These are the things I think about in my spare time. Ice Cube and exegesis.
A few months back, there were attempts made to figure out exactly what day was Ice Cube’s good day in his song Today Was a Good Day. If you aren’t familiar with the song, here’s one of the more pastor’s-blog-friendly segments:
Drove to the pad, hit the showers
Didn’t even get no static from the cowards
‘Cause just yesterday them fools tried to blast me
Saw the police and they rolled right past me
No flexin; didn’t even look in a niggas direction as I ran the intersection…
Plus nobody I know got killed in southcentral LA – today was a good day.
The song has references that help to place it in time – the Lakers beat the Supersonics, Yo MTV Raps is on, the Goodyear blimp is flying (so there’s some kind of big game), people still used pagers. So, some people took these hints and “figured out” exactly what day was Cube’s good day. It was a fun little exercise that got passed all around the interwebs.
When Ice Cube was asked about this recently he made it clear that there was no one particular good day – this was all just stuff that would make a clearly awesome day (for Ice Cube). It is, if you will, a utopian fantasy. In pointing out exactly what would make a good day, Cube points out some stuff that is really messed up about society. It is rare for a day to go by when no one he knows gets killed. The fact that he is surprised that he drives past the police and nothing happens emphasizes police harassment of people who look like Ice Cube (black, car with hops, gangsta: any or all of the above). Making it about facts takes a lot of this commentary away – it’s no longer a commentary on anything, just a story about a rad day Ice Cube had back in 1992 or so. Making it literal takes some of the commentary out of the song, it weakens it, takes out the creativity and the story. It’s a fun game, but it’s not really what the song is for. The song is a story meant to express Ice Cube’s dreams – some base physical needs (sex, food, money) and some greater needs (freedom from the constant threat of death, from the watchful, profiling eyes of the police). When it becomes literal, some of the magic is gone. It is just another day.
(It’s pretty clear that this song is not meant to be taken literally – especially the end of the song, where Cube says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute poo, stop this s***. What the f**k I’m thinkin’ ’bout?” Like man, this is just a dream. Let’s get back to it. )
Does this sound at all familiar? Do you recognize the practice of taking an interesting and disturbing story that points to immediate and greater themes and reducing it to dates, times and facts? Isn’t this what many of us do when we study the Bible?
So much of the Hebrew Bible is this amazing compilation of stories written by people who were trying to make sense of their world. They were trying to communicate their immediate needs and their longing for freedom, love and peace. The people who wrote the Old Testament were helping their communities grapple with famine, death, oppression, and slavery (not entirely unlike a lot of rap and hip-hop music today). Their stories gave meaning to people’s lives and provided hope for a future that will have something different to offer.
Much like a lot of rap, these stories can be violent, disturbing and confusing. So we try to make them into fact. We try to pin dates on things, we try to find Noah’s ark and the location of the Ten Commandments. We take a metaphor and strip it of its meaning by reducing it to facts, all so that we can be more comfortable.
One of my least-favorite examples of this is Jesus’ statement that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Ow. This is awful for most American Christians. Most of us have a lot –we are rich by the world’s standards even when we feel poor. So, this verse sucks. It makes it pretty plain that at worst we won’t even get into heaven, at best our money won’t help us get there. So we try to make it into fact. We make the eye of the needle an actual geographical place that was really narrow, but not so narrow that a camel couldn’t get through. Jesus was using a metaphor to make a point. We use truth to avoid it.
I’m not saying this is all bad. Archeologists and historians have their thing to do – it is their job to ferret out the truths of the ancient world. Christians have another job, a different job. It is our job to hear the voices of the Bible speak to us as they spoke to the people of their time. It is our job to hear the cacophonous multitude of voices express pain and grief and violence and hope and to hear what they were saying to their community through these stories. It is our job to sit in the difficulty of the story and the challenge of the metaphor, to let it inform our faith, our ideas of God, and our actions in the world around us. The question is not whether the events and stories in the bible are factual, it is whether they are True. Harsh, confusing, violent, full of hope, full of pain, replete with love, lust, mistakes, hubris and just plain weird — that sounds an awful lot like life, doesn’t it? True? True.
Today, it was a good day.