God’s DNA according to Kendrick Lamar and Gregory of Nazianzus

This year, to understand what Christmas is all about, I suggest you listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” In fact, listen to the whole DAMN. album.   

You may think you’re more likely to find Christian theology on Kanye’s Jesus is King this year. You’re wrong. Theologically Kanye’s gospel album is about as nourishing as the fruitcake your grandmother from Kansas sends you this time each year. While Christian twitter has been debating what to do with “Christian Kanye,” the real goods have been been sneaking by for years in poets like J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, and of course Kendrick Lamar. And those are just the ones you’ve likely heard of. 

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is a great example of Hip-Hop as art music. Like Jazz, KL’s Hip-Hop can be great at parties, but it is also more than worthy of our attention as art. Accordingly, when it came out in 2017, it was immediately devoured by listeners who spent months digesting it track by track, verse by verse. 

In the final analysis, confirmed by KL himself, the album is openly introspective and intentionally revelatory of his own story, his own humanity. He reports, “when you listen to records like ‘PRIDE.,’ ‘HUMBLE.,’ ‘LUST.,’ and ‘LOVE.,’ these are all just human emotions and me looking in the mirror and coming to grips with them.”

The conspiracy theory which KL also confirmed is that DAMN. can be listened to both forward and backward. It works as an album in either direction. In the original order, the album is a track-by-track ascent from ‘BLOOD.’ & ‘DNA.’ to ‘GOD.’ with ‘DUCKWORTH.’ serving as an epilogue. In reverse order, ‘DUCKWORTH.’ is the prologue of ‘GOD.’s’ descent into ‘DNA.’ and ‘BLOOD.’

‘DNA.’ as you might guess from the title, is a rapid-fire self-portrait which lyrically sequences KL’s hard-knock genome. It’s a confession of human weakness, trauma, and sin, interwoven with a prophetic assertion of inherent human dignity. KL’s audibly cathartic flow comes out brackish, a mixture of human and divine language, both contradictory and coherent. This is where DNA has something to teach us about the Christian Doctrine of the Incarnation. 

I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty
Inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace
Inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy
Inside my DNA
I got hustle, though, ambition, flow
Inside my DNA
I know murder, conviction
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption
Scholars, fathers dead with kids
And I wish I was fed forgiveness

‘DNA.’

In the 4th century, there might not have been rap battles in the church, but there was definitely some significant beef. It had been centuries since the Resurrection and the Good News was being preached far and near; but with a diversity of preachers came discrepancies in preaching (hence the beef).

One particular beef significantly shaped the meaning of Christmas for us today. The question wasn’t just “What child is this?” but “What kind of child is this?” Everyone agreed that Jesus seemed to be both human and divine but the question was How? And in what proportion? How is it exactly that Christ is both the Son of God and born of Mary? What is the relation of his humanity to his divinity, and where’s the line between the two? 

There were a variety of explanations. All but one of which were ultimately named heresy. 

One camp was the Docetists from the Greek term which means “to appear” (like a fantasm). Docetists explained that Christ was fully divine but not actually human, he only appeared human. 

Another explanation came from the Ebionites who explained that Christ was fully human but only eventually, through his obedience. Through perfect conduct, over his life and through his death, he achieved a divine status. 

Still a third, Apollinarianism (named for the rationale’s main proponent) imported some Greek anthropology that defined a human being as one with a body, a mind, and a soul. Here the explanation of Christ’s dual nature was that he had a human body and a human soul, but not a human mind. 

For Apollinarius the mind was the source of our sin. It’s where all our vices and passions come from. It’s the seat of Sin itself. Lust, rage, envy… sex, money, murder… they come from the mind. So, for Christ to have lived without sin means there was no way he had a human mind. 

Apollinarianism is like a “2/3rds compromise” for Christ’s humanity. It explains that yes, Christ is human in body and soul, but not fully because a holy God could not possibly inhabit a fallen human mind. 

That last part made Apollinarianism “Patristic Enemy #1” for the 4th century’s Gregory of Nazianzus (G.Nazzy?). In pamphlets and letters, GN went on a rampage in the 4th century rap battle that was Patristic Theology spitting widowmakers like, 

“You, my good sir, dishonour my mind (you are a Sarcolater, if I am an Anthropolater).” 

Oooooohhhhhh. Sick burn! I kid, but really, for Gregory this was a matter of absolute importance. Here’s how he puts it: 

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, that man is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which Christ has not assumed He has not healed.

Gregory of Nazianzus

The problem with explaining that Christ was only partly human is that for Christians, salvation can only come from God. Anything that God has not or cannot touch cannot and has not been saved. It is only as “God with us,” as fully one of us that we are saved. Our need goes all the way down to our bodies, our blood, our DNA. It’s not just our minds that need help, it’s our entire being, mind, body, and soul. 

The fervor with which GN advocated for this perspective came from his understanding of the depth of human suffering and sin, and the salvation and restoration of dignity that has come through Christ fully assuming our humanity. 

For me, the Incarnation is so complete, it’s to the point where I can hear Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DNA.’ not just in the voice of Kendrick Lamar, but in the voice of Jesus Christ. His language lends itself to it well enough. For it’s not just KL, it is the incarnate Christ who’s…

Got Loyalty, royalty, power, poison, pain and joy inside his DNA. 
He was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception. 
He took on the dark, and assumed our evil, that rot. 
His DNA, not for imitation [assumes and transforms] our DNA, an abomination.

The Good News about God’s incarnation in a human life (body, mind, and soul) is that all that self-revelation in KL’s flow, all of the full range of what it means to be human, it’s all assumed, all taken up in Grace. None of it is left out. God is not too good for it. God occupies all of it to the point that there’s no “part” of God that is not ours and no “part” of us that is not God’s. Like the tracklist of DAMN., our ascent to God is accomplished only by observing God’s total descent to us. 

Ultimately I find this to be good news because I am aware, like Gregory, that unless Christ has fully taken on my humanity, my experience, my sin, my weakness, and assumed Kendrick Lamar’s humanity, the full range of his human experience and emotion recorded on DAMN., then Christ’s work is not finished and neither KL nor GN nor I ultimately have a sure hope or foundation. 

Instead, if Christ really is fully human and divine, his ministry of life, death, and resurrection is enough. It covers my sin, and KL’s pain, and all human failing. It is all accepted, it’s all assumed, and it is all imbued with Christ’s own divinity. In the Incarnate Christ and him alone, God’s Grace is in our DNA.

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