Without question, there is a segment of hip-hop culture that appears to prize ignorance.
It is this segment that seems to receive the most media attention. Yet, there has always been a significant segment of hip-hop culture that prizes and promotes intellectual growth.
It was this latter arm of hip-hop that succeeded where my schoolteachers failed by moving me to read real-life books and study history as a teenager. During this time, I embraced a motto that I learned from Gang Starr, Kool Moe Dee, Queen Latifah, Nas and others: “Knowledge is power.”
By adopting this motto, hip hop made it “cool” to pursue knowledge by attaching it to power, which hip hop values exceedingly. For this reason, I lived accordingly, acquiring all the knowledge I could find. In that way, the “knowledge is power” philosophy can be helpful. In other ways, the idea that “knowledge is power” can be seriously destructive.
One reason this philosophy can be destructive is the motivation it provides for acquiring knowledge. If the reason we are pursuing knowledge is because it equals power, we are likely pursuing knowledge for primarily, if not exclusively, self-serving reasons.
The person who is motivated to obtain the power of knowledge for primarily self-serving reasons will naturally use whatever power he obtains in primarily self-serving ways. After all, that is the primary reason he pursued it. In this way, those who preach the “knowledge is power” philosophy unintentionally encourage the abuse of knowledge because my knowledge can only function as self-serving power if I withhold it from others (so that I have an advantage over them) or if I misuse it on others (so that I can receive something from them).
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did both. In response, Jesus promised judgment for their withholding and misuse of knowledge, “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered [the kingdom of heaven], and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
Knowledge in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It is what we do with our knowledge that determines whether it is helpful or harmful. As long as we are motivated to gather knowledge for our own power, we are likely to use our knowledge in ways that help us and harm others (whether intentionally or unintentionally). This is destructive both for others and for us, as it was in the case of the religious leaders Jesus confronted.
A second reason this philosophy can be destructive is that it feeds pride. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “knowledge puffs up” (2 Corinthians 8:1). Of course, Paul, himself a very knowledgeable man, is in no way speaking negatively of knowledge itself. Paul is speaking accurately about what knowledge does when it exists apart from love that, in contrast, “builds up.”
In other words, knowledge is not inherently bad, but knowledge devoid of love is bad in that it multiplies already existent pride. The person who is motivated to gain knowledge without love for God will gain pride by further convincing himself that he is capable of understanding God’s world by his own efforts.
Likewise, the person who is motivated to gain knowledge without love for others gains pride by further convincing herself that she is intellectually superior to those who do not share the same knowledge, and perhaps morally superior as well, because others have not bothered to make the same effort. Because the “knowledge is power” philosophy motivates by power and not love it “puffs up” and is, therefore, destructive (Proverbs 16:18, 29:23).
A third reason this philosophy can be destructive is that it presents knowledge as the ultimate goal (along with the power that accompanies it) instead of truth. This is dangerous because knowledge does not guarantee truth. In fact, knowledge can at times stand in the way of truth.
For instance, the Catholic Church of the 17th century “knew” the universe was centered around the earth (which is false) and therefore forbid Galileo from teaching the universe was centered around the sun (which is true).
Likewise, the religious leaders of the first century “knew” their knowledge of the Scriptures granted them eternal life (which is false) and therefore refused to believe they could only find eternal life in Jesus (which is true). Jesus rebuked them sternly, “You have never heard his [God’s] voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:37-40).
The Apostle Paul explains, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (2 Corinthians 8:2). In other words, the more you are convinced that you possess great knowledge, the more you reveal how little truth you know. The more truth one accumulates the more one realizes how little they truly know about the infinite God and the vast universe he created.
Socrates (the great philosopher, not the great Canadian rapper) identified this as the primary quality that separated him from the less wise, “It seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (emphasis mine). “Knowledge” often stands in the way of truth. Nowhere is that more obvious and more dangerous than in relation to the truth about God. Many are perishing because their knowledge of the world leaves no room for the message of the cross (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
A fourth reason this philosophy can be destructive is that it tells us all we need is knowledge. But that’s a lie. While knowledge is necessary for a true understanding of the world, knowledge alone is not sufficient for a true understanding of the world.
A true understanding of the world requires that we receive revelation from the God who made it. We cannot truly know a thing unless we know its relationship to everything else. You cannot really know a Wii, for example, unless you know who made it and how the makers intended it to interact with your audio/visual system.
This means that, left to our own devices, we can never fully know anything because we can never fully know everything. There is only one being who fully knows everything: the omniscient God who created all things and holds them together.
Thankfully, this infinite God has graciously chosen to reveal himself to finite people in the person of Jesus Christ, who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). In knowing Jesus Christ we can know many other things because we now know them in relation to their all-knowing maker. But we can only know Jesus Christ as God chooses to reveal to us what we could never otherwise discover. This revelation is given to us by the Holy Spirit, who both inspired the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) and illuminates our understanding of them. This is explained in 1 Corinthians 2:10-15:
“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit within? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
The person without the Spirit is incapable of understanding spiritual things, for such things are not obtained through the accumulation of knowledge but through the reception of revelation. This explains why many are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). God has intentionally designed the universe in such a way that the most important things to know cannot be known by human effort alone. This is good news for two reasons.
First, because it produces humility by forcing human beings to depend on God instead of themselves. Second, because it allows for all types of people to know the most important truths, instead of limiting the discovery of such truths to the most intelligent and well-studied. For both reasons we should join Jesus in his worshipful response, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (Luke 10:21).
There is no question that the “knowledge is power” philosophy can motivate people to learn, which is good. But it is equally certain that this philosophy is potentially destructive in that it supplies a self-serving motivation, feeds pride, keeps from truth, and is insufficient for knowing the most important things to be known. For this reason the “knowledge is power” motto should be rejected.
Some may object to this conclusion on the basis that the author of Proverbs 24:5 seems to support the motto when he writes, “a man of knowledge increases power.” However, the knowledge described within the book of Proverbs is of a very different sort than the knowledge described in the “knowledge is power” philosophy.
The opening chapter of the book reads, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). This means that any knowledge that is not built upon the foundation of faith in the true God is not knowledge at all.
Thus, it is good to desire to grow in knowledge but that pursuit must begin with a pursuit of Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). It is in knowing him, and not in knowing information, that we receive the greatest power of all (Ephesians 1:19-20).