My son and I are both fans of the YouTube sensation Epic Rap Battles of History (ERB). The name really says it all. Two characters square off and drop rhetorical bombs on each other. Even though the rap battle typically starts off with two combatants, teams have been known to square off, and there are times when a third party jumps in and a general melee occurs. One of rappers may be a caricature of a current celebrity (Lady Gaga, for example) while the other may possibly be a historical figure (or another celebrity). Seeing that this isn’t a history class, ERB has paired off characters like the pioneers of flight, the Wright Brothers, against the video game duo, Mario Brothers. If you haven’t encountered one of their videos, then here is one of my faves, Eastern Philosophers vs Western Philosophers.
The troupe have done many other battles over their four seasons like: Hitler vs Vader, Miley Cyrus vs Joan of Arc, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs Artists of the Renaissance.
For those of you who are atheist parents (looking at the demographics of this blog’s readers, approximately half of you have just clicked away) one of the issues you face is how to create a sense of community where you and your children can talk about the BIG issues — how to create meaning in life, combating racism and sexism, etc — outside of your house without risking a theist barging in on the conversation and telling you what Jesus thinks. And this isn’t a moot point, either. While an atheist dad or mom can discuss the big issues only at home with their kids, I think we run the risk of our children thinking something like Oh, man, here comes one of those talks again, or even I don’t know anyone else who thinks like mom or dad. They may just be crazy.
In case you have deluded yourselves, atheist parents, into thinking children don’t think their moms and dads are titling at windmills, then listen to how teenagers talk about their folks.
Because I worry about that (and a lot of other things), I’ve been looking for the right time and the right place to introduce my 13 year old son to the greater atheist community. When I saw that the Humanist Hub was hosting a live rap battle with two of the members of the ERB troupe (they are on tour) I thought it was my chance to bring my son in and expose him to the Godless Congregation/Humanist Hub.
The Humanist Hub is located in Harvard Sq in Cambridge, MA. Here is how they describe themselves on their About page.
The Humanist Hub is a place where you can connect with other people, act to make the world better, and evolve as a human being. We are a center for humanist life — a nonreligious community committed to the power of connection to help us do good and live well. We use reason and dialogue to determine our highest ethical values, we act on those values with love and compassion, and we help one another evolve as individuals, as we work to improve our world.
Founded in 1974 as the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, we were a small organization serving Humanists, atheists, and agnostics at and around the University for over 30 years. In recent years we have evolved into a hub for secular community programs in Greater Boston and beyond.
Parents are aware that well meaning ideas and plans that you have cooked up can easily be shot down by adolescent apathy. What I didn’t want to do was roll up to my son and say something like, “Hey, buddy, it’s time for you to get exposed to other atheists so you don’t think your old man is a lunatic.” Any variations close to Let’s do this because it will be good for you! would be met with the contempt such a poorly marketed plan would deserve.
I took a page out of vacation destinations, and decided I was going to sell my son the Harvard Square experience. Harvard Square is chock full of fun. I told him we would hit Tasty Burger first. He had never been to a Tasty Burger, and I did my best to fill his mind with dreams of the fast food heaven on Earth the restaurant really is. We would then head over to one, maybe two, of the local comic book stores and graze on the illustrated art. Not only would we browse through the comics, but I would purchase him something. Not only did this provide incentive for him to make the journey with me in the first place, but in case things got boring during the humanist service, he could take refuge in his comic. If he was really bored, I may even let him look at mine. Of course, reading the alternative history comic Uber which featured Axis and Allied super powered characters fighting it out to the death in bloody fashion may not have been a perfect fit during a humanist service, it was insurance against my 13 year old demanding we leave early.
I pitched him the idea in the car. He thought about it for a second. Here is a snippet of our conversation,
“The Harvard Humanists run the Humanist Hub,” I told him.
“They’re atheists?” he asked.
“Yeah… but they’re not like daddy. They’re nice. Really, really nice.”
He agreed to go. In the spirit of full disclosure, I let him know that while the a rap battle of historical dimensions was sure to occur, there was going to be a lot of talking about non-battle rap subjects before and afterwards. However, the rhetorical hook had been swallowed, so to speak, and my son was in for a penny and in for the pound.
I picked him up from his mum’s early that Sunday in order to complete our circuit of fun activities before topping it all off with the trip to the Hub. The Tasty burgers were indeed tasty. He was able to purchase his Simpsons’ comic (I keep trying to nudge him into a higher quality comic, but he is dead set on that title) while finding the latest issue of Uber was a bit more difficult. As per plan, we got to the Humanist Hub a bit early to make sure we had decent seats. The main room (sanctuary?) isn’t huge but rather intimate. I’m not sure exactly how many it can seat, but a speaker with a strong voice can easily be heard throughout the space without a microphone.
There was one wrinkle.
There was no rap battle, epic or otherwise.
I don’t know how anyone of any age could travel cross country and perform live night after night after night, well, you get the idea. It’s a hard life. I remember seeing the comic Greg Proops after a show a few years ago, and the man looked like he was worn down to a nub. So I wasn’t surprised when it was announced that only one member of ERB, Nice Peter, showed up at the Hub. And while there was no rap battle, Nice Peter (real name Peter Shukoff) of ERB gave an electric retelling of how ERB started and how the series eventually developed into a way of teaching viewers about the scientists, artists, and other characters they depicted. One of the stories he told was how a high school gym was filled with students yelling and chanting out N-I-E-T-Z-S-C-H-E!
Now that’s education.
My son didn’t care that there wasn’t a rap battle. He was able to see a god, albeit a god of YouTube, up close and personal. Will he remember any of the talk that Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain, did? Who knows? At least he’ll know his father isn’t the only one tilting at windmills.