Religion and Hip Hop at Rice University

This popped up in my Twitter feed today via both okayplayer and BLUNTIQ and I thought I should pass it along here. 

Bun B is co-teaching a course on religion and hip hop at Rice University with Professor Anthony Pinn. There is an on-campus version of the class, but also a free online version as well. The course is six sessions. I’ve enrolled. If you have even a cursory knowledge of hip hop music, I encourage you to look into it for yourself at EdX.org.

If you enroll in the next month maybe we can go through it together!

I’m a fan of anything that reframes religion in new ways. I’m a believer that we all experience God in different ways, and that there are huge spiritual/religious intersections in all areas of life. It’s is a driving driving force behind the book project I’m working on, and in my opening chapter, I hope to encourage all people do discover where it is that they see God connecting in ways traditionally understood as non-religious or secular.

I’m not a hip hop guru like these fellas in the video (plus I’m white, and I’m unable to fully grasp the black experience that much of hip hop is rooted in), but I do love the genre and have come to appreciate it on a deeper level. I’d say I’m mostly plugged into mainstream stuff, but I was raised listening to DC Talk in elementary school (to which I’m not remotely embarrassed, but Rosenberg jokingly brings up in the interview as the band kids would pass out CDs of in the cafeteria – that wasn’t me as far as I remember). Bun B brilliantly responds that there “probably wouldn’t be Lecrae without DC Talk.”

I’m deeply invested in church culture, a current seminarian, and have great concern for how the gospel is extended in our world. Everything Eblo says regarding “Christian music” resonates strongly with my experience of the genre too – which is why I get so excited about Lecrae breaking into the Best Rap Performance category at the GRAMMYs this year. I’m tired of Christian music being labeled separately from “secular” music. It fragments the music industry and cheapens music both within and without the “Christian” genre. As if non-“Christian” music has nothing to say about God (which it does), and often “Christian” music, frankly, isn’t very good, but can survive by marketing themselves as such. There’s also a session on Islam, which excites me.

I’m enrolled in the course beginning in late March. Excited to see what Professor B has to say about the overlap between religion and hip hop.

-apc.

Image cred: EdX.org.

Myanmar – Day 5 & 6

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I realize this post is two weeks overdue, but I have two excuses for my tardiness:

  1. First, I was exhausted from my return travel, was sick for 4 or 5 days right after getting back, and had to put all writing on hold for a bit to recover.
  2. More importantly, I’ve needed more time to process these experiences. I felt like I couldn’t respond as well as I wanted on here, so I put it on hold for that reason too.

But here I am, two weeks later, ready to share with you all what went down on my last two days in Yangon before embarking on our 9 million hour trip back home. Let’s talk about days 5 and 6. If you need to, here are the past posts from my pilgrimage:

Pilgrimage to Myanmar & Thailand
Bangkok – Day 1
Bangkok – Day 2
Myanmar – Day 3
Myanmar – Day 4

If you’ve read these posts, you know that my most recent responses haven’t been entirely positive. The culture had me really down in the dumps. It felt hopeless, lost and confusing. I was really caught up in the thought that the kids there were being pushed into Buddhism because it was the cultural norm, and they weren’t given an opportunity to choose their faith (or lack thereof) for themselves.

On Thursday – Day 3 – I saw teenagers “worshipping” at Shwedagon Pagoda, adopting a Buddhist way of life.

On Friday – Day 4 – I saw little kids playing while their parents were kneeling before a giant Buddha, creating a sad juxtaposition between how much ope there is for kids, yet how little I find for many adults.

Saturday and Sunday changed everything.

The entire week I was searching for ways where God was at work in Myanmar. In our class debriefs each evening, we would practice Ignatius’s exercise of consolation/disconsolation – where we saw God at work, and where we saw God grieving – and I am excited to share that the areas of consolation were way easier to report on these last two days.

Both days were spent at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon, and I can tell you that hope abounds at YBC.

