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A Personal Note about my Spiritual and Personal Growth from my First Year of Ministry (Warning: LONG READ)

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      Since leaving Scotland after finishing my Masters of Theology, I had always wondered if I made the right vocational move, switching from the dead, sterile, impersonal, competitive, and isolating field of academia- which nevertheless I was relatively successful in- to the alive, potent, personal, cooperative, and immersive field of ministry- which by my own measures and seemingly the measures of others, I’m not the best suited. In academia, I knew what questions to ask, I knew how to research, compile, making a compelling argument, be direct, and frankly kick some serious behind of others who did not put as much work into their thought as I had mine. when-the-churchgreeters-memesfonjesus-try-being-normal-3859167.pngIn ministry, I have answers to questions no one is asking, am not even sure what are the things I should be looking at, learn how to ‘discern’ (whatever the heck that means), draw people into the ‘presence of God’ (again, whatever the heck that means), be an indirect and gentle guide, and frankly get my ass kicked over and over again by all the messages of what I’m doing wrong, what I don’t have, and what I need to work on to improve it- which for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a personal nightmare and sometimes even a harmful situation. So, why the hell would I make this switch? At the end of the day, I know Jesus personally in my own life, and I struggled to figure out how to follow Jesus any further in academia when I saw him in the streets, in the hospitals, and in the pews. It is Jesus I’m compelled to follow and emulate, not the western stereotype of the white intellectual straight male whose logic and rationality are impervious to the harms of emotions and humanity.

      But I want to begin this piece about lessons I’ve learned during the course of this year of ministry, with a confession- I have grown up in Evangelical Protestant Churches all of my life, and I still feel like either they or I am missing something because I often feel estranged from this tradition that I was raised in, not only because of their politics but their entire approach to things of late. My estrangement became only all the more clear during this first year of ministry with an Evangelical organization- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). While I intend to write some things about this estrangement soon, I wanted to highlight all the important places of growth because of the Evangelicalism of IVCF, not in spite of it- to make everyone aware that my estrangement is not a dismissal of its importance or goodness. The following are some brief antidotes and lessons I’ve learn about ministry during this year with IVCF:

“Purposeful Patience”

      At the beginning of our internship, the importance of waiting and patience was continually stressed, drawing upon Jesus’s instruction to the Apostles to “…not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4). Now, as someone who waited for two years to do ministry- I HATED this emphasis. I was way more with the angels who asked the disciples, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11)- exactly, why the hell were we standing around worshipping Jesus when their was work to do?! I hate apathy, waiting for no reason, and relaxation at the expense of purpose. Frankly, I still feel this way sometimes when I see the urgency of the moment when it comes to our political climate, but it was not the end of the internship when I heard two words that made all the difference- “Purposeful patience.” See, when I normally think of patience and waiting, I think of anticipation for something, and if the Kingdom of God is at hand, then why are we anticipating? Its here! But what I often fail to see is that patience and waiting can be done with the intention of preparation. I wanted to jump into this ministry so fast, without all the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ because I only saw the anticipation, not the preparation. It is also undeniably true that my second semester of ministry was WAY more fruitful than the first, because I knew what was happening and I was prepared by the waiting, in a way that I wasn’t with the first semester. If its a simple thesis it is: We can wait not only in anticipation of what is coming but with the purposeful intent of preparation for what is coming. It is this purposeful intent of preparation in waiting that prevents the waiting from becoming anxious or apathetic.

“Sit Down…Be Humble…”

      Before this internship, to put it lightly, I overestimated by ministry/emotional/people skills. I knew that ministry was not like academia, in that it was people work and not book work. I knew that my skills in research, administration, teaching etc…, which are also important in ministry, were far above my skills in counselling, facilitating, social dynamics and emotional intelligence. But until this internship I really did not know just how far above they were. Before this internship I sought a position at a church, being convinced that because I had done a lot of the hard academic stuff, any and all people skills I needed could be picked up through experience- not another degree (MDiv- cough, cough). God tremendously humbled me through my interactions with students and others by showing me I did not have the people skills needed for ministry- or at least not effective ministry. For instance, indirect leadership- not my preference but often needed. CB-01When it comes to leadership styles, lets make a comparison to dancing. Leadership to me is either the person that choreographs the entire room in a dance, or is the lead dance partner- very direct, very organized, lots of control, and can do a lot if the person is willing. But often what ministry requires is a more indirect style of leadership or a DJ of the dance party, someone who is willing to organize and play a set list, but does not immediately dictate how the crowd will dance, when the crowd will dance, and cannot not just jump in the middle of the dance floor and change things. The DJ sets the tone and wants certain things to happen but has released some control in order to allow the dance partners to have a portion of control themselves and thus create some really magical moments. Many other people skills such as inter-cultural codes, personality tests, mental health, reading emotional faces etc… were all things I came to learn about and be humbled by. If its a simple thesis it is: God can humble us either by jumping on the dance floor directly or us being open to his music, but either way, the humbling is to make us become better dancers. God’s humbling of me, while painful, was what would ultimately make me a better party thrower in ministry life, I can be choreographer when I need to be, but now I’m beginning to have the skills of a DJ too.

“God uses our EROS for other purposes”

      For most of my adult life the assumption that I held about the erotic element in life was that it was for one purpose- to find sexual partners. To be fair to myself, this is what churches and culture teach about this subject. Now, when I began this internship there was a clause about not being allowed to have a romantic relationship during the course of the internship- yes, you read that right, not just a romantic relationship with a student or co-worker which would make sense because of power-dynamics, but not at all. So many of my friends laughed about this because they’ve known about my struggles in this area, while others (I think reasonably too) thought that IVCF was being a bit controlling with their sexual hang-ups (more on that in a later piece). Nevertheless, I’m a good faithful person to a contract that I agreed to but I also know me- a romantic by nature.  I knew that I would be prone to seeking a romance, so I was on the look out.

Students- nothing- check.

Housemates- nothing- check.

Coworkers- nothing- check.

Church people- nothing- check.

As far as I could tell, I was safe! Boy, was I naive. I had intentionally this year made sure I would have one group of non-Christian friends, in this case I made friends with the Fightback Socialist Group at Concordia. I attended one of their events and at the end of the event a woman gets up and announces another event that sounded interesting. Now, I thought she was cute but I was assuming that at a Socialist meeting they would all be atheists, so I thought it unwise to pursue her. Anyways this woman, myself and another guy getting to talking and they ask me what I’m doing in Montreal, and I tell them about doing Christian ministry. Of course, the socialist guy is surprised that a devout Christian would be at their meeting, but then she’s says “I’m a Christian too.” Now, if you could imagine it for a second, my head shook in astonishment very Scooby-Doo like.giphy I found out that she had previous experience with IVCF, had a masters degree and worked at a museum. Holy crap! Cute, Intelligent, Christian, and even Socialist- I wasn’t sure another one of us even existed! We then did a couple of bar trips and casual dinners with good conversation but it didn’t end up becoming anything romantic (she was seeing someone, of course!). But I am still convinced that God wanted me to pursue her because even though I was hoping for a sexual relationship, God was using my erotic drive to draw me into a deeper understanding of what I am attracted to, and what demographic of people I have placed on my heart to minister to- Christians who are intelligent, politically active, leftist and no longer have a spiritual community. If its a simple thesis it is: Sometimes following our erotic desires can lead us into a closer communion with God and can be used for things other than what we expected.  

