It’s been two years since Lin-Manuel Miranda captured the hearts of countless Millennials in the most unlikely way imaginable: writing a stage musical about a founding father. I’m referring to Hamilton, one of the biggest pop-cultural phenomenons to come out of the Broadway scene in a very long time.
For perspective: Hamilton was written and created by the incredibly versatile Miranda, and took in over $30 million in advance ticket sales before its official opening on Broadway. However, Hamilton’s real impact is more visible through its album sales. The cast recording debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200, eventually climbing to number three on that list and number one on Billboard’s rap album charts. The musical incorporates traditional show tune style with modern hip-hop, jazz, and pop. It boasts a diverse, color-conscious cast that portrays most of the Founding Fathers as different ethnicities. It has garnered adoration from almost every secular circle including sports icons such as Stephen Curry, countless pop and hip-hop superstars, as well as public figures such as former First Couple Barack and Michelle Obama.
I have listened to the Hamilton soundtrack more times than I care to admit, and I know quite a lot of Christian young people, and even homeschool moms, who have also been caught up in the Broadway-hip-hop mania.
Hamilton serves as a case study for examining popular culture and responding as Christians. It is incredibly well-done, massively popular, and highly controversial. My question is, how can I listen to something like Hamilton as a believer and judge it soundly?
The first takeaway is a disclaimer for myself and you who are reading this: moral content matters. I have heard Hamilton and similar works lauded by professing Christians because they are “accessible” and “edgy.” In Hamilton’s case, that entails a full course of off-color jokes, vulgarity, and occasional profanity. These are things which fall under the heading of “filthiness,” “foolish talk,” and “crude joking,” which Ephesians 5:4 declares “out of place” among believers (ESV). I’m never going to be one who believes Christians should live in sanitized bubbles where they avoid being confronted with the world as it really is, but we never do our souls any good by turning off discernment to prove how grown-up we fancy ourselves. Hamilton requires a discerning ear as well as an analytical one. (Side-note: certain music streaming services, such as the one I use, allow for music to be moderately filtered of strong language.)
The second takeaway from Hamilton is that we cannot afford to put our national heroes on a pedestal. Lin-Manuel Miranda does not even try to paint Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or even the titular Hamilton as anything other than flawed men who sacrificed for our country in her earliest years. That sacrifice is heralded in Hamilton, but Miranda’s choice to highlight the flaws reminds us that we still have much to learn as a nation. A large chunk of the story surrounds Alexander Hamilton’s unfaithfulness to his wife and the resulting political and personal consequences. Jefferson, Madison, and George Washington are all depicted to be inconsistent fighting for freedom while keeping slaves in bondage. We have to see these men’s mistakes to avoid repeating them. We can afford to admire them but, in the end, their flaws remind us to “put not your trust in princes, in the son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3, ESV).
Finally, Hamilton helps us to see the image of God in man and reminds us that art has the power to affect culture. Lin-Manuel Miranda, currently working on Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, will go down as one of the most diverse, talented, and socially conscientious artists of our generation. I am calling it, as others have as well. Viewed objectively in terms of its music, writing, and historicity, Hamilton is more layered than many of Shakespeare’s works (coming from a survivor of a semester-long Shakespeare class). As such, the work demonstrates the power of human creativity.
People have the ability to create incredible things, and I genuinely believe this is a reflection of the fact that we are more than just products of an unfeeling universe governed by the whims of chance. We are reflections of our Creator, who made us in His image, and built a world that He declared good. As God’s image-bearers, we have the ability to be moved and to move others through the things He gives us the ability to create. Miranda’s musical reminds us that because art does affect people’s hearts and thinking, it has the power to change the very society in which we live. Hamilton has opened up conversations about culture, politics, and race in unique ways because Miranda took time to tell his story well.
This should serve as a reminder for us. The art and entertainment we consume are not leaving us unaffected, as much as we may like to believe that. It also should give us the incentive to do everything heartily, as unto the Lord, bringing Him notice by being the best we can be at what He has called us to do.