Hip Christianity: Part 2, When Bad is Good

As noted in the last post, John Leland, in his book Hip: The History, locates the beginning of hip in the interface of black and white culture. Hip begins with the plantations, in the interactions between slaves and slaveholders. Specifically, one of the dynamics of hip is the cultivation of a vibrant "insider" culture over against the dominant culture of the powerful.

One of the ways the slaves cultivated this separation between themselves and their masters was to play with the ambiguities of language. As slaves communicated with each other in public spaces they had to communicate on two different levels. Given that masters and overseers were always listening in the slaves had to communicate potentially subversive messages that would, on the surface, sound benign to the whites. This was often done by reversing the meaning of words. Bad becomes good. Good becomes bad. Leland writes (and also quotes):

...[F]or slaves, a virtue of the language lay its opacity, the shelter it provided from the prying ears of whites. The historian Eugene D. Genovese, noting the way slaves used words like bad to mean their opposite, describes their verbal tics as evasive maneuvers:

The slaves, in effect, learned to communicate with each other in the presence of whites with some measure of safety, and the studied ambiguity of their speech, reinforced by reliance upon tone and gesture, helped immeasurably to prevent informers from having too much to convey to the masters beyond impressions and suspicions. If a slave informer heard a black preacher praise a runaway by calling him a "a ba-ad nigger," what could he tell his master beyond saying he thought the preacher meant the opposite of what he said? Even slaveholders usually required better evidence.
To this day, hip plays with insider language. Often using terms that leave the non-hip baffled. The hip can communicate publicly while maintaining privacy through the shared coded language. The best the non-hip can do is use urbandictionary.com. But how uncool is that if you have to look the stuff up on the Internet?

How does the hip inversion of "bad is good" relate to theology and the church?

First, as noted in the last post, the hip church exists as a marginal and minority group in relation to the dominant culture. The relationship isn't one of slavery but is, rather, one of exile. The hip church is a church scattered among the nations.

John Howard Yoder in his book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited suggests that the contemporary church model its existence after the Jewish diaspora. That is, the church is to embrace a "cosmopolitan homelessness" and accept "dispersion" among the nations as a part of its "mission." The church is to embrace "galut as calling." Galut is a Hebrew word for the situation of living in a state of exile or homelessness. Yoder uses the phrase "galut as calling" to describe the landless missionary existence of both Christians and the Jews. According to Yoder, the biblical models for this existence are Joseph, Daniel and Esther. Joseph, Daniel and Esther each lived as exiles, as resident aliens. Each labored alongside the people of a nation to which they did not belong. Yoder suggests that the church should adopt the "Joseph paradigm" to "seek the welfare of the city" where God has placed us as people of exile (Jer. 29.7).

Borrowing from Yoder, we can state that the hip church is a church that embraces a state of exile as a calling. And as with the American slaves, this situation causes the church to adopt a new kind of language. Very much like the slaves this language is hip in that it specializes in moral and value reversals. That is, the culture and the hip church use the word "bad" very differently. Being hip, the "bad" of the church is the "good" of the culture and visa-versa.

Bad is good. Good is bad. It's the insider language of hip flipping the values of the powerful on its head. Dig?

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3 thoughts on “Hip Christianity: Part 2, When Bad is Good”

  1. No wonder no one wants to be identified with the Church..Yoder's view is a "new insider" community. Ingroup mentality, that divides people according to how "bad" they appear to the "world"?

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