A Lived Theology of The Encounter: Deconstructive Selfhood and the Religion of DMX

Written by: J. Aaron Simmons and Jonathan R. Stadler

***This essay was written in 2008 and accepted for publication at the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture but was never able to be published due to copyright concerns with lyrics. We are posting it here for the first time in memory of DMX (Earl Simmons) who died today. RIP DMX.

**** This essay features lyrics by DMX that are likely to be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

“If we would be honest about it, we could talk about how complex our real theologies are.  Not our written ones, but our lived ones.”

Michael Eric Dyson[1]

“Rappers are engaged in a culture war.  They are reinterpreting, reframing, and reconstructing a social and religious worldview through lyrics and rhymes that provide an alternate ultimate orientation, to borrow a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich.  In short, they are constructing a theology”

Ralph C. Watkins[2]


Postmodern philosophy is often taken to be closely affiliated with the Nietzschean claim that “God is Dead.”  There have certainly been plenty of examples of thinkers that have to some extent embraced the apparently “atheistic” implications of postmodernism.  For example, according to Sartre, either there is God or there is freedom.  Similarly, according to Heidegger, philosophy must display a “God-less” approach to thinking in order that the important questions can be really heard as questions.  However, what we might term postmodern atheism is certainly not simply a negation of classical theism.  Indeed, Sartre took quite seriously the important existential task that accompanies the practice of “becoming an atheist,” and Heidegger even claims that the “God-less” thinking he advocates might be closer to the divine than classical onto-theology.  Things are made even more complicated when one reads Kierkegaard alongside Nietzsche as being one of the originators of the generally postmodern turn.  Kierkegaard’s decided task of trying to take seriously what it means to “become a Christian” is itself what gave rise to Sartre’s own alternative account.  Moreover, recent developments in continental philosophy of religion occurring in work of New Phenomenologists such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, among others, have decidedly challenged the notion that postmodern existence must be understood in non-theological ways.  For Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida, there is an important “religious” dimension to all human existence.  Although Kierkegaard was a Christian, Levinas a Jew, and Derrida someone who claimed to “rightly pass as an atheist,” they all three offer an account of how postmodern or deconstructive selfhood is best understood as essentially opened to absolute alterity (i.e., otherness).  In this sense, they all affirm a notion of subjectivity as essentially conflicted with itself because of this constitutive ethico-religious encounter with the absolute Other. 

In the attempt to work through what this postmodern (specifically theologically oriented) account of conflicted subjectivity might entail, hard core or gangsta rap (i.e., that subgenre of rap begun in the 1980s that attempted to shed light on the realities of inner-city existence) might initially seem an unlikely resource.[3]  However, we will suggest that the music of one such rapper, DMX (Earl Simmons; Dark Man-X),[4] provides a productive lens through which to consider the existential realities of postmodern religious existence.[5]  Amongst some of the most explicit, and arguably offensive, lyrics in all of rap music, DMX has included on all of his albums a spoken word “Prayer,” which is then usually followed by what could best be described as a “Christian” rap song.  What is one to make of this paradoxical presentation?  Is this just irrationality?  Is it hypocrisy?  We believe that by considering this tension in his work through the lens of deconstructive selfhood, we are better able to understand not only the reality of DMX’s lyrical depth, but also the existential complexity of postmodern religious life itself.  Now, as should already be clear, we will be approaching this issue from the perspective of continental philosophy of religion.  That said, though it is impossible not to appreciate the substantive scholarship in hip hop studies and black cultural theory, we are drawing upon this literature in the attempt to add another dimension to the current debates.  Though we will be giving analysis of some of DMX’s lyrical content, our methodology is neither primarily one of literary criticism, nor sociological cultural studies.  Instead, we will be reading DMX’s music as a text that illuminates certain trends in deconstructive approaches to religion.   

Our thesis, then, is that DMX provides a productive case study, as it were, in what postmodern religious existence involves as a lived reality.  In this way, reading DMX in conversation with postmodern philosophy allows for a possible way of making sense of Martin Luther’s famous claim that the life of the believer is one in which the individual is “simultaneously sinner and saint”:

Now notice what I said above, that the saints at the same time as they are righteous are also sinners [simul iustus et peccator]; righteous because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but sinners because they do not fulfill the Law, are not without concupiscence, and are like sick men under the care of a physician; they are sick in fact but healthy in hope and in the fact that they are beginning to be healthy, that is, they are “being healed.”  They are people for whom the worst possible thing is the presumption that they are healthy, because they suffer a worse relapse.[6]

In DMX’s lyrics this duality between sinner and saint is presented in the way in which the themes of the “Prayer” tracks stand at odds with the themes throughout the rest of his music.  Accordingly we find the work of DMX to allow for an interpretation that reflects two aspects or dimensions of the self that vie for prominence. 

