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.