Our collective cultural ignorance about Alexander Hamilton—his biography and his role in the formation of the American republic—began to transform into a cultural obsession in August of 2015. That month, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Hamilton’s life opened on Broadway, and became a cultural phenomenon like no other musical had before. People are paying thousands of dollars to secure tickets to the show. Hamilton has appeared on the cover of every major entertainment magazine. The cast recording rocketed up the Billboard charts, setting numerous records. Gyms across the country are offering Hamilton-themed workouts. The musical’s popularity even influenced the US Treasury Department, which reversed a decision to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill. Hamilton mania took over the country, and as of summer 2018 it hasn’t showed signs of slowing down. Hamilton producer Jeffery Seller says, “I have never in my life witnessed a musical that has penetrated the American culture faster than Hamilton.”
How is it that this musical, this story, this life, has so captured our culture’s imagination? What is it about our cultural context that has created the soil for this story to take root and grow into such an unprecedented phenomenon?
One answer to these questions could be that the show is simply that good. Hamilton won eleven Tony Awards in 2016, including best musical, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
I saw Hamilton on Broadway with my wife in October of 2016. We settled into our seats and sensed a palpable excitement and anticipation in the theatre. The next two hours and forty-five minutes gripped us with its musical creativity, stunning lyricism, and emotional storytelling. I graduated with a music degree in college and have always appreciated musicals, but something about this production felt unlike anything I had ever witnessed.
The innovative show integrates rap and hip-hop on Broadway. Jeremy McCarter, a collaborator with Miranda on the musical and coauthor of Hamilton the Revolution, writes about how Miranda was the first writer to make this leap. Miranda used hip-hop “as form, not content. . . . [Hip-hop] is, at bottom, the music of ambition, the soundtrack of defiance.” Although risky and unprecedented on Broadway, hip-hop provided the perfect genre for a musical about the American Revolution and the life of Hamilton.
The lyrics and music composition are genius. “You have no idea how lyrically amazing this show is from a rap perspective,” gushes performance artist Lemon Anderson. In one of my favorite lyrics, Hamilton raps about his life’s mission: forming a strong central government to unify the newly formed United States. In the lyric, Miranda brilliantly rhymes the words “democracy,” “Socrates,” “rocks at these,” and “mediocrities.” The meter and rhyme of his lyrics are fresh, insightful, and imaginative.
Seeing Hamilton was an unforgettable experience. I wept through a number of scenes, and left the theatre inspired and challenged. I agree with Michelle Obama’s assessment of the show, who declared it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”
Also, Hamilton’s story intersects with a number of important social issues of our time, such as immigration, gender equality, and diversity. Hamilton himself was an immigrant from the Caribbean—a major theme drawn out through the entire story. Miranda calls it “the quintessential immigrant story, of redefining yourself when you come to a new place.”
Central roles are given to women, who declare their equality throughout the production. Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law, sings about Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and advocates for the inclusion of women in his famous opening line, “All men are created equal.” Miranda rightly portrays Eliza, Alexander’s wife, as a strong, intelligent, and kind woman, who deeply impacted the early republic alongside her husband. Hamilton’s story simply could not be told without Eliza at the center of it.
Set in an era of slavery, questions of race are never far from the surface. Actors of color play the roles of the Founding Fathers, a casting decision that turns expectations upside down and challenges the audience to open itself up to new possibilities. Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in the original Broadway cast, says, “By having a multicultural cast, it gives us, as actors of color, the chance to provide an additional context just by our presence onstage, filling these characters up.”
Cast members of Hamilton have made clear the importance of these issues in our cultural, and even political, conversation; on the night Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the show, the cast spoke from the stage to implore the incoming administration to uphold the inalienable rights of all people. During the 2017 Super Bowl pregame show, three Hamilton actresses added the words, “and sisterhood” to the song “America the Beautiful.” Surely, in part, Hamilton resonates with our culture because of the relevant social issues it raises. McCarter writes, “Sometimes the right person tells the right story at the right moment, and through a combination of luck and design, a creative expression gains new force. Spark, tinder, breeze.”
Another, even deeper, explanation exists for the emergence of Hamilton as a cultural phenomenon. This show, and the story it tells, becomes a moment of spiritual transcendence for the people lucky enough to experience it. The night I saw the show I found myself unexpectedly drawn into the presence of God.