“God Gives Good Gifts to his Kids, even if we don’t know what they will be” 

      Of all my passions and talents the one I did not expect to be put to any use during this internship was rapping. Hip-Hop is one of those things that is so close and dear to my heart, but its not ever been something I’ve had as a front foot forward. Its a semi-private professional hobby, that always without fail takes people by surprise, especially when I tear it up! In addition to this, I did not expect that my old childhood love of trading card games would emerge either. Now, I knew this internship was gonna be a difficult time of learning, but it turned out to be a lot of fun as well especially in ways I did not expect! For instance I got to perform Ejection, which I have come to see as prophecy about white backlash with the Trump presidency at a worship night for Dawson, as well as two other performances in the first semester. The next semester was crazy too, I got to perform for Jack.org at Concordia’s student bar about mental health awareness, along with three other performances. Seven performances in 8 months is not a pace I am use to, but God rained it down on me for maybe no other purpose than he knew I would enjoy it. I was also introduced to the trading card game, Magic the Gathering, which is of the kind of entertainment that is hours of pointless fun that I use to judge my peers about before but which I am now subsumed in myself. I often speculated about what good things might come out of the internship but the little opportunities of fun joy in rapping and trading card games were not any that I anticipated. If its a simple thesis it is: God loves to give good gifts to his kids, even just when they’re for our pleasure and fun- God wants to see us play! 

“I’m so extroverted! No wonder I was depressed being single in isolation!”

      As much as I believe that God wanted to teach me a lot about himself, about others, and about ministry, I learned equally as much about myself along the way. Just before the internship I took the famous Myers-Briggs personality test and learned that I am apparently an ENTJ. For those of you not in-the-know, the first of the four letters mean stands for ‘E’xtroverted and when it first told me I was an extrovert I was very skeptical. I’m an only child, I’ve always had my own room, and living in a big city like Toronto you often feel isolated from all your closest friends. But what also had me convinced I was introvert was that I was shy and quite as child, and as I became an adolescent I found that I enjoyed reading and writing- two very solitary activities. I thought I was going to hate living in a crowded 6 person household, whom I knew were not going to live up to my standards of cleanliness. But, surprise I actually LOVED IT! All the joy in sharing a table around a meal, spending time in deep conversation, playing board games, praying for each other, laughing, and never feeling like you were alone even when you got space to yourself. The support network was immediate and constant, and it only invited more to join in. So good was this community for me, that I even ended up coming off my anti-depressant medication because I didn’t need it, I wasn’t walking around depressed. What this taught me about my desire for intimacy and a romantic relationship was invaluable. I learned that the loneliness I felt in Toronto fed deeply into my want for a romantic relationship, but when I was surrounded with a close-knit immediate community I may still have wanted a romantic relationship but it didn’t have the same force because I received intimacy and closeness in other ways. I didn’t feel like I needed a romantic relationship the way that I feel I ‘need’ it in Toronto. If its a simple thesis it is: The solution to the problem that “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) does not need to be a sexual partner.

“Learn to live with your thorns, they don’t go away when serving Jesus”

      Now, an immediate preface, suffering is not good. Christianity often has a sadistic element present throughout its tradition and what I am going to say should never be construed as “All suffering is permanent and good and embrace it…blah, blah, blah.” But while suffering is never good, it can often be necessary and is not as easy to tackle as utopians and technocrats would like us to believe it is. During the course of my ministry this year because of a number of factors I had a relapse of my OCD, I thank God however that it was not accompanied by depression, that would have really taken me out of commission. Now, there is so much with regards to my OCD t that I have had the wisdom not to talk or write about and I do ask that you respect my privacy with regards to it. 92087ce9bff56566ae1d8850e7feccddHowever despite some of my wishes for privacy, I don’t try to pretend that its not a major part of my life, and for years now I thought it was all over with- until it reemerged. But in many ways, while it was not good for me to suffer this way, it may have been necessary if only for the things I have received from this recovery that I did not received during my previous experience over five years ago. Five years ago I never received therapy, the medications after a year seemed to do the trick, and I always had the sneaky suspicion that I would need proper therapy one day- I had just not anticipated it being when I was away doing ministry in Montreal! In addition to receiving the therapy that I needed and more awareness of how to deal with OCD aside from ‘take your pills’, I also received an assurance that wherever I was and however I was, God was going to rescue me because I still had a place in his Kingdom and ministry despite my state and capabilities. To have this kind of reassurance is immeasurable when suffering greatly. If its a simple thesis it is: Serving Jesus will still involve suffering, even undeserved suffering, but how one deals with one’s thorns is not simply trying to relieve the pain- though you should- but to have faith in your imminent rescue. 

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      Now, congratulations are in order if you made it this far! But I am so happy that you did, and I hope your own faith in the goodness of God is reaffirmed by my testimony during this year of ministry!

Blessings, and until next time,

Caleb David Upton

A Personal Note on O.C.D. and Eminem

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      Quite recently much to my surprise but also much to my comfort, Eminem A.K.A. Marshall Mathers himself annotated lyrics to his song “Monster (Feat. Rihanna)”, which were

My OCD is conking me in the head, keep knocking
Nobody’s home, I’m sleepwalking
I’m just relaying what the voice in my head is saying
Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just friends with the…”

He writes, “I really do have O.C.D, it’s not funny b*tch.” Whether an official diagnoses (which I truly suspect it is for reasons that will follow) or not this was of extreme comfort to me, because I have always lived with a central contradiction- I’m a devout Christian, and yet…I love Eminem.944193_575152922527799_64881636_n Ever since I heard “The Real Slim Shady” on a radio in Goodwill, I’ve been hooked.  Eminem was my  to the rest of Hip-Hop to be sure, but for a fat white kid in a  predominately non-white school growing up, it was amazing to have THE rapper of our time be a white guy. Slim Shady was no gangster, and yet, no one could deny that he was THE best emcee at that precious moment of the turn of the millennia. I couldn’t connect with many other rappers of the time, whether 50 Cent, or Jay-Z because well…I wasn’t black, I was a moralistic Christian, and I most certainly wasn’t some gangster (nor could I pretend to be, I mean just look at me as a kid). But Slim shady, this white kid who was into cartoons, was a clown, was picked on and teased, continuously got his heart broken, had violet fantasies (that everyone knew he wouldn’t do), and liked fart jokes–here was someone I could relate to. Despite our differences in faith and morality, particularly as it comes to his use of abusive language, we shared ethnicity, musical interest, and childhood experiences of bullying.

      Until he revealed that he has been diagnosed with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) however, this was all I thought my affinity to him amounted to. Sure, I know a lot of Hip-Hop heads, have problems with Eminem, and sure, I know a lot of Christians have problems with Eminem and as members of both groups, so do I… but as Immortal Technique raps in “Crimes of the Heart”

“I can’t give into hatred or pass judgment
Even towards every illusion I’ve been in love with
Cause the heart that betrays itself willingly
Is like a nation that trades freedom for stability
It’s so seductive to be cold and corrupted
And isolated and try to be an independent republic”

Indeed. I can’t pretend like Eminem wasn’t a childhood music obsession of mine, and a rapper whose skills I’m still in awe to this very day. I can’t pretend like he wasn’t the reason I felt like I could rap, I can’t pretend that he didn’t introduced me to Hip-Hop, I can’t deny that I’m an Eminem “Stan“. But when he revealed that he was diagnosed with O.C.D., I realized that my affinity with him reached deeper than ethnicity and childhood experience–it actually came down to our type of intelligence and the way our brains work, for I too suffer from O.C.D.

