Straight Outta Compton and the language of lament

I’m not sure why so many people in Hollywood were surprised when Straight Outta Compton took over the box office this past August.  Interest in the movie was running high, from what I saw, and it’s not as if there was much competition in the theaters by that point.  For that matter, though there were some big hits this year, there wasn’t all that much worth watching for most of the summer.  What’s more, SOC was released by Universal, which was well into its “all your box office are belong to us” routine.  According to the Grantland article linked above,

Universal has already put together a box office year for the ages, and Straight Outta Compton notches the studio’s sixth no. 1 opener of the year. With Straight Outta Compton, Universal could release nothing else this year but a two-hour video of the staff taking selfies and it would still break Warner Bros.’ $2.1 billion record for domestic box office. By the way, that’s a record set in December 2009, which Universal will break in August.

Finally, while the main reason projections for the movie were low was that “it had no stars,” that wasn’t really true.  I understand why people would say that (since the only actor in the movie with any reputation to speak of was Paul Giamatti, and he’s not exactly your classic leading man), but it missed the point.  The stars of the movie were the characters in the story; it wasn’t the name value of the actors but their ability to bring the characters to life that mattered (as is the case most of the time).  N.W.A has been defunct for a long time, but Dr. Dre and Ice Cube still have more pull than most movie stars.  As long as they were behind it and the movie told the story in a compelling way, it had all the star power it needed.  Having Ice Cube’s son playing him only reinforced that.

While it was mildly amusing watching the commentary and analysis of SOC‘s success, I was more interested in how little controversy there was.  I’ve never been a rap fan, but N.W.A was a mammoth cultural presence in my high-school years.  I remember the fury they caused, and I remember articles over the years asserting that gangsta rap was celebrating and even inciting violence against the police.  I don’t know if those articles were correct or not, but I was surprised that when N.W.A came back in some sense with this movie, I didn’t see the opposition come roaring back along with it.  Apart from a personal essay by Dee Barnes, who was brutally assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991, the dominant cultural response seemed to be nostalgia.

This is unfortunate, because N.W.A shouldn’t be uncritically celebrated.  As a 1989 article in the Village Voice put it,

Much if not most of what the group has to say — especially about women, but also about drugs, guns, and the sanctity of private property — will make any civilized soul squirm. . . . This is music to make the blood run cold.

The only question is whether the Village Voice was correct to continue,

. . . if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.

It’s easy to say that N.W.A’s lyrics were indefensibly vile and vulgar and therefore deserved no respect.  That’s the way we work in this country.  It’s the line of attack the Left uses on people like Rush Limbaugh.  If you can brand someone a racist, misogynist, homophobe, or something equally unacceptable, then you don’t have to listen to anything they say.  They’ve done something indefensible, and therefore they can be dismissed with disrespect and even contempt.

This summer gave me a different perspective on this question, however.  Good friends of ours introduced us to the music of Sons of Korah, a world/folk-psalmist group from Australia.  I love the album they gave us, but especially the second track, “Babylon (Psalm 137),” which is a wonderful version of that most problematic of all the biblical laments.  Listen to it here (but don’t take the video element too seriously; there are errors in the lyrics):

I’ve listened to that song more times than I can count this summer and fall.  It’s been a comfort and encouragement to me.  That might seem strange if you’re familiar with Psalm 137.  Sons of Korah softened the psalm’s violent language a little, but not much; the last two verses of the psalm are among the most shocking in all of Scripture.  As the ESV renders them,

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Commentators have called this language monstrous and inexcusable, and so it is.  In his commentary on the Psalms, Derek Kidner writes,

The sudden transitions in the psalms from humble devotion to fiery imprecation create an embarrassing problem for the Christian, who is assured that all Scripture is inspired and profitable, but equally that he himself is to bless those who curse him.

Nowhere is the embarrassment greater than Psalm 137; but we cannot simply edit out these words and their offense—or worse, take them as an opportunity to feel morally superior to the psalmist.  Kidner continues,

It is only fair to point out that the words wrung from these sufferers as they plead their case are a measure of the deeds which provoked them. Those deeds were not wrung from anyone: they were the brutal response to love (109:4) and to pathetic weakness (137). To say that they were inexcusable is as inadequate as it is true. It needs saying with passion.

Here we should notice that invective has its own rhetoric, in which horror may be piled on horror more to express the speaker’s sense of outrage than to spell out the penalties he literally intends. This can be seen quite clearly in the curse which Jeremiah elaborated with savage eloquence against the man who brought his father congratulations on his birth instead of murdering the pregnant mother! Such immoderate language has an air of irresponsibility which cries out for criticism, yet it would be a mistake to wish it away. It has as valid a function in this kind of context as hyperbole has in the realm of description: a vividness of communication which is beyond the reach of cautious literalism.

