Let’s talk about rap and the Christian. And, actually, this post isn’t actually about the Christian hip-hop scene, but more about artists like Eminem, Nas, Tupac, the Notorious BIG, etc. What do these artists have to tell us about he world around us and how do we apply the Gospel to those lessons? (Warning: censored language)
Chris is Blogging about Eminem?
Ask anyone who’s into the “secular” hip-hop scene (I use secular in quotes due to some Christian artists performing at SXSW, and I wonder if the distinction will be blurred for some readers) who some of the greatest rappers of all time are and the answers would sound similar: Nas, Tupac, Eminem, etc.
So the question now is, why is Chris blogging about secular rap? Does he even listen to it? Good question, but there’s actually a reason (more than shock value). I think in addition to some sick beats and their ability to spit some sweet rhymes, there’s a level of brutal honesty that comes from the rap world that a lot of people can connect with. And, I think, even more than that, there’s a level of honesty that they rap that we only wish that we could be able to express musically, or even out loud. A lot of us live with some pretty deep pain that we just don’t know if we are allowed to feel that way, let alone express it to our friends.
Check out these lyrics from Eminem, from the song Beautiful on his album Relapse: Reload:
“Lately I’ve been hard to reach
I’ve been too long on my own
Everybody has their private world
Where they can be alone
Are you calling me?
Are you trying to get through?
Are you reaching out for me?
I’m reaching out for you
I’m just so ******* depressed
I just can’t seem to get out this slump
If I could just get over this hump
But I need something to pull me out this dump
I took my bruises, took my lumps
Fell down and I got right back up
But I need that spark to get psyched back up
And in order for me to pick the mic back up
I don’t know how or why or when
I ended up this position I’m in
I’m starting to feel dissin’ again
So I decided just to pick this pen
Up and try to make an attempt to vent
But I just can’t admit
Or come to grips with the fact that I may be done with rap
I need a new outlet
And I know some ****’s so hard to swallow
But I can’t just sit back and wallow
In my own sorrow but I know one fact
I’ll be one tough act to follow”
Don’t we all want to be able to express how we’re feeling with such force? Such rhyme? I think we all do – that other people can draws us to their experiences and puts us in their shoes so that we feel like we get them and they get us. But are we as Christians able to express ourselves like that?
Qoheleth, Asaph, the Lamenter
I think the answer is pretty clear: Christians are not prohibited from expressing their anguish and their feelings. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that Job straight up challenges YHWH’s justice, yet he is declared at the end to be without sin in the whole affair. But instead of arguing from Job like many others have done, I want to point out three other quick points where people express their dissatisfaction with how the world is going and God’s work within it.
Qoheleth, the Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, seems to be depressed. He applied his heart to seek out by wisdom all that is done under heaven as the king of Israel (1:12-13); he indulged himself in every pleasure (2:1); was greater than all who was before him in Jerusalem (2:9); he had everything that we’ve ever wanted, but he was still unsatisfied with it all. As we follow his train of thought (Ecclesiastes seems to be more of a diary of sorts than a systematic doctrine statement), we hear the Preacher talk about the vanities of all that’s been done under the sun. Nothing is new, he tells us, under the sun, and all is vanity. He even goes so far as to say, “Even though he should lie a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good-do not all go to the same place?” (6:6) Even the righteous died, he thought, so what’s the point? “For what happens to the children of man (lit. adam) and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.*” (3:)
Asaph, the Psalmist that we attribute Psalm 73 to, has similar feelings of uselessness. “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” (73:2-5) It goes on. The thing is, Asaph was mad. It didn’t seem like justice was coming. He was depressed and had strong feelings about God and his work. Was he going to be just like he said was going to be? (Exodus 34:6-7, the Divine Attributes Formula) These two were honest with their feelings. The whole Psalter is full of people raising laments to God.
Speaking of laments, we would be wrong to ignore the Lamentations. While normally attributed to Jeremiah, we simply do not know who the author was. We do know, however, that things were bad. The Promised Land had been corrupted by the sin of YHWH’s people (Micah 2:10) and the Temple was destroyed. The world for the Jews did not make sense. In fact, the Lamenter attributes the violence to God himself! “How YHWH in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud! He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. YHWH has swallowed up without mercy all the inhabitants of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers.” (2:1-2) The Temple was destroyed. The center of Jewish religion was destroyed – the temple was the place that YHWH dwelt; would he still be with his people without it? Would he still be with his people if he was the main reason that they were destroyed?
