I’ve encountered two different kinds of religious believers, generally speaking. The first are those who focus on the gifts of God and the blessings in their life and take an optimistic approach to humanity. The other group is made up of those who become gripped by the mystery surrounding such a figure and keep an air of skepticism about them.
My grandmother is a good example of the former. She was raised to recognize the beauty in all things, spreads love and joy any way she can, and gives thanks to the Most High for her station. Conversations with her, for better or worse, always lead back to thanksgiving.
My father, conversely, is full of questions for a higher power. From an early age, I remember him thinking out loud during long car rides. He maintained his religious belief but would raise doubts and fears that I would come to recognize more formally in my college years studying religion. What if I’m not good enough? Has the stain of sin marred me beyond redemption? Why does a loving God allow tsunamis and earthquakes to harm thousands of innocent people? Heavy shit for a 10-year-old.
I’d continue to meet people who would ask questions just as challenging. I have a vivid memory of a small group discussion with one of my professors about the Garden of Eden in which he remarked, “If God didn’t want man to eat of the tree, then why’d he put the damn thing in there?”
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m being faced with the same polarities of faith in the music I consume. Arguably the two most religious rap albums of the last year have been Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Though one is still fresh and the other has sat with us for a year, both are inseparable from the religious baggage they lay at our feet. Combined, the albums have over 140 unique references to God or religious imagery (I counted), so you need an understanding of the way they speak to and about God to unpack their messages. Both fit well enough into the categories, with Chance being perpetually “blessed” and Kung Fu Kenny embodying the spirit of questioning.
It’s no secret that Chance attributes his success to God. He “gets his word from the sermon,” claims God’s protective beings surround him and expresses a desire to praise the divine until his dying breath. There are moments on Coloring Book where Chance speaks of hardship and loss (“Same Drugs,” “Summer Friends”), so he’s not a blind optimist. Instead, he chooses to highlight the positivity around him and tries to show that it comes from a higher power. As God says in the Genesis creation myth, the universe is good in the final analysis.
Kendrick, flipping the coin, doesn’t shy away from asking God the tough questions and plays the role of hip hop’s resident existentialist. He’s focused on the subjective experience of the individual and his music is littered with the assertion that suffering is intrinsic to that experience. There’s always been evidence that Kendrick felt this way about humanity. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is, at its heart, a recognition of your finitude, the source of all anxiety, and a reach for immortality in spite of it. “Mortal Man” echoes a similar sentiment. Ryan Alfieri and Yoh didn’t know it, but they indirectly made arguments for this in their analyses of DAMN. released this past week and they go into great detail. (Thanks, guys, you saved me 500-700 words.)
Before I go any further, I need to clarify. Words can easily be misconstrued, especially when you discuss the personal beliefs of others in a “post-fact” world. I don’t claim to know the beliefs of either rapper in sum; all I can do is use the information they choose to reveal.
Also, simplistic categories will ultimately fail, and the reality of a situation is more nuanced, complex and interconnected than you assumed at the beginning. Neither Chance nor Kendrick fit neatly into either description. Chance is candid about suffering from a Xanax addiction (“Finish Line”) and Kendrick claims that God has a plan for the oppressed (“Alright”). Both of those sound like a reach across the aisle when compared to their other work and show they are people and not fixed ideologies. But they do emphasize one over the other.
So what? That’s the question I asked myself when I noticed the dichotomy. What the hell does this mean, if anything? Is one superior to the other? More beneficial? More realistic? More bitter?
Earlier, I used a coin analogy to transition from speaking about Chance’s positivity to Kendrick’s account of suffering, and that's the most appropriate metaphor. They're two sides of one coin, illustrating two separate but necessary ways for the religious believer to move through the world. I can see the benefits of both. When you become too focused on the suffering of the world, you can lose yourself in nihilistic depression, which tends to spread suffering.
Chance and my grandmother are trying spread positivity however they can. While they’ve both succeeded in my eyes, their message that “God is good all the time” isn’t echoed with as much fervor by Syrians hearing the sound of falling bombs. That’s a problem for any person of faith and it should be. Disregarding suffering spits in the face of the “least of these."
A coin has value no matter which side is facing you and a religious believer can find value in both of these approaches. Sometimes you need to be thankful for your blessings, however you believe they come to you, and other times you must ask the one you pray to, “why?”
I don't claim to have answers for those ‘why’ questions; anything close to that requires a lifelong commitment. These days, I’m more concerned with asking the right questions. If the answers come, so be it. I’m not expecting them anytime soon.