Having a divine encounter in culture means looking again at issues of sexuality, film, music, language, relationships, and then merging those ideas with a biblical hermeneutic to discover new ways to understand evangelism, salvation, church, culture and even God. We move from being consumers of God’s love to participants in God’s loving kingdom. – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p.200
Reaching the end of a work as thoughtful, intelligent, wise, insightful, well-written, and – I’ll freely admit it – that resonates with so much of one’s own thought, even that thought that remains inarticulate, is bittersweet. It is a joy to know a work like this exists. It is a blessing to know that there is a person in this world who hears within the very earthy, all too human music of Hip Hop that echo of the Holy Choir singing before the throne. Most of all, it’s been marvelous to hear so much new music, so many new ways of listening for the sound of the Spirit, speaking a vernacular that is not mine.
White Hodge’s focus in these final chapters is on missions, specifically mission to and for the Hip Hop community. Recognizing the many barriers that exist – from Hip Hop’s distrust of institutions to the church’s demands that Hip Hoppers change their clothing (“Pull those pants up!”), their language (all that vulgarity), and most of all stop listening to that devil music (always a prerequisite from adults to youth and younger people) – he nevertheless insists not only that it is possible, but that in doing so, the church can enrich itself, its theology, its liturgy, and broaden its community by including those who are currently outside the church walls.
Rather than move through the details of these last two chapters and White Hodge’s brief Epilogue, I want to reflect not on the Great Commission, which figures so large in the author’s thinking. Rather, I want to focus on the parable of the wedding banquet. You remember it, right?
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. – Matthew 22:1-10
We in the churches, white, black, Asian, Latino, mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, Orthodox, are the servants charged with making sure that banquet table is full. We need to invite everyone, “good and bad”. This parable is the Great Commission in action, going to all the earth preaching, baptizing, and most of all inviting to a grand feast, to come join at table with so many different kinds of people. We are to bring our gifts and talents, our pain and our rage, our languages and our thoughts, and most of all our songs. We come to the feast, invited by no less than the God who created the Universe to come and feast and join together the mighty chorus that sings eternally before the throne.
It is who we are not just to throw open the doors of the Church and hope folks will wander in off the street. We need to go out there and bring them in, drag them in, offer reasons for them to join us. One of the impressive findings of White Hodge’s research is that the large majority of the Hip Hop community know the basics of the faith; while the Nation of Islam has been far more supportive of the Hip Hop community, it is to the Christian churches that Hip Hoppers gravitate. We must allow ourselves to be open to who they are as they walk through that door.
This does not mean wholesale acceptance of everything in Hip Hop. From the vulgarity through the misogyny to the celebration of violence and hyper-sexuality – these are more than just “questionable”, but have no place in the life of the church. All the same, we must first meet people where they are, an understand that no one just “is” a Christian. There is no completion to salvation, not in any real sense. Being a Christian is a process, a journey that takes a lifetime. Some of what we had we can bring along with us. Other things, we can and should leave behind. We learn as we go, and as we’re encouraged to do so by a community of fellow-believers who lift us up, support us, and affirm us at each step, most especially that first step through the door.
White Hodge’s book is an excellent example of many things: of doing theology from the bottom up; of incorporating one’s life experiences in to one’s ministry; of explaining to those who don’t know just what Hip Hop is, how it functions as a cultural marker, and the deep, complex, and often ambiguous theology contained in such a wide body of music. It is also a lesson for churches, black and white, urban and suburban, that we need to stop and think before we address people for whom Hip Hop informs such a large part of their lives. Not to deny the equivocal nature of the culture. Then again, the culture and reality of the churches is no less equivocal, so we should go easy on the judgments, not demand people change before we accept them. Most of all, we need to listen. We need to listen to the stories. We need to listen to the cries of pain and rage, the questions and frustrations.
And the songs. We need to listen to those songs. Even if we’re uncomfortable with some of what we hear. Especially if we’re uncomfortable with some of what we hear. It is in that discomfort that growth might occur, that community might come to life, that we might discover how far we have to go in our own journey with and to Christ.