Monday, February 20, 2012

Beauty, Postmodernism, and Christianity

While the ground sought by modernity proved to be elusive, thereby yielding the postmodern critique of modernity, the Christian claim to reality welcomes the postmodern critique. Not so that our particular metanarrative can sit comfortably alongside other metanarratives and live in harmony with them, but because our metanarrative is comparatively so robust, so compelling, so sensible and necessary in the light of all relevant experiential and evidential data -- in other words so beautiful. Strict relativism is an illegitimate position to deduce from the premises of postmodernity; the fact that there exist a plethora of metanarratives -- none of which can be its own objectively justified grounding -- does not mean that all metanarratives are of equal value or quality, or that one can't be present which is the metanarrative that supersedes and subsumes all other metanarratives. Christian truth, properly understood, always has been a rhetoric which presents itself aesthetically, first and foremost. The truth of Christianity can't be divorced from its beauty.

None of this is a concession that the object of Christian worship, the Triune God of the Bible, is anything (or really Anyone) less than absolute Truth, only that He can't be conclusively shown to be such in the interaction between finite minds (some currently imbued with the Holy Spirit and some not). Instead it's to say that the vibrancy and beauty of the Christian metanarrative, and the relative impoverishment of all others, is a signpost that points to the probable Truth of the Christian claim. Or, more precisely, that its truth and beauty have a dialectic relationship which testifies to its supremacy over all other metanarratives. Claims that some other rhetoric has comparable or greater force I dismiss, not out of hand, but out of the knowledge obtained in my investigation of the matter. If there really is no Capital-T Truth, then beauty will ultimately only be in the eye of the beholder, of course, and then those alternate claims are just as valid as mine; but if Truth is out there, then that Truth will be Beauty itself, and it becomes possible for one rhetoric to rise above and absorb all others into itself. The postmodern turn in philosophy doesn't answer the question of whether Truth is out there, but only says that there is no dispassionate, objective position we can occupy to access this knowledge and demonstrate that we have done so. The latter postulate is what seems to be forgotten often.

Incidentally, even some highly influential non-theist thinkers such as Hegel -- and some contemporary Hegelians, such as Slavoj Zizek -- seem to accept the supremacy of Christian rhetoric. While they don't make the move that I do here -- claiming that the nonpareil beauty of the Christian rhetoric is an overwhelming testament to its Truth -- they do affirm its beauty and its potency as a means for understanding the world.

As I've hinted at, modernity need not remain entirely silent on this issue; the popularized version of the postmodern triumph in epistemology and philosophy is a catastrophist model, meaning that it envisions postmodernity counteracting modernity and overturning it; in reality the postmodern project was really inaugurated within modernity all along, and postmodernity is really just its consummation. With this in mind, the internal coherence of the Christian story can still be examined by traditionally modern methods, and how well (or poorly) it fairs under such scrutiny will testify for (or against) its Beauty, which in turn will comment on its claim to Truth. If it patently fails, for example, this would obviously severely cripple its aesthetic appeal; conversely, if it stands up as well as can be expected, this fact either acts as an element of the rhetoric of the Christian story itself, or at least something that acts as an adjacent support structure for it.

With this position laid out, the only task that remains is actually presenting the rhetoric in question. Though it's of course too large a task for this trifle of a post, or for any individual, I can at least point you to the location of the current development of that rhetoric, which is Christ's church on Earth, inhabited and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The church, the Body of Christ, is a furthering of the rhetoric which begins with the loving God of creation making Man in His image for His pleasure, and then reconciling the fallen world to Himself through Christ, the second person of the Trinity. This is, of course, a terribly inadequate thumbnail sketch of the totality of the staggering beauty of Christian rhetoric, which can only be fully appreciated by partaking in that rhetoric, but can also be seen (to some degree) from the outside, if approached humbly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.

My (self-imposed) task here wasn't to demonstrate the beauty of the rhetoric itself -- though I do earnestly implore anyone reading to investigate the matter for themselves -- but only to make the case that, within a postmodern framework, Beauty becomes a primary concern which can present a more powerful and potent case for one metanarrative's supremacy over others, which in turn can become an argument for its Truth.


This post was inspired entirely by David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite. I make no claims to originality, but my thoughts on this subject were flitting through my head and asking to be transcribed in my own words.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Elation Foundation - An Exposition on The Beatitudes

As I continue to delve into the world of Holy Hip-Hop, I recently have been listening to the album Elation Foundation by Evangel (of the group Christcentric). As I mentioned in an earlier post on Holy Hip-Hop, Evangel is a stellar emcee, who I would put as one of the top three best Christian emcees -- and probably just emcees period -- alongside Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle. I was first introduced to his work with Christcentric, which was all excellent, but it took me a while to get a copy of his solo albums. Now that I have, they are nothing short of amazing.

