Church, a class on Race and Theology in America, a Chance the Rapper concert. This was my day yesterday. Why do these experiences matter, how are they similar and why should you or anyone care? It hit me about halfway through the concert last night, the remarkable parallels between these three very different places and spaces and the ways in which each one can dialogue with and learn from the other. Let me attempt to share my thoughts with you.
Firstly, church. Recently, my church has started studying the book of Ecclesiastes together during our weekly Wednesday community group; a book that we as a corporate church do not often talk about, a book that almost didn’t make it into the Bible, a book that calls life meaningless and questions at its core the existence, purpose and will of God. But we are discovering together that there is joy in the midst of it too. I think Ecclesiastes is probably one of the most honest, reverberating and truthful expressions of the human condition. It is always timely; in the words of my pastor, it is like a “well-aged wine.” In the midst of all that is unexplainable, absurd, a chasing after of the wind, what is the point of living? We live in the faint hope that there is a purpose, but how and where do we seek it?
With those cliffhangers, let’s turn to my Race and Theology class. This class is blowing my mind and it’s only the end of the second week. I won’t go into all the details, but in essence, we are learning, reading and talking about the stunningly widespread, pervasive and insidious ways in which the church’s whiteness has created, magnified and perpetuated structural and institutional racism. It is halting how implicit we are as Christians and Americans (however you may ascribe to those identifiers) in the perpetuation of prejudiced, unjust social systems. How do we firstly recognize and understand the origins of these hierarchies and divisions? Where do we place responsibility? What does responsibility even mean or imply? How do we dialogue about it in a larger cultural and church context? Is a post-racial society possible? What are we working toward? Where is God in the midst of it? These are just a few of the countless questions we are examining and that are emerging from this class.
A couple hours later, I found myself with two dear friends at a Chance the Rapper concert at the Hollywood Bowl with a thousand of maybe the most diverse group of Angelenos that you’ll find together at once. I strongly believe that certain rappers, especially ones as remarkable as Chance, are instigators of incredible social dialogue and change, prophetic truth-tellers and cultural icons. With varying degrees of transparency and directness, they speak to the issues at the heart of a marginalized, oppressed, dissatisfied, unjust American experience that questions the existence of God and the goodness and purpose of humanity (ahem … Ecclesiastes). The realities of mass incarceration, structural racism, gentrification, racialized police brutality, gang violence, drug wars, inner-city poverty, etc. that those of us who live a privileged, white American existence simply hear about on the news, are embodied and lived experiences shared in such music. Music that we (white Americans) appreciate and enjoy. Music that allows us to connect with a story that is not our own. Now, does our vicarious enjoyment, if not inciting within us lifestyle change or any sort of action or further dialogue or thought, have any significance? Is it simply reasserting our privilege if we listen to these songs and go to these concerts, but don’t engage in the struggles and fights of the black or Latino community? Maybe. That’s a discussion for another time.
The point I want to make here is that no church service I’ve ever been to has attracted such a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse group of people as a Chance the Rapper concert. Granted, some hip hop artists only propagate harmful messages that are unrelated to social commentary and justice in their songs and they are not the artists I am referring to. But Chance truly uses his position and pedestal to authentically, insightfully and creatively comment on realities of his experience and invite his listeners and fans into a dialogue and a vision of something different. A “vision of something different” that may not truly be all that different than what we want as a church or as a group of grad students learning and talking about racialized America.
As we, in our many different positions as churchgoers, Christians, students, businesspeople, hip hop fans, millennials, consumers, capitalists, blacks, whites, Asians, etc. struggle to understand the layers of race in our society and world and try to identify points at which to enter the conversation, it’s really important that we engage with cultural mediums such as film, music, literature, social media, etc. In a thoughtful and selective way, yes, but engagement is necessary, especially for the church, because we are trying to address questions of God and faith in a current cultural context. What would it look like for us as Christians to try and better understand the ways that God is at work in our wider culture, through art, film, literature, hip hop? What would it look like for us to affirm the narratives of communities by listening to their music and engaging with their stories in these ways? I know that I am always appreciative of the ways in which others’ stories also help me engage with my own.
Across time, geographic location, race, socioeconomics, cultures and mediums, we ask the same perennial questions. The writer of Ecclesiastes, my professor and classmates at Fuller, Chance the Rapper, pastors and Christians across the country, filmmakers and artists. Who is God? Where is God? Who are we? What is the point of humanity? Why is there evil and injustice? Will there be an end to the pain and suffering? Where are the answers? Where is the meaning?
Can we find unity and common ground through our questions? Can we ask the questions together? Where may it take us if we start trying?
“I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom. Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom. Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air. Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ’bout blonde hair. Jesus black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy. Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family. He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest. And gave Donnie a trumpet in case I get shortness of breath” — Chance the Rapper, Blessings