Reflection on Preaching: Through the Lens of Decoded by Jay-Z

Posted: July 1, 2016 in Book and Article Reviews, Preaching
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I was a freshman in high school when I first heard Jay-Z’s music.  My earliest impression of his music came in the form of the song “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”  It is a playful tune that conjures the image of Orphan Annie describing the difficult life without parents, living as an orphan, and trying to survive without any supportive social network.  Alone and forgotten.  Jay-Z tapped into a cultural image of another culture and then applied that image to the struggle of African Americans living in violent and depressed areas of America.  Somehow, although I had never experienced living in such a situation, I identified with the pain and struggle of living on the margins, trying to survive, trying to escape the cycles of poverty and violence.  That was the power of Jay-Z’s imagery and imagination that crossed over socio-economic and racial divides.  I was drawn into his world and identified, in some small way, with his struggle.

Preaching can have the same impact through the use of imagery and story.  Emotive identification immerses a hearer into the story-world of the narrator/preacher.  Dr. Thomas often says that “if you go deep enough, experiences become universal.”  Jay-Z embodies that capacity to push his experiences to universal levels.  There is something basic about human experience that is accessible even when it is describing something that we have not personally experienced.  Yet, through analogy and comparison, we can find (through imagination) contact points where we can experience the isolation, pain, fear, joy, comfort, and other feelings and attitudes woven through the variety of human experiences.  Good preaching brings people into contact with those experiences in such a way that they can personally experience those situations as happening in the present to them here and now.  Experiential language, which Jay-Z masterfully weaves throughout his songs, grips us in those experiences.

Good preaching, like good art (including Hip-Hop/ Rap), must truthfully engage life and all of its experience.  Truth is not reductive, but paints an honest picture, both positive and negative.  Jay-Z writes, “To tell the story of the kid with the gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of life.  To tell the story of the pain without telling the story of the rewards – the money, the girls, the excitement – is a different kind of evasion” (p. 17).  In other words, art must paint a full picture of life’s joys and woes.  And, it must deal with the systematic and systemic framework that shapes life and lives to operate and interact in particular ways.  The analysis of life must go beyond scratching the surface of actions to digging into the cultural and social realities that undergird our actions and way of life.  We might call this the cognitive element of preaching, which allows for a kind of “objective” reflection on life in our world.  Dr. Thomas points out that emotive and cognitive elements of preaching are like dancing partners, both work together in the preaching event to engage and evoke response.

Jay-Z also talks about the way that Rap music has the potential to keep people digging into the lyrics long after the first time they hear a song.  He states, “But great rap retains mystery” (p. 54).  In other words, it doesn’t explain everything.  It employs double meanings, entendre, metaphor, and analogy to evoke, surprise, hint, tease, and bewilder.  I think preaching has a similar potential, if done well.  The preaching moment isn’t meant to explain everything, but to evoke interest and connection – mystery.  It continues to challenge us long after the finals words are uttered.  It reminds me of a sermon I heard preached several years ago.  The preacher intentionally did not resolve the sermon.  He left us hanging and unsettled about the content of the sermon, leading us to be part of the resolution – even though a solution was never prescribed for us.  Mystery can have that lingering effect.

The backstory was also a powerful aspect to Decoded.  The backstory unveiled the way that the words and lyrics became possible.  It helped us not only identify with the lyrics but with the lyricist.  For instance, Jay-Z comments, “The churches really were the flakiest, whether they were storefronts or big old-school churches with vaulted ceilings and steeples.  They were kept alive with the donations of poor folks and hadn’t seen a paint job in a minute.  But more than that, they were full of fake prophets and money-snatching preachers” (p. 213).  Here, Jay-Z’s backstory to the lyrics gives us a deeper understanding that he isn’t merely saying churches have no place, but critiquing churches and pastors that prey on the poor and vulnerable and which further create systems of violence and oppression.  Rather than being part of the solution, churches are sometimes perpetrators of further systemic marginalization, which leads to a practical atheism when the result is seeming silence from God.

As preachers, we must not only be aware of our own backstory (which shapes our language), we must also be aware of the backstory of our people.  What is and has shaped their words.  This is the digging deeper aspect to preaching.  It begins with listening, which is the beginning of preaching.  Preaching without listening becomes another form of violence, which runs roughshod over those that we intend to serve.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is the rhythm of the words.  There is a sing-song beat that accompanies Hip-Hop and Rap.  Even the percussion of the words becomes another means by which to evoke emotions and experience.  The African-American tradition is particularly well-versed in this methodology.  It is something that I admire and love to incorporate in my own preaching (although, perhaps, not as well).  Preaching is rhythmic and harmonic.  There is a pace and pulse to the sermon, which the congregation joins.  “Riding a beat” is a rapper’s way of allowing words and music to create something new, an event, an experience in the present moment.  Preaching is a similar task.  Although we may have heard similar sermons before (maybe even many of the same words), we gather together to experience a new way of arranging the words and to dance together to that new arrangement.  Jay-Z was helpful in pointing out the musicality of words and their structure through which to immerse people in an experience, but also to help them reflect on life at its deepest resonance in our collective experiences.

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Comments
  1. I had a similar response to Beyonce’s Lemonade. (Have you watched it yet??) I just felt like she gave voice to such powerful emotions that I had never seen expressed anywhere else so poetically or accurately. That album has been an incredible influence on my preaching since I watched it a few months ago. I’m really glad to read that Jay-Z had a similar effect on you! Makes me feel like I’m not totally crazy!

    • Levi Jones says:

      We discussed her song last week several times, but I have not watched it yet. I plan on doing so soon. I think she’s a great example of what I was talking about in this post. She names the problem that is the elephant in the room.

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