Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention
Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to those Seeking God
Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme
Brad A. Lau is Vice President for Student Life at George Fox University, and Pamela Havey Lau is a freelance editor.
Maybe there’s a God above. But all I’ve learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night. It’s not somebody who has seen the ligh
tIt’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I didn’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah1
Leonard Cohen, the songwriter and poet who penned these words, wanted to write something in the tradition of hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. As a deeply sensitive artist, Cohen humbly admits that there is no perfection in this world – that we live broken lives with broken hearts but that we still must stand under those circumstances and say hallelujah.
Much has been written about popular music, evangelical faith, and theological tradition in our culture. However, what is often written consists of warnings, revelations and criticisms helping us to protect our souls and our families from pop music’s harmful messages or arguments for or against emerging faith practices. But what is less explored in the evangelical tradition is the relationship between artistic expression and theological paradigms. From this point of view we consider not so much the audience, but the artists themselves, their intimate worlds, and their cries of brokenness.
The authors of the three books considered in this essay – John McClure, Christian Scharen, and Ralph Watkins – ask intense and profound questions about what God might be saying through popular music, even that which could be perceived as offensive. Can DMX be a weeping prophet who tells stories that make us want to shout? Could the same Jesus we reference in our praise and worship songs be at the heart of Kanye West’s songs as well? Questions such as these are compelling for the youth listening to this music but perhaps even more so for those who teach, mentor, and relate to those exploring the depth of what these artists are saying.
his review essay seeks to examine the questions raised by the three authors as they relate to musical remixes, theological traditions, and popular music. It should be noted that neither of the reviewers are trained musicians or professional theologians. Rather, we are practitioners who have worked extensively with college students for many years and have seen the significant influence that popular music has on them and us. We also write as the parents of three teenage daughters influenced by the popular culture that is always at their fingertips.
McClure, Scharen, and Watkins argue convincingly for the need to listen closely to the music and the artist so that we can better understand how popular music engages our faith as expressed in the human condition. Specifically, what are the unique theological stories at the heart of lyrics and the elements running through each song? This profound question should draw us together as Christian scholars within the church as we listen to the prophetic voice in song. Indeed, “there is no truly completely ‘secular’ culture or arena of human life if you believe that God is Creator of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.”2 As such, we can take a fresh perspective on the music of our culture including the blues, hip-hop, rock, and other forms as we find God creatively addressed, newly worshiped, and sometimes misunderstood. To explore this further, five themes will be suggested that are addressed uniquely by each author.
Intersection Between Artistic Expression and Theological Paradigms
The first theme explores the expression of the individual artist as it connects to theological paradigms and themes. Clearly, one of the most basic and fundamental thoughts about music and God is expressing our humanity, faith and longing for something more through singing and dancing. Scharen asks in the beginning of his book, Broken Hallelujahs, “What would this life be were we not able to sing and dance?”3 He goes on to say, “So I begin with thanks to God, whose creative and loving life opened time and space for the creation of the cosmos, for our lives, and for the beautiful gift that is music.”4 Some well-intentioned people of faith operate from the basic assumption that God dislikes and stands opposed to most “secular” forms of music and dancing. However, there is a powerful point of intersection between the secular and the sacred as we consider the complexities of life lived meaningfully in the culture in which God places us.
This intersection is represented well by McClure who has an extensive and varied background in theology as well as music (both professionally and as a personal passion and interest – he played in bands ranging from jazz to rock to folk to blues). Because of this background, there are times when his argument is lost in the midst of too much narrow terminology and unnecessary detail. McClure points to the creation of popular music to illustrate how theology is layered through the intersection of Scripture, culture, theology, and reason. He describes this as “theological tracking; the sequencing and layering of levels of theological discourse.”5 Similarly, in reference to music, he argues that “multi-tracking, sampling, and remixing are all activities that suggest that songs are constructed increasingly at the intersection of multiple discourses and multiple traditions.”6 He does a good job offering examples of ways in which theological traditions and expressions can and should talk and listen to one another. In doing so, his arguments do become too deconstructionist at times, a criticism that he anticipates.7
Another point of critique is that although McClure does a great job of pointing out the many similarities between musical and theological invention, he fails to address the differences adequately. Both Scharen and McClure argue compellingly that by listening carefully to the lyrics in songs, theologians can “connect to the religious desires expressed in popular music, while offering complexity, depth and steerage that is resourced by a particular religious tradition.”8 However, is there a danger in reading too much into a particular artistic expression that is in actuality rooted in faulty presuppositions?