This tension between the voice of the sinner and the voice of the saint in the work of DMX allows for deconstructive selfhood to be understood as an account in which the self is defined by a constant struggle to establish its own identity in the context of social relationships to others.  This struggle is not one that can finally be resolved (at least in historical existence)—i.e., the saint wins out over the sinner—but instead is a perpetual task that demands diligence and a willingness to entertain ambiguity, complexity, and contingency in one’s life.  What results is what we will term a “theology of the encounter.”  This notion is one in which theory must meet practice and it is practice that gives rise to theory.  As Anthony B. Pinnnotes, “Snoop Dogg and others provide rudimentary elements of a theological system, a theology of rap, complete with an epistemology of encounter.”[7]  Pinn’s consideration of Snoop Dogg, and our reading of DMX here, is one in which,

The line between religious belief and life practice is often blurred.  The lyrical content with its expressed religious vision often creates a paradox.  But this is not a problem that wipes out the value or vitality of the religious imagination within rap music.[8]

We hope that our reading of DMX through the lens of deconstructive selfhood serves to contest the otherwise plausible reading of DMX as simply being irrational in certain respects and, in turn, allows for DMX to be viewed as illuminating (and perhaps even contributing to) debates of central importance to continental philosophy of religion. 

We will proceed as follows: First, we will look at how DMX’s lyrical content does seem to display contradictions that might appear problematic to anyone who would seek to understand his music.  Then, we will articulate a basic account of deconstructive selfhood by briefly considering important overlapping themes in Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida.  Third, we will return to DMX and offer suggestions as to how this deconstructive lens provides a productive way of making sense of his apparently contradictory claims.  Finally, we will conclude by suggesting ways in which DMX stands as a productive case study for philosophical and theological debates. 

On Contradictions

Contradictions are essentially problematic.  One of the fundamental rules of classical logic is the law of non-contradiction which simply states that something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.  Accordingly, whenever we run into a claim of (A&~A) then we have sufficient reason to reject the belief or argument internal to which the contradiction is being affirmed.  One might even go as far as claiming that we are justified in concluding that any person who affirms that (A&~A) is irrational (at least as long as the contradiction continues to be affirmed).  This all seems obvious enough, and in cases such as “Joe is wearing a hat and Joe is not wearing a hat” there is not much problem with either diagnosing the contradiction as such or admitting of the irrationality of the person claiming that the proposition is true—let’s term such cases hermeneutically transparent.  Things get more complicated, however, in cases where extrapolation and more complex interpretive decisions are required—let’s term such situations hermeneutically non-transparent

Consider two possibilities of such non-transparent instances.  In case (1), a person K might not affirm that (A&~A), but simply that (A&B).  Now, clearly (A&B) is not necessarily a contradiction.  However, if we then show that B is identical to ~A or that it entails ~A then we arrive at a contradiction fairly quickly.  Alternatively, in case (2), person K might offer a claim that initially appears to be a contradiction on the order of (A&~A), but after further investigation it is shown that the claim should be actually be expressed as (A&B) since B is neither identical to ~A nor entails ~A.  Both of these situations require extrapolation from the claims as initially expressed, but in the first case we arrive at a contradiction whereas in the second case we do not.

The hermeneutic challenge of non-transparent claims varies widely.  Especially difficult, however, are statements offered from within the context of literature and music.  Often rhetorically or rhythmically framed in ways that disguise the content of the propositions being asserted, the task of determining whether something is or is not a contradiction in contemporary rap music, say, is the hermeneutic equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool and attempting to avoid drowning by swimming straight down.  That said, surely there are occasions where contradictions are clearly present.  Consider the two following statements from DMX:

(A) “It’s better to tell the truth than to lie. . . Violence isn’t always the key. . .  It’s better to forgive and forget. . . Give as you expect to get.” (DMX, “Ready to Meet Him,” FFBB)

(B) “Try to show [n-word] but I can only hope they see; You a little [n-word] fit right up in a 6 by 3; Layin’ up like this; Lips sewn shut eyes closed; [N-word] walk past the casket damn shorty nice pose; You was ballin [n-word] till your ass got balled out; Called out by some disrespectful ass [n-word] that go all out; I bet you thought it was real funny
Until it had to get cruddy; Me walkin off leavin you with all this bloody; What he gonna do when it’s all over for real; And the last thing you see is that steel; A blast of light that’s what he seein’ if you blast him right; Hit him in the face and hear that closed casket tight.” (DMX, “Keep Your S—t the Hardest,” FFBB)

Here we have two rather shockingly different passages from two different songs from DMX’s album “Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood.”  We can see that at least part of (A) might be understood to include a claim such as “Don’t retaliate offense with violence” and that (B) might be read to include a claim that could be expressed as “Retaliate offense with extreme violence.”  When presented in this way we might conclude that (A&B) entails (A&~A).  As such, we would then be justified to claim that DMX affirms contradictions.  If so, so much the worse for DMX as a substantive case study for philosophical inquiry.  Simply put, we take it for granted that the act of a person’s affirming contradictions stands as a sufficient condition for viewing that person as a poor choice for a philosophical conversation partner. 

