Volume 4 Number 4
By Kent Annan
While Princeton Seminary is accustomed to training biblical scholars, missionaries, and ministers to become effective translators of Scripture, seldom has it prepared students to render Ecclesiastes 3 quite like this:
Charles Atkins, a senior in the M.Div./M.A. in religious education program, wrote the lyrics. Its language is hip-hop the culture and style of music associated with rap, a predominantly African American form that has gained a vast audience since its inception twenty years ago. Last year hip-hop sold eighty-eight million CDs, records, and tapes.* To these young and malleable listeners, Atkins is translating the Gospel.
(For those needing a translation of the above: "could bust a cap in your dome" means "could shoot you in the head," and "he aint flippin the bigger picture" means "he does not understand the wider perspective" to put it very blandly.)
Atkins was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey. Before going to Haverford College in the Philadelphia suburbs, he had not traveled far from home and had never left the country. The need for translation had not occurred to him; everyone spoke his language.
Then during his junior year at Haverford, he embarked on a yearlong study program in Montpellier, France. After returning and graduating with a sociology major, Atkins went back to France where for two years he wrote, recorded, and performed French rap songs and worked for a record label. The relationships that Atkins formed there with people from around the world forever changed him providing him a wide-angle lens with which to see, and surround-sound with which to hear, the needs and possibilities of ministry. That and a growing knowledge of the African American experience in America led him to understand what he wanted to accomplish with his life: "I need to do all that I can to break down barriers that, while they are up, cause us to suffer."
But Atkins still was not connecting his faith, ministry, and music the way he wanted to. He moved back to New Jersey and decided to enter Princeton Seminary.
While in seminary, he has learned more about the world, increased his language dexterity, and grown in theological insight. During the last three years, Atkins has visited France several times, spent a summer as a peace observer in Chiapas, Mexico, served for a summer as an assistant pastor in Jamaica, West Indies, and traveled to Zimbabwe for the World Council of Churches Assembly. Foreign languages have become a passion. This extends even to his answering machine, which greets you and lets you know what to do after the beep in English, French, and Spanish.
Now as he returns to singing in the language he first learned on the streets of Camden, translation remains his central motif.
Recently, Atkins released a new CD, LoveOne World. The CD consists of fifteen hip-hop songs. Atkins is the main songwriter, but collaborates with his brother, Keith, who lives near Princeton and is an electrical engineer, and several PTS students. So far he has sold about five hundred copies. The medium isnt the message, but it invites you to sing to the message. The title track is soulful, honest, and hopeful about the central issues of Atkinss ministry:
Atkins considers his songs a theological response to the incarnation, based on the belief that "Jesus Christ is Gods human translation." Todays challenge is to take the first-century incarnation in Palestine and translate it for twenty-first-century American youth. That explains the lyrics that he writes, but what of the music the rhythms and melodies that carries the words to the listener? "For me, music is the microphone of translation. Music makes the translation more accessible to others and plants the seed of translation in them."
However, words and music arent enough for Atkins. His prayer for his ministry is that Gods love transforms lives. How can he get that message out in a marketplace crowded by great talents, sex-saturated marketing, and million-dollar MTV videos? "My beats arent super exceptional, my style isnt as crazy as Method Man but its the stories of Scripture that are translated into their language that will surprise young people. Even if a kid listens to the hard-core stuff with friends, Im satisfied if that kid goes into his or her room and listens to my CD or a CD by some Christian hip-hop group, and uses that to help filter the nonsense thats hitting him or her everyday. And I think we can break through the barrage by not being a part of it, by standing alone ."
People are responding to the difference of his approach. Atkins has played more than thirty concerts in the last three years for churches, community events, and youth conferences. After a concert in Maryland, Atkins overheard a nervous teen telling his youth group leader that his mom had forbidden him to listen to rap. With a smile, the youth group leader said that he was sure his mom would approve of Atkinss songs.
Following a recent concert in North Carolina, he received the kind of feedback for which he prays: "I started getting emails from these boys who wanted to be gangsta types, who said they had a whole new appreciation for Scripture, because the translation had occurred to them."
Chances are that Atkinss translations of Scripture will not become the standard in academic journals. However, hip-hop-loving teenagers looking for something to blast through their car stereos probably wont play the NRSVs book-on-tape. Fortunately, translations of the Gospel of Christ are at home in Hindi and Swahili, Turkish and Spanish, the queens English and hip-hop rhymes.
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