It is undoubtedly true that many Christians start with a negative view of culture rather than a positive one of engagement that extends grace rather than judgment. This is illustrated well in Scharen’s book which aims to
reorient Christian imagination, both by portraying the limits of the common and persuasive mode of faith’s engagement with culture that I define half playfully as “karma” – you get what you deserve – and by offering an understanding of grace as an alternative view.9
The intersection between artistic creation and theological paradigms finds expression in other ways as well. Watkins compares Christ dying between two thieves to deny his divinity with corporate culture on the one hand and the attack on the self-worth of African Americans on the other (with hip-hop in the middle).10 He asks probingly, “If the church doesn’t approach hip-hop the way Jesus approached the cross and the thieves, how can there be hope for salvation? How can we save what we don’t love?”11 This question posed by Watkins is an important one, but are there limits to what Christian communities can and should embrace in popular culture and music?
The argument that Christians can listen to many different types of music and connect the lyrics and musical paradigm to religious themes is a persuasive one. When we are seeking truth, even in places that might be deemed as “dangerous” or “problematic” from the perspective of some evangelicals (pop culture, hip-hop, rap, the blues, rock music, and so on), we become curious as to the source of, reason for, and implications of the message and the messenger. It is at that point that we look at the creative God behind the artist or musician who is using his or her imagination to speak to the brokenness of humanity and the very real human needs and cries that exist all around us. It is to this second theme that we now turn.
Invention of Music and Theology from a Variety of Sources
Another key theme in the books reviewed relates to the creation of music and theology from many different sources in discourse and dialogue with one another. McClure calls this “mashup religion,” referring to a very collaborative, connected, and communicative process that borrows from a variety of individuals and traditions. Indeed, musicians practice a “tradition-based hospitality” that invites the perspectives of other artists.12 Scharen in Broken Hallelujahs uses different language to express the same guiding principle; for example, when he asks the question, “Why does God love the Blues?” he points out that so much commentary, scholarly and popular, describes the blues as “the devil’s music.” Would not such a lament, regardless of the brokenness it clearly portrays and represents, be worthy of careful attention by people of faith? His argument is that the blues are “‘secular spirituals’ that arise from the same root as the powerful laments Scripture itself teaches us to lift before God.”13
Theologians, preachers, writers, and communicators can learn from rather than merely stereotype popular culture as the Devil’s playground. Such labeling, argues Scharen, is one reason people of faith hold musical forms such as the blues at arm’s length.14 A Christian worldview places the Spirit as the source of all good work: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them, there are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (I Corinthians 12:4-6, TNIV; our emphasis).
McClure points out that “religious communicators tend to avoid collaboration at all costs. Most assume that their scholarly essays, books, sermons or blogs are intensely private matters that will lose originality if they are opened to the insights of others.”15 It should be noted, as McClure and others observe, that this is rapidly changing as technology makes interaction and engagement not only easier, but unavoidable. The danger, however, is to have an overly individualistic approach to theological expression that is not adequately informed by religious orthodoxy or tradition but only by personal preference and opinion, a danger that is succumbed to by all three authors on occasion.
Watkins offers several examples of the way artistic expression is in conversation with and informed by many different paradigms and traditions – a “mashup” even within hip-hop culture. He writes, “Hip-hop is like jump cuts, abrupt starts and stops, that are woven into tapestry we call hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is a mixture of the old that has been made new in the remix.”16 In fact, Watkins lists 10 types of messages and forms expressed in hip-hop songs:
• Demonic dealings
• Clique songs
• Big question songs
• Bragging/party songs•
Crime glamor songs
• Love songs
• Statement songs
• Dance/club bangers17
The collaborative nature of various forms of hip-hop itself is pretty amazing as it “brings African Americans, Latinos, German techno, funk, rhythm and blues, etc. together.”18 This is another strong illustration of the discourse that exists between and among various musicians and musical forms.
