Briefly Noted: On Theology, Rap, and Pop Culture

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.




“The Pagans Believe the Earth Is Round; Therefore It Must Be Flat”–What I’ve Been Reading (7)

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century monk, wrote The Christian Topography to contend that the earth was flat. Actually, he argued for more than that. Comas declared that the flat-earth view was the only truly Christian view, and that any Christian who entertained the notion of a round earth was tainted with worldy wisdom and had compromised the gospel.  Cosmas didn’t arrive at this position in a vacuum.  He was responding to pagan philosophers, such as Proclus (ca 411-485), who used the Ptolemaic model of the universe to argue against the Christian doctrine of creation. According to Ptolemy, the world consisted of a round earth surrounded by concentric spheres, and these spheres were embedded (in ascending order) with the moon, sun, planets and finally the stars. The pagans, following Aristotle, argued that the earth’s shape–that of a circle–is a manifestation of its unending duration. A circle has no beginning or end. A round earth is an eternal one, they reasoned, so therefore the creation account in Genesis must be false. Instead of challenging their logic, Cosmas decided to refute their premise.  As far as he was concerned, if the pagans believe the earth is round then that was proof that it must be flat. The debate ultimately wasn’t about the shape of the planet–it was about the doctrine of creation.  In The Christian Topography, Cosmas attempted to prove that the earth is flat and the universe is in the shape of a chest. He provided plenty of drawings to make his case. Oh dear.


Cosmas' chest-shaped universe. Note the sun hiding behind a great northern mountain.

Cosmas wasn’t so angry at the pagans themselves as he was at the Christians who were tempted to agree with them on this point.  Christians who accepted the Ptolemaic description of the cosmos were the real focus of his denunciations. “It is against such men my words are directed….” He denounced them as “two-faced” because they wished to “occupy a middle position.” They “laugh at everyone and are themselves laughed at by all.”

Before becoming a monk, Cosmas had been a sailor and in that occupation had traveled much of the known world. He used his first-hand knowledge of geography to make his case, and what a case it was.  He argued that the world was a large island, surrounded by a large ocean which could not be navigated. Cosmas believed that the sun was 42 miles in diameter and traveled in an arc 4400 miles above the earth.  Each evening the sun moves behind a large mountain in the north, which gives us nighttime. Cosmas expended great effort to demonstrate the physical and logical impossibility of a round earth, but he made his strongest arguments about what he perceived to be the theological problems with the Ptolemaic model.  If the world is round, concluded Cosmas, then the pagans “are therefore justified in denying the resurrection of the body.”

Cosmas' map of a square shaped earth

One of the more fascinating sections of the book is Cosmas’ account of when the flat-earthers and the round-earthers met in Alexandria for a debate. Each side presented arguments, counter-arguments, and even conducted experiments.  Evidently Cosmas believed his side won. He reported to his mentor, “And it is the truth I speak, O most God-beloved Father, through the power of Christ they went away dumbfounded and sadly crestfallen, having been put to shame by our exposure of their fictions.”  

Cosmas' drawing lampooning the notion of people on the underside of a round earth

Despite Cosmas’ bluster, his side lost the debate among the broader Christian community.  The Medieval church did not believe the earth was flat. Scholars such as the Venerable Bede, Roger Bacon, and Thomas Aquinas all accepted a spherical earth. So what is the take-away from Cosmas? It is the lesson that in the integration of faith and science we must discern what the real issues are and what they are not. We must know what is essential and non-negotiable, and what areas are more modest. Christians have nothing to fear from the study of the natural world.  Our God–the God of the Bible–is Creator of the heavens and the earth. The One Who revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ is the One Who created the realm that the scientist studies–including quarks, DNA, and the geological column.  God has not given us a spirit of fear. Let’s explore the natural order–His creation–with reverence and confidence.    

This posted is cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.comonline mobile games rpg

What I’ve Been Reading (4)–Augustine says “Don’t Be an Idiot”

For over 50 years, Paulist Press has produced the Ancient Christian Writers, a series of critical translations into English of patristic works. Currently at over 60 volumes, Paulist Press adds a book or two each year. They are indispensible for the serious theology student. Volumes 41 & 42 of the series are Augustine’s commentary, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (complete with introduction, synopsis, and annotations).

Augustine wrote the commentary towards the end of his life, while he was also writing two other noteworthy books, The Trinity and The City of God.  What an amazing output from a brilliant mind that was devoted to thinking about the things of God!  At the end of book one, Augustine gives advice about reconciling Genesis with the latest scientific theories of the day. I’ve summed up that advice under six headings along with a brief quote. Though he wrote these words 1,600 years ago, they are relevant today.

1. Don’t say things that unbelievers will immediately see as nonsense.

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world…and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.” (1.19.39)

I think Augustine’s point can be summed up as, “Don’t be an idiot.”

2. Do not rashly commit to or become dogmatic about one particular interpretation.

“With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the Book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp. Where he cannot understand Holy Scripture, let him glorify God and fear for himself.” (1.40.20)

Even in Augustine’s day, Genesis 1-2 presented real challenges.  The Bishop advises us to recognize this, and therefore be charitable with those who disagree with us.

3. Do not let interpretative difficulties obscure the spiritual blessings available.

“But since the words of Scripture that I have treated are explained in so many senses, critics full of worldly learning should restrain themselves from attacking as ignorant and uncultured these utterances that have been made to nourish all devout souls. Such critics are like wingless creatures that crawl upon the earth and, while soaring no higher than the leap of a frog, mock the birds in their nests above.” (1.40.20)

We must not read Genesis 1-2 only with eyes focused on the trench warfare of the creation/evolution debate.  To do so runs the risk of robbing ourselves of the real spiritual nourishment the text is intended to provide.

4. Do not let the latest scientific or philosophical theories cause one to look down upon Scripture.

“But more dangerous is the error of certain weak brethren who faint away when they hear these irreligious critics learnedly and eloquently discoursing on the theories of astronomy or on any of the questions relating to the elements of this universe. With a sigh, they esteem these teachers as superior to themselves, looking upon them as great men; and they return with disdain to the books which were written for the good of their souls; and, although they ought to drink from these books with relish, they can scarcely bear to take them up. Turning away in disgust from the unattractive wheat field, they long for the blossoms on the thorn.” (1.20.40)

Sounds like something that could have been written in our day, doesn’t it?

5. Do not fear attacks on the biblical account of Creation.

“Someone will say: ‘What have you brought out with all the threshing of this treatise? What kernel have you revealed? What have you winnowed? Why does everything seem to lie hidden under questions? Adopt one of the many interpretations which you maintained were possible.’  To such a one my answer is that I have arrived at a nourishing kernel in that I have learnt that a man is not in any difficulty in making a reply according to his faith which he ought to make to those who try to defame our Holy Scripture.” (1.41.21)

In other words, Augustine is saying that though he couldn’t settle on one position, he is settled in his confidence concerning Scripture itself.

6. Take a discerning approach to the integration of Scripture and science.

When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt.” (1.41.21)

And this is truly the task before us all: discerning the proper way to assess the findings of science in the light of the Word of God.  The God of the Bible is Maker of heaven and earth.  Augustine gives us sound advice about studying God’s Word and His world.