      Now for those who are unfamiliar, and especially for those who think they are familiar allow me to explain in the best terms I can what O.C.D. is, how it manifests itself, what some of its benefits are,* and most boldly, propose it as the key to explaining Eminem’s entire approach to writing lyrics. Let’s begin with what O.C.D. is effectively not. Even the revered Stephen Fry has misjudged what O.C.D. is according to popular misunderstandings prevalent throughout all of our media. As David Adam rightly says, “It’s not an exaggerated love of order and hygiene. It’s a disorder of thought…” It is also extremely important that O.C.D. like other mental illnesses are understood properly for as Adam points out, “It takes real courage to confront mental distress and seek help. Yet when people with OCD do so, they often find bafflement and hostility…If OCD is simply someone who washes their hands then why is this patient telling me of unwanted thoughts to hurt their children?…Parents with OCD are separated from their families. Workers are suspended from their jobs, but not because they pose any threat…” but because their O.C.D. symptoms are not recognized as such.

      For someone to have O.C.D., it does not mean necessarily that they are a super clean, tidy, or organized person- though it can include those things- rather it means that someone suffers from constant obsessions. Obsessions are not things that we desire and want, which is what the term has come to mean in popular usage, rather obsessions are quite literally those things that our brains cannot stop thinking about. Nor it is that the obsessions are about various subject matter that we are in interested in, no, the obsessions come in a variety of forms, most commonly known are germ related, but could range all the way to violent and sexual anxieties/fears that our brains cannot stop thinking about. The obsessions, far from being desires are anxiety inducing precisely because they are unwanted, and the obsessions are intrusive upon our normal day-to-day thought process, they come out of no-where and suddenly they are all our brains are able to think about. First then, the ‘O’ refers not to interests but to anxieties and fears that our brains obsess about and literally cannot stop thinking about.

      Second then is the ‘C’. Most people think of the ‘C’ as referring to constant hand washing or door checking, and while these are often some sufferers compulsions other compulsions can be wearing socks to bed, washing one’s feet, constantly flossing, organizing all emails (for those who wish you had this compulsion- no you don’t), or even calorie counting. Compulsions don’t necessarily have any correspondence to the obsessions, and often they could even be just mental compulsions (as opposed to physical activities like hand-washing) the only necessary connection between the obsessions and the compulsions is that the compulsions provide some sort of short-term relief from the over-whelming anxiety that the obsessions cause. The key words here are ‘short-term’, because ultimately compulsions, like scratching a mosquito bite, only exasperate the problem in the long term by making the obsessions even stronger- thus a cycle of obsession and compulsion is established, out of which there appears to be no escape. So thus, finally the ‘D’ does not merely refer to that someone who may exhibit extra attention to cleanliness that’s out of portion, the disorder quite literally refers to this cycle of obsession then compulsion taking over your life and severely debilitating one’s quality of life. For myself in my journey, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read (for those who know me that was just as troubling as not eating), and I couldn’t take care of myself in any meaningful way. It sends our lives completely out of order.

      Now that we got those clarifications and simple definitions out of the way, let’s move to the neurology of O.C.D. for it is here that we can trace even within Eminem’s own lyrics, the neuro-biological root of his O.C.D. O.C.D. by professionals is sometimes called “basal ganglia disease” because the research on the biochemical level is near conclusive that O.C.D. is rooted in this part of the brain. Now the basal ganglia is responsible for involuntary movements like walking, but also for an awareness of our thoughts, which is where the abnormality of O.C.D.  stems from. The basal ganglia is responsible essentially for sorting out all the thobrain3ughts in one’s brain into those that are not needed and those of special concern for survival. People who do not suffer from O.C.D. sort out these thoughts just fine- information that conforms to previous experiences of fears and wishes is dismissed, and those that do not are retained for further consideration. People with O.C.D’s basal ganglia often keep the absurd random thoughts that everyone has every day- like ‘why don’t I just stab that cat?’- that people (in line with their expectations of the world) would normally dismiss, longer and thus those random thoughts stick, and brew a tremendous amount of anxiety as an obsession. The anxiety is obvious, we know that these obsessions are absurd and couldn’t possibly come about, but our brains retain them and send warnings to our brain about our need to further consider such possibilities as genuine fears- rooted in survival. It over retains absurd information, warns of you of as a genuine fear to which you must respond to for your survival, and you create compulsions, which themselves only reenforce your basal ganglia to think of these fears as genuine and in need of attention.

      Damage to the basal ganglia in any form, whether stroke or head injury, can be a root neuro-biological cause of O.C.D. Many O.C.D. sufferers often have such head injuries as a child. When I was about nine or ten years old, my parents and I went to a camp resort. While playing with one of the other kids there, he kept throwing large rocks behind him, and one of them flew and knocked me right in the head and I was out cold- I got stitches and everything. Some worried about me going to sleep because if I did, I might not wake-up- not knowing the extent of the brain damage. Thankfully after a week everything was fine, but, as I now suspect it damaged by basal ganglia leaving me vulnerable to O.C.D. Now those who know Eminem’s catalogue well know that in one of his more master story-telling tracks, Marshall narrates, in his cartoonish way, the brain damage he suffered as a child. Eminem’s writes,

“Way before my baby daughter Hailie
I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey
An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, ‘cause his father boxes, so every day he’d shove me in the lockers
One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin’
And had me in the position to beat me into submission
He banged my head against the urinal till he broke my nose
Soaked my clothes in blood
Grabbed me and choked my throat
I tried to plead and tell him we shouldn’t beef
But he just wouldn’t leave
He kept choking me and I couldn’t breathe”

While the song is not literal, it is actually based on such a real life encounter that Marshall had as a child. The man D’Angelo Bailey said in an interview that, “There was a bunch of us that used to mess with him. You know, bully-type things…We flipped him right on his head at recess. When we didn’t see him moving, we took off running. We lied and said he slipped on the ice.” Quite traumatic, and when Marshall himself woke up, he recalls, he said “I can spell elephant.” It was there it would seem that his new love of language grew. Traumatic head injuries like this can provoke the basal ganglia resulting in O.C.D.- this was certainly so in Marshall’s case.

      Resulting from O.C.D., and working alongside of it, is a high level of intelligence- as one of my psychiatrist said to me ‘No one who is stupid gets O.C.D.’ Naturally this makes sense given that people with O.C.D. have a higher number of functioning brain cells than the average person, but also that O.C.D. is quite literally a disorder resulting from overthinking. Memory retention and conceptual association are usually off the charts in their exceptionalism for people who suffer from O.C.D. They think more thoroughly than the average person about almost any and everything. Now that we have covered what O.C.D. is, and how it manifests itself, we can move on to its benefits, chief of which are exceptional intelligence, creative thinking, and often, because certain behaviours take on a compulsive nature, an extremely productive work ethic, especially when it comes to writing.

      Certain behaviours that come with O.C.D. like extreme cleanliness and orderliness can seem like things that everybody wishes they had- wouldn’t you like to know where everything is at all times? Or wouldn’t you like to have your email completed sorted and taken care of? But O.C.D. can actually have a variety of benefits, once the activity of your brain is channeled properly into work and not into compulsions. Simply, O.C.D., once its under control and not a disorder that is life debilitating, can lead to some incredible benefits because your brain is running on a completely different and more powerful engine than the average person. As Dr. Ian Osbourne writes, “…there is, quite possibly, a powerfully creative aspect to their [O.C.D. sufferers] cognitive tendencies that we neglect, a creativity fuelled by the unusually vivid real-life quality of certain of their thoughts.” (154) How does this relate to Eminem, a confessed grade 9 dropout? In Anderson Cooper’s famous interview with Eminem there is a beautiful moment when Marshall is showing Anderson his lyric pages kept in a box and Anderson remarks

 “I’ve gotten letters from crazy people and they kind of look like this. Sometimes all in capital letters or scrawled on the page like this.”