Evangel seems to be the archetype of what might be called the "expositional rapper". The first album I heard him on was Christcentric's Ephesians Project, which is an album-length exposition on the book of Ephesians, with each song covering a corresponding chapter and set of verses. His first solo album is titled Expository Journey, and his second solo album -- Elation Foundation -- is an exposition of The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. He structures the album so that each track is an exposition on each of the beatitudes. Here are the beatitudes, from Matthew 5 of the NIV:

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.

    He said:

 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

And here is the tracklist for Elation Foundation, and the beatitude or verse which each song corresponds with:

1 Elation Foundation - (verse 1)
2 Mr. Smiley Face - (skit)
3 Bankruptcy Department - (verse 3)
4 Savings and Moans - (verse 4)
5 Soul Beneficiary Division - (verse 5)
6 Food Court - (verse 6)
7 Still The Elevator Man - (skit)
8 Mercy Mutual - (verse 7)
9 Pure Hearts - (verse 8)
10 Rejoice! - (verse 12)
11 Shalom Factory - (verse 9)
12 H.R. Dept. (Haters Revile, Heavenly Reward) - (verse 10)
13 Hilltop Housing - (verses 13-14)
14 Elation Summation (Outro summary)
15 Immigration Services (bonus)

As you can see, the title of each song reflects the beatitude that it covers. It's one thing to make a clever tracklisting, but what's extremely impressive is that the songs themselves have vibrant content that  faithfully expound upon each beatitude, in artistic ways. For example, on the track Food Court Evangel utilizes a running food and water metaphor throughout the song, relating them to Biblical truths that deal with hunger, thirst, food and water: "I seek to read, honestly a truth pursuit / Eatin' meat that ironically produces fruit / Because you faced terms / Were crushed for us, if we trust with faith firm / He'll flush the tapeworm". Concluding the song in this way: "Compliments to the Chef / There's no confidence in the flesh, leading to consequences of death / My etiquette is straight / I won't forsake the fellowship of saints / Now you imitate, go ahead and fix a plate."

Evangel's verse on H.R. Dept (which also features the other members of Christcentric), is among the better verses on the album and is worth quoting in its entirety:
Realizing the cost of the cross and the weight of it's worth
The world hates me, of course, 'cause it hated you first
If they're armed heavy with guns
There's nothing new under the sun, their stunts already been done
They're set to cry with their loud antithesis
Yet the scriptures testify with a cloud of witnesses
All the beatings they had, didn't silence their voice
They rejoiced and were exceedingly glad
When Jesus addressed with candor
They said he was demon possessed with slander
And it might get worse, John writes this verse
How Cain slew Abel for his righteous works
They won't leave us alone, Stephen was stoned
Looked up and saw you standing at the seat of your throne
Yeah, we endure cause we see the deal
It don't dare compare with the glory to be revealed 
The crowning jewel of the album comes just after all the beatitudes have been covered. On Hilltop Housing, which features a slamming sonic arrangement, Evangel discusses what it means for the church to be a "city on a hill that's not hidden", and the importance of righteousness, church discipline, and practicing what we preach. "As a body we need confrontation / We should be a congregation of consecration / Do we not see this? We call ourselves Jesus' / Body while parts of it look like prosthesis / These claims are unjust / When we're guilty of the same sin, let it not be named among us"

It should go without saying, if you've heard any of Evangel's work, that the rhymes throughout are superbly crafted and are sharply focused on whatever the topic at hand is. His wordplay and rhyme schemes are often extremely intricate, with each listening producing a greater appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the writing process. And his flow is masterful to boot.

The production on the album, save one or two soft beats, is hard-hitting and boom-bappy which suits my aesthetic preferences. I could have done without a few of the choruses, most notably on Bankruptcy Department and Pure Hearts, but since I'm primarily a fan of grimy, East Coast, beats-and-rhymes, boom-bap rap music -- which often finds hooks to be superfluous or detrimental -- that should come as no surprise. "Just get to the rapping", me and my brethren always say.

Evangel is one of the premiere rappers alive and working at this moment, and this is an extremely creative, Christ-centered, powerful album that is substantive and edifying for Christians and which demands attention from any serious hip-hop fan.