All three authors spend a considerable amount of time telling the stories of singers and songwriters and the many sources that influenced their art. Scharen clearly bases his argument on what Bono expresses when he says that “the most important element in painting a picture, writing a song, making a movie, whatever, is that it is truthful, a version of the truth as you see it.”19 McClure offers a similar view but from the perspective of the audience in what he labels as “fandoms.” In a very helpful and interesting discussion in chapter 5, McClure asks several questions concerning “fan cultures” for theologians to consider. He articulates very well that theologians must spend time doing basic fan ethnography, studying the ways music and “other cultural artifacts are received and used by the fans in their midst.”20 Clearly, he is not only saying that musicians use traditions from music to write songs or write the truth as they see it, but he is also arguing that musicians and theologians must listen for the desires expressed by the commitments those fans make. Of course, such a perspective also has the inherent danger mentioned earlier: an overly individualistic interpretation based on the perspective of the audience rather than the intent of the artist.
Popular Music Communicates in a Theologically Significant Way
A third theme that emerged in all three books is that popular music communicates theologically in a very real and meaningful way. This point is closely connected to the previous discussion about the intersection of artistic expression and theological paradigms. Both Scharen and Watkins passionately argue that artists like Tupac and Billie Holiday have something to say to all of us, including the church. McClure essentially agrees with this approach but challenges his readers to consider several poignant questions about “fandoms.” These questions are written for theologians to ask themselves and include the following:
• What is the emotional and spiritual feel and affect of peoples’ lives?
• If we look at the 10 to 20 top fandoms in our audience, what matters?
• What are the forms of transcendence that people seek to experience in these fan cultures?
• What are the critiques of the dominant culture and religion that are implicit in these fan cultures?
• What are the people leaving to go on these fan pilgrimages? What are they seeking to escape from their own lives?21
If Watkins and Scharen see artists and musicians as the prophets who are calling out to a doctor for the hurting, then McClure sees theologians as the physician’s assistant in listening very carefully to what the patient needs.
All three authors agree that we see and hear God when we keep our judgment in check as we engage in pop music. As readers and thinkers, we must ask ourselves how popular music communicates God in a very real way. Watkins answers that question by saying, “It is my contention that there is a theological core in hip-hop, and this is a theology of redemption as the beats and lyrics come together to give form and shape to a worldview.”22 One of the most interesting related themes that played out in Scharen’s work was his treatise as to why God loves the blues. Drummer Max Roach noted that when Holliday recorded the haunting Strange Fruit about the lynching of African Americans in the south, “it was more than revolutionary. She made a statement that we all felt as black folks.”23
As Watkins writes with such poignancy, “I believe my job – much like that of Jesus – isn’t to condemn hip-hop or condemn the world. Jesus came in love and with love.”24 It is undoubtedly true that the honesty and pain represented in various forms of music (by Billie Holliday, DMX, Tupac, and others) is often more “true” and “honest” than what is represented in church music. When one examines the profound pain of Billie Holiday’s life, for example, we can understand the cry for justice represented in her music in the midst of the pain experienced by her community.
Of course, communicating theologically through music is only meaningful as it connects with those listening. Again, McClure’s emphasis on fandoms is helpful for theologians and Christians listening for and entering into the “pain” and reality around them. That “pain” and reality can be categorized, according to McClure, through five fandoms: patriotic theology (John Cougar Mellencamp, Toby Keith) promoting God and country; prophetic theology (Johnny Cash) showing the importance of justice and helping the marginalized or excluded; theologies of love (Madonna, Sinead O’Connor and Julie Miller) where “redemption is found in a life of intimacy and wholeness”25; theologies of negation (The Legendary Shack Shakers, Eminem) where the human condition is characterized as meaningless; and therapeutic theologies of recovery (praise and worship music) which places an enormous amount of interest in a “theology that places personal wholeness, rather than self-denial or self-giving, at the center of what it means to be a religious person.”26 We would add that the depiction of praise and worship music by McClure is narrow in that the genre certainly goes beyond personal therapy.