“Yeah? Well that’s probably because I’m crazy,” Eminem replied with a smirk.

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      The writing habits of people with O.C.D. may look like compulsively written scribbles, and that’s because…they are. af7b2111d1a5f77e0f02f00ce0df055aBut, no matter how random they appear they are well thought over, and the creativity bursts forth constantly. Whatever Marshall’s obsessions are, which may be difficult for anyone who doesn’t know him personally to discern, it is clear that his compulsion, writing, has become his craft. Eminem, studied the dictionary in order to remember words for any scheme. Eminem’s obsessional-like attention to the technicalities of rhymes and rhyme schemes is so profound that when I teach my Element One classes at Yonge Street Mission I use the first verse of “Lose Yourself” to teach at least 13 different kinds of rhyme. Simply put, Marshall may not have been a scholastic genius, but he has quickly became a modern day literary one.

      But more than vocabulary the creativity of O.C.D. sufferers comes from precisely the thing that creates their anxious obsessions, their ability to retain information and have it associated with the most unlikely of improbabilities. Talib Kweli, another master emcee in an interview with Vlad TV said that the most important thing in understanding how Eminem became so successful was not primarily his skills but

“What he had more than other emcees was vision…so even the Slim Shady EP before he linked up with Dre, the idea that there’s Eminem and there’s Slim Shady, the was genius. The idea that all his songs like ‘Just the two of us’…all his songs were super conceptual, super visual…its was him being a visionary and an artist to take chances.”

Kweli is absolutely on point with these observations because Eminem’s success, while due in part to his white privilege and his skill, was primarily propelled by his creativity of associations- that he wasn’t the gangster that so many other rappers were when I was a kid.

      To conclude as to why this personal affinity to Eminem that I have (O.C.D. sufferer to O.C.D. sufferer) is so important for my personal understanding is because it is important to note that though we share this in common- our differences are so vast that it should be clear that no one is defined by their afflictions. O.C.D. does not define me or Marshall. But more importantly what I want to impart to others is that mental illness, while debilitating at times, can also be an opportunity to recognize your kinship with other people who are totally unlike you but who suffer from the same, and for you to discover your own gifts, like Eminem did with his love of language. It may be best to leave with some of Marshall’s own lyrics from his song “Legacy”, which is worthy to listen to in full as a story of Marshall coming to terms with the inner workings of his own brain and is itself a testament to his own writing genius as he maintain a singular pair of syllables rhyming throughout the entire song, a lyrical acrobatic feat.

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Why am I so differently wired in my noggin?
Cause sporadic as my thoughts come, it’s mind-bogglin’
Cause I obsess on everything in my mind
Small sh*t…

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome
Cause if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work words like this
And connect lines like crosswords…

The most high exalting and I ain’t haltin’
’til I die of exhaustion, inhale my exhaust fumes
The best part about me is I am not you
I’m me, I’m the Fire Marshall and this is my Legacy”

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*All information regarding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is from the following work that helped me immensely through my own journey: Osborn, Ian Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Bravos Press: 2008). 

 

Satan’s Temptations in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy pt. 1

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        Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in his masterpiece within the masterpiece of The Brothers Karamazov, ‘The Grand Inquisitor‘, as well as Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in his The Gospel in Brief, both, as the master Russian novelists that they are, comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Since they both take the temptations in the Matthean order of the temptations, we shall take them in that order as well, as we compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves not only as as Dostoyevsky saw them, as the ‘but three human phrases’ in which ‘the entire future history of the world and mankind’ was enveloped, nor only as Tolstoy saw them, as part of ‘the only doctrine which gives a meaning to life’, but also as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us.

Dostoyevsky, 1871

Dostoyevsky, 1871

        Of the first temptation, of that changing the stones into bread, Dostoyevsky in his portrayal of the Inquisitor’s understanding of the temptations, anticipates by almost a hundred years John Howard Yoder, who argues in The Politics of Jesus (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1994) that the temptations of Satan to Jesus were not temptations to sin, but rather temptations to differing options of how to be a Messiah/King. Satan is not, in this understanding, attempting to get Jesus to sin or prove that he is the Son of God, but rather to influence Jesus’ entire missional program as the Messiah from the beginning. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor understands that the temptation Satan was offering Jesus in the wilderness, was not to satisfy Jesus’ own hunger alone- as if the Son of God could be tempted with a wafer!- no, the temptation was to use the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Tolstoy, sadly, misses this entire schema, ironically, because he was reading the narrative in the ascetic manner, most likely the same manner that the established Russian Orthodox church of his period, which Tolstoy rebelled against,  did- as a narrative about the primacy of spirit over flesh for individual conscience. In Tolstoy’s reading, Satan is tempting Jesus to do a magic trick to prove that he is the Son of God, and, with Tolstoy’s typical antipathy for the miraculous, Jesus refuses to perform it because his spirit has no need for material bread- a dangerous asceticism most certainly. But the narrative, as in the Gospel account, does not show the disregard Tolstoy has for the material- as a dear friend used to say at breakfast, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but it helps’. But what of this idea that people could be enslaved by the promise of material prosperity? Dostoyevsky puts into the mouth of his Inquisitor the words, speaking to Jesus, “Are you aware that centuries will pass, and mankind will proclaim with the lips of its wisdom and science that there is no crime and consequently no sin either, but only the hungry. ‘Feed them, and then ask virtue of them!'” He further elaborates that the Catholic-esque state would be willing to be the paternal father-like character to the hungry and feed them, for the price of their freedom, for mankind left to his own freedom would never be able to share, and that this state, in the figure of the Inquisitor, will care for the weak, unlike Jesus, whose commands they view as only for the strong. Yes, they will be slave masters, but benevolent ones, who at the end of the day actually love those whom they enslaved.

        Dostoyevsky anticipated the rise of the socialist states of the 20th century with remarkable foresight, but rather than denounce the ‘welfare state’ against the liberty of free-market capitalism, the task is to point out that the temptation story in the wilderness is not about the temptation of Jesus to achieve utopia, as if the Messiah really had an inner struggle with whether he wanted people to be fed or not,* but of using ‘prosperity’ as the dangling carrot in front of the masses to persuade one to follow him. It is for this exact reason that the general trend, historically, has been that those colonial powers who desired to convert their subjugated peoples to the Christian faith were actually the most counter-productive in their aims of subjugation- they did not promise them material prosperity alone, and therefore the subjugated were not concerned merely to obtain the ‘white-man’s’ wealth, but believed themselves to have direct access to the divine. Dana L. Robert argues in her summation of this colonial history that,

“Another important factor in understanding the ambiguous relationship between missions and imperialism before decolonization was the importance of missionary schools. Christian missions pioneered Western learning in the non-Western world. In 1935 missions were running nearly 57,000 schools throughout the world, including more than one hundred colleges. Mission schools promoted literacy in both European languages and vernaculars, and they spread Western ideals of democratic governance, individual rights, and the educability of women and girls. Despite their limitations, missions through education provided local leadership with the tools it needed to challenge foreign oppression.”**

They did not merely want ‘bread’ but ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Many, like Matthew Parris once did, say that while they applaud the morally good works and benefits of missionaries around the world in building hospitals, schools, and whatnot, they do not believe that Africa or any other impoverished country needs the ‘religion’, the ‘faith’, that these proselytizers are trying to sell to the masses. But, as Parris and other atheists may have surely discovered,

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.***

Furthermore, Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor and the Satan figure in the Gospels both imply the same accusation against Christ- that he is too heartless- and the same boast of themselves- that they are the ones who ‘really’ care, as opposed to those that merely want to enslave people with ‘religion’. Those that accuse the Christian faith of such and such atrocity here or there will almost never forget to leave out the fact that their humanitarian organizations, while likewise helping people, do not suffer them to believe ridiculous things- for the Christians just want converts whereas the humanitarians really want to help people.

