In 2004, the Game and 50 Cent released a smash hit titled “How we do.” I know some of y’all remember this song, it went, “I been banging straight past the dealer saying — buck past the blunt.” I know that most of you don’t think of that lyric when you recall this song, but I post that lyric to show that I was such a die-hard G-Unit fan that I can remember specific lyrics like that even ten years later. Flash forward to 2014, now there are a group of pastors hanging out in a room and somehow that song comes on, you may not expect it, but every single one of the men in that room knew those lyrics. That is “Hate it or love it,” we all grew up on that stuff. We all also grew up listening to the two rappers found on the remix of that song, Eazy-E and Tupac Shakur.
I must admit that I am a recovering gangsta wannabe. So many young adults grew up loving Pac, Biggie, 50, Eminem, Busta, and all the rappers which took the hip-hop genre from the basement of “Rolling Stones” radar all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. Often times older generations believe they experienced the mainstream push of an event, and that’s no different for hip-hop music. Those from the 70’s experienced the earliest hip-hop music, and even early stylistic movements in mainstream music. The mid 80’s experienced the first huge shift for music away from rock n’ roll and towards hip hop with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. There was a huge shift for rap music in the “Golden Age” of the genre featuring acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy. However, if you analyze the music and the statistics surrounding the genre of rap or hip-hop, you will notice that the older generations did not experience the breakthrough for rap music, but the most influential years for the genre began with the Gangster rap of the early 90’s and lasted throughout that decade and through the first half of the 00’s. Of course rap and hip hop are still very relevant to the modern music scene now in 2014, the difference is that it is no longer new; hip-hop has become more fashionable, less attitude driven, more culturally acceptable, and much tamer. The initial edge found in the rap I and many others my age grew up on from the 90’s and early 00’s has been replaced by a new wave of party music and hipster fashion. Let’s face it, Miley Cyrus would have never been played on a hip-hop station in 2003, and Bone Thugz would not have collaborated on a song with Justin Beiber.
The Pastor I serve under is from Scotland, and so the lines he has memorized from his youth are from old Presbyterian hymns, Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, and songs written by poets from the UK. I’m from a working class suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and so what I have memorized from my youth is very different from the Pastor of my church. I grew up memorizing every line 50 Cent, Young Buck, Eminem, the Game, Tupac, Ludacris, Outkast, Bone Thugz, Dre, Jay Z, and all those guys ever rhymed. I can remember driving in my Mom’s old white Toyota trying to bump “Get Rich or Die Trying,” while my Mom yelled at me trying to slap my hand from the volume button simultaneously attempting to drive safely. My friends and I were just average boys from the neighborhood; we weren’t living in the hood, but we ate that stuff up, we absolutely loved it. All we cared about as kids was sports, girls, and rap music; and I would argue this is true of most guys in their early 20’s today. So the question begs, “What happens when somebody like this becomes a Christian?” What do we do with all of our childhood memorizations when all I grew up hearing about God were quotes from rappers, such as 50 said, “I know He protecting me but I still stay on my gat,” and “In the Bible it says what goes around comes around. I got hit three weeks later then he got shot down..?” When your entire childhood is marked by secular culture, how do you use that once you become a Christian? Or can you?
I think the answer to this question probably lies within the passage of Acts 17:16-34. Luke writes this story of Paul…
The Text Acts 17:16-34:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’- because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for:
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
As even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Stott’s Question: “What should be the reaction of a Christian who visits or lives in a city which is dominated by a non-Christian ideology or religion, a city which may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually deceived or dead?”
1. What Paul saw:
Paul had recognition that the culture in Athens was consumed by idols. The word Paul used to express his anger at the idols is not found anywhere else in Greek literature, but the idea expressed is Paul recognized the ungodly and idolatrous cultural center of the world to have been “smothered” or “swamped” by idols. We should be able to recognize that this is also true of the culture we grew up in.
Paul also recognizes that the Athenians are very religious. Xenophon referred to Athens as, “One great altar, one great sacrifice… There were more gods in Athens than in all the rest of the country.” Although we may not have statues of gods in our cities, we do have advertisements of famous athletes and gorgeous women everywhere we look in our cities and although we may not have Pagan temples of worship all over, we do have Madison Square Garden, Nationwide Arena, and other venues to host our cultural icons. Just as Paul saw Athens as a “city full of idols,” the culture we grew up in was and still is full of idols.
