If I Were a Prophet I’d Be a Rapper, part II

Now, I don’t want you all thinking that I’m down on rap.  I love hip-hop, but it’s an expression, and there are always going to be expressions we don’t agree with.  I believe most of the things rappers go bragging on about are true, even when I know that they’re lying or exaggerating – so in the sense that they speak the truth, I suppose they are prophets.  My last post came out of a deep disappointment, not in the form but the content; that these awful truths are presented in a glorified way.  Glorifying gang life, drugs, serial sex, and violence is like glorifying cancer, AIDS, fatherlessness and poverty; ironically, there’s a lot of rap out there that glorifies the first list and yet also shines a very bright and true light on the awful situation of the latter, seemingly missing the connection between them – they all kill and destroy.  I’m disappointed by many rappers, because of this very inconsistency.

But there are a lot of hip-hop artists who really are prophets, speaking truth to power and to the masses, seeing reality with penetrating eyes and exposing injustice so that the rest of us can see it too.  They challenge us to see differently, and to live differently in light of what we see.  May we see more artists like them.

Here’s the lyrics to a powerful song about the music industry as a microcosm of our entire society – and Satan.  It’s by one of my favourite artists of any genre, Shad, and it’s called “I Heard You Had a Voice like an Angel”.

I heard you had a voice like an angel
I heard a strange tale
About a saint that fell
Music became jail
These bars I hear you rapped/wrapped in em
Wove in the beats
Like the clothing of sheep
Wolves tracks – spin em
Cd’s dj’s
c-notes
g’s thrown on d’s
we’ll be kings like T.I hope
I heard you even sang when you spoke
And the emotion you evoked got you choked
When your beauty struck a vocal chord broke
Boatless dove ovcrboard
Look upon the surface
Caught your reflection before the lord’s
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Strange though
You were blinded by the light
shining from your own halo
fell off
sort like a rainbow when heaven watched
your faint glow fade slow
I heard you had a voice like an angel…

I heard that fame’s a killer that can murder great
Princes like \Kurt Cobain singing Purple Rain
From a distance
Hope home ain’t a virtual game
Nor this cursed place earth
Where the dollars and the karma don’t circulate
The world’s a stage
And you know this play well
Gee I bet you even know how it ends, pray tell
Had a voice like an angel, now you score the drama scenes
The comedy’s the fact
We enact what you want to be
Had some old songs still stuck in your memory
Distorted though
So he sort of re-assembled melodies
And fine-tune and turned em into single after single
In this industry you built so sinfully simple for
You to write cuz, a song is what your life was
The destiny of stars is their light must
Fight dusk
With sparks of brilliance to ignite us
But of all the billions of stars
You were by far the brightest
I heard you had a voice like an angel
Now its just a light hush…

Now you keep everyone’s heart on charts and schedules
And the trends trying to stack gold bars and medals
They want vessels void and dark as space
Fools wanna make stars instead of music that’s smart or special
Because art at a level that’s real can be harder to peddle
Business prefers a market that settles for 2nd rate
Kill the true artists martyr the rebels
That’s the system and its straight from the heart of the devil
See merchants of dreams sold to souls eyes-wide shut
Passin the buck to purchase a pass to buy stuff
Workin in this circus get hired up
To walk over have-(k)nots on a tight rope
Tied-up in my gut
It’s a delicate balance
Developin talent
Into persons that we worship
To it’s a hell of a challenge
I heard you had a voice like an angel
And don’t really sing no more
But you still running the game so
If you don’t behave like them
They call you crazy
And if you wont slave for them
They call you lazy
Lately
Ive started to see why you hate me
Hearin this voice it must be painful
To the ears when for years
You had a voice like an angel

If you don’t behave like them
They call you crazy
And if you wont slave for them
They call you lazy
Well I say…
They wanna take your mind
Turn it into a prison
Lock you inside
Then they call that livin
Well I say…
(x2)

Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
While they take your children
Smile for the camera
While we rape your women
Smile for the camera
While we make our millions
Smile for the camera
While they make their billions
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera
Smile for the camera…

 

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If I were a Prophet, I’d be a Rapper

I was thinking last night about how the Prophets of ancient Israel would see the injustices in their society and speak out against them.  People often say today that a certain rapper is a “modern-day prophet” because they rap about “what’s really going on in the streets” and the injustices there, things that wealthy white North Americans like to pretend they aren’t responsible for.  I suppose that’s true, but my thoughts last night went in a different direction.