The apparent contradiction affirmed by DMX above is not unique in his music.  On every one of his albums he includes a track labeled “Prayer,” and these tracks are rightly viewed as rhythmically spoken laments to God.  Themes in these prayers include: the importance of faithfulness, honesty, peace, love, being a good influence on children, rejecting wealth as the goal of life, humility, standing for God, and even respect between men and women.  Such themes stand in stark contrast to the majority of DMX’s lyrics.  For just a few examples, consider the following: In “The Professional” (DMX, TTWX) we see a hired killer talking about “stop[ing] you in your motherf—in tracks” and who comments that “I’m on the job and right now there’s more [n-word] that need to be left with a head full of lead.”  In “I’ma Bang” (DMX, TGD), the narrator claims that he will “hit you wit’ something for frontin’ that’ll end your life; then hit your crib and bend your wife.”  The final stanza of the song includes the passage “nuttin but gun firing, blap blap blap blap; cocksucka where it at; open up your back now I can see through your stomach.”  This basic refrain is echoed in “We go hard” (DMX, GC): “Yo, I leave jail smoothly, jump in the pale hooptie / F— the dick-suckin-ass [n-word] male groupies / Diplomats, you look at alliance, you shook in defiance / I’m cookin up coke, lookin for clients; I got the AK, SK, 40 cal.”  Further examples could easily be given, but what we can see in all of these passages is that the themes here are at odds with the claims offered in the “Prayer” tracks.  Surely it at least seems like DMX is internally inconsistent.  As Pinn notes about similar difficulties in the work of many rappers, “for some, there is a paradox at work, a form of existential slippage between stated commitments to a particular religious vision and the system of ethics expressed in the music.”[9]

Now, in light of these apparent inconsistencies, several conclusions could be drawn:

  1. DMX is contradictory and should not be viewed as a rational person (whether or not we decide to continue listening to his music for purposes of non-rational enjoyment, etc. remains undecided).
  2. DMX is only apparently contradictory and more work needs to be done in order to demonstrate a way of reading these thematic conflicts that overcomes the initial semblance of irrationality.
  3. Expecting rap lyrics to answer to a criterion of logical precision is simply inappropriate.[10]

We believe that option (2) is the best way forward.  Importantly, (3) could still be the case without being a major obstacle to our project here.  However, even if the contradictions in DMX are only apparent, one could still object that demonstrating that (2) obtains would only bring about a pyrrhic victory at best.  Especially given that (3) might also be the case, why would we go to the trouble of trying to argue for (2)?  Who cares if DMX is affirming contradictions or not?  Our answer is that, when read according to the interpretive frame we propose, these apparent contradictions are better understood as illustrations of a productive tension in DMX’s lyrics that actually open important spaces for thinking about the difficulties of claiming to be in a relation to God while continuing to live in the world.  In this way, we agree with Pinn that there “remains here an important tension, a battle between existential realities and religious sensibilities.”[11]  However despite this tension, “this should not mean a lack of attention paid to the nature of confrontation with the ‘religious’ that is expressed” in the work of contemporary rappers such as DMX.[12]  Indeed, we propose that it is precisely because of this tension that DMX in particular becomes so productively read alongside contemporary continental philosophy of religion. 

Deconstructive Subjectivity

When focusing on the fact that it is the explicitly “religious” portions of DMX’s authorship that create the apparent contradictions with the rest of his statements, it seems only sensible to inquire as to what it is about the relationship to God that creates such a transformation of disposition/tone/theme, etc.  One possible way to make sense of this is simply to claim that the relationship to God (in particular as expressed in certain versions of Christianity) transforms us into better people.  When applied to DMX, the problem with this interpretation is that we don’t see a shift in his writing from themes of violence, misogyny, and arrogance to the more “religious” themes of humility, peace, and love.  If we did, we might be able to conclude that at a particular point in his life he entered a relationship with God and became a different person.  In this case, the apparent contradictions would still be rightly considered contradictions, but unproblematically so given the temporal indexing his claims would now require.  Surely a thinker can change her mind about something without then being accused of irrationality or hypocrisy because of contradicting earlier positions she held.  However, this move won’t work with DMX simply because the “Prayers” span his entire authorship and are even apparently contradicted by material occurring on the same albums.  Thus, something like a developmental account of religious subjectivity is a bad interpretive option simply because the apparent contradictions occur early in his career and continue to show up throughout it. 

This reading is supported by DMX’s own account.  Although in his autobiography, DMX does not speak of God very often and though he certainly did not grow up in church,  as it were, he does indicate the early influence of his Grandmother’s religious faith: “I felt loved at my grandmother’s house. I can remember the gospel music playing on Sunday morning when I woke up, my grandmother singing “Amazing Grace.”[13]  Many years later, but still prior to his career really taking off, DMX reflects upon being chased (and shot at) by a group of individuals and he comments: “I saw those bastards about one hundred yards away—just enough space for me to get gone.  I didn’t realize then that this was the second time the Lord put his hand on my life.”[14]  Shortly thereafter, DMX was again incarcerated in Valhalla Correctional Facility and during a time in solitary confinement he claims that “one cold night I just closed my eyes and reached out, reached out for the sky.”[15]  He continues on to reflect on the connection with his early time at his Grandmother’s house: “Grandma always said the Lord was with me.  She said that all I needed was the faith, so I put her words to the test.  Would He talk to me?  Would He answer my call? . . .  That night in Valhalla, in solitary confinement, I wrote my first prayer.”[16] 

