What the Church can learn from 'Hamilton'

October 27th, 2015

The buzz over the Broadway musical Hamilton has been building for months but reached a peak when the soundtrack became available last month with free streaming on services like Spotify and Amazon Prime. Right around that time, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist and lead actor, was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. All sorts of celebrities have flocked to the Richard Rodgers Theater to see the so-called “hip-hop musical” about the “10 dollar Founding Father” including President Obama, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. The soundtrack has been climbing the rap charts, not the usual place for a musical soundtrack. Miranda, the 35 year-old second-generation immigrant, says that his version of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is “the story of America then told by America now.”

Visually, it is the diversity of the cast that it is so striking. After the recent controversy over whether James Bond, a fictional character, could be played by a black actor, it is remarkable to see historical people played by actors of different races. The Founding Fathers and the women who surround them are primarily black and Hispanic. Musically, Miranda references R&B, hip-hop, rap, Brit pop and Tin Pan Alley styles of music, in addition to his sly nods to other famous musicals like Camelot, 1776 and The Pirates of Penzance. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson engage in rap battles over the future of the new country, and the Schuyler sisters are Destiny’s Child in 18th century costume.

Miranda doesn’t shy away from the more problematic aspects of life in early America, particularly slavery and the place and role of women.  He portrays the risks and high stakes of revolution against the British Empire and governing a brand-new country. From our perspective nearly 250 years later, independence and the present-day state of our nation can seem like an inevitability, but Hamilton takes us back to those tenuous early days.

Judging by Hamilton’s popularity and the renewed excitement for musical theater, the Church might have something to learn from Hamilton. The idea of the story of America then, told by America today could also be the story of Jesus then, told by the Church today. In his parables, Jesus spoke to the crowds in the language they understood, often using agrarian metaphors to portray the Kingdom of God. In Hamilton, Miranda uses today’s musical and lyrical vernacular, including the occasional four-letter word. While I don’t imagine myself rapping my sermon anytime soon, pastors might find something that’ll preach by familiarizing themselves with the movies, music and television shows that people in their communities (and not just the people in their pews) are consuming.

As the Church, we have over 2000 years of global history to draw on, and yet most of our worship services are stuck in a few centuries of music and language. According to the US Census Bureau, whites will be a minority in the United States within the next 30 years, but very few of our churches regularly use music or prayers outside the canon of hymns and praise songs written by white men of European descent. I love the tradition of Bach and Wesley as much as anyone, even though I know it doesn’t invigorate or excite everyone. Christians have so much more we can use, from gospel music to Taizé chants to hymns from China and India.

Hamilton is not the American History you learned in school, where the Founding Fathers were brilliant saints whose every word was Scripture. Alexander Hamilton himself was part of the first major political sex scandal. Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers had their sins and character flaws because they were human. The Church too is made up of fallible sinner-saints who have perpetrated grave sins of violence, racism and sexism. When we tell the story of the Church, we often flatten characters and denominations into good and evil, failing to do justice to their complex histories. We celebrate Martin Luther’s saintly protests against a sinful, excessive Roman Catholic Church without speaking of Luther’s anti-Semitism or the beautiful art and architecture that the Catholic Church commissioned in that era. The whole story is more interesting and more relatable as we too try to live out our convictions in a complicated, complex world.

In Hamilton’s foregrounding of diversity and the voices in history that often go silenced, it provides a model for a way in which the Church can participate in and draw from culture while still being true to the story that it is at the heart of who we are. If telling the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of the United States of American can be this engaging and exciting, surely communicating the grace and love of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ should be more so.

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