On Saturday we spent an hour playing with street kids. Many children in Yangon are expected to sell things on the streets to help provide for their families. Ywama Baptist Church began an outreach program to these kids, providing them with a place to play, laugh, sing and dance for just an hour or so each weekend. They also provide them with a place to shower and clean up because hygiene is not a priority for these kids.

I spent my time with the kids making goofy faces and teaching some dance moves – Gangnam Style is universal apparently. – while they covered my face with makeup and made fun of my inability to break dance. Typical language barrier activities.

It’s nothing huge, but it’s a place for kids to connect and feel like they belong. Which is actually a way bigger deal than it sounds. Belonging to something positive is hugely important for kids. Especially for kids growing up in such bummer circumstances. And while Buddhism attempts to transcend suffering through achieving “enlightenment”, the Church enters into suffering as a change agent. It’s hope for the hopeless.

They also have a health clinic that provides affordable doctors and dentists to the rest of the public. How incredible is that?! The Church in Myanmar, it turns out, is vibrant and full of life!

This was most evident on Sunday morning, when we had the opportunity to worship with hundreds of Burmese people at YBC. I was blown away by the number of people gathered for worship that morning. They had a choir and a orchestra group to play along with them. There was such joy and excitement in that space, and I felt like God was doing significant things both within their church, but for the Yangon community at large.

It was a powerful day. And I left Ywama thinking about how powerful a place like that was for a community with so many needs both physical and spiritual.

Days 5 and 6 were the best of the pilgrimage. I appreciated the immersion into Buddhist culture, and I’m going to be continually trying to unpack these experiences for years to come, but my greatest moments were the ones full of joy, life and love at Ywama Baptist Church.

God is at work in Yangon. Sounds obvious, but it took me a surprisingly long time to notice it. And it was an honor to observe, learn from and participate in his work in my short time there.

-apc.

Myanmar – Day 4

Today (Friday) was my birthday. Moving on.

We visited another pagoda this morning with another buddha sitting in the center. I’m already desensitized to seeing pagodas and buddhas. I’m certain I’ve seen hundreds of both in the two days I’ve been here so far. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all, right?

While we were at the pagoda, I wasn’t very interested in observing more people kneeling and praying at the feet of another buddha, so, instead, I walked to the edge of the area and watched a group of small children chasing each other around. They were giggling and playing and squealing and laughing and doing all the things that children do.

It felt surprisingly normal.

Kids are kids wherever you go. Whether in Myanmar or Kansas City or Europe or Uranus, kids are always the same. We all start the same. We giggle and play and squeal and laugh and do all the things that children do.

It felt right and unbroken.

I may have even shed a tear.

I turned around and faced the buddha behind me and watched two different groups of people engage the statue. First, the parents of these kids were doing their rituals and chanting their prayers. Second, all the Americans who were there to sightsee were snapping photos and asking questions about what the heck was going on.

Two completely different sets of adults. Little in common. Drastically different beliefs, rituals, and values. Buddhism is technically atheistic – it’s a way of life and a philosophy, not a belief in the divine or spiritual – so there was a chasm of belief in a higher power too.

What a juxtaposition: kids being the same wherever you go, and adults who couldn’t be more different.

I felt like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, not wanting the little ones to grow up. I wanted to protect them from losing their innocence. Keep them from moving forward into the way of life their parents were certainly going to teach them.

From the pagoda, we visited a Buddhist monastery around the corner. In Myanmar, once boys reach 7 or 8 years old, they are able to enroll in the monastic education. They leave their homes to become monks, and this brings great honor to their families back home. They memorize the Buddhist “scriptures” – basically just commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha, with perhaps some oral tradition involved as well – and when they’re 20 years old, they get to decide whether they want to take vows and become a monk for the rest of their adulthood.

So before they’re even teenagers, they decide to commit to a certain way of life so they can bring honor to their family. I mean, if I was a parent, I’d encourage my son to pursue a monastic life too. Practically speaking, Buddhism is all about merit. Doing good deeds to rack up merit in your earthly life. It’s not about the other. It’s about gaining honor yourself.

