Briefly Noted: On Theology, Rap, and Pop Culture

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Admittedly, it is a cultivated taste, but I have come in recent years to have an interest in rap and hip-hop. That’s one reason why the recent edition of The Chronicle Review peaked my interest with an essay by Kristin Van Tassel entitled, “The Professor Lady Spits Rhymes” (October 12, 2012). In the essay, English professor Kristin Van Tassel describes her efforts to increase the paltry number of male students who take her writing and reading courses at Bethany College.

On the advice of a male student, Van Tassel offered a course in rap. To do so was, not surprisingly, a bit of a stretch for “a middle-aged white woman who lives on a 40-acre farm” and does not own a television. Yet, she created a January course called “The Poetics and Politics of Rap: From Run DMC to Lil Wayne.” She required students to buy one textbook, Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. After much reading and research to teach the course, Van Tassel realized that she “had wandered into deeply unfamiliar territory” and so this course would need to be student-led.

Van Tassel details that the course took the flavor (flav) of a “lab” wherein students took turns rapping free-style. The most frightening moment for Van Tassel was when the class suggested that they should all perform individual raps in front of the student body and faculty. The catch: the teacher would also perform. As she recounts, “I was scared. I possessed neither the competence nor the confidence to write and perform a rap.” And yet Van Tassel wrote up a rap and practiced it at home – her two young sons (mortified by the thought) insisted she never (ever) perform it in public, in private, or anywhere in between.

In the end, the class performance was a success, with the students performing their raps in front of 200 students and faculty. Even Van Tassel’s rap (which she describes as a rather drab and plodding assemblage) was cheered by the student body. After the performance, Van Tassel required students to write up rhetorical analyses of various rap songs. She discovered their interest in rap led to observations that one might find in a “normal” English course. Yet the primary reflection Van Tassel offered was on pedagogy: “Rap did bring male students to my classroom, but more important, it delivered a freestyle remix of the classroom dynamic in which students choreograph their own learning.”

After having read the article, I amused myself by imagining some of my colleagues and friends rapping in class (think: Nathan Finn or Jason Lee, in toboggans, unleashing some rhymes). Not that a few of them couldn’t do it. I’m thinking of Tony Merida (you drop a beat; he’ll make it speak) and Owen Strachan (you provide the flow; he’ll make it go).

But before you think this little blogpost is entirely frivolous, allow me to make a couple of notes on why this article peaked my interest. First, theology is an inherently and inescapably contextual task. Theology is always conceived of and articulated within a social and cultural context. It is done by means of a particular language (one of the most deeply ingressed aspects of any culture), via the concepts offered by a particular culture, and in conversation with the questions raised by that culture. For that reason, it serves pastors and theologians well to spend a little bit of time getting to know the poet-philosophers (musicians, rappers, actors, screenwriters, directors) whose influence is so pervasive upon the people to whom we hope to minister.

When one pays close attention to the pop culture of the 90s and the early years of this century, one notices that certain brands of nihilism have dominated pop culture. Shows such as Seinfeld and the Simpsons, movies such as Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, and bands such as Kurt Cobain and Linkin Park give evidence of this nihilism. They not only reflect the nihilism woven throughout American society, and enhance and broadcast that nihilism in such a way that it becomes even more pervasive. (See Thomas Hibbs’ Shows about Nothing for a lively and concise treatment of nihilism in pop culture.)

Second, we Americans tend to encourage our international missionaries to take their cultural contexts seriously, while at the same time not taking our own context seriously. One way that we do this is by turning up our noses, and even mocking, the cultures and sub-cultures that surround us. We make belittling jokes about pastors or youth pastors who seek to preach the gospel in a manner that is meaningful to these culture and sub-cultures. Instead of belittling those who try to minister meaningfully, we need to encourage them to do it well, and follow suit ourselves.

Another way we do this is by considering it acceptable for a pastor or theologian to remain conversant with “high culture” by reading elite journals (e.g. The New York Review of Books, The New Criterion, or First Things) or following avante-garde art (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp). At the same time, however, we look down our noses at those who want to remain conversant by listening to “low culture” or popular music (e.g. rap, hip-hop, country). A final way that we do this is by considering it helpful to study older manifestations of Western culture, such as Bach, Rembrandt, or Shakespeare, but considering it frivolous to study more recent manifestations of Western culture, such as U2, Slavoj Žižek, or J. K. Rowling.

