What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church. Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it. So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand. Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening. And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120
The two chapters covered today deal with a complex set of issues, including what is traditionally called theodicy, the question of evil if a world allegedly ruled by a God of Love and Justice; matters of modernity versus post-modernity; and the link that binds these together, as well as human beings together with one another, and with God – the matter of community. White Hodge handles these matters with a deft, easy hand, demonstrating how the generation raised on Hip Hop lives out certain post-modern qualities, including questioning the reality of any final answers; distrusting authorities, preferring to use their own experiences as the basis for beginning understanding; wishing for recognition and legitimation both of their lives and how they are lived out by authorities they want to respect but feel do not respect them in turn.
Most important, when it comes to matters of dealing with questions of justice, suffering, and death and how the Hip Hop community responds to these realities, White Hodge is quite clear these are not just matters of academic curiosity. They are, rather, urgent existential questions that demand utterance in clarity, even if no single answer satisfies to respond to the horror and despair too many experience in their daily lives.
Theodicy not only includes evil; it also centers around matters of judgment and forgiveness. Thus, the DMX song “Look Thru My Eyes” that begins this post. The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent. He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding. He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was. Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back. As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly. Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives. The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.
These understandings are not things Hip Hoppers struggle through on their own. On the contrary, Hip Hop is a community of persons, gathered together to laugh, cry, joke, act stupid, lift one another up, argue, get angry, ask questions, and most of all enjoy the mutual affirmation that comes from being together. These nontraditional communities are where youth and young people search together and find God, Jesus, and the faith and hope to carry on, even as the world denies their humanity, the legitimacy of their communities as anything other than criminal gangs, and even the church turns its back on them.
Yet, tying together the themes of both questions, White Hodge asks a question, quoted above, that is both pointed and unanswerable as our all-too-familiar sacred-profane dichotomy would insist. The hostility of the African-American church in particular to Hip Hop and the Hip Hop community too often misses opportunities for each to teach the other; it also refuses to confront the reality that the Gospels all portray Jesus as being with the outcast, the drunkard and prostitute and leper. In other words, the Hip Hop community of its day. Focusing so much on the vulgarity and violence in Hip Hop, people in our churches miss the equivocal nature of the language, the plea for understanding, even forgiveness in a world – and even a church – that doesn’t seem too eager to extend it. Yet, that same forgiveness comes within those extra-church Hip Hop communities who are unafraid to be church for each other.
While not yet at the heart of the theological possibilities within Hip Hop, in these chapters, White Hodge creates a background for understanding how it can substitute for the institutional church in a day and time in history when that is far more questionable. That those who hear in the words of Hip Hop the questions they’re asking, the prayers they lift to God, and the hope that seems so far away in their daily life represent church in its most basic form – ekklesia, those called out – is as much a judgment upon the institutional churches as it is an opportunity for people to welcome Hip Hoppers in to their churches on their own terms, and listen to what they have to say, affirm their lives in a way they too often desperately need.