According to DMX, it is clear that his relationship to God is not something that began mid-career.  Instead, as he explains in an interview from 2001, it was prior to having much professional success that he really encountered God:

Right before my first record came out, I was lost. . .  I met a friend.  I was on the streets, and we started walking.  She looked in my eyes and said, “Yo, what’s wrong? Come with me.  I want to show you something.”  She brought me to church.  The pastor started talking to me, I broke down. It was then that I knew that there was something with this God thing for real.[17]

Hence, it is plausible to read DMX’s autobiography as a statement of how he takes the struggle between God and existential reality to be a constant across his authorship (or even entire life) rather than a turning point within it.  Hence, we find the passage from Luther that we quoted in the introduction to open room for the possibility of seeing how, even in the lyrics of DMX, a relationship with God is not something that kills one’s sinful nature (which, one might contend, would trivialize the struggles of continuing to exist in history), but simply puts it into conflict with one’s existential status as graced by God’s love.  On this reading of Luther, the religious believer is decentered by simply being two selves in the same person—a sinner and a saint.  According to such a theological perspective, never is it the case (at least on this side of the eschaton) that a person can entirely do away with the sin nature. 

Similarly, deconstructive subjectivity (when theologically oriented) understands the relationship to God to be one that ruptures the sufficiency of the self and, accordingly, to eliminate the possibility of completely overcoming one’s status as sinner.  To put it simply, the self is constituted by the call of an absolute “Other” who lays claim on “me” before I am able to claim a position of status for myself.  As Emmanuel Levinas will often say, “Here I am” is the inaugural event of subjectivity, but it is always a reply to a call that comes “before” and for which I am too late.  Given the limitations of space here, we will simply give three models of deconstructive subjectivity—that found in the work of Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida.  Each of these models highlights a different aspect of the postmodern decentered self that we take to be importantly illuminated in DMX.  For Kierkegaard, it is the secrecy of oneself to oneself.  For Levinas, it is the role of obligation and responsibility in the constitution of selfhood.  For Derrida, it is what we will call a “hermeneutic of justice” that animates our subjectivity.  We will briefly consider each in turn before moving on to some conclusions regarding the relevance of DMX to contemporary postmodern theology and philosophy.  Given how complicated the philosophies of these three thinkers are, all of the following should be read as painting with very broad-strokes. 

The Self as Secret: Kierkegaard

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or more appropriately Anti-Climacus) provides a vision for what (in an existentialist tone) we might call “authentic subjectivity”: “The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”[18]  Importantly, the Danish original can bear the following translation:  “the self is established/grounded transparently in the power that set it up.” Hence, the resting of the self is very much tied to the founding of the self as such.  This should challenge those (mis)appropriations of Kierkegaard that suggest his conception of selfhood is all about active (read conscious) willing.  Largely brought about by early twentieth century French appropriations of Kierkegaard (e.g., the work of Jean Wahl[19]), Kierkegaard’s work has been too often read as advocating a notion of the solitary self that stands confidently before God.  However, if we read Fear and Trembling carefully, what we find is a story about the interpersonal agony, theological struggle, and ethical anguish of Abraham precisely because his relationship to God is always interrupted by his relation to Isaac.[20]  This reality should bear heavily on our reading of the authentic self described above.  “Resting transparently” is not a result of the power of the substantive self, but a product of the lack of power displayed by a self standing “before God.”  In relationship to God, the self is constituted as a secret even unto itself.  Transparency should be read as a claim about the inability to hide within ourselves.  The self is not closed, but fundamentally opened by the call of the “Other” (in Kierkegaard’s case, this Other is perhaps best named ‘God’). 

Kierkegaard highlights the status of the self as a secret unto itself in Fear and Trembling when (under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) he discusses Abraham’s failure to be able to explain himself to others: “Abraham remains silent—but he cannot speak.  Therein lies the distress and anxiety. . . .  The relief provided by speaking is that it translates me into the universal.”[21]  As articulated by Kierkegaard and demonstrated by Abraham, the relationship to God is a relationship to the mysterium tremendum.[22]  If the self is constituted by such a relation, then at its core, the self is also mysterious (even to itself).  The results of this situation are many, but we will highlight three in particular.  First, the relationship with God is not going to be reducible to propositional expression internal to the claims of knowledge—for such a reduction would be immediately to “translate me into the universal.”  The inadequacy of translation would yield what we could call the necessity of epistemic humility.  Second, Abraham still must act in the world—viz., he either kills Isaac or does not.  But, given the epistemic reality, he also finds himself confronted with the inability to be certain about how to act.  This can be understood as the requirement of ethical humility.  Finally, the epistemic and ethical constraints continue to press precisely because of the reality of embodied, historical, contextual, existence.  To be is to be in a particular position, to occupy a particular identity, to appropriate a particular history, and to view the future as opening a particular set of possibilities. 