        The problem occurs then as to what constitutes ‘help’. G.K. Chesterton (1847-1936), in his essay ‘The Orthodox Barber’ found in the collection Tremendous Trifles, begins by stating- “Those thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it.” Chesterton’s point was the lack of joy in the love of the highly humanistic rationalists of his day, but for our purposes it suffices to point out that we should not assume that ‘secularists/humanists’ and  the ‘religious’ share the same definition of ‘love’, or ‘help’. For many of the former, love is mostly equivalent to generosity of material need and toleration of the cultural difference of the other, whereas for the later quite often love is the desire to transform the other, for the purposes of the overall betterment of them, even if that requires the self-sacrifice of the reputation of the lover in the short-term. Alas, it would seem that both of these impulses are beset by a central contradiction in the colonial mind-set of separation versus homogenization. For some of the former, the separation is in part advanced by the narrative of how pure the ‘savage’s’ culture is in comparison to the decadence of the ‘west’, and by this narrative the colonized are kept separate from fully enjoying the life, both materially and else wise, of the colonizer. For some of the second-group, the ‘religious’, the desire is to homogenize the colonized so they may become, in the words of the Gospel of Matthew, ‘twice as much a child of hell as [they] are’ (23:15), though under the guise of love and transformation, while an indigenous culture is destroyed.

        While affirming that there is no escaping the difficultly of the second half of the dilemma, namely the destruction that comes with homogenization, it does appear to be the case that homogenization may have a certain ‘kick-back’ effect of creating a group of equals from the colonized that choose to rebel as equals against the colonizers, that the method of the separation of the dominated colonized does not have.

Adidas Shackle Shoes

Adidas Shackle Shoes

        Consider the case of two Hip-Hop artists, namely, Soulja Boy and Immortal Technique, two very different artists altogether. Soulja Boy in 2008 was heavily criticized for saying, “Shout out to the slave masters! Without them we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get this ice and tattoos.” His cry is mimicked by the cry of the masses given by Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor, ‘Enslave us if you will, but feed us.’ Soulja Boy was separated, and kept separate by the promise of material prosperity, ‘Sure’ white supremacist institutions would say, ‘he is not free, he’s an idiot, but at least he’s a happy idiot. We got him out of poverty, we took him from ashy to classy, and turned his stones into bread!’ Whereas an artist like Immortal Technique in his song, Civil War, from his 2011 release The Martyr, raps, “And white execs that love to see us in that position/ They reflect the stereotypes of America’s vision/ They want us dancing, cooning and hollering/ Only respect us for playing sports and modelling/ More than racism: it’s stay in your place-ism/ More people are trapped in practical blackface-ism”. ‘Stay in your place-ism’ is an extremely potent phrase for the colonial method of separation described earlier. What is more interesting is that in some sense Immortal Technique, or Felipe Andres Coronel, is himself the product of political science courses at Baruch College in New York City after spending sometime in prison. He was separated, and then there was the attempt to homogenize through higher education, but in the process, his higher education led to his rebellion against the very systems of the prison-industrial complex and corporate sponsored education out of which he came.

        Dostoyevsky’s depiction of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, then, is a profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its character as a resistance of the use of the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Such a promise of material prosperity is now essentially the new neo-colonial method used by global institutions and corporations to lure the formerly colonized nations into a relationship that effectively still keeps them separated and dominated. For all the talk of how much material development will be brought about, it is still only a promise based upon the enslavement of international monetary standards, debt payment, and much-else. When Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”, he is quoting the tradition of his Hebrew ancestors from the Book of Deuteronomy, where the admonishment is to an enslaved people to remind them not to forget the God of freedom that lead them out of slavery and into prosperity, by the very means of the rest of their consciences brought about by their prosperity. The God of the hebrews understands that the promise of material prosperity is one of the most effect means by which a formerly enslaved people can become once again slaves and slave masters themselves. The Kingdom of God brought about by Jesus is not built upon the promise to become wealthy, and to not worry about the state of your minds and hearts. If the rest of the world has any hope of coming into new relationships of equality, freedom, and justice, they will need more than the mere benefits of western prosperity, they will need the same transformation of conscience the western world itself needs, brought by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The figure of Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor though notes that ‘if at the same time someone takes mastery of his conscience without your knowledge- oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow the one who seduces his conscience. In that you were right.’ It is in the further temptations of Satan where we see how Jesus resists the ways our world enslaves our consciences, and chooses another path for his Kingdom.

Astute readers will note that Jesus several times in the Gospels performs the very miracle of multiplying food to feed hungry people.

** Robert, Dana L. “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 2 (April 2000): 50–58.

*** Parris, Matthew. “Matthew Parris: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God – Times Online.” Blog Re-post. RichardDawkins.net, January 7, 2009. http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/3502-matthew-parris-as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god.

Journey Through Scotland, ep. 5

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            Hi Friends,

            It has been a wee while since I have posted about my time in Scotland so there’s a lot of catching-up to do. As some of you know, I went back to Toronto for the Christmas Holiday and it was a time of very mixed emotions. The Toronto winter was unforgiving, bed bugs welcomed me home, and a person whom I deeply loved and respected showed me quickly how no one but God should be depended upon. It was great to see my family, my church, and close friends, whom I dearly loved and missed so much, I’m only sorry that I couldn’t have been more joyful for them. Needless to say but saying anyway, my feelings toward Toronto are very mixed. I’m not sure me and my mother have ever agreed so deeply as we do now when we say that we have no desire to live in Toronto anymore. We have great desire and deep affection for our friends and family there, don’t get us wrong, but now it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Edinburgh’s not perfect, but on many levels I feel more alive here. I don’t know whether its living independently, or something new, but my suspicion is that here I am just much less anxious, sad, and I am overall much more at peace. My thinking is clearer, my moods and emotions don’t dictate me, and I’m much more focused on Christ and not all the illusions that Toronto offered me. Hopefully my feelings toward Toronto right now are only temporary.

