Three Takeaways from the Unauthorized, Christianized “Hamilton” Controversy
The mantra “all publicity is good publicity” is a lot like McDonald’s “healthy” menu; both are comforting lies. This fact was recently proven once again. To set the stage—so to speak—a Texas church was thrust into the cultural spotlight for putting on a high-production, youth-led, two-night performance of the hit Broadway play Hamilton. A version of it, anyway. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play was baptized and rose to new life—or, at least, to new lyrics.
Throughout the performance, words to the infectious songs were adjusted and re-written to have an evangelistic purpose, and new material was inserted featuring prayers and a character’s salvation experience. To cap off the performance, the church’s pastor took to the stage to share a short sermon and gospel presentation.
The desire to creatively share the gospel is commendable. Unfortunately, the church’s method has been called into question. The performance was unauthorized, and the play’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is currently suing the church. Many people have taken to social media to drag the church through the mud or express outrage over how Christians apparently feel that the rules don’t apply to us. What likely started with good intentions has devolved into a giant mess. While the situation is still unfolding, there are at least three important takeaways we can learn from the controversy.
1. Ends Don’t Justify the Means
As representatives of Jesus, Christians should never compromise our faith or religious convictions. But neither are we above the law. Christians are citizens of both heaven and Earth. While we prioritize the former, we are commanded to respect the latter as well. In Romans 13:5, Paul writes, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” Christians are to observe the laws of the land not merely to avoid personal consequences but to be a good neighbor. Scripture teaches Christians to pray for those in authority, “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). In other words, part of being good kingdom citizens is being good, peaceable, and loving earthly citizens.
Obviously, nuance is required. In places where sharing the gospel is illegal, missionaries honor their kingdom citizenship. The Hamilton situation is different. It’s legal to proclaim the gospel in Texas, but it’s against the law to perform certain plays without permission. When the gospel is proclaimed through dubious methods, the church sends mixed messages to the world.
2. Copycat Christians v. Culturally Engaged Christians
Setting aside the legal complications, there is also a question of how Christians can best engage with culture. Have you ever known conversationalists with the remarkable ability to steer every conversation toward themselves? It doesn’t take long before they find themselves short on willing conversation partners. The church can demonstrate this same tendency. Rather than engaging with art and entertainment, we make it all about us.
This strategy is nothing new. The baptized Hamilton performance showcases a popular approach. You may have heard Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady,” but wait until you hear “I’m the Real Sin Savior.” High School Musical becomes Sunday School Musical. Rinse and repeat. Rather than taking the Christian faith to cultural conversations, many Christians pull existing art into the safety of our own comfort zone and Victor Frankenstein it until it fits our desired purposes. The result is an entire Christian subculture filled with second-rate, “sanctified” versions of popular entertainment.
Copycat Christianity hijacks Hamilton and attempts to make it “Christian.” Culturally engaged Christianity explores the truth and messages Hamilton already contains. Paul set an example of culturally engaged Christianity in Acts 17. He had life-changing gospel truth to proclaim, but he began with an attitude of listening. He observed religious sculptures, dialogued about two popular Greek poems, and appealed to his audience’s sense of wonder for the unknown. Paul used art and poetry to understand his audience and spark important discussions. He joined the existing conversation, and as a result, he earned the opportunity to contribute to it.
3. Raise Up Christian Creatives
It took J. R. R. Tolkien decades to write The Lord of the Rings. Within a few years, the market was flooded with countless cheap and shameless imitations. It’s always easier to copy the great work of others than do great work ourselves. Mimicking existing art is a shortcut. It is easier to Christianize secular entertainment than to create something original.
Stealing the world’s art reflects a dire need for the church to raise up creative Christians. As image-bearers of the Creator (Genesis 1:26), Christians should be at the forefront of creative innovation. There was a time in history when secular culture pillaged the church for artistic inspiration, but the church today is often content with mimicking secular ideas. God is in the business of doing new things (Isaiah 43:19). Christians, made in his image, should raise up, disciple, and empower artists to be creators of the new and excellent.