In the summer of 2013, Jay Z launched the advertising campaign for his 12th album Magna Carta…Holy Grail. In an age of intrusive social media hounds and a scoop-obsessed 24-hour news cycle, he was able to keep the entire project a secret until it launched.
In typical Jay fashion, he did something completely unheard of when he unveiled the new album with a 3-minute commercial during the NBA Finals. This TV spot included some of the greatest music producers of our time; TImbaland, Pharell, Rick Ruben, and Swizz Beats. In the commercial, Jay Z explained the state of the music industry and then eight words spilled out that completely captured me.
He said, “We must be willing to write New Rules.”
I've told this story before (HERE) and how it led to one of the most profound "God moments" in my entire life, but here is the part I left out... after that moment, after the rush of inspiration and the peace that sets in when the Holy Spirit speaks to you, I didn't feel ready to go and Write New Rules; no, I felt guilty.
I actually started to question everything I was thinking and feeling. Doubt cast a giant shadow over me. Did God just use Jay Z to inspire me? The man who has rapped "And Jesus can't save you, life starts when the church ends."
Two questions had me spinning: Was I just inspired by God? Why was I feeling guilty about it?
So now I ask you, can Jesus followers be inspired by and learn from those who are not Christians?
I believe I have an answer to this, but first, we must look way back in culture to when God called His people to the Promised Land. For most of us, this story is familiar (read through Exodus if you are interested in the incredible journey of the people of Israel through the desert). But, where exactly was this land located? The answer to this is the key to answering our other questions.
So where was the Promised Land located? In the center of the known world. The center! This made it very easy for those in the surrounding area to be able to see how the chosen people of God lived. This was an incredible way for the glory of God to be on display. However, that is not the only reason. When you are in the center, you are exposed on all sides, not just for people to watch you, but for you to watch them! The location of the Promised Land allowed the people of Israel to learn from those around them - those who DID NOT worship the same God they did.
As Christians today, we should also live our lives centrally. We are called to be ambassadors and example of how to live a godly life - reflecting the goodness of Christ in all we do, but we should also be learning from those around us. Pause right here... the people of Israel learned some pretty bad habits (sacrificing to idols, etc.) from their neighbors and that was wrong. This translates to us in that we should be in the culture, but not of it. I do not agree with drug dealing, sleeping around or many of the other things he has rapped about, but there is still so much that I have learned from Jay Z. His beliefs about hustling, being creative and having an entrepreneurial mindset have all helped mold me. I admire how Jay doesn't adjust to culture, he dictates it. In that commercial, he was setting the trend for his industry, he was changing everything - and THAT is what God used to inspire me!
What am I saying? It boils down to this: hold onto the value and ethics of the Gospel like your life depends on it (because it does) but that should not, and was not intended, to stop you from Writing New Rules. Think differently and get ahead of where things are going; help create culture. This kind of learning puts us on the forefront of change and positions the people of God to dictate the trends. This is what God called us to do from the very beginning.
This may shock you, but I have been more inspired by Jay Z than many sermons I have sat in. The walls dividing sacred and secular keep out innovation and some will not agree, but the church is who suffers. We should be more in tune with our consciences and less concerned with obeying our creeds. Once we can make this shift, we will begin to grow and make a bigger impact on those outside of the Christian community. We will begin to push culture forward and show off the greatness of God in the process.
I've been asked how I can possibly listen to artists like Jay Z the same mornings I stand in the pulpit and preach the gospel. The answer: art is subjective. For 3 years, I didn't listen to any hip-hop, but after that, I invited it back into my life with a different lens. I was no longer inspired to chase women or flirt with other sins, but I was able to take the parts that could be used: black empowerment, legacy, social change, and so much more. Hip-hop was something I gravitated to at a young age - I was inspired then and I continue to be inspired now.
Andy Crouch in his seminal work, Culture Making, says it this way "So God’s response to the ultimate cultural problem—a world full of mutually antagonistic nations entrenched in the self-provision and self-justification seen in Babel—is a fully cultural solution. Which is to say, it is fundamentally a creative solution. To be sure, over Israel’s history God himself will employ the full range of possible gestures toward culture. At times, there will be condemnation, including the wholesale deliverance of Israel into the hands of its enemies, Assyria and Babylon. The prophets will bring word of God’s critique to Israel and its neighbors. In constructing a cultural identity Israel will be led by the Spirit to copy many features of surrounding culture—over its history it will borrow Semitic linguistic forms for its national language, Egyptian wisdom literature for its court poetry, Lebanese woodworking for its worship spaces, and Mesopotamian treaties for its international relations and even its understanding of its relationship with God. At the height of its power Israel’s ability to consume the cultural products of its neighbors will be a sign of God’s blessing, as when the psalmist celebrates a royal wedding that features imported Ophirian gold (Ps 45: 9)."
So yeah, I have a confession... Jay Z inspires me. But, what inspires you?