To conclude: Because Christian ministry is inescapably contextual, we face the challenge and opportunity of getting to know our own context well enough that we can proclaim the gospel in a way that is both faithful (to the Scriptures) and meaningful (to our context). This contextual ministry cannot be marked by snobbery (toward our own culture, toward low culture, or toward recent culture), but by a humble and joyful desire to see Christ honored among all peoples and cultures.

 

 

 

  12Comments

  1. Matt Brogli   •  

    Excellent and needed post. Contextualization is not simply an international missions issue. It is at the heart of all intentional ministry. It is increasingly becoming more rare to find people in our churches listening to the Gaithers in their cars. We should know the culture well enough to teach the unchanging story to a culture that rapidly changes. Thanks for the good word, Bruce! When’s your next rap battle?

  2. Kenneth "KaO" Grissett   •  

    Contextualization is what made the Gospel so expansive from my amateur understanding and what has continued to make Christianity so viable in different cultures. I think that many people unintentionally take the process of contextualization as a means for making the Gospel convenient for a culture and try to shy away from it due to a lack of understanding. I believe that while it is a challenging process , being which should be presented 1st and foremost theologically sound in doctrine. It’s design is for finding the lost right where they are and ministering into their lives the Gospel of salvation through Jesus . It is a way that takes into account their current way of thinking living in acting and how that aligns to a biblical worldview. Hip Hop/ POP culture is in and will always be (until Christ returns) in need of this message. Growing up as hybrid Minister’s Kid/Hip Hop Head I left the church as a teenager because I didn’t feel like the messages they preached were relevant to my life. Now as mid-20′s Christian/ Hip Hop Indie etc consumer I realise how relevant Christ is and will forever be and also how He has called us to reach out to all men universally just as He has reached out to us through His grace. There is no room for selfishness in our salvation if we plan to live on mission. It is best to have a understanding of the world and culture that we live in to show others how to be in the world but not of the world as Christ design for us to live. Thank you for this called to arms Mr. Ashford hope we all grow better equip to minister in our culture in a way that engages them through the power of the holy spirit.

  3. Darrick   •  

    Bruce, thoroughly enjoyed this article and the importance of understanding our contexts and engaging them with the gospel for the advancement of the Kingdom.

  4. Jennifer Pappalardo   •  

    Bruce,

    Great article! I would also add that observing art for any culture helps you to not only understand the philosophy that is expanding and permeating through that culture, but also the emotions. For instance, I would say listening to rap music might give you an glimpse of a culture that needs to feel strong or tough or a desperate need for recognition. I think that’s an important point because emotions sometimes help us to lean towards compassion instead of judgment, which is an important part of reflecting who Christ is.

    Anyways, just a thought. Loved this post!

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Matt, thanks for joining the convo man. As for my next “battle rap” venue? I’m not doing any these days. Just chillin’ w my gold tooth frillin’.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    KaO, thanks man. Great message. You are right on to say that our rejection of contextualization is usually out of selfishness and unwillingness to reach out.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Darrick, great to hear from you. thanks for checking it w us here at BtT.

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jenn, that’s right. Pop culture allows us to see the deep-seated emotions and emotional attachments, which are every bit as important for understanding a culture as the more cognitive and intellectual aspects.

  9. Keith   •  

    Bruce, I really appreciated this. It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a brother teaching apologetics to a class the majority of whose students are ethnic minorities living in the inner city. Required texts include C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and Norman Geisler. When asked if he had considered including content addressing challenges to the gospel that these students frequently encounter in their communities, he admitted the oversight and recognized the value and and necessity of doing so.

    It was good to see someone else asking a question that has long been on my mind. Why is it that the American church has so readily seen the necessity of becoming culturally conversant when it comes to overseas missions but less so when it comes to stateside ministry? Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Christopher Davis   •  

    Great article! Concise, but necessary. Conservative and open. Great job on riding that fine line.

    “theology is an inherently and inescapably contextual task”; “Christian ministry is inescapably contextual”. Context, context, context, is always key. Sadly, cultural context is set aside with concern for orthodoxy, but it doesn’t have to be. Both can be present with proper balance.

    Thanks for being a voice in this matter.

  11. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Keith and Christopher, great point. Context matters. Most apologetics texts place emphasis on answering questions the way they have asked by certain mainstream American and European skeptics. Its fine for some books to focus on this, but we need books and apologists who “speak the language” and “know the concerns” of a myriad of other cultures and sub-cultures.

  12. Scott Bridget   •  

    Well put Bruce. I’d even take the next step and say that those who aim to be theologically relevant but express their theology and worship in ways that fail to connect with those around them are neither being theologically relevant or faithful to that which they profess.

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