Sean P.Diddy Combs is held by many today as a talented if not iconic hip-hop producer. He rose to fame and prominence however through sampling — the practice of taking an old song (one that is typically already very popular) and putting a new message over it.
Examples of this are the songs Combs produced for the late artist the Notorious B.I.G. like “Juicy,” which samples Ntume’s “Juicy Fruit,” and “Big Poppa,” which samples the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets.”
Combs would go on to produce many more memorable hits for a variety of artists using this same methodology. As a fan of hip hop and music in general, Combs’ methodology stands out to me, which is why I couldn’t help but see the similarity between what Combs has done to gain notoriety and make beneficial hits, and what mainline white evangelical Christians have done notoriously to cause nefarious harm to the sanctity of the religion of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and the sanctity of our nation as a whole. They’ve literally ripped a page from the book of Puff and sampled the ancient Christian hit terminology gospel.
The term “gospel,” which literally means “good news,” has been a hit with the followers of Jesus since the faith’s earliest days. In fact, the idea of good news and good tidings didn’t even originate with Christians. It traces back to one of God’s first signed (covenant) artists, Abraham, and resonates across the Abrahamic traditions.
The idea of gospel good news is thus not an exclusive Christian concept. However, evangelicals have sampled it and remixed the original hit and recorded a completely new message over the term and passion familiar to faith practitioners. The new message is a revisionist recapitulation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that rips it from its context and reduces it to an otherworldly settling of a sin debt between God and humanity.
“The new message is a revisionist recapitulation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The result of this remix has been interesting but unhelpful. It has created megastar ministers, filled stadiums of admirers and worshippers, and even built a multibillion-dollar enterprise full of high-dollar industries like Christian entertainment (television, films, books, music, apparel) and all things associated with building massive stadium-like church facilities.
While this remix has made superstars and super industries, it hasn’t made any real and material differences in the lives of the masses and it has had little to no life enhancing policy changes for the people Jesus aligned with while he was alive. If it has been good news, it has been good news only to those who have cashed in on it. It has been good news only to those served by the status quo.
Sampling is great in music, in the hands of a producer like Combs, but not so good in the hands of evangelicalism.
Combs made hits that made people dance, whereas the samples and remixes supplied by evangelicals have caused our nation to dance away from democracy and toward the beat of gun violence, which has become a public health issue. At the very least, their gospel sample has nothing to say toward these present realities; therefore, I believe we need a radical (meaning “back to the root”) redefinition of the term gospel.
We must in this present age ask ourselves what good news is — particularly to the poor, the incarcerated, the brokenhearted and those whom Jesus aligned with, whom he called the “least of these.” Good news for them is not escapism from the realities of life, it is alleviating the conditions in life they are helplessly enduring.
“Good news for them is not escapism from the realities of life, it is alleviating the conditions in life they are helplessly enduring.”
The gospel or good news must therefore be as it always has been, a message centered around God’s all-encompassing love and acceptance of all people, and the communal agency that emerges from the realization of this reality.
The gospel good news is that God has prioritized human life and flourishing. The Incarnation is a celebration that God values human life and thus we must value human life.
This means all children should have the reasonable expectation to go to school without the fear of being gunned down. Likewise, all people should have the reasonable expectation to perform normal duties without the fear of being gunned down. Moreover, this reasonable expectation to life must trump anyone’s right or fixation for owning high-octane weaponry.
The gospel means human lives matter. People should be able to live their lives and not be bombarded with life-assailing, life-degrading words and terminology, nor being restricted by caste-forming conditions.
The gospel means power to the people, and for the downtrodden is there any news better than their own agency?
The good news for the once-enslaved African American community is that of agency. It is that we who have placed our hands into Christ’s all-powerful hands have power too. Power to transform our reality and narrative. It means we can vote in our best interest. Our gospel is that we can organize and mobilize to rear and race our own candidates as agents of change — dedicated to issues legislation and policies that matter, like procuring better resources/funding for schools, programs and activities for youth, and cleaner water and air.
Now that’s good news! In fact, it’s shouting good news. The original gospel wasn’t just otherworldly, it was the promise of a better world and the capacity to make it happen. Therefore, the gospel we must proclaim today must also pack the promise of a better world. Our gospel is the power of the ballot, and evangelism must be understood as spreading the good news of our own human agency.
It’s time we dig in the crates and return to the beautiful mesmerizing tunes of the classic gospel. We’ve danced to the samples for far too long, swaying and leaning against our own best interests. It’s time to discover what the gospel and the Jesus movement originally meant and why it was so important that early believers were thought to be people who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6) and were willing to die as martyrs for their beliefs. After all, if a tune is good enough to be sampled, it is definitely good enough to stand on its own. We do not need a sampled gospel.
Napoleon Harris serves as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. He is a graduate of Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School, an avid reader, writer, Omega Man, and devoted husband and father.