We got to “observe” the monk kids eating lunch together, which felt extremely uncomfortable – a bunch of Americans standing around snapping photos and taking video of these kids in matching maroon robes.

I noticed a couple of the youngest kids peeking at us during their prayers and gesturing to their Buddhies* and giggling under their breath. I was reminded of the kids at the pagoda earlier. It was a tiny glimpse of childhood shining through. But they weren’t kids anymore. They were monks and were expected to live a certain way.

* – Okay. This is hilarious. And potentially insensitive, but c’mon.

My friend Sylvester asked one of the head monks what they got to do for recreation. The monk responded that they spent their free time going to homes in their community to beg for food. They don’t get to play or laugh or chase each other anymore. Those things don’t bring honor to a family.

What is even sadder is that if kids don’t make it into a monastery, they typically end up street vending to help support their families. Tomorrow we are supposed to be going to a ministry that lets kids play for an hour a day to take a break from selling trinkets and be kids again. I am fairly certain it will be the highlight of my trip.

In youth ministry, I talk with my colleagues all the time about “faith ownership” – reaching adolescence and claiming ones faith for their own. It’s not the faith of the family or the pastor or friends – it’s their own.

Maybe the family values and cultural dynamics here don’t support that way of thinking. It breaks my heart to watch kids be removed from the life they experience as little ones only to be forced into a “religion” they didn’t choose for themselves.
Especially a religion that is atheistic and feels so jumbled and backwards.

Life is not about gaining merit for yourself. It’s about loving the Creator and loving others.

Life is not about emptying oneself in the present. It’s about living abundantly in love in the present while having hope in the future.

I see little Buddhist kids and I see all the hope in the world. And I see Buddhist teenagers and I see that hope fading. And I see Buddhist adults and I see little hope whatsoever.

Not to say that Christianity in America has it all figured out and is perfect in every way, but when a way of life is so blatantly opposed to God’s ways, it breaks my heart.

Hoping for a more hopeful tomorrow.

-apc.

Myanmar – Day 3

We arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, this afternoon, spent an hour or so at the hotel pool, and then quickly went to experience the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The main Pagoda is 100 meters tall, is made up of thousands of solid gold plates worth $250M. The very tip is a 10 inch by 2 foot orb of gold covered with diamonds rubies, imperial jade and sapphires. I have no idea how much all of these gems are valued at, but it’s got to be outrageous. The diamond at the top: 76 karats. We were fortunate enough to be there at sunset, and the glow of the sun on the western face of the Pagoda was absolutely gorgeous.

The main pagoda – the 100 meter high gold one – is surrounded by hundreds of smaller pagodas each one with a different Buddha statue underneath. These are gifts from private donors. 

And surrounding these smaller pagodas are people.

People are pouring water on the Buddhas. People are lighting incense and burning candles. People are ringing giant bells with big wooden jousting rods. It’s a majorly ritualized system of honoring Buddha and gaining recognition for the good deeds they’ve done.

I’m not sure the people would themselves say that they were “worshipping” Buddha – he isn’t considered a deity, he was a real person who lived 2500 years ago and achieved “enlightenment” – but to my eyes, that’s exactly what it looked like. Worship. Worship is essentially expression praise and adoration to something or someone else, right? When we bow before something, we’re posturing ourselves to praise another.

Anyway. That’s what we did last night. It was one of the most foreign experiences of my life. And I’m still trying to process it this morning.

I don’t have a lot of time, but I want to mention another takeaway for myself before I wrap this thing up.

Two nights ago, we were at dinner in Bangkok with the head of Bangkok Christian College, and he started talking about how highly esteemed they view missionaries in their culture. They get tax breaks and perks and half price transportation among other things. He asked our group whether any of us were considering becoming missionaries. My response was essentially…

Eh. No.

And I felt guilty about that quick response at first. I felt like coming on this experience I ought to feel a call toward cross-cultural missions of some sort. But I don’t. To be honest, I do not feel burdened to share the gospel in other countries, far off lands or distant cultures. I just dot feel that is my calling as a part of God’s Mission.

