Daniel White Hodge, “Baptized In Dirty Water: Locating The Gospel Of Tupac Amaru Shakur In The Post-Soul Context” (Warning: Explicit Language)

Tupac was more than just a fad or an “estranged artist.”  Quincy Jones had it right: Tupac was touched by God; God had a special message and mission for Tupac.  It was a mission and message that few are able to embrace.  The cost is high – your life.  Tupac saw life and culture beyond the routine and ordinary; he approached life full of passion, rage, anger, love, thoughtfulness, and even carelessness; he was the product of a post-soul society which had been groomed on the ambiguous consumer culture of the 1980s.  In this consumer culture, Tupac became a type of popular critical pundit for the hip-hop community – which was established early on in hip-hop culture in its critique of US social structures – particularly religion and economic. – Daniel White Hodge, “Baptized In Dirty Water: Locating The Gospel Of Tupac Amaru Shakur In The Post-Soul Context,” in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, pp,127-128.

Having read White-Hodge’s longer work on Hip-Hop Theology, I was pleasantly surprised by this essay.  First, he more clearly defines “post-soul” as similar to “post-modern” yet reflective more of the concerns of the marginalized, African-Americans, and other minorities rather than “post-modern” which too often reflects white upper-middle class issues and concerns.  He also is very clear that that sacred-profane divide is less clear in post-soul culture, even as he defines each:

[T]his chapter looks at the intersection between the sacred and the profane, a place where Tupac resided daily and where he found a lot of meaning in God.  It was a space outside the traditional environment of “church” and a space for the “thugs,” the “niggas,” and the “‘hood rats.”  I define the term sacred as social reality in religious structure, set apart and made “holy” (e.g. Eucharist, communion).  In contrast, I use the term profane as a social reality in societal living not set apart, which is commonplace and irreverent toward the religious structure set forth by established orthodoxies.  This chapter will illuminate the neo-sacred theology of Tupac toward a contextualized theology of and for the ‘hood.  It will demonstrate that there is much to engage with and learn from, theologically speaking, in the “dark matter” of life, with what seems apparently blasphemous.(p.129)

Two terms in particular, neo-secular and neo-sacred, play an important role in White Hodge’s description of Tupac’s approach to speaking of God, humanity, and life in the context of what White Hodge consistently calls “the ‘hood”.  First is the neo-secular:

Many renowned evangelical theologians have argued that we live in a “secular” culture.  However,  within the post-soul context, spirituality makes its reemergence and seeks to discover God in the ordinary.  This pathway is foreign to traditional methodologies of salvation.  The neo-secular is a mixture of sacred and profane spiritual journeys pursuing God in a space outside traditional forms of worship. (p. 131)

This is similar, in most respects, to my own view that the sacred/profane dichotomy is largely artificial, and one that prevents us from seeing and hearing the Divine at work in ways and spaces and places where we least expect God to be.

As for the neo-sacred:

This is the new sacred,rooted in the post-soul theological context.  This sacred space embodies city corners, alleyways, club rooms, cocktail lounges, and spaces/places which are extraneous to many who call themselves “Christian.”  The neo-sacred is Tupac’s message to the pumps, the hookers, the thugs, the niggas, those overlooked by society, missionaries, and many church-goers.  The neo-sacred is concerned with finding God in the post-soul socio-ecological landscape and making God accessible for all. (p.131)

White Hodge explains the “how” of Tupac’s approach to theology:

Pain, injustice, and racism force the post-soulist to look beyond the “standard” and ask God for more.  Simplistic answers are rejected and despised: it gets God off the hook too easily to say “just pray about it,” and in times of pain and injustice, everything needs to be on the hook., including God.  The procedure is quite simple: have a conversation with God, be real, and do not be afraid to use strong language to describe your pain. (p.136)

As for the actual content of Tupac’s vision, White Hodge enlists Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics.

Tupac’s “good news” about life in the ‘hood is a type of the “indecent theology” that Marcella Althaus-Reid discusses . . . , as grand narratives of God have collapsed in the ‘hood, creating parallel narratives that offend the dominant ones.  Tupac’s gospel, at its core, seeks to give marginalized urban dwellers (and poor whites as well) a voice to God and a place for meaning in unbearable conditions. (p.139)

Again, this resonates with my own sense that the churches have gone a bit too far in refusing to listen to anyone or anything that is not “cleaned up”, that the language of the everyday world – in all its vulgarity, profanity, even blasphemy – is precisely the language to which the church needs to listen, and through which we need to engage one another and, as White Hodge points out, God.  We have to cease fearing that our actions offend God, particularly if we understand our Trinitarian God as Incarnate, relating to us through the Holy Spirit, keeping alive the resurrected Christ in and through the Body of Christ.

White Hodge is not dreamy-eyed about Tupac Shakur, understanding his limitations, his failures, and ultimately the way he separated himself from those who could lift him out of his life even as he became what he urged others not to be: yet another young African-American male, in and out of prison, trapped in a cycle both of violence and despair that ultimately ends in a too-early death.  All the same, White Hodge notes that in his brief life, Tupac has an enormous influence on music, on culture, and, he would argue, on theology.  Setting aside one’s preferences and listening with an ear tuned by the Holy Spirit, one indeed hears in the music of Tupac Shakur not only the cry from the depths, but the promise of new life.  His was an all-embracing theological message, couched in terms and images with which his target audience were familiar, yet demanding of them that they hear the Good News: that this is not the life God wants for them; that even the worst of the worst (and Tupac is a bit like St. Paul, insisting that he is the lowliest of sinners) can be vehicles for the message of salvation.