Kierkegaard (or more correctly, Johannes Climacus) summarizes these three points in Concluding Unscientific Postscript when he notes that “to be finished with life before life is finished with one is not to finish the task at all.”[23]  For Kierkegaard, the self is decentered in its relation to God precisely because God constitutes the self as a secret such that existence requires a risky commitment and passionate investment within a lived context.  

The Self as Responsible: Levinas and Derrida

For Levinas, ethics is prima philosophia.  The self is defined by not only a relationship with the Other, but a responsibility to/for the Other.  In a lecture course from 1976, Levinas writes:

I am placed in the accusative case, in the place of the one accused—I lose all place.  In this sense the I [je] does not posit itself but is impoverished to the point of substituting himself, of suffering and expiating for another, and even for the other’s wrongs, to the point of expiation itself.[24]

From this passage we can quickly see that Levinas is not given to parsing words.  The self doesn’t just lose some standing, but all standing.  It is easy to understand how the self would be decentered in such a situation.  The Other challenges my ability to claim status for myself.  Indeed, according to Levinas, I am a self only insofar as I am always already given over to the Other.  The question of ethical existence, then, concerns how I will choose to take myself up in the world in light of this constitutive encounter with what he terms “absolute” alterity.  Will I recognize this original dispossession?  Or, will I cover it over by turning inward to my own egoistic desires and ignore the call that inaugurates my very subjectivity?  In the first case, I am faced with the realization that I face a task that is too big for me.  Starkly put, if I care for one person then I fail to care for millions of others.  In the second case, I live in denial (what Kierkegaard would call “despair” and Martin Heidegger would term “inauthenticity”).  Admittedly, neither of these options sounds particularly attractive.

How then can we be properly ethically directed and yet not give in to the potential quietism and resignation that would seem to accompany the realities of ethical life?  For Levinas, the answer is found in the constancy of critique.  Why Levinas advocates a democratic form of political theory is because he is committed to the notion that in democracy there is the possibility of what he will call “charity after justice.”  That is, democracy is a system that allows for perpetual questions to be asked about the extent to which our democracy is itself Other-directed rather than being self-concerned.  What Levinas is so adamant about avoiding is the assumption that we can ever be satisfied without efforts to care for the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”  This is what invites the extreme hyperbole of Levinas’s rhetorical style.  According to Derrida, Levinas once even claimed: “You know, one often speaks of ethics to describe what I do, but what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy.”[25]  Ethics is not simply a claim about what one should do or how one should live, but about a theory of selfhood defined by responsibility to and for the Other.   

Here we see that Levinas and Kierkegaard can be read together regarding the way in which the self is decentered in relation to both God and the other person.  Merold Westphal nicely describes this situation: “When the Other does not get in the way of my seeing God, God will end up getting in the way of my hearing the Other.[26]  The epistemic and ethical humility in Kierkegaard meets the task of constant critique and working for justice in Levinas.  Both anticipate the late work of Derrida regarding the way in which we live here and now expecting the “democracy to come” (democratie á venir).[27]  For Derrida, to live in the world ethically is to operate according to what might be termed a hermeneutic of expected justice.  Justice is never something that we have achieved, but always something we direct ourselves towards.  This could be read as the eschatological dimension of postmodern ethics.[28] 

God, Postmodernism, and Social Justice

With this interpretive frame in place, we want to return to DMX and the apparent contradictions we discussed earlier.  We can now see how the thematic tensions between damnation and redemption, violence and love, not caring about what people think and being a good influence, being misogynistic and respecting women, etc. can all now be seen as manifestations of the constant struggle of religious selfhood between the two natures: sinner and saint.  On this model, we would be wrong to dismiss DMX as either irrational or hypocritical.  Instead, we should now view his music as an example of how this struggle internal to religious existence itself is not something that allows for a final synthetic overcoming.  To be on this side of the eschaton is to constantly wrestle with our own failures to be the person that we would like to be.  This is made especially difficult given the realities of inner-city life, institutional racism, economic disparity, etc. 

We must realize that racism, sexism, and poverty are existential challenges that serve as the backdrop for millions of people trying to follow God while continuing to be victims of injustice.  This becomes clear in DMX’s “Who We Be” (DMX, TGD):

            What they don’t know is . . .

            The bullshit, the drama, the guns, the armour

            The projects, the drugs, the children, the thugs

            The tears, the hugs, the love, the slugs

            The funerals, the wakes, the churches, the coffins

            The heartbroken mothers, it happens, too often. . .

The struggle to move forward towards a future that presents nothing but frustration could, perhaps justifiably, cause a person to give in to the rage and abandon the attempt to continue to live a life “imitatio Christi.”  But, this is not the example set by DMX.  Instead, we find the perpetual struggle to have hope in the face of despair as itself being the basic human condition.  DMX makes this split self clear towards the end of “Who We Be”:

             This here is all about . . .

            The frustration, rage, trapped inside a cage

            God beatin’s ‘til the age, I carried a twelve gauge

            Somebody stop me, somebody come and get me

            Little did I know, that the Lord was ridin with me

            The dark, the light, my heart, the fight

            The wrong, the right, it’s gone, aight. 