Until I was at the Pagoda last night and saw some middle school aged kids participating in worship. And it broke my heart more than anything else so far this week.

These kids are in their prime years for determining their faith trajectory over the rest of their life. The decisions these adolescents make at this point in their life is likely going to hold for the rest of their life. Every day they get further from these formational years, the more unlikely it is that they will pursue anything other than the faith tradition they adopted as teens.

They’re asking “Who am I?” and “What am I about?”…and here they are finding the answers to those questions in Buddhism.

And it tore me up inside.

I wanted to smile at them and tell them that my God loves them and made them in his Image. That they were created by Love to be Love to others. I wanted to encourage them that there was another man who lived 2000 years ago who wasn’t just a man, but was also God himself, incarnate. And who calls us something so much larger than just “enlightenment”.

The major difference I’ve noticed between Buddhism and Christianity so far: Hope.

The life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus brings us into a Story of hope for this world. Buddhism acknowledges that there is brokenness and difficulty in the world too, but rather than entering it to bring hope to the world, the Buddha simply overcame it mentally. There is nothing to look forward to or live for or hope in.

And when I look at a middle school kid, I see hope.

Hope abounds in adolescence.

I see a life that is primed to be shaped in the way of Christ. I see a kid seeking answers to life’s riddles. Who am I? Where do I belong? What I I to be about? How am I unique?

And it broke my heart today to see these teenagers finding these answers in something other than my Creator.

So do I want to be a cross-cultural missionary? Absolutely not. But instead,I continue to be called to “the trenches” of youth ministry. I’m called to the bafflingly wonderful culture of adolescents. Their distant world is where I belong in God’s Mission, and I’m thankful to have had that confirmed again in my life. To remember why I do what I do. Because I love my God, and I love middle schoolers, and I love introducing the two.

Okay time for breakfast. See you all tomorrow.

-apc.

Bangkok – Day 2

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Today was our only full day in Bangkok, and I’ll first mention a couple highlights.

1. I rode on an elephant today (!!!) and became besties with another named One Pin (above photo). What we have is deeper than just friendship. It’s an “elephrenship”. Also, go Royals.

2. I ate all sorts of new foods today, including, but not limited to: duck tongue and skin, lobster head, butterfly pea jelly, kiwi juice and peppered ostrich, which was my personal favorite.

3. The architecture here is largely based around trees, hedges and shrubs – which I love. The greenery tends to influence design, and not the other way around. Maybe it’s the drastically changing seasons KC experiences, but this is a rarity back home.

I want to spend a little bonus time on the third point as I see it pertaining to cross-cultural ministry and the gospel.

Today we spent about 5 hours at the Bangkok Rose Garden, and there were dozens of buildings that had been built around a pre-existing tree. One was growing up through the middle of a roof. Another tree was growing up out of the street and cars were simply expected to go around it. And even when it wasn’t there before the Garden was, the whoever designed the layout utilized hedges and shrubs to partition the entire complex into smaller spaces.

Instead of clearing out branches and tree trunks out and building a structure in its place, the architects use what nature has already provided to frame their design.

In Bangkok, nature often dictates design.

Which seems directly oppositional to how most of the United States tends to operate. We clear the land, lay a concrete foundation, and execute the design the way it was drawn up in studio.

In America, design often dictates nature.

I say all this because I wonder if Christians, in an effort to live out Matthew 28 and spread the Good News “to the ends of the earth” have often done the dictating in other cultures.

When we present the gospel to another culture – with its own histories, stories, faiths and traditions – do we allow space for the message of God to partner with the host culture? Or do we step in with our own methods, bulldoze the “nature” that already exists so we can implement our own pre-conceived design?

What if there was a way to recognize the ways God is already at work, and let those things help dictate our method instead?

I think about when Paul is in Athens (Acts 17). He is walking around the Areopagus taking inventory on the different gods the Athenians are worshipping. He sees one idol with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.”

Paul sees this and decided to reason with the people concerning this “Unknown God”. The Athenians were scholars and thinkers and philosophers who “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”. So Paul met them in the conversation they were already having by referencing the way they were already worshiping.

