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Gospel, Hip-Hop, and Coded Language

April 6, 2009

4129e076q4l_ss500_The text we are currently engaging in our class is The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture, by Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The authors provide an interesting and helpful history of hip-hop, its connections to urban postmodern experience, as well as insights from their experiences in urban ministry contexts (Minneapolis and Chicago). Both authors are pastors who are working at incarnating the good news within hip-hop culture.

In their chapter on “Blues and Negro Spirituals, the Parents of Hip-Hop”, Smith and Jackson write about how life experience has been communicated through these types of musical expression. Music can be a powerful tool, and they particularly describe the blues in this way:

“What music did, especially the blues, was to speak into your existence and help you make sense of what you were going through and what you felt while going through it. The blues put in word and rhythms the history of both the individual and the corporate struggle” (94).

This is music that speaks to where people are at and what they are experiencing. It is real. But this music (and now hip-hop) was also bringing up the issues that perhaps the church would rather not address. To do so means having to recognize the negative side of life that is a reality for many.

Smith and Jackson describe three elements that exist within the blues, negro spirituals, and hip-hop (95):

  • A connection to liberation
  • A need to transfer values
  • And coded language

I can see evidence of these elements within the gospel accounts and the communities that received them in the first century. I’m also wondering if there are any similarities between this kind of coded language and the type that appears in the gospel accounts? For the past six months I have been studying Mark’s gospel as part of our current sermon series at SMMC. One of the most intriguing aspects of Mark’s account, for me, is the subversive element within the writing style; you might even call it “coded language”. These would be things that Mark’s original audience would have recognized, but that we have trouble seeing based on how we generally read scripture (being separated by 2000 years; having added headings to the text; influenced by sometimes goofy passion plays). Some examples of coded language might be the chiastic structure in Mark 1, and the description of Jesus’ passion in Mark 15-so closely following the pattern of a Roman emperor’s coronation. This type of language may have given a release for a gospel writer who was living in a world where the message was very real for the early Christian community, but perhaps too real for the dominant power to understand or appreciate. What does this mean as we interpret the good news in our context today?

Smith and Jackson write that, “The need is to create a language that gives a message to those who need to hear it” (100). If one is to speak a message into a culture, than an understanding of the language is vital. Their text mentioned the work of Fred Lynch, an urban missionary and hip-hop artist. One of the ways b-boy-coverLynch has sought to incarnate the message of the good news for hip-hop culture is to create “The Epic”, the text of John’s gospel communicated through rap/spoken word. Here is a link to Lynch performing part of “The Epic” (chapter 19:1-11) with graphics, and here is a link to samples of other chapters.

  1. kdking permalink
    April 6, 2009 1:18 pm

    Well said. I would like to come hear your future sermon using and teaching the Hip-Hop codded language. I am wondering how many adults would understand the codes of Hip-hop. I know some that would and others that would like to learn. I double dog dare you to start working on a Hip-hop sermon as a tool to understand Mark’s use of language of his time. Then invite me.

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    April 6, 2009 1:58 pm

    Good stuff on code language in the Gospel of Mark. Yesterday I preached on the politics of palms from Mark 11.

    Interesting to consider that there is a truth contained in every text if you are willing to get beyond the surface, engage with the context–which is a particular embodied experience (not just words and ideas).

  3. April 6, 2009 2:04 pm

    Can I up it to triple dawg? And I want to be there too.

    I am really fascinated by the coded language piece, right now. And Garry Wills (the Catholic writer/thinker/theologian) is leading my thought process at the moment–about Mark as intended toward the persecuted. There is power in coded language–the quick smile at the right moment, the clothing labels, the hand gestures. It suggests identity and subversivity–and at the same time engagement or at least a sense of embeddedness in culture that requires struggle and transformation.

    Great connections! Maybe even without the hiphop coded sermon, I need to get myself over to the Mount.

  4. April 8, 2009 11:30 pm

    Thanks Steve-and your welcome at the Mount anytime 🙂 I’ve heard you mention Garry Wills a number of times now, so I think I’m going to have to check him out.

  5. August 9, 2010 4:33 pm

    very good stuff


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