Here we do not find someone advocating A after having proposed ~A.  Instead, we find someone recognizing the difficulties that accompany continuing to look to God in the face of the world around him.  Being in a relationship with God is not presented here as something that transforms the individual into a saint.  Instead, it is something that serves to provide hope against hope and comfort in spite of the suffering.  From this perspective, we can read DMX as providing an account of the difficulties that face all those who continue to work towards a brighter tomorrow while seeing nothing but the darkness of midnight around them.  For DMX, the point of his lyrical content is not to be shocking or hard-core for its own sake, but in order to expose the existential realities faced by so many around the world every day.  When pressed on why his lyrics “revel in hard-core imagery and lyrics,” he responded that “It’s just real.”[29] 

DMX can, then, be read as claiming that we are always split within ourselves—viz., we claim that God will see us through and yet we continue to realize that we are in the valley of the shadow of death (now referred to as “Yonkers, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem”).  Here we should consider the following “Prayer”:

            Lord why is it that I go through so much pain

            All I saw was black and all I felt was rain

            I come to you because it’s you that knows

            To show me that everything is black

            Because my eyes were closed

            You give me light and let me bask in your glory . . .

            Plenty of times you sent help my way, but I hit

            I remember once you held me close but I slipped. (DMX, HH) 

DMX recognizes the failures that continue to plague his existence, but refuses to allow his “person” to be fully identified with the pain, rain, and blackness. 

As a further example, consider the song “My Life” from the album Grand Champ.  This song can be read as an account of how DMX constantly stands as a secret to himself:

            Earl Simmons, AKA the Dawg, getting down for real and goin hard . . .

            This is my life and ima live how I wanna live it

            Motherf—ers wanna f—in come and get it . . .

            I wanna be able to teach you blood, wanna be able to sit down and eat wit you cuz . . .

            It is my dreams, my fears, my words, that constantly fall on deaf ears . . .

            Forgive me father for I have sinned, endangered my soul I’m ready to win, let’s begin . . .

DMX begins the song by identifying himself by the name “Earl Simmons” who is also known as “The Dawg.”  This beginning might be read as an attempt to deploy pseudonyms in a way similar to Kierkegaard.  That is, he challenges anyone who would be quick to claim a certainty about his “real” name.  Indeed, one might question whether “DMX,” “Dawg,” or “Earl Simmons” is the true referent—i.e., the self behind the pseudonyms.  However, it quickly becomes clear that the person struggling with how to “name” DMX is DMX himself.  For example, though it might seem that the “deaf ears” upon which his dreams, fears, and words constantly fall are those of others, it seems just as plausible to see these ears as his own.  When he calls out to God asking for forgiveness, it seems due to his own failure to live up to the expectations of righteousness.  However, exactly what such righteousness would look like is not clear.  DMX presents himself as occupying an identity that stands as a question mark more than a period. 

This uncertainty regarding a stable identity is made all the more terrifying again given the realities of inner-city existence.  In the song “[N-word] done started something” (DMX, HH), we find the following lines:

            Bloodhounds found your shit buried in the mud

            Following traces of gun powder, residue and blood

            A positive ID is impossible, so you know

            John Doe is what they goin be putting on that tag on yo toe.

The decentered self articulated in Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida is one that is constitutively dispossessed by the Other.  Here we find DMX facing the fact that the name “John Doe” might also be the name given to him by the “other” upon his death.  The relation to God is what DMX clings to as both providing his “true” name and yet such nomination is only able to be affirmed by faith.  As he writes in “Ready to Meet Him” (DMX, FFBB):

            Lord, you left me stranded and I don’t know why

            Told me to live my life and now I’m ready to die; ready to fly

            I cry, but I shed no tears

            You told me you would dead those fears . . .

            Stop acting like you don’t know me

            What’d I do so bad that it sent you away from me

            Not only sent you away, but made you stay away from me. . .

In response, the “Lord” replies: “My child I’m here, as I’ve always been, it was you who went away.”  Drawing from these passages we might conclude that DMX is claiming that (A) “I am all alone in the world,” and (~A) “God is always with me.”  Yet, in light of postmodern philosophy of religion, we can now see that this is not really a contradiction, but merely a statement about how the relation to God is something that requires subjective risk.  There is no self that can rest secure in the “knowledge” of God’s presence without at the same time being confronted with the question of God’s apparent absence in a world of turmoil. 