An act of grace initiates the story, enabling Hamilton to travel to New York and create a new life for himself. Hamilton receives forgiveness and unconditional love from his wife, Eliza. The play ends with one of the most powerful visual expressions of redemption I’ve ever witnessed. This musical teems with these moments of transcendence—moments where a powerful scene occurs on stage, and the entire atmosphere changes in the theatre. The audience collectively feels a weight, a tension, a presence, perhaps even the presence of God.
These moments, and others like them, led me into a recognition and remembrance of God’s presence and activity in Hamilton’s story, and in my story as well. I have to agree with Rosie O’Donnell, who, after seeing Hamilton more than fifteen times, described it as “a religious experience, a spiritual cleansing in a way. . . . Hamilton is medicine that I need for my soul. It is vital to me; it feels like going to church.” After seeing a performance of Hamilton, she tweeted a picture backstage with the cast and added the hashtag #broadway #church.
I wonder if some have encountered the presence of God during Hamilton without fully recognizing it. John Guare, a playwright, saw a Hamilton workshop before it opened. He commented, “I haven’t felt this alive in a show since I don’t know when. You had that incredible feeling of when a door opens up and a brand-new wind blows through.”
Feeling fully alive? Experiencing a new wind blowing through?
Sounds like the reality and presence of God to me.
For two hours and forty-five minutes, an ordinary Broadway theatre became for me a transcendent experience, a portal into the holy. Like the oversized wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’ classic tale, Hamilton ushered me into an alternate reality, a reality that too often remains hidden in our day-to-day lives. This musical, and this story, draws people into the very presence of God and his kingdom among us. It has become and continues to be a “thin place” for me, and for so many others who have been impacted by this deeply spiritual work of art.
In a keynote address that Miranda gave about the power of theatre, he described two important moments that live theatre offers: moments of transcendence and moments of action. In moments of transcendence, we experience something beyond ourselves and new truths open up in unexpected ways. One begins to see the world through a different lens because of what happens onstage. Moments of action confront us with a truth or decision that demands a response in our lives.
I experienced both of these moments, transcendence and action, countless times throughout Hamilton. It explains why this story has so captured our culture’s imagination. The show becomes a thin place, a moment of transcendence, that ushers us into God’s presence among us. And this thin place experience offers us a moment of action, where we must decide if the story of Alexander Hamilton—a story of grace, forgiveness, death, and redemption—will transform the way we live.
Here’s what others have to say about God and Hamilton:
“God and Hamilton turned me inside out and revealed a side of Hamilton I had never thought to explore.”
— Lauren Boyd, Hamilton Broadway Cast
“How did Alexander Hamilton overcome a tragic and shame-filled childhood? Kevin Cloud celebrates the amazing grace that propelled Hamilton to become a key architect for our fledgling democracy. For all who struggle with doubt, depression, and despair, God and Hamilton offers an inspiring way forward. Kevin Cloud’s book made my heart sing!”
— Craig Detweiler, President, The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology
“In this book Kevin portrays a wonderful example of how you can draw from contemporary culture to understand how God works with us on our own heroic journeys. I found his emphasis on God’s grace and faithfulness particularly inspiring and think that all who read it will come away with a better understanding of the challenges we all face. I cannot recommend it more highly!”
— Mike Breen, Founder of 3DM and Author of Building a Discipling Culture, Covenant and Kingdom, and Family on Mission
“A bold and creative exploration of the themes in life that matter most. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will notice God everywhere. In this beautiful book, Cloud helps us see, listen, and open to the all-consuming love God pours out to us.”
— Phileena Heuertz, author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life and founding partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism
“C.S. Lewis once lamented that people too often fail to appreciate the real and serious glory of even the most dull and uninteresting human life; that if we could ever truly glimpse the beauty of a normal everyday person’s story we might actually be tempted to worship them. In God and Hamilton, Kevin Cloud offers precisely this kind of appreciative glimpse into the life of Alexander Hamilton. These pastoral reflections upon a life that was anything but dull and uninteresting are sure to inspire. Read this book and catch a new imagination for what it means to be human.”
— Tim Suttle, pastor and author of Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture
Kevin Cloud is a pastor and church planter, with four successful church plants in the Kansas City area over the past 15 years. Kevin currently serves as lead pastor of Midwest Fellowship in Overland Park, Kansas. Kevin holds a BA in Music Theory and a Masters of Divinity degree. He enjoys writing about faith, creativity, and the arts. He and his wife, Allison, live in Kansas City with their four boys, Samuel, Benjamin, Andrew, and Levi. Check out his work at GodandHamilton.com