I was sitting in McDonald’s the other day waiting for my car to be repaired, trying to write up some end-of-the-academic-year reports amid the noises that tend to populate a McDonald’s. Right above me was a TV that was blaring daytime talk shows. I mustered all of the skills of attentiveness that I have acquired over the years studying and writing amidst screaming children running wild in the house.I was successful until this one interview caught my attention.
I don’t know the name of the TV show, but the host was interviewing a rap artist about his lyrics. When I heard the beginning of the discussion, I stopped my work and started typing what I heard. Evidently his lyrics are free from the usual fare of profanity and sexually explicit content, which makes him unique among pop rap artists. Although he said he talks in his music about real-life struggles, and especially the hard realities of inner city life, he refuses to glorify sex, drugs and violence. The man interviewing him finally asked him, “So, are you a Christian artist?” He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.” He went on to say that there’s a real danger in putting himself in that genre of music, because he would immediately get stereotyped and holed-up in the “religion” box. He said something like this,
If I come into a studio to record and sing a song about life on the streets of Chicago — and that means tellin’ my stories about broken relationships or poverty or despair or about just tryin’ to make a livin’ — and then in the middle of my song happen mention Jesus, they’re gonna to say to me: ‘Yo man, what’s up? You a Gospel singer?’ I say, no man. But what that basically means is, ‘You ain’t a serious rapper cuz if you Christian you have to be all nice and sweet and syrupy about everything. They right away think you ain’t gonna be real and down low with the rest of us. Pie in the sky kinda deal. If you religious, they say, you can’t tell it like it is.’
But that’s not true, man, you know what I mean? Just cuz God comes into the picture doesn’t mean now you unreal, can’t face the dirt on the streets. But that’s the way they see it in the industry. So look, I can say I’m a Christian man who raps, but I can’t say I’m a Christian rapper. Then it’s all over for my career. I’ll get pigeonholed. See, religion’s been put inside this box and you’re either in or out. You can’t be both. You got Christian music and you got secular music. Oil and water. But I don’t like the box, so I just ignore it and sing about life. And God’s just, like, already out there in real life, so I ain’t tryin’ to drag people where they ain’t already livin’. I’m just showin’ what I can see. It’s the same world they see, except faith lets me see God’s right there in the middle of everything. And I want to show it’s a much better world when He’s around, you know?
His brilliant insight reveals very well the depth of impact a radically privatized faith has on how that faith is expressed in public. Every day we move closer toward what Richard Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” where religion is stripped from public life either by being domesticated and contained or by being altogether excluded.
It seems to me that artists, like this rap singer, are particularly well positioned to challenge and help us rethink the hegemony of this aggressively atheistic paradigm by reintroducing a vision of faith that does not threaten to abolish or overwhelm real life, but rather embraces it, builds on it, beautifies it, purifies it and perfects in it all that is good, true and beautiful.
As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
As I am writing here of pop culture and faith, I have no option but to mention Twenty One Pilots. I believe they transgress the artificial barriers between faith and life, revealing in their music the infinite ways in which faith and life shade into one another. Their music leaves you more honest, more hopeful and more human precisely because they see so clearly that Christ is what it means to be fully human, God’s way. Like the rapper, I would say Twenty One Pilots is not a “Christian band,” but are musicians whose creativity emerges out of a rich Christian imagination. To that point, I mentioned to someone the other day that they epitomize Paul’s (slightly reworked) injunction:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, sing about these things (Phil. 4:8).
By the way, I found out yesterday they are coming to New Orleans in March. I am beyond manic about it.
Back to my point. They are particularly masterful at giving clear voice to the existential “feel” of living in a post-Christian culture that is no longer sustained by a Christian architecture. Ours is a deracinated culture, uprooted from faith and so rife with anxiety. Our world has lost its sacraments, repealed its laws, silenced its scriptures, and rendered opaque the stained glass windows that once let in the light of eternity, leaving us stumbling about in the dark. Twenty One Pilots articulates, with such grit, the tremors of Doubt that shake our cultural landscape, especially among the young. Yet — their gift! — they teach us how to pray right out of the heart of this world: