I will never forget the feeling I had when I first heard Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” track from his The College Dropout album. It felt like Kanye channeled and articulated my angst, hope, faith, and doubt in less than four minutes. I was not the only person to connect with the song considering its massive commercial success.
For me, the brilliance of the song was not displayed in the first two versions of the Jesus Walks videos, which garnered critical acclaim, but in a lower-budget third version that was financed completely by Kanye. This version showed Jesus walking through the hood with Kanye on an ordinary day. When talking about the making of the third “Jesus Walks” video, Kanye said, “Even after seeing the Chris Milk video, there was something I was still missing. I still didn’t feel like I had the hood. That’s what Jesus Walks was for – the hood.” Kanye’s desire to translate Jesus in a palpable and culturally relevant way is a key to understanding why I believe the Americanized Jesus Christ of popular consumption has failed to do the same thing.
It is my thinking that if the people of first century Palestine were introduced to the Jesus of contemporary Christian fashioning, they would not recognize him. Strands of theology like prosperity gospel believe that Jesus was wealthy. Almost all credible biblical scholars see this view as foolhardy. The people who Jesus walked and talked with would dissent with this popular theological framework because wealth was not in any of their worldviews.
Westernized Christian preaching has undercut the radical message of the gospel by proposing that Jesus was a spiritual candy distributor instead of a 1st century revolutionary. Those poor and disinherited people of Jesus’ time would be familiar with the Jesus that challenged their sensibilities – not one that rubber-stamps prayers of promotion, health, and wealth. The Jesus from the Palestinian hood is a far cry from the Jesus of suburbia that sips iced coffee with milk and eats apple fritters.
Theologically, Christian orthodoxy espouses belief in the incarnation – the full humanity and divinity of Jesus. Most Christians will affirm a belief of this sort but I am not convinced that they actually believe it. Too many Christians do not live as if the incarnation is their belief but rather they practice the heresy of Docetism. Docetism is the belief that Jesus was a pure spirit but his body was an illusion because the flesh/matter was contaminated. By minimizing the human experiences of Jesus to just an illusion or an act of contamination, we cripple the connectivity and power of the Christian story. This may work well for those who feel they do not need the historical context of Jesus to love him, but there are those who reside underneath the underdog that would find hope and life in the Jesus who had fully human experiences as a poor, disallowed, and marginalized person.
I can understand why American Christianity would be reticent to fully value Jesus’ humanity. Jesus’ actual life and experiences in the backwater town of Nazareth are akin to if he was from the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago or the Marcy housing projects of Brooklyn. The Jews of that day were under governmental occupation by the Romans; many of them unable to read or be fully integrated into dominate culture. Realizing that the full embodiment of God in flesh was born outside in a manger and raised in an inconsequential town to a teenage mother and a stepfather is not what people consider successful.
To take Jesus’ humanity seriously means that we would need to reconsider the hood as sacred space, a place that was worthy of God to come but a place that many Christians are unwilling to engage. To take seriously the claim that God in flesh walked with those who had nothing but affirmed them anyway would mean that we would need to examine our political stances that further suppress the people that Jesus came to uplift. A really human Jesus seems to be absent from popular Christian proclamation and theology.
Hip-hop culture has embraced Jesus’ humanity in complex and thoughtful ways that collide with more institutionalized views from mainline Christianity and theologically conservative groups. A disembodied Christ has dissatisfied artists from Tupac to 4-Ize to Killer Mike and all points in between. Kanye’s artistic vision in “Jesus Walks” was evangelistic in scope. He reconnected Jesus to a culture, a period, and a body so that Jesus could connect to the heart of those in the midst of the struggle. This reconnection made people uncomfortable. Good.
Many young, Black people have a faith in a higher power (maybe even Jesus), but their skepticism may be more focused on the local church than the person of Jesus. Jesus’ face as tattoos, Bible scriptures written in ink on darkened skin, bedazzled Jesus pieces that hang from strong necks, and bowed down heads show the enduring power of a radical person that lived 2000 years ago. Hip-hop has actually saved my faith in Christ. I knew what I was hearing on Sundays was not enough. I needed to know God cared about the hood. I wanted to know why what I was hearing on TV was insufficient. If I did not have another way to see Jesus, my faith would have spun into the cultural abyss of ritual church attendance and the recitation of spiritual platitudes. I wanted something to live and die for.
Hip-hop gave my conservative Jesus an edge that made sense. If Jesus did not care about the hood, why come down and deliver people from their sins? Thank you Hip-hop for saving my faith and reminding me and others that Jesus still walks, especially in places that others will not allow themselves to go.