Why I Listen to Jay-Z

When I was around 12 I made the rapper Jay-Z a lot of money. I bought one of his albums because I was a drummer and began to discover my love of hip-hop. But then my guilt from listening to “secular” music got the best of me so I did the “godly” thing and broke that CD into a million pieces and threw it in the trash.

Within a year, I had bought that same CD again. Call it a moment of weakness. But by the time I got back from Church camp that summer I was back on the right track and promptly broke it again. By the time I was 15 or 16 that same album ended back up in my collection for a third time. I finally decided that it was wrong to listen to it, but I was going to do it anyway.

But if believed then what I believe now, I could have saved myself about $25 and a lot of guilt. In the years since, I have come to understand three important things that radically changed how I interact with the “secular” culture, the “world” I was always taught to avoid like the plague (and for the same contagious reason).

The God of the Secular

First, I began to see that everything beautiful comes from God and slapping labels like “Christian” or “secular” onto art does not change the substance of what we find there. What I found was that only listening to “Christian music” was limiting the Kingdom of God. God is over all things and all of humanity is created in his creative image. That applies to musical genius of Jay-Z as much as it does to the sincerity of DCTalk. The stories that are told by Talib Kweli and Mos Def, as raw and unedited as they are, are stories of real life. And God confronts real life, he doesn’t avoid it. The story of Jesus is one not of escapism but redemption.

The Church of Redemption

But I didn’t find this story of redemption in the churches I attended. They seemed more interested in redeeming people “out of” the world, a God who avoided culture and taught us to do the same. And redemption takes wisdom, not rules. It takes engagement, not avoidance. Wisdom says I should not watch movies that glorify violence because part of my own brokenness is a tendency toward violence, I am not in a place to redeem it. But avoidance dictates as a rule “Good Christians don’t watch violent movies.” Now rules are very important for children. But wisdom is what you get when you finally grow up.

Too often churches create environments where people can’t grow up, where Christians don’t have to be wise. We create Christian rules, Christian radio stations, Christian movies, etc. Instead of teaching how to engage and redeem culture, we just keep building fences to help us avoid it altogether. And when we do that, we remain children, so that when we do have a “run-in” with the “secular,” we have no idea how to handle it, either succumbing to its brokenness or condemning it completely, being too scared to see if there is anything beautiful mixed with the mess. And sadly, by avoiding culture, we are telling the world that our God is not one who redeems but one who avoids.

Instead of a place to avoid “the world” Church should be a  community who gives us tools to mine culture and find redemption there. Tools that would teach me to guard my heard and engage my mind.

That is, as the church we are supposed to be teaching each other to be wise, not immature rule-followers. But the only way to be mature, to be in the world but not “of it,” is to be a part of a community who actively engages culture, both celebrating stories of healing and subverting the broken stories, showing how the story of Jesus redeems the stories of brokenness. And over the years, I have found just such a church. Unfortunately, it’s not an “actual” church, in terms of buildings or pastors or Sunday services. I have found it in a growing group of too-few people, friends who have decided it’s time to stop avoiding the world where we live.

The Box I Created for God

Thirdly, once I began to engage with culture, I found something startling. There were non-Christians who were creating beauty, art and speaking profound truth. There were people who were truly loving each other and fighting for justice in heroic ways. I found God in the secular. And as I looked on and said, “how can this be?” I discovered something just as devastating. Their heroism and beauty revealed to me how much I was lacking, the cracks in my Christian system. And the walls between the secular and the sacred, between “the world” and Christian sub-culture, came tumbling down.

I used to believe that God could only be found in things with the adjective “Christian” attached to them. But now, I find God within every system, critiquing its injustices and redeeming it, always creating something new from it.

I even find God where I wish he wasn’t. I am sure that if God was a good Christian he wouldn’t be there. And yet, there he is. And oftentimes I find God absent where I always thought he was. But my job is not to tell God where he does and doesn’t belong, but to follow after him with reckless abandon.

3 responses to “Why I Listen to Jay-Z

  1. I just had an in-depth e-mail conversation about this yesterday. Here’s where I ended up:

    “I’ll take it one step further…

    Crap music/art is not limited to Christian culture. I think terrible art is made when it is made with marketing in mind. Whether that’s “we can sell this to the Christian culture” or “we can sell this to teenage girls”, money is the poison that kills the art.

    Obviously, there’s really awful music that is honest as well. (I think we call that punk?) But I’m not talking about a lack of skill; that’s an entirely different conversation. I’m talking about when the gas pedal is pressed on that skill while the steering wheel is aimed at money (or fame or acceptance or affirmation).

    True art, for better or worse, is brave. Willing to die penniless for telling the truth.

    Now that I think about it, that’s probably why punk music even exists: even with elementary-skill musicianship, people want honesty, bravery.

    Bringing it full circle, when Christians are willing to take the easy road, the dishonest, glossy poster of happiness instead of the dirty, often-difficult fearless belief (the one the disciples were all martyred for), Christian music loses its heart, loses its honesty. The really bad derivative music is just an extension, an afterthought; evidence of a bigger problem: the unwillingness to take any risks whatsoever (“Christian” or otherwise).”

    • This is a great discussion Levi, thanks for bringing me in on it. Great point. Since I think in terms of ideological systems, I would translate your point to being that for many, Christianity is a product for capitalistic ideology while for others, it is what resists the capitalistic ideology. When it is the former, it produces “Crap Art.” When it is the latter, it produces “Brave Art.” And that is the same for all other ideologies as well.

  2. I love this not only because it is true today, but because it was true for Jesus as well. He came for the sick, the broken, and hung out with them, finding beauty in the mess of their lives and redeeming it. Thankful he still works the same way with me.

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