Freestyle Providence: Hip Hop, Improvisation, and the Praiseworthy Wisdom of God
Freestyle Providence: Hip Hop, Improvisation, and the Praiseworthy Wisdom of God
Today, I spent longer than normal on the bus because I needed to get a haircut in Allston, which is out of the way of my usual trek from Cambridge to Roxbury. This detour gave me time to listen to music and think. I listened to staples like Pac, 100 Portraits, and Jason Morant. But the extended trip gave me the opportunity to indulge in some favorites by Jill Scott and the Roots crew. While Jill and the Roots make music in two separate genres—R & B and hip hop respectively—the two share in common that jazzy Philly sound. This got me thinking about about the many connections hip hop and jazz share. From there, my mind shifted to theology—as it often does.

God and Improvisation

In Openness circles, the analogy of dynamic providence to improvisational jazz is well-known and affirmed. For Open theists, God's relationship to humanity, particularly regarding his salvific economy, is more analogous to the improvisation of jazz musicians than the direct rendering of notes from a musical composition. The brilliance and the artistry of the music is found in its creativity and spontaneity, not its ability to follow a pre-programmed routine. So wide-spread is this analogy, a quick search using the terms "God" and "improvisation" yielded a book called Theology, Music, and Time by Jeremy Begbie. In this book I read this wonderful excerpt:
...any student of [Romans chapters 9-11] knows that there has been a tendency (especially drawing on chapter 9) to interpret Paul as assuming a predestining divine decree, individual and particular, proceeding from an essentially singular God. It is as if Paul's primary concern were the means by which a (non-trinitarian) God executes a decision which he has made from all eternity with regard to the future of human beings considered as isolated agents -- some for salvation, some for eternal death. Salvation is thus conceived a prior in atomistic and monadic terms, with regard to both human beings and God himself. The musical equivalent would be a composer composing a piece of music, choosing from a list of performers a restricted number of recipients (simultaneously rejecting the rest), and then sending the music out to the chosen for for them to play. We have seen, using musical improvisation in an attempt to allow the text to speak clearly, that Paul's interests are rather different. For he writes of an election to salvation mediated through a process of receiving from, and passing on to others. The orientation of Romans as a whole (including Romans 9) is not towards solitary recipients of a decree but towards communities who already know the interrelatedness basic to salvation and the mission of God's people. Salvation comes, and can only come, within this mutual relatedness. The individual is of course crucially significant, but only within this mutuality. To put it differently, God gives abundantly in order to promote more giving, to generate an overflowing reciprocity, and salvation occurs within this ecology of giving. Moreover--here we move beyond what Paul says explicitly in these chapters--this is a reciprocity which reflects and shares in the eternal relatedness-in-love of the Trinity. This is the momentum which the group improviser learns: to receive music from others, improvise upon it, pass it back and on to others, and all this in such a way that others are drawn in, and they in turn become the new improvisors. The Composer, we might say, comes to be known only in and through the process of passing the music on, and we find that the original music was composed in mutuality, through an infinitely abundant exchange (between Father and Son) in to which we are now being caught up. (262-263)

Hip Hop and Freestyling

In hip hop, as in jazz, mastery of the art is not recognized in artists who merely possess the ability to recite or perform pre-written words. Rather, master emcees are praised for their ability to creatively generate skillful rhymes and flows on-the-fly. This talent is called freestyling. In fact, freestyling, like improvisation in jazz and also in hip hop dance, is often performed in a group called a cypher. As Begbie's points out, improvisation has a drawing effect on its listeners. It is an invitation to participation.

The Praiseworthy Wisdom of God

All this leads me to the conclusion at which I arrived today while riding the bus. The wisdom of God is praiseworthy precisely because God masterfully improvises with his creation the music of life. Just as the lyrical prowess of the emcee is praiseworthy due to its artistic creativity, so it is with God. In the Trinity, for all eternity, the divine community have shared in the cypher of mutual loving exchange. In the Gospel, and in the life, ministry, self-sacrifice, and resurrection of Christ, God invites us to join in that cypher. When we identify with the Improvisor and begin to receive his music, giving back our own mimicked notes, we share in the triune God's eternal song of love and become improvisors ourselves. The wisdom of God is praiseworthy precisely because it is truly wise. Wisdom is not required to coerce inferior beings to live out pre-programmed lives towards a pre-programmed fate. Just as in jazz and hip hop, superior praise is due the artist resourceful and creative enough to adapt words perfectly for a particular moment in time. Join the cypher!