2. What Paul felt:
Paul was greatly distressed when he saw the idolatry of the Athenians. The Greek word here refers to Paul’s arousal to anger. It’s important that once we recognize the idolatry of our own culture, we should be filled with just anger. We are not to be apathetic towards sin, but we are to be angry at sin. However, this anger is useless if we can’t act on it and it’s sinful if we act on it in a way which is not loving, as described in Scripture. In regards to today’s topic-our anger at the idolatry of the rap game should lead us to want to engage such a culture as ours in a way which makes much of Christ in a biblical way, and proclaims the gospel while reflecting the ethics of the Bible. Jesus is dishonored in our society and this should cause us to want to act.
3. What Paul did:
He wasn’t angry or indignant, and merely reacting harshly, but he reacted towards the Greeks positively. He used their own methods of communication from within their own cultural centers. Also, notice the way in which Paul debated with them. When our society questions the claims of the Gospel, we are to defend the faith. When hip-hop culture makes fun of Christians, or speaks lowly of those who wish to please God, we are to respond not with separation but with engagement! Christians, we must go to cultural centers such as malls, parks, stadiums, venues, bars, and wherever else culture reigns as god, in order that Christian voices might be heard. Not only should we go to these places, but we should engage culture and invite these sorts of discussions to within a church context as well.
4. What Paul said:
Paul was made fun of, just as Christians will be when we engage our culture. Notice where Paul speaks from in this section, the Aeropagus-the largest center of Athens, most comparable to a modern day Madison Square Garden in New York City. Notice how the new teaching Paul gives to the people at the Aeropagus (or “Mars Hill”) is misunderstood-much like our culture misunderstands the teachings of Jesus today. So in the midst of a skeptical and misunderstanding audience, in their own cultural center, Paul preaches boldly. This is astounding for Paul to have done and we should learn from this. Paul calls out the Athenians for their ignorance of God and proclaims the God of the Bible in 5 ways:
First, God is the creator of the Universe (24)
Second, God as sustainer of life (25)
Third, God as ruler of all nations (25-28)
– Paul uses a quote from one of their own philosophers in verse 28a. Paul takes a line which everybody there would have known and understood and then he uses it for his own purpose of declaring Christ. We are beginning now to see why this section specifically can answer the question I posed in the introduction of this blog.
Fourth, God is the Father of human beings.
– Paul quotes Greek poets again in 28b. Who are our modern day poets? Can you recite even a single poem from memory? If you are a male in your mid 20’s, I wouldn’t be surprised for a second if you cannot recite a single poem from memory. Our closest equivalent to this sort of a thing may be lines from movies, or quotes from athletes which are played over Sportscenter, but it’s definitely the rhymes we have memorized from our favorite rappers!
Stott says, “It’s remarkable that Paul should thus have quoted from 2 Pagan poets. His precedent gives us a warrant to do the same and indicates that glimmerings of truth, inishgts from general revelation, may be found in non-Christian authors.”
However, we must be careful when we quote our modern day poets. Our goal is to point our audience to Christ, not to simply be seen as cool and relevant. We use these lyrics as a way to show the inconsistency of our cultural norms with Christianity. For example, I can acknowledge Pac says some good stuff in “Changes,” such as when he says:
“We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
what we gotta do, to survive.”
But, we have got to point out his inconsistency in trusting us to make the changes and instead realize we must first embrace Christ who then changes everything. Therefore, we use the half-truth spoken in this song to point to what Tupac was truly seeking as he wrote these lyrics, for the answer to the problems raised in this song is actually Jesus himself. As Christians, we use common cultural language to identify idolatry within our society and point others towards Christ.
Well, with help from John Stott, I think we are able to see that Acts 17 answers the question I posed in the introduction, “When your entire childhood is marked by secular culture, how do you use that once you become a Christian? Or can you?” The answer is that yes we can use that, but we must be very cautious in how we go about doing that, and we must only do so in a way that points to Christ.