John Givez and the death of Christian code switching

(This is second article in a series I am doing on my favorite hip hop artists.  The first can be found here.)

When I first heard a song by John Givez, I thought this is what I would have sounded like if you had met me in the first six months after my conversion (except for the fact that I can’t rap). It was uncouth, but not in the sense of being uneducated or unchristian. He sounded a like a young black man who had met Jesus and began to speak about him to his friends without first being taught the rules and tone of Christian discourse. I am not referring to sentence structure, grammar, or intelligence. I am noting the fact that much of African-American Christian music and writing in evangelicalism exists to explain blackness to evangelicals (This is not to suggest a singular definition. John is from California and I am from Alabama. His perspective is different from mine, but it feels authentic and that is my point).

If I am not careful my writing and ministry can become a code switched account of my experience. A translated and toned down testimony that is acceptable in polite society, but inauthentic and false to those who have lived it. There is a way to create a career in Evangelicalism that speaks about one’s past in poverty and “urban life” that comforts middle-class Christians. It is a presentation of my conversion that invites people to view me as some kind of exception to a rule.  It creates no sympathy and inspires no change.

Think of the widow’s mite in Mark’s gospel. If we see her gift as merely a statement about her devotion, and not a fairly explicit critique of the society that creates impoverished widows, we have not heard our Lord correctly (Mark 12:38-44).  Are we refusing to hear certain stories because it might challenge the way we do life and church together?  Are we extracting some kind of spiritual comfort  from the faithful struggles of others while ignoring our complicity in allowing those struggles to exist?  Do we subtly force people to tell their stories in a way that deprives them of their power?

John’s music is not the story of a black Christian told for the benefit of white Christians. It is not a safe alternative to secular hip-hop. It is not even a story of a black Christian told for the benefit of other black Christians. It is music chronicling life in Oceanside, California informed by the hope he has in Christ. And the brother is talented. I have never been to Oceanside, but John Givez helped me inhabit that city. He spoke about Oceanside in a way that reminded me of Huntsville. He made me care. His music is not a series of sermons; it is a journey through his city and an encounter with its characters from the perspective of a person who longs to see it saved.

Evangelicalism will have come of age when the minorities among them are free to tell their stories in their voices to their community. It is already happening. We just have to listen.

John Givez music can be found for free here (There is an option that allows you to pay for it.  If you can you should. It is worth it.).

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

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