeking to contextualize the message of Christ:

…hip-hop is more than the art of rap; it began to meet core needs of a generation before the generation could articulate the needs they had. Some needs in the lives of the urban African-American community, in fact, are being met only by hip-hop

However, this has not been recognized by many in the Euro-American evangelical community. Thus very few in that community honestly seek to reach this culture or see any redeeming value in hip-hop, let alone any way to use it for the kingdom. This is the tension about Christendom and hip-hop: most Euro-American evangelicals are so separate from “the world” that they don’t really know what issues urban people are facing.

Hip-hop, in fact calls attention to the failures of government, schools, police, preachers and churches, bringing them to light while shaming them at the same time.

Now I am not saying that all rap artists and their music are all righteous. There are serious contradictions within hip-hop and in their messages, lifestyles and overall representations of the culture. These artists need to be held accountable in some ways regarding the content of their raps and its impact in the lives of the most impressionable students they influence.

Still, when people from the dominant culture or a dominant-culture mindset are dissing rap music and hip-hop culture as if they had no redeeming value, in essence they’re saying that those who hip-hop’s messages are coming from, and those they are being sent to, have no redeeming value either.

You yourself may see hip-hop as an unredeemable hindrance to the kingdom. I ask you to open your mind to the truth that God created all things to give him glory but that people who are separated from God take these good things and just mess them up. However, when these things are touched again by God, the content changes; the vessel may remain the same but its content has changed. Isaiah acknowledged that he was “a man of unclean lips” and came from a “people of unclean lips,” but when God touched his mouth he was cleansed. And when God asked, “Who will go for us?” he said, “Send me!” (see Isaiah 6:5-8). Similarly, I come from the hip-hop culture, a people of unclean lips, and I am unclean….  The Hip-Hop Church, p. 81

While this portion of the book speaks to "people of power," Smith and Jackson also have some harsh critiques of the black church as well, that much of their own church has lost connection with the everyday struggles of people, have fallen into an excessive materialism and are filled with hypocritical people and messages. They make the case for how many people in the black church have lost touch with Christ and also have been very defective in teaching and discipling people:

When Boquintella gets pregnant, suddenly the church is all in an uproar. But when did the church talk about sex and help her and others understand sexual pressure and provide a way of escape in order that she could live a sexually pure life?... The church that does not help students to comprehend the life, death and life again of Jesus Christ in a very real and practical way is part of the problem rather than the solution. What an indictment on the church that we have the power of God through his Son Jesus Christ yet fall short…

The lack of teaching (in the African-American Church) about a Christ who understands our needs, who was tempted yet didn’t sin, and who overcame the obstacles we face with authority and power creates a separation between us and God, who understands all that we face. The void of teaching that this Christ was incarnational will continue to keep hope away from those who are seeking to understand God. Tupac sought to express this in his cut “Black Jesuz.” He talks about how this Jesuz hurts like thugs hurt and hangs out with those involved in illegal activity. Even the change of z replacing s is his attempt to help others see Jesus as incarnational. This Jesus is a saint who is not worshiped behind closed doors in the building of a church but is worshiped every day on the block. Tupac’s cut screams out that we need to see, hear and realize that God has not forgotten us, that he cares and understands yet has a better way if we trust him. People who are too busy criticizing Tupac and hip-hop will not see the value in using this as a bridge with someone who is looking for clarity about Jesus.  The Hip-Hop Churchpp. 122-24

So this book is the furthest thing from angry black men railing against white people. As we've said at Grace Chapel before, Smith and Jackson very much appear to be "equal opportunity offenders." But the basis of much of the book is that: a) the Church doesn't speak honestly to the struggles, hardships and difficulties of life, especially life in the hood; b) Hip-Hop does; c) the Church has gotten distracted on many points of its mission; d) so the Church has become "separatist" from cultural forms in many ways and e) is also hypocritical as well. As a result, the Church is generally removed from and disinterested in hip-hop culture 
to its own detriment.

So the challenge Smith and Jackson present is this:

We need to approach hip-hoppers with an awareness that hip-hop is marked by a distinct consciousness and a desire to discuss spiritual issues and to bring this culture to a better place.  We must come not with Euro-evangelical prejudgment but with an open heart and mind to bring to hip-hop culture a better, clearer understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Actually the strongest testimony we can have in the hip-hop culture is not what we say but what we do and how we do it.

“Refuse the awful temptation to scale down your dreams to the level of the event which is your immediate experience.” This call by Howard Thurman aptly expresses our challenge as Christ followers as we seek to create connections with those of this generation whose dreams of a better life are bigger than the temptation to get pregnant, smoke weed or join a gang. Hip-hop through rap makes this connect, even if it can’t fulfill its promise. When will we wake up and flip the script? The Hip-Hop Churchp. 128


Jake said...

Mike - Good post. Just so you know, I've read How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind and I just finished Dr. Oden's follow-up book, the African Memory of Mark. (In fact, in about an hour and a half I'll have a post about Oden's work going up at my blog.) Would enjoy getting together to talk about them sometime. :)

Amy Bowman said...

Excellent post. I so appreciate your love of reading and I agree with Pastor Riggs, books choose you!
I sat in an hour long class taught by Efram Smith and Phil Jackson while at a conference and loved the perspective they brought.
I feel really blessed to have a Pastor like you. Thank you for sharing your insights on this blog!

Jay Taylor said...

Have you checked out the Impilo project?

It explores Hip Hop culture, the influences and the consequences, and attempts to use the Gospel and media to reach a generational need.

I suggest visiting the link and then checking back from time to time to see what comes of it.