In thinking about the audience’s connection with the music, it is important to consider those areas where artists push the sensibilities of the listener as well. Watkins, for example, occasionally lauds the truth and reality reflected in the lyrics of hip-hop and is a little too forgiving of its excesses. However, he does acknowledge that hip-hop often has, among other things, an “abusive sexist ideology that needs to be corrected.”27 McClure is more balanced and forthright about the power of being “real” when he says, “Within the larger culture popular music assumes a powerful religious communicating function, encouraging consubstantiality with particular modes of being in the world, and a variety of ultimate concerns, some positive and some negative” (author’s emphasis).28 Theologians and those who listen to them need critical thinking skills and wisdom as they engage in the world of pop culture; it is never an all-or-nothing approach.
Popular Music Connects Meaningfully to Christian Faith
A fourth significant theme has to do with the characteristics of popular music that are informed by and inform the Christian faith. Scharen describes this as his purpose when he says,
this book emerges from my conviction that we desperately need imagination that looks the brokenness of humanity and the groaning of creation straight in the face but that also knows mercy and reconciliation have been offered by God in Christ who through the Holy Spirit is working in the midst of all our sorrows even now.29
Popular music affects us at a deeply spiritual level when we experience that piece of art, or that song, or those lyrics, and it changes our humanity. Scharen writes, “The goal is to attend deeply enough to have some sense of how we might see the world through that perspective … Does it enlarge our being-before-God?”30 As we think about the way popular music connects to the Christian faith, there are three key components of this connection.
Popular Music Speaks Personally to the Human Condition
First, songs speak personally to the human condition. The fact is, “Popular songwriters are today’s poets for the common folk, writers who mirror for us our foibles and graces and help us to see ourselves more clearly.”31 This personal connection with the music brings deep meaning to life and allows us to hear in the music our deepest needs and desires expressed poetically and personally. People are drawn to hip-hop, for example, because “They see an authenticity, a realness, a story that doesn’t shy away from the contradictions and complexities of life.”32 For some, music becomes a way of escaping the challenges of daily life and meeting the listener where he or she is at so that the individual hears his or her own personal story or struggle in the lyrics.
Popular Music Speaks Prophetically to the Human Condition
Second, songs speak prophetically to the human condition. Many forms of music provide powerful laments patterned after the weeping prophet (Jeremiah) or other prophetic voices throughout Scripture. The psalmist often expresses similar themes as well. The world is not as it should be so there is a strong recognition of the many forms of injustice that exist. Watkins asks the perceptive and poignant question, “What if God is actually using hip-hop and its young artists to speak prophetically to the church and call her to task?”33
Ironically, this question could also be suggested from a very different perspective. What if God is using the church to speak prophetically to popular culture and the human experience? Clearly, He is doing just that as Christians are called to be salt and light in the culture. At some level, this should lead us to question artists who glorify materialism, demean women, or spew hate even as we should also condemn such attitudes in the church. At times the authors were too critical of the church and did not acknowledge adequately the prophetic voice she can and should have in popular culture. For example, Watkins may overstate his case when he writes, “There may also be embedded, even in the grossest commodification of hip-hop, the core values of peace, love, unity, and having fun.”34 We agree with him that hip-hop expresses important truths and needs to be engaged (and has value) regardless; however, his argument is a complicated one when parents are walking alongside children and teens who are listening to music with values that clearly contradict those of the home.
Popular Music Speaks Passionately to the Human Condition
Yet a third and final characteristic is that songs speak passionately and powerfully to the human condition. Both McClure and Scharen articulate a strong passion about the faithful artistic life from two very different perspectives. McClure writes convincingly that “the theologian who desires a broad audience experiences a similar need to cultivate the deep forms of listening, seeing, and imagining the world that are required in order to faithfully communicate the realities of life in today’s world.”35 In fact, he argues that a song is not fully made until “it is received and appreciated by a fan – someone who identifies with the music and integrates it fully into his or her life.”36 As popular music speaks passionately to those listening, it helps us avoid a “checklist Christianity” or a “constricted imagination” which is counterproductive to a vibrant engagement with the world and her challenges.37 Creativity and imagination are God-given gifts that should be fully expressed and appreciated in the Christian community.