Before we get into the answer to these laments, let’s look at Eminem’s life before the rap.
From Wikipedia: Eminem was born Marshall Bruce Mathers III on October 17, 1972, in St. Joseph, Missouri.[…] His mother was 15 when she had him and nearly died during his 73-hour birth. His father abandoned the family when he was 18 months old, and he was raised solely by his mother. By the age of 12, Mathers and his mother had moved between various cities and towns in Missouri (including Saint Joseph, Savannah, and Kansas City) before they settled in Warren, Michigan, and in Mathers’ teenage years, Detroit.
[…] In 1982 his mother sued his school over the bullying Eminem received from D’Angelo Bailey, the bully Em rapped about on the song “Brain Damage”. When Mathers was nine years old, his maternal uncle Ronald “Ronnie” Polkinghorn (1971-1991) introduced him to the genre after giving him a copy of Ice-T’s single “Reckless”.[…] Despite a well-documented struggle succeeding in a predominantly black industry, he gained the approval of underground hip hop audiences. After repeating the ninth grade three times due to truancy and near-failing grades, he dropped out of high school at age 17.
In 1991, Mathers’ uncle Ronald committed suicide. Mathers has a tattoo reading “Ronnie R.I.P.” on his upper left arm.”
Eminem clearly has enough to be depressed about, and I think his lyrics (because he doesn’t know Jesus) reflect that and I don’t know if we can blame him for how he feels or talks. The man is raw and honest; but who wouldn’t be? I’m not here to apologize for his lyrics, in fact, I think we should look to them sometimes and just see what the life without Jesus looks like. He may not think he needs Jesus, if he evens sees this post, and that’s fine. I’m not here to convert Eminem. I think he raps honest and raw lyrics and I think we all envy that. But is there an answer to our pain that we need to express?
The Hope of Qoheleth, Asaph and the Lamenter
First, don’t be afraid to express pain! Let’s not forget our Savior: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Because of Christ’s high priestly duty, “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in the time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) Because of Jesus’ human life, in which he suffered and was tempted, we can draw near to God and find grace in times of need!
And don’t we have needs every morning? This is probably why the Lamenter says in 3:23 that God’s mercies are new every morning. Let us approach with confidence the throne of grace daily, because we need his grace and mercy daily! Another interesting verse I think gave hope to the Lamenter is 4:20-22 (LXX, see Robin Perry’s commentary on Lamentations, pg 188) “The Spirit before our faces, YHWH’s anointed Christ, was captured in their pits, of whom we said, “Under his shadow we shall live among the Gentiles.” In two verses, though, hope. “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer;” (4:22, MT**) Something happens between the capture of YHWH’s Christ and the punishment of iniquities being finished. I think in light of the death and resurrection of Christ, we know what happened in the middle.
What of Qoheleth? “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (12:13) The Preacher admonishes us in the end: YHWH will be as he says. We have faith in the vanities that YHWH is faithful. Let us, in our times of need or depression, remember that he is faithful to what he has declared himself to be. “YHWH! YHWH! Elohim merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast loves for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
What of Asaph? “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire but you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithfu to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made YHWH Elohim my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
So, in summary? That was long, so thanks for bearing with me. We, like Eminem, can declare our fears, anguish and depression. Qoheleth, Asaph and the Lamenter show us that. But, unlike Eminem, we have eternal hope. We have a Savior who can sympathize with our weakness and has lived, died and resurrected that we may approach God confidently for grace when we are in times of need. Like the Lamenter says, God’s mercies are new every morning, and he sees hope in the Christ. Asaph knows that God holds his heart and guides him and that he will judge those who do wrong. Qoheleth also knows that God will judge because he is faithful to himself and the ways that he has described himself. Let us take our hope in these great truths just as these authors did.
*For note on vanity from the ESV Bible: “The Hebrew term hebel, translating vanity or vain, refers concretely to “mist”, “vapor” or “mere breath”, and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context).” (Note on Ecclesiastes 1:2)
**MT refers to the Masoretic Text, the text your Bible translates the OT from as opposed to the LXX quotation of Lam 4:20)