            But enough about my feelings toward Toronto, on to what’s been happening in Edinburgh. It has been very heavy school work-wise, which was desperately needed. Nothing I can’t handle but definitely a lot more than last semester, to such an extent that I miss (due to lack of time) my daily news readings and postings to simulate and expand my mind. BUT! I have committed to one thing and that is to write a blog post every week, and I figure by the end of this year, I might quite possibly have not only a novel, but a really interesting collection of essays. But then again, who wants to read the cultural/personal insights of a person deeply interested in theology and politics in a Christian framework? 😉

            Another exciting part of this adventure that is taking place are my performances at open mics around Edinburgh! Edinburgh doesn’t have anything like a Hip-Hop scene to speak of, but it is quite the scene for spoken word. So I take some rap verses out that I’d been working on, do’em without the music and let it hit ’em. I hope to be doing this type of thing frequently. And for those of you wondering, I have found a studio here, though it is a bit more expensive than at my big bro, Rel McCoy‘s studio. But I just can’t wait till September to continue recording this, so I hope to be doing some recording this summer. Here are the past two pieces I’ve done at these open mics, the second one will definitely be on the new album I’ve been working on,

 

 

            Now, onto putting my new cynicism with academia into context. I admit that it may be temporary, and that it may just be a phase but this semester, as I’ve delved deeper into an academic institution I’m beginning to see that while I LOVE intellectual stuff, the institution makes it a product. For most of my life I was raised in Christian Apologetic material, an upbringing which I am still very grateful for, and I thought I would want to be an apologist for the Christian faith from a variety of angles. I’d still like to think that. I devoted myself to going the full nine yards, Ph.D and all. However, while that option is still on the table, I’ve begun to realize that my gifts may be of more use in ministry contexts, whether overseas or on the streets. Academic institutions, I’m finding, at least from my particular angle and situation, want products. They are not concerned with societal change or inquiries for truth, but in making products. It’s not only that academic institutions are producing consumers and business leaders for our capitalist societies, but that they themselves are becoming businesses in a way. And, while I love scholarly and critical analysis, I have no desire to produce content to satisfy the desires of a particular elite or make interesting, but ultimately meaningless, observations. If my knowledge is not in service of love for Christ, his church, and all his children, its just illusionary pretence. Just to make clear: I have NOT taken the Ph.D option off the table, but it is definitely not my ‘be-all-and-end-all’, or at the very least it would have to be supplemented with something else.

            Finally, let me talk about my mom’s recent trip to Scotland. It was at first strange having a little piece of Toronto come to Scotland, but not too long after I remembered what it was like to have my mom around 🙂 Over here in Scotland she was full of immense joy. As my father told a friend of mine, my mom has “glow which a woman of her age shouldn’t have.” Could not have put it better. The amount of energy she had was stunning. We visited more places in one week than I had all semester. We went to the National Museum of Scotland, the Museum of Childhood, John Knox’s House, Calton Hill, the Meadows, the entire university campus, Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat, the underground vaults, and the National art gallery. And that was just Edinburgh!!! We also did a weekend tour where we went to Inverness, Glencoe, Lochness (didn’t see Nessie unfortunately), and many other places. Many of the beautiful pictures we took are in a gallery below, and below that is a link to a lovely Scottish folk song we listened too while on the tour. You can listen to the song as you look through the pictures to get a sense of our weekend. It was so great to have her here. We learned lots of new Scottish history, especially about the Macdonalds, who I now refer to affectionately as the badass clan. The lovely week is now over though, and I am on to working on my dissertation and many essays. My dissertation is on Revelation chapters 17-18 and the identity of the Whore of Babylon. If you want to know more about that or anything else, feel free to email me (calebdupton@gmail.com) or arrange a skype time (caleb.upton.).

Till next time, Love

Caleb

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Why Eminem’s ‘Rap God’ can open up Hip-Hop’s redemption….no….really….

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            When Eminem put out “Rap God” off his highly anticipated album MMLP2, I was the first to shake my head thinking…”Oh no, another rapper claiming they’re a god (e.g. Kanye, Jay-Z, Lil’ B, etc…….what else is new”. But I am quite glad that I took a listen to it for not only did it give me a chance to peer into my own moral conscience deeper but it gave me great hope that Hip-Hop can move in a new direction.

            From the start I’ll admit, I’m an Eminem ‘Stan’ and will be probably incurably so until the apocalypse, but this track exceeded even every expectation that I had. Just take a listen, if there was anyone who doubted still that Eminem is a lyrical genius and extremely talented they should wonder no more. In the span of 6 min. he uses an uncountable amount of flows, types of rhyme, cultural references, disses, and more (here are the Rap Genius annotations).

            Personally, my favourite line is, “You witnessing a massacre Like you watching a church gathering take place looking boy”, but this song when you take a second listen creates a plethora of problems for anyone with morals. Let a DJ friend of mine say it best,

            Hatred of women, arrogance, hatred of homosexuals, reusing his line about the Columbine shooting massacre, and more, should cause anyone to really question their morality if they enjoy the song. How does someone like myself, highly educated and a committed Christian, enjoy this song so much as to play it on repeat? Perhaps we should bring in two ancient voices to illuminate the tension we have arrived at between incredible aesthetics and vile content. St.Augustine, the ancient African Christian theologian, describe this exact tension in his work Confessions, in chapter 16 of Book 1, as he is discussing the teaching of ancient pagan poetry to young children says,

“Not one whit more easily are the words learnt for all this vileness; but by their means the vileness is committed with less shame. Not that I blame the words, being, as it were, choice and precious vessels; but that wine of error which is drunk to us in them by intoxicated teachers; and if we, too, drink not, we are beaten, and have no sober judge to whom we may appeal. Yet, O my God (in whose presence I now without hurt may remember this), all this unhappily I learnt willingly with great delight, and for this was pronounced a hopeful boy.”

            Is this not precisely our dilemma? The words, the rhythm, the composition is of the most precious vessels, yet all they contain is poison.  Philo, the ancient Jewish-philsopher, in his preface to his biography of Moses is much more harsh than St.Augustine in critique of the Pagan poets who have ignored the life of Moses,

“Most of these authors have abused the powers which education gave them, by composing in verse or prose comedies and pieces of voluptuous licence, to their widespread disgrace, when they should have used their natural gifts to the full on the lessons taught by good men and their lives. In this way they might have ensured that nothing of excellence, old or new, should be consigned to oblivion and to the extinction of the light which it could give, and also save themselves from seeming to neglect the better themes and prefer others unworthy of attention, in which all their efforts to express bad matter in good language served to confer distinction on shameful subjects.”

            Philo is lamenting at what a waste of talent the epics of the pagan poets represent. May we say the same of Eminem? Consider what his talent could do for enlightening our society about politics, history, morality etc…and instead we get to listen to a forty year-old man make gay jokes. I’ll take it as far to say that I don’t care if (by some amazing chance) he’ll read that last sentence then diss me, I could use a maxi-pad joke or two thrown at me. We’ve seen really only seen three example of ‘moral’ tracks from Eminem namely: (1) “Love the Way you Lie”, (2) “Mosh”, and (3) “Stan” (and may be some others if you stretch it).

            Now, before I’m mistaking for not liking Eminem anymore, let me explain how “Rap God” has the seeds of Hip-Hop’s redemption in its fabric. First, most obviously, Eminem has taken multi-syllabic rhyme scheme, flow, and the whole ‘underground’ package to its absolute PINNACLE, and because of this, we may perhaps say that this approach has finally been exhausted. I’ll go so far as to say that it no longer matters how lyrical you try to be, you will never surpass this level of technicality, and precisely because of that we might finally stop making being ‘lyrical’ the be-all and end-all of Hip-Hop. At this risk of self-promotion, I had made this point on my early Sharp Tongue EP (2011), on the track “My Choice”*,

“Leave you dead still/ in your tracks; I know it’s either
‘That’s real’/ or “That Man’s gotta Chill”/ I could be like
“I’m ripping/ immigrants/ ligaments/ leaving disfigurements/ clipping Limb from limb/ you little kids/ won’t figure/ the Original tint/ Of the skin’s pigment/
But with that script/ I didn’t spit/ shit/ so instead of being The illest/ lyricist MC with two lips/ the Planet’s ever seen!/
Now real talk you’ll understand what it means/”

           We will finally move past focusing on being the best rhymers and turn our attention to be the best Emcees. Now, there is a second and final way Em’s “Rap God” can redeem Hip-Hop and it is in Em’s own self admission of this, saying  “But it’s honestly futile if I don’t utilize what I do though/ For good at least once in a while, So I wanna make sure somewhere in this chicken scratch I scribble and doodle/ Enough rhymes to maybe to try and help get some people through tough times/”. While he’s recalling his past, he has grown up, and perhaps this will encourage other rappers to do as as well…we can only hope.