Paul allowed the culture of Athens determine his method of sharing Christ with them.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22, 23 NIV)

I’m talking about cultural sensitivity, yes, but that’s not all I’m talking about. I’m asking us to consider whether there are ways to point at the culture we are engaging, recognize where God is already working, and partner with those methods rather than enforcing our own.

In Bangkok, Buddhism is the official religion. I am traveling to Myanmar tomorrow, and Buddhism is the most practiced there as well. The central idea of Buddhism is achieving enlightenment – complete awareness based on examination and exploration of the present moment. And I wonder…

Can we recognize God in Buddhism?

And when/if we can, do we believe that our methods are flexible enough that we can partner with the host culture instead of imposing our own design?

Do not mishear me: I am not advocating for a flexible gospel. The goal does not change. I’m advocating for flexible methods. Methods that utilize the pre-existing nature of the culture in the design rather than the opposite.

Instead of bringing God to Myanmar, maybe we should be asking how we can partner with the ways God is already at work. When I show up tomorrow, God will already be there. When my seminary first started visiting Yangon, God was already there. And when Adoniram Judson visited Myanmar in 1813, God was already there.

And he was, and is, and always will be at work.

That’s my primary takeaway from my day in Bangkok as we prepare to travel to Yangon tomorrow afternoon. Can’t wait to discover where God is already working over the next few days.

-apc.

Bangkok – Day 1

…or is it Day 2?

It’s confusing, honestly. It’s like Tuesday didn’t even happen. Our group flew out of Kansas City at 10:30 Monday, and 35 hours later we pulled into our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, at 2:30am Wednesday morning.

So I’ve been gone two days now, yet I just woke up for the first time on this trip.

Except that’s not entirely true. I slept for 6 solid hours on the flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. The back row of the plane was empty – 4 seats across – so I commandeered it, spread out across the seats, put on my headphones and slept better than I have in weeks probably. Norah Jones, man. She’s magic.

Today is a purely tourist day. Matt and I woke up early and walked the streets around out hotel for a bit. Street vendors galore. And all of the smells! At one point, I was smelling BBQ chicken, fresh oranges and maple syrup covered waffles all at the same time. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t exchange any of my money for this leg of the trip. Who knows how much money a guy like me could spend on street food?

It’s a 12 hour difference here. Which makes it easy to know what’s happening back home. As of this blog post, the Jacob’s Well Youth are just finishing up a scavenger hunt on the plaza.

Sigh, missing you guys. I feel like I’m missing so much.*

* – Also, c’mon Chiefs. I leave for like 2 minutes and Dexter McCluster is suddenly a Titan!? Better go pick up Darren Sproles…

Stay tuned for some actual theological reflections later. For now, just updating the world that we are here.

-apc.

Pilgrimage to Myanmar & Thailand

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Next Monday, I am traveling to Bangkok, Thailand, and on to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), with my cohort at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Central has a partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, and we will be pilgrimaging there to study cross-cultural ministry in a drastically different setting from our own.

As I understand it, the name Myanmar was given to the country when it came under military rule many years ago, but the people there continue to call it by it’s former name, Burma. So those names can be used interchangeably most of the time. For those who are not geographically savvy, Myanmar is situated east of India and northwest of Thailand on the north edge of the Indian Ocean. Here’s a map:

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I hardly know anything about this culture, so I’ll be learning and processing a lot of new information and experiences. Part of my course is to post a handful of blogs about my experiences and takeaways, so over the next couple weeks, you’ll see this space and all my social media outlets flooded with content about this experience.

So, if you’re interested in following along with me, be sure to check back here soon and follow me on Instagram/Twitter: @adampaulcooper.

Supposedly the Wifi is spotty over there, so we’ll see how that goes. Regardless, all my posts will probably come while everyone in the US is sleeping, so don’t be shocked if you wake up to a barrage of updates from me.

Please keep our whole group in your prayers next week. We return to the states on 3/17.

-apc.