This brings us close to the heart of the matter, which is that the psalms have among other roles in Scripture one which is peculiarly their own: to touch and kindle us rather than simply to address us. The passages on which we may be tempted to sit in judgment have the shocking immediacy of a scream, to startle us into feeling something of the desperation which produced them. This is revelation in a mode more indirect but more intimate than most other forms. Without it we should have less embarrassment but still less conception of the ‘dark places of the earth’ which are ‘full of the habitations of cruelty’, a cruelty which can bring faithful men to breaking-point.

When we deal with the fury of Psalm 137, we must understand that this is the fury of the righteous at hideous evil.  In his excellent work God’s Prayer Book, Ben Patterson faces the psalm’s closing curse and asks,

What on earth could ever make someone want to do that?  Plenty.  Things like tearing open pregnant women and smashing infants’ heads against the rocks were but a few of many abuses in the ancient soldier’s catalog of cruelties.  Wait, correction:  this kind of appalling atrocity is not confined to the ancient past.  It has been as much a feature of warfare and violence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as it was in the sixth century BC.  Read about Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Amin’s Uganda for starters.  Or check out Nanking, Darfur, Myanmar, Burundi, Rwanda, and Croatia.  There are also plenty of pictures to look at, if you have the stomach for it.

What on earth could ever make someone want to do that?  Someone doing it to you, that’s what.  If the Babylonians did this to Israel while the Edomites cheered them on, then it is understandable that an Israelite would wish the same on them.

This is a scream of pain and rage, and we cannot avoid it, or minimize it, or spiritualize it away (though there is a spiritual element to it), or denounce it.  Yes, it’s monstrous and inexcusable, but no, that doesn’t make it illegitimate—or even, necessarily, unrighteous.  To follow through and carry out the curse oneself in cold blood would certainly be unrighteous, but that doesn’t invalidate the furious, agonized demand of the brutalized for justice.  As Kidner says,

This raw wound, thrust before us, forbids us to give smooth answers to the fact of cruelty. To cut this witness out of the Old Testament would be to impair its value as revelation, both of what is in man and of what the cross was required to achieve for our salvation. . . .

This psalm takes its place in Scripture as an impassioned protest, beyond all ignoring or toning down, not only against a particular act of cruelty but against all comfortable views of human wickedness, either with regard to the judgment it deserves or to the legacy it leaves; and not least, in relation to the cost, to God and man, of laying its enmity and bitterness to rest.

This is part of the purpose of lament, when it’s raised against injustice.  To that end, the language of lament can and sometimes must be immoderate and savage “beyond all ignoring or toning down.”  Unlike almost everything else we say, lament takes human sin with pure seriousness and no self-protection, and it feels human sin vividly and deeply.  To express that feeling in measured, appropriate, socially acceptable language would betray its purpose.

This type of lament should never be our only response to injustice; if nothing else, any demand on our part for someone else to be judged for their actions should prompt us to realize that we too deserve judgment for the wrong we have done to others.  If we lament the evil we have suffered, we must also learn to lament the evil we have caused.  If we begin by crying out for our enemies to be obliterated from the earth and even the memory of them erased from history, in Christ we are being led to pray in the end that somehow they might be reconciled to us before that judgment falls on them.

That said, there is a place for such a beginning, and for the honest expression of that pain, grief, and rage.  Without it, we will never even begin to feel the true weight and cost of human sin, including our own.  It seems to me that this is the genre to which the album Straight Outta Compton belongs, and the purpose which it should properly serve.  Societally, such a demand for vengeance must be handled very carefully, but it has its place.

This is not to say that the album Straight Outta Compton can simply be equated with Psalm 137.  The psalmist speaks in a righteous fury, however unrighteous we might judge his expression of that fury to be, and his wrath is the wrath of the servants of God.  I don’t think the same claims for righteousness can be made for the members of N.W.A.  That doesn’t invalidate their lament, however, for if only the perfectly just were allowed to demand justice, justice would never be done.  We should all be careful in crying out for justice, knowing that when it comes it will be done to us as well as for us.  That doesn’t mean that our response to injustice should be to shut up and take it.  It just means that when we call for justice, we should do so humbly, remembering that we too deserve judgment, and that we should strive to be people who do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8).  As part of this, we should be careful not to judge the laments of others too quickly.

On the whole, I don’t believe we should pretend that either the album or the psalm are anything but indefensible, and I don’t believe we need to try.  We need to let them hit us, and humble us, and shame us out of the habit of offering glib answers to human evil that are only designed to push away the discomfort we feel at other people’s suffering.  Both psalm and album are highly problematic, but they aren’t problems to be solved—they’re problems to be recognized and accepted.  Rather than responding with judgment (whether negative or positive), we should respond with self-examination, confession, and repentance.  Let us love mercy, and work for justice.

Posted in Culture and society, Music and art, Scripture, Video.

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