__________________________________________________________________

*Don’t worry I have improved a lot since then, check my album, The Audacity of DOPE (2013)

A Theology of Hip-Hop: Review of J. Cole’s “Born Sinner” (RocNation, 2013)

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            It is questionable whether Hip-Hop, defined as a genre of poetry beginning in the 1970s, as ever used as much religious imagery as it has in the 21st century. Nas had “God’s Son” (Columbia, 2002), The Game had “Jesus Piece” (Interscope, 2012), Kanye West had “Yeezus” (DefJam, 2013), and J. Cole has recently put out “Born Sinner” (RocNation, 2013). tumblr_md3i4dE6wE1rw4zmjo1_1280Unfortunately however, the amount of religious imagery used in Hip-Hop and the engagement of theologians with these deeply spiritual portrayals of the mistakes and glories of artists, has not naturally equalized. The review of J. Cole’s most recent album presented here then will not deal with the lyrical acrobatics or production, but quite specifically with the content of the portrayal that J. Cole has given us. It is in this spirit then that we will look at the album, track by track, focusing in on some of the major themes of the album (e.g. sex, fame, sin, pastors, women etc…) and taking a good look at how Cole engages his conceptual universe and the story he intends to tell us about the “Born Sinner”:

            1) Villuminati–  With this intro we are presented at once with a man who thinks, much like his mentor Jay-Z, that he is a god, “Sometimes I brag like Hov”. Yet, at the same time, we are also introduced to a man who acknowledges that the pressure he is facing to make this album a success drives him to throw himself at the mercy of the devil and join the Illuminati, which in Hip-Hop is a prime incarnate symbol of evil. He is caught between (1) his seemingly divine ability to survive his struggles, from living in a neighbourhood, which unlike the U.S. army “cannot tell the difference between Iraqi, Israeli”, his good desires to help stop his friends from drug dealing, and prophetic attempts at demanding from the U.S. government an apology to the African-American community,  and (2) his yet needing to atone for his own sins by “getting back with this pen”, his admission that even if he got reparation money he probably just spend it on cars, and his begging the Devil to retrieve his own soul. And “Devil don’t play fair”. He is not officially a member of the Illuminati, yet he is no different from them, other than in his lack of money, for he lets the Devil control his soul and hides his tears.

            2) Kerney Sermon (Skit)- This short skit is from Pastor Kerney Thomas, a black tele-evangelist, who is quite obviously selling lies and scams to people, promising them healing and restoration. One can only suspect that Cole inserted this seemingly random skit at this point in the album in order to make the comparison between false pastors that want your money, promising you happiness, and the music industry that promises you glory if you sell your soul. As Immortal Technique would put it, they’re two heads of the same seven-headed dragon (The Cause of Death, Revolutionary Vol. 2, Viper Records, 2003).

            3) LAnd of the Snakes- Chronicling his rise to fame, he notes that early on he had received warnings that the ‘snakes’ were watching him, that he was missing church, but he was too obsessed with sex to notice. Here is when we receive one of the most graphic depictions of the doctrine of original sin, of being a “Born Sinner”. Cole says “I came out the womb with my d*ck hard”. His obsession with sex and not committing take a turn for the worse when an old lover from the past returns to let him know that while he thought she was not important enough to be committed too, it was him who “wasn’t worth sh*t”. Despite his riches his sin kept him and his soul from being of any moral worth. He is the snake he was warned about. During the end of the second verse he says, “Gotta ask myself, ‘What mean the world to me?”- this is the haunting question Jesus asked in the Gospel of Matthew, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt. 16:26), for this is what has happened to Cole.

            4) Power Trip- Here Cole gives his ode to his one true-committed-to love, something which up to this point in the album we thought was impossible, that of Hip-Hop. “Baby I want you to want me” sings Miguel, expressing Cole’s deep desire for recognition from the Hip-Hop community. Cole, having been given the anointing from Jay-Z, is on a power trip, but nothing compared to the power that the Hip-Hop game has over him. We will find that Hip-Hop is not the only woman he is devoted to, but we will find that Cole lets her down in the same way Solomon let down Lady Wisdom.

            5) Mo Money- In this interlude Cole expands upon BIG’s famous ‘Mo money, mo problems’ maxim, in that even though he lusts after wealth, he knows that it is this very wealth that when maximized to the full, causes many of the problems he grew up with and is fighting. He boasts about the wealth that he has amassed, and yet acknowledges there are men in this world who have the kind of wealth he and Jay-Z could only dream of. From tele-a-fraud-angelist Peter Popoff, to prostitutes, to strip club loiters, to heavy drinkers, to single parents going from pay-check to pay-check, Cole exposes how money is constantly not being invested wisely by people, particularly the black community, on the lower-economic end of society. It is precisely because of this, not from their inability to gain money, but rather control money that results in their poverty. The symbol of the ‘white’ man appears to stand for the ultra-rich, the 1%. While listening to this track, one cannot help but be reminded of Immortal Technique’s brilliant, “Rich Mans World (1%)“, where he impersonates the ultra-rich flaunting their wealth.

            6) Trouble- In this track, Cole intends to present himself as absolute villain, he’s King Koopa, not Mario. He acknowledges that the Hip-Hop industry has made him stupider than ever, and he would only go back to school to chase women, leave them pregnant, and again, never commit. His problem is not commitment as such but rather commitment to any person, other than himself. He can’t settle with a nice smart girl, he’d never be able to be a father, and the only thing he’ll promise is that if you get in his way of getting to the Promised Land, of fame and fortune that Hip-Hop has promised him, he will send you to your ‘promised land’….six-feet under. imageHere Cole shows us another side of the Exodus story, for he is not the noble Moses trying to save his people, rather he is just another lustful warrior seeking a new promised land, willing to defeat any foe, devoting himself to war and snatching women, than to wisdom. Here Cole takes us to the dark side of believing in divine inheritance…the belief that the promise is unconditional. We will soon find however that his commitment to Hip-Hop will be the conditional factor as to whether Cole can find redemption and enter the promised Land.

            7) Runaway- If “Trouble” is Cole’s presentation of himself as villain, “Runaway” is him taking a good look at himself in the mirror. Cole’s strained relationship with his girlfriend shows his failure to love and be committed. He has a wonderful woman, but he is so addicted to his lifestyle of hanging out with his friends, and hitting the strip-club, that he knows he can’t stay committed, so he is telling his girlfriend to runaway from the monster that is him. What comes next is one of the deepest theological moments throughout the album, out of the guilt he has, he lays out that,

“When it’s all said and done everybody dies
In this life ain’t no happy endings
Only pure beginnings followed by years of sinning and fake repentance
The preacher says we were made in image of Lord
To which I replied: “Are you sure?
Even the murderer? Even the whore?
Even the n*gga running through b*tches on tour?””