Further, a truly Christian perspective powerfully connects to the four themes that Scharen identifies in Cohen’s songs: “tradition, calling, desire, and brokenness.”38 Scharen writes that Cohen is “spot on, getting exactly at what a faithful life means. In this life, all we are capable of is a broken hallelujah. And the fact that we’re able to raise even a broken hallelujah results from what God has done for us.”39 A perspective informed by and centered in genuine Christianity will have an appropriate amount of humility and will consider that popular music could indeed arise from the same root as the “powerful laments Scripture itself teaches us to lift before God.”40
Finally, McClure argues that as listeners we must do the difficult work and be persistent in listening to what is being communicated in the lyrics. Often they might reflect what the artist considers an “ultimate concern,” to coin Paul Tillich’s phrase.41 All three authors believe that lyrics tell some type of theological story and if we are willing to listen for that “ultimate concern,” we will drop our judgmental guard for just a moment and listen to the powerful message that is often being communicated. Scharen calls us to view the lyrics through a “theology of grace” that “views all as broken, and God’s work through the cross as reaching into every space of abandonment and brokenness, responding to every cry, with a mercy and love that reaches deeper than the despair, pain, and sorrow.”42
Tensions for the Artist and for the Theologian
A final key theme points to the tensions that exist for both the artist and theologian as he or she expresses God-given creativity. Watkins, McClure and Scharen have constructed a compelling argument about how to deal with the sexism, language and violence in popular music, but this remains a clear point of tension as Christians engage the culture. Watkins writes, “to be a part of some-thing and be critical of it demands a complex set of lenses that allows us to move beyond tunnel vision.”43 Scharen goes so far as to say that “even if something in pop culture is so twisted that its portrayal of horror only offers a broken cry, that cry is worth hearing. Why? Because Christ is in that cry, God listens to that cry, and we Christians as the body of Christ ought to hear it too.”44
Watkins does acknowledge:
There are some parts of hip-hop culture that I don’t feel I can come away from and not feel dirty. Just as I am proud to be a Christian, there are some parts of the church and things we do and endorse that leave me sick to my stomach, but I am still a Christian and an active member of the church.45
We appreciated this honest acknowledgement of the deficits of both popular music and the church itself as we live in this place of tension. McClure resonates with this same theme but from the perspective of the writer:
Deciding what to say will involve the integration of those creative selves that push toward autonomy (truth-telling, authenticity, sincerity, originality, distance, uniqueness) and those that push toward heteronomy (empathy, connection, relationship, marketability).46
Regardless, all three authors are arguing that as Christians we should not (and actually cannot) pull away from culture. Indeed, Scharen writes, “The impulse to withdraw from culture actually blinds us to how it is the very water we swim in.”47
Embedded in each of the three books reviewed is a powerful cry for Chris-tians, theologians and musicians alike to engage popular culture and one another in meaningful ways. In the midst of brokenness, authenticity and truth, we will find Christ, but only if we listen carefully to what others are saying and how they are saying it. The cry of pain and longing for justice is expressed frequently in Scripture, a truth expressed often in popular music as well. Equally true is the response of God to those cries and the changed lives resulting from that loving and compassionate response. As Scharen writes:
The slave now free; the criminal condemned to death now alive. These deep patterns at the heart of Scripture make a powerful claim about the relationship of our human brokenness and the cries that rise from the shards of our lives to the compassionate heart of God. By God’s merciful response we know both who we are and who God is; we know how the world is and how it ought to be.48
Cite this article
- “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen, www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/hallelujah.html.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 21.
- Ibid., 9.
McClure, Mashup Religion, 50.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 148.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 99.
Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 124.
- Ibid., 125.
McClure, Mashup Religion, 20.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 55.
- Ibid., 54.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 20.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 2.
- Ibid., 73.
- Ibid., 20.
- Cited in Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 74.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 138.
- Ibid., 141-143.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 10.
- Cited in Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 52.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 1.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 161.
- Ibid., 164.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 118.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 5.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 17.
- Ibid., 117.
McClure, Mashup Religion, 13.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 83.
- Ibid., 40.
- Ibid., 10.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 37.
- Ibid., 124.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 18-19.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 46
- Ibid., 55.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 149.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 136.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 69.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 142.
- Watkins, Hip-Hop Redemption, 75.
- McClure, Mashup Religion, 27.
- Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs, 140.
- Ibid., 93.