I was thinking about how the Prophets would use object lessons, vivid imagery, and even enacted parables to show the people their sin, and the consequences of their sin.  As I thought about our North American society in all of its decadence, materialism, selfish ambition, and incredible egotistical pride, I tried to think of what an object lesson to mirror all of that sin back to the people would look like, and then it struck me…

…I’d be Kanye West.

I’ve been making an effort to find some good hip hop lately, and borrowed a lot of music to decide if I wanted to buy any of it.  I listened to three different Jay-Z albums yesterday, and was sorely disappointed, probably because I can’t relate to movin’ roc.  But what struck me about all of his albums was that they were completely self-glorifying.  Both he and Kanye West have songs praising their mothers, but it seems that almost every other song is chock full of self-praise, which I just find uninteresting.  Sometimes even completely ridiculous.  Who has the balls to call himself J-Hova?

I’ve listened to a lot of different rappers in the past week, and I don’t want to bash on Jay-Z or Kanye West, because most of them were the same.  What I find amazing is that the egotism and self-praise integrates with every other issue.  They don’t just rap about dealing drugs, hurting and killing people, or any kind of sex they can get, but they BRAG about it, congratulating themselves for doing things that most people would be ashamed of.  I read in the news the other day that a rapper threatened to shoot his own fans at a concert in Florida; will this help his street cred?  I’ve even heard several R&B songs recently in which self-proclaimed “players” sing about asking – and it sounds like begging – for sex.  And making it sound like they’re awesome for doing it.  I couldn’t help but think that if you have to ask for it, you’re probably not getting any – and that’s nothing to brag about.  It reminds me of the way that our society tends to celebrate the negative things that we feel powerless to change, like being overweight, alcoholic, or dysfunctional in just about any other way.  If we brag about our weaknesses, maybe they’ll start to sound like strengths?  It’s all egotism.

And Kanye West just raises the bar on egotism – and is willing to admit it, too.  Listening to his records and thinking about some of his publicity stunts, I couldn’t help but think that he must be doing this on purpose, it must be a joke…or maybe a commentary on how egotistical our society is.  Which is what got me thinking about prophets.  It’s disappointing, because I think that hip hop has incredible cultural power and the ability to spread a powerful message; but if it does so only ironically, by presenting itself as a reductio ad absurdum for our culture, then I can’t help but think it might be hurting more than it helps.

So what do you think?  Are rappers prophets, or are they unwittingly and ironically filling the role of the prophet’s object lesson, mirroring back and amplifying our sin?

Heaven

It’s been a while, and for that I apologize.  Happy New Year to you all, and may the Lord bless you this year.

In continuing my thesis preparation, I’ve been reading some more Walter Wink.  You may recall that my thesis topic is the Powers and Principalities, on which Wink has an important view – compelling in some areas, and very unorthodox in others – that includes a concept of Panentheism.  To give it a quick review, panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism, which is the belief that God is everything and everything is God) is a view that unites the physical and spiritual and does not support any dichotomy between the two.  In panentheism, everything has both a spiritual essence and a concrete manifestation.  While this sounds quaint or even dubious when we talk about rocks and trees and individual blades of grass having their own spirits, or even angels, it seems much more important and makes much more sense when applied to worldly institutions such as culture, government, etc.  In Wink’s view, then, the Powers are the institutions of this world in both their physical and spiritual elements: the Prime Minister, and the Office of the PM which he fills; the cultural icon or celebrity, and the spirit that drives and is made up by popular culture.  There are many things that need to be ironed out in this view, and in my estimation Wink falls into many theological errors that usually seem to be simply taking a good idea too far (e.g. especially to the point of de-personalizing spiritual forces), but we won’t discuss those here.  My point today is the notion of Heaven that he brings up in Naming the Powers.