Reflecting upon the passage in the creation narrative of the Book of Genesis (Gen. 1:26), that humankind was made in the image of God, he asks how we, as humanity, can possibly reflect the image of God when we are full of sin and brokenness, including his own. How can he possibly reflect the image of God, when all his life he’s been living in sin as part of vicious cycle?

            In the third verse we are given the answer in a most strange and bizarre manner. After Cole reminiscences about advice that he had received from a perverted old man, and how it was even more strangely accurate, given that we are all the same, regardless of skin tone- Cole asks whether he can escape the oppression we all face in our mentalities being colonized by the rich white men who have raped our planet, if he follows his heart. Dave Chapelle comes in as the unlikely heroic figure, who was able to turn down 50 Million dollars to instead spend his time in Africa (i). Cole wonders whether he’d being able to abandon the money, fame, and glory, and finally be able to commit to a woman….possibly Mother Africa.

            8) She Knows, 10) Where’s Jermaine? (Skit) & 11) Forbidden Fruit (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)-  These three tracks really belong to be treated together for they essentially discuss the same topic….the complications of lust. In “She Knows”, Cole in reminding his audience about Martin Luther King’s affair, affirms that even the righteous can be caught in adultery, and live with the fear of being caught. With the skit then going into the track with Kendrick Lamar, we are presented with the temptation of sexual pleasure, in this way, Adam (along with every man with him) was ‘whipped’ or completely subservient to Eve because of his sexual attraction to her. Throughout he proclaims his mastery , and yet exhibits how he is enslaved to Father Time, Sex, the approval of Hip-Hop magazines, and God. In the midst of promoting his ‘greatness’ he shows that his destiny is destruction, his god is his stomach, and his glory is in his shame (Phil. 3:19).

            9) Rich Niggaz- Here we get an extremely rich portrait of Cole and his mother’s struggle with poverty growing up, and his inbreed hatred for wealthy people because of it. The born rich, those born into an oligarchy, never had to work for their money or indulge in sin to achieve their wealth. While Cole and his mother did desperately need the wealth due to father figures constantly leaving and drugs, there is still the unspoken of evils of wealth. Though he despised the oligarchs, he has unwittingly become one of them and has an enormous over-looming fear that he will become like all other emcees that had lusted for fortune and fame….dumb, heartless, cold, boring, and materialistic. In fact, one can only speculate how much of this track is directed towards Jay-Z, who while not born rich also claims to be ‘the Mike Jordan of recording’ and maybe treats Cole as a Scott Pippin. Is Cole expressing shame over trying to imitate his mentor? That while, as for Jay-Z, the money may have saved him from his poverty, it could not save him from himself.

            12) Chaining Day & 13) Ain’t that Some Shit (interlude)- Now we come to the low point in the album, where we can’t help but feel that Cole (perhaps intentionally) is portraying himself as the rich, dumb, boring rapper that he feared becoming. With “Chaining Day” he acknowledges the same guilt Kanye felt about having a diamond ben-baller-if-and-co-micro-jesus-piece-crossencrusted piece of Jesus, who said “Blessed are the Poor” (Luke 6:20), and acknowledges (unlike Yeezus) that this is a slavery he has chosen, that he loves and hates at the same time…he is a participant in his own slavery. With “Ain’t that some Shit” we see the line about “years of sinning and fake repentance”, really come to life…nothing more.

            13) Crooked Smile (feat. TLC)-  It’s not entirely clear how this track is suppose to follow from the previous one, but we’re all glad it’s there! Perhaps this is Cole’s attempt at redeeming himself in the eyes of his female fans with his pen. He is paying for his sins of cheating and womanizing by acknowledging just how hard women have it in our society. What Cole does here is expose himself in the most honest manner possible, acknowledging not just his insecurities but his insecurities as to how he looks. Most men probably have insecurities about how they look, but how many would actually admit what they are in a Hip-Hop track? It may be proper to give a round of applause right now. However, he doesn’t stop there, but goes even further in his last verse where he talks about the structural racism of the American prison system and entertainment industry…for even lady Liberty has a crooked smile. Lastly, Cole in tracing on the theme of being made in the image of God speaks to his female audience that they too were made in the image of God, each one of them are God’s masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).

            15) Let Nas Down- Cole now let’s us one more peek into his confession booth…for his greatest sin was against the one woman that he thought he was absolutely committed too, Hip-Hop. “Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible” (Illmatic, Columbia, 1994) is how the theological frame is situated in the state of Hip-Hop, and Cole here traces how his attempt at a chart topping hit greatly disappointed his chief idol, the one to whom he was most compared, NAS. In the mix of sadness and anger Cole tries first to make Nas sympathize with Cole’s situation as an artist on a label, who needed a cheesy radio hit, only to confess that while he wanted to change the Hip-Hop game he began to be conformed by it. He wanted to be in the world but not of it…and here he was disappointing one of the best to do it. However, it is in the third verse where Cole begins to explain his redemptive purpose and methods as to how he wanted to change Hip-Hop for the better, while along the way using an extended metaphor of the passion narrative of Jesus Christ to describe his journey (ii). Cole’s purpose is to bring honesty back to Hip-Hop, to make it real and not just entertainment. Cole’s method though has followed the path of many, 1- produce a radio hit that unfamiliar listeners will hear, and 2- hope that they go through the rest of your catalog to find your more thought provoking material, the stuff you really want them to listen to. The method is to Cole as like a ‘sacrifice’ of his art, that while his purpose is greater, he is not and understands that fellow sinners may need a little bit of musical seduction in order to bring them to the truth. Cole describes making a radio hit as going into Hell, following the tradition of the ‘harrowing of hell’ in which Jesus descends into Hell to rescue lost souls. Nas controversially on his album Hip-Hop is Dead (Def Jam, 2006), proclaimed exactly that and Cole understands himself as one who attempted to bring it back to life by enduring the flames of Hell with the hope that honesty would emerge.

            16) Born Sinner (feat. @Fauntleroy)- If Cole wanted to preach one sermon during the course of this album this is it: “I’m a born sinner, but I die better than that…I was born sinning but I live better than that”. Here Cole begs God for forgiveness, acknowledging that Hip-Hop is the woman God gave him to put all his soul into and that while he may have never gotten the church to worship, has committed to living better, bringing honesty to Hip-Hop, saving his mother out of poverty, and most of all bringing hope to those society considered worthless. If one is a deeply spiritual person, the chorus almost sings from the bottom of your soul.

            What J. Cole has given us is a theology of Hip-Hop and from Hip-Hop, that can be summarized as follows: We are all born sinners, selfish from the womb. We are addicted and willingly slaves to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Not only are we entrenched in evil, but we know how evil it is and we know just how close we are to those we criticize whether they the Illuminati, rappers, or sinful pastors. We are proclaimed from the pulpit to be made in the image of God, though whenever we look in the mirror all we can see are our flaws. Where can redemption be found? In part, with a confession of our sins and a commitment to repentance. For Cole and all Hip-Hoppers these take the form of being honest in our lyrics, and a commitment to the aide of oppressed, the widow, and the orphan. Yeezus showed us the absurdity of what happens when a person thinks they’re a god, Born Sinner has shown us what happens to a person when they are deeply honest about our frail condition….but what would a Hip-Hop album look like that would show us how we can live better than sinners….not being a god, but a God-send…a Saint?

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(i) http://www.complexmag.ca/pop-culture/2010/03/100-Bold-Moves/dave-chappelle-turns-down-50-million-for-seasons-3-and-4-of-show

(ii) Astute readers will know that this is also in parallel with Nas who attempted to do the same on many occasions.

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