We claim that the very tension in DMX’s lyrics effectively present the risk that is internally constitutive of the life of faith.  Following Kierkegaard, the point is to recognize that life continues—God does not lift believers up out of existence, but promises to be with them as they keep moving forward.  As Michael Eric Dyson notes:

Our faith can give us the comfort that God walks with us, and will not forsake us.  That may seem like small solace in the face of our finitude.  But the knowledge that God refuses to let us go ultimately calms the soul in distress.  That is the only guarantee we have that the universe that has betrayed us at one turn through the perils of nature will stand behind us through the divine Word.[30]

When read in the context of the black church’s general emphasis on the way in which the relation to God is not irrelevant to the evils of political existence,[31] we can understand the insight of Dyson’s claim that for rappers like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, their lyrics “speak directly to the question of black suffering and what’s known in theological circles as ‘the problem of evil.”[32]  Along with Biggie and Tupac, we propose that DMX profoundly articulates a “grassroots secular urban theodicy.”[33]  In the very tension between the saint and sinner in DMX’s music, we also find epistemic humility, ethical humility, and an honesty about the struggle of embodied existence all being deployed.  This is what creates the apparent contradictions, but also what allows us to better describe them as paradoxical tensions of a decentered subjectivity that always already stands before God and/or the Other while in the midst of so many needy others.    

Conclusion: Theology in the midst of Existence

Postmodern considerations of religion (whether occurring internal to psychological or philosophical discourse) are not simply about God, but always about who we are in relation to God and other people.  We cannot step outside of existence to survey the truth of existence.  Instead, we can only move forward in both humility and gratitude—often without clear guidance as to the correct path, but confident that we should continue to seek charity after justice and work towards the democracy to come.  Perhaps in light of deconstructive subjectivity, the most genuine prayer that one can pray is for the ability to continue to stand for a better tomorrow while living here and now.   As Anthony B. Pinn suggests, in contemporary rap, as well as, we believe, in continental philosophy of religion, “the line between religious belief and life practice is often blurred.”[34]  Pinn continues:

The lyrical content with its expressed religious vision often creates a paradox.  But this is not a problem that wipes out the value or vitality of the religious imagination within rap music. . . . Recognizing the great difficulty with which humans exercise and explain the religious, explicit theological or religious pronouncements in rap music are worth one’s time and attention not because of perfection of practice but because of what they say about the musically expressed encounter with questions of meaning, those with great existential and ontological weight.[35]

DMX himself admits the difficulty of wrestling with such weight.  In an interview published in Vibe magazine in 2001, DMX is asked how he “juxtaposes the worlds of religion and rage, of prayer and pistols,” and he replies, “I’m working on it.  I don’t have all the answers yet.”[36]  Though one might desire that DMX had an explicitly worked out theory of how to reconcile these tensions in his lyrics, such a complete account might actually threaten to undermine the messiness with which religious existence must be constantly lived.  The decentered self is one that never allows for a triumphalism of theologico-epistemic certainty.  Instead, what results is a humble attempt to move forward in relation to God and the other person.   

Recognizing that knowledge might need to begin in trust and certainty replaced by fragile confidence, the music of DMX challenges any claims to a stable self identity and can be interpreted as being an example of what might be termed a theology of the encounter.  This theological trajectory is one that would occur at the intersection of religious tradition, aesthetic performance, hermeneutic appropriation, and social existence.  As Watkins suggests, “in the case of God-conscious rap there is a circular (rather than linear) relationship in the semiotic process.”[37]  “In this semiotic convention,” he continues, “there is (1) the rap music; (2) the appropriation of religious symbols and signs; and (3) the interpretants seeking meaning within the context of the social arrangements.”[38]  Resulting from this circular semiotics, Watkins suggests, is the “construction of a socio-theo-rap-ology.”[39]  In harmony with Watkins’s stress upon the socio-theological dimension of God-conscious rap, is our proposal that deconstructive selfhood emphasizes the inescapable rootedness of theological speculation.  The relation to God is only possible in a shared social space.  This is what the theology of the encounter understands.  There is no effective theology that stands separate from an account of what it would mean to be constitutively engaged with the Other.  This is why theory and practice cannot be radically pulled apart from each other and why affirming an absolute priority of one over the other is unsustainable. 

That said, exactly what is encountered in the lived space considered by a theology of the encounter is not clear—surely it includes God, other people, injustice, love, hate, etc.—but by demonstrating the paradoxical tensions that are constitutive of postmodern subjectivity, DMX invites us all to overcome the arrogance that can accompany the claim to have achieved sainthood, and the nihilism that can accompany despair.  Life involves a bit of both and, along with Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida, DMX rather “explicitly” helps us see that. 

Michael Eric Dyson points out that “in black religion, there is little substance or benefit to knowing God without doing, or performing, one’s knowledge of God.”[40]  The relationship between black churches and liberation theology is not merely an accidental reality.[41]  Indeed, part of the power of the Christian narrative within the black church lies in its exhibition of God on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, and the despairing.  Dyson nicely reinforces this point:

A great source of hope to black Christians is the belief that God identifies with our condition as the underdog.  That’s why the stories of Christ’s birth in the gospels are carefully read and heavily leaned on: they express the fact that God sides with the homeless, the oppressed, those besieged by the state, those who are the victims of political terror.  When God was born in a manger as Jesus, it showed just how far God was willing to go to prove to humanity that God loves us.[42]

Despite the fact that deconstructive selfhood provides a model of theological existence that is deeply politically invested, it can still sometimes become tempting to see the work of Derrida and Levinas, for example, as significantly detached from the existential realities in which so many live.  DMX’s gritty presentation of the struggle to live a saintly life in the midst of daily turmoil stands as a possible practical supplement to the work of academic philosophy and theology in a time of (or perhaps after) the “hip-hop generation.”[43]


[1] Michael Eric Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009), 27. 