What is heaven?  And where is it?  Those answers are not easy to find, even in scripture.  What we know of Heaven is that it’s where God lives and reigns – but we also affirm that God is everywhere.  We describe Heaven as a place, and traditionally people looked to the sky – but we’ve been to space, and as the soviet cosmonauts entered that great vacuum they reported no angel sightings.  We’ve fallen back on saying that Heaven is a spiritual realm, perhaps in another dimension.  All we do know about it is that it is spiritual, and therefore invisible to us – yet Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God, or the place where God reigns and rules, is at hand.

So if Heaven is spiritual, what is spiritual?  We think of it as being invisible and immaterial, yet we also affirm the presence of spirit in the world: God is everywhere, His Holy Spirit indwells us, and we believe ourselves to be spiritual, yet embodied, beings.  Traditional Christianity sometimes falls into a manichaean dualism, seeing body and spirit as separate things and proposing that when we die our spirits will leave our bodies and go to the spiritual realm of Heaven; Reformed theology rejects this notion of eternal disembodied existence, and indeed there is little biblical warrant for that view.  Instead, the hope of eternal life that we are shown in the New Testament is not a view of bodiless spirits, but a bodily resurrection from the dead!  Furthermore, Revelation (which is almost never clear) is very clear in the last two chapters as it describes “Heaven”:  God’s city comes down from heaven to earth, where God will live and reign among earthly people for ever and ever.  God’s rule will be manifest on earth, as it is in heaven.

That paraphrase of the Lord’s prayer turns us back to Wink.  If he’s on the right track about everything having both physical and spiritual elements, then everything on earth is spiritual as well as physical.  And if Heaven is spiritual and invisible, the place where God rules and yet God is everywhere, and if Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is among us…then Heaven is here, on earth, as a spiritual reality of which earth is only the physical component.  If this is true, then every place where God’s will is carried out becomes heaven, even if only for that moment in which God’s spiritual rule is made physically manifest.

This is the already-and-not-yet principle in action: God has reconciled the whole world to himself, but it is not yet fulfilled.  As the writer to the Hebrews noted, God has placed everything under the feet of Christ, but we do not yet see all things in submission to Him – but we see Jesus Christ!  As Christ healed the sick, cast out demons, and exposed injustice – the phsyical, spiritual and political symptoms of a fallen world – the righteous rule of God is revealed as it truly exists through its physical manifestations.  When Jesus makes something right, restores someone’s flesh or spirit or dignity, making it the way God made it to be and in line with His will, then the spiritual reality of Heaven is given phsyical manifestation.

What’s truly amazing about this is that we get to take part in it, most obviously and completely through our participation in God’s community, the Church.  This is a physical place that openly acknowledges the rule and will of God, both in our creeds and (hopefully) our actions.  Our rituals and liturgy give embodiment to spiritual realities that are somewhat abstract, but the way we treat one another and the outside world are unambiguous manifestations of the true spiritual reality of Heaven.  It’s no wonder the New Testament uses the metaphor that says that we are citizens of Heaven, because when we live together in harmony with God and acknowledging His lordship, we live in heaven.  But now we see only in part; one day we will see and know in full, when Christ returns and makes the Kingdom of Heaven manifest in its entirety, no longer hidden by a world that hides the reality of Heaven among us.

Whether or not Wink is right, I don’t think there’s a lot here to disagree with.  So whatever your creed, I hope you will join with me in saying “Come, Lord Jesus!” and in so doing experience a little bit of Heaven.