White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Every Action’s an Act of Creation: Hamilton and the Cultural Mandate

Published Thursday, July 2, 2020 By Jeff Hamling

Hamilton is considered the greatest Broadway show in our generation. A renewed sense of interest and excitement rippled through the country when Disney Plus announced its July 3 release of the show (staring the original cast).

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes with a literary brilliance occasionally compared to that of Shakespeare. Like Alexander Hamilton himself, his words flood our senses; his sentences leave us defenseless. He builds palaces out of paragraphs; he builds cathedrals. Using only the 26 letters of the alphabet for his raw materials, Miranda constructs verbal sanctuaries that rise to impressive heights. Take the first stanza of the opening song “Alexander Hamilton”:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor, / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Notice how these lyrics are structured with brilliant wordplay and intricate literary devices: Perhaps what strikes us first is how there are several rhymes throughout the first four lines:

“orphan” rhymes with “whore” and “forgotten.”

Scotsman” rhymes with “forgotten” and “spot.”

Providence” rhymes with “impoverished.”

“squalor” rhymes with “scholar.”

Next, notice how the first line uses the letter “o” six times, creating a consistent vowel sound known as “assonance” which reverberates throughout the entire stanza:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor, / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Along with the emphasis on vowel sounds, observe how all four lines also use the repetition of the consonant “s” sound (known as “consonance”):

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor, / grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Additionally, it is apparent that lines two and three intentionally utilize multiple words with double consonants:

Scotsman, dropped in the middle  of a forgotten

spot in the Caribbean by Providence…

Finally, notice how the third line is dominated by the short vowel sound made by “i”:

spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor

These are merely the first four lines of a nearly three-hour musical! Lin-Manuel Miranda takes the chaos of ideas and letters and organizes them into poetic towers. He transforms hurricanes into masterpiece hip-hop musicals.

It is important to recognize that Miranda’s organization of letters, words, and sentences into beautiful lyrics is an imitation of God’s work of creation at the beginning of the world. In Genesis, the world is introduced as a dark, watery, chaos—unfit for inhabitants: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2). Specifically, there are three obstacles that keep the world from flourishing: 1) the earth is formless and empty—devoid of life, 2) the earth is filled with darkness, and 3) the earth is a watery abyss with no land.

God shapes the chaotic uninhabitable material of the world into an organized system flourishing with life. He solves the obstacle of darkness on the first day by creating light. On the second and third days, he fixes the problem of water by separating it from the sky and dry land. Finally, God overcomes the earth’s emptiness by filling the sky with lights on day four and filling the sky, water, and land with creatures on days five and six. God organizes an inhospitable world of chaos into a planet brimming with beauty, order, and life.

We might assume that there is no more work left for us once God subdues the empty darkness and fills the earth with life. Yet God immediately gives the following command: “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). In other words, he tells us to imitate his act of creation—we are to continue to subdue the chaos and fill the world with beauty and life. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton himself says it best: “Every action’s an act of creation!”

Theologians refer to this calling as our cultural mandateCulture comes from the words to cultivate. It means taking the raw material of the world and making something productive with it. This practice of culture-making is apparent in the word agriculture, which describes how farmers cultivate the raw material of the soil, so that it yields fruitful crops.

But the cultural mandate is not confined to working with the soil. Construction workers build desirable houses and apartments with the basic materials of brick, wood, and steel. Musicians transform a cacophony of noise into a beautiful symphony. Teachers organize chaotic classrooms into fruitful places of learning. Parents raise selfish children to live for others. Novelists compose literature from the raw material of human existence.

Why is it so important to understand our call to participate in the cultural mandate? Because if we imitate God in our work, we will carry out the cultural mandate in love. Miranda shows us that part of Alexander Hamilton’s motivation for being a soldier, a lawyer, and a politician was for selfish reasons—he wanted to prove himself to the world. Unfortunately, this use of his gifts left him feeling “never satisfied.” If we participate in the creation mandate for our own selfish ends, we will struggle with the same sense of restlessness.

Instead, God invites us to imitate him. Just as he created the world out of an overflow of his infinite joy and love, so we are to carry out the creation mandate for the purpose of blessing, loving, and encouraging others.

Praise God that Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t throw away his shot to carry out the creation mandate with such energy and creativity. May God bless you as you do the same.

 

 

Jeff Hamling is a pastor at Trinity Church (PCA) in Bozeman, MT. He is the author of Jesus Behind Closed Doors: God is Near in Our Distance and The Gospel According to Hamilton: Seeing God in the Broadway Musicala chapter of which was excerpted with permission for this post.

  • Jeff Hamling