[2] Ralph C. Watkins, “Rap, Religion, and New Realities: The Emergence of a Religious Discourse in Rap Music,” in Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music, ed. Anthony B. Pinn (New York and London: New York University Press, 2003), 184-92, 186.

[3] Though in light of the excellent work of scholars beginning to work at the intersection of religious studies and hip hop scholarship, this assumption might not hold true for long.  For example, see Pinn, Noise and Spirit; and Michael Eric Dyson, Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[4] For more on DMX, see DMX and Smokey D. Fontaine, E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).  All quotations from DMX’s music are cited with permission.  The lyrics are drawn from www.lyricstime.com (though at certain places these quotations have been edited slightly due to explicit content).  Accessed October 4, 2008.  Abbreviations for DMX’s albums used within this paper are as follows:

YOTD. Year of the Dog . . . Again. Sony Records. 2006.

GC. Grand Champ. Def Jam Records. 2003.

TGD. The Great Depression. Def Jam Records. 2001.

TTWX. And Then There Was X. Def Jam Records. 1999.

HH. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Def Jam Records. 1998.

FFBB. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Def Jam Records. 1998.

[5] There has certainly been a growing literature working at the intersection of contemporary philosophy and hip hop.  For just a few examples, see the essays in Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason, eds. Derrick Darby and Tommie Shelby (Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2005).  Additionally, some of the main texts in black cultural studies that are informing our approach to the topic include: Houston A. Baker, Jr. Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993); Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel, eds., The Black Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, eds., The Black Feminist Reader (Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994). 

[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol. XXV: Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 336.

[7] Anthony B. Pinn, “Introduction: Making a World with a Beat: Musical Expression’s Relationship to Religious Identity and Experience,” in Noise and Spirit, 1-26, 18.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pinn suggests as much when he claims that apparent paradoxes in the lyrical content of certain rappers “might point to the linguistic ‘playfulness’ within the music, drawn from vernacular practices within black oral and aesthetic traditions.  In other words, it is quite likely that much of what is expressed in rap music is not meant to be taken literally, in the same manner in which numerous biblical stories are quite troubling if taken literally” (Ibid).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] DMX and Fontaine, E.A.R.L., 34. 

[14] Ibid., 203.

[15] Ibid., 209.

[16] Ibid., 209-210

[17] Heidi Siegmund Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” Vibe (October 2001): 90-96, 94-95.

[18] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 14. Anti-Climacus will repeat this claim repeatedly throughout the text: “[T]he self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God” (30); “[T]he formula for the state in which there is no despair at all: in relating itself to itself and in wiling to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it” (131).

[19] See J. Aaron Simmons, “Existential Appropriations: Jean Wahl’s Influence on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard,” in Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion, eds. J. Aaron Simmons and David Wood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 41-66.

[20] For more one how Isaac stands as the engine of Abraham’s ordeal, see J. Aaron Simmons, God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), chapter 2.

[21] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 113.

[22] See also, Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[23] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Scientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Vol. I, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 164.

[24] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 162.

[25] Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 4.

[26] Merold Westphal, “Levinas’s Teleological Suspension of the Religious,” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature, and Religion, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak (New York: Routledge, 1995), 151-60, 158.

[27] Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West have both argued that there is a deeply democratic impulse within the history of such movements as jazz, the blues, and the black church.  See, Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now? and Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007); West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982); The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Books, 2004). For more on the development of black political thought, see Michael C. Dawson, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).  

[28] For more on the relationship between eschatology and continental philosophy, see J. Aaron Simmons and Nathan R. Kerr, “From Necessity to Hope: A Continental Perspective on Eschatology Without Telos,” Heythrop Journal 50, no. 6 (Fall, 2009): 948-65. For a good account of how postmodernism should be understood in particular ways in light of African-American contributions, see Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

[29] Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” 96.

[30] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 21.

[31] For just a few excellent considerations of the history, culture, and political activism of the black church, see Hans A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984); Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like an Army: The Black Church and Social Reform (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Fredrick C. Harris, Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African-American Popular History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Milton C. Sernett, ed. African-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, 2nd Edition (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992); Joseph R. Washington, Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984); and Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., eds. African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

[32] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 235.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Pinn, “Introduction,” 18.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” 96.

[37] Watkins, “Rap, Religion, and New Realities,” 188.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 35.

[41] See James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990).

[42] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 23-24.

[43] For debate surrounding the “hip hop generation” see Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005); and M.K. Asante, Jr., It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).  Further, Daniel Grassian does a very nice job of showing how the hip hop generation stands as a crucial resource for the future of literary studies (Writing the Future of Black America: Literature of the Hip Hop Generation (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009)).

One thought on “A Lived Theology of The Encounter: Deconstructive Selfhood and the Religion of DMX

  1. Pingback: Aaron Simmons: Off-Road Religion & Pandemic Philosophizing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s