Debatable: Is Christian Hip Hop Ungodly?
[Note: "Debatable" is a recurring feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community.]
The Issue: In a discussion at a recent conference sponsored by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC), a group of panelists laid out their arguments for why they believe Christian hip hop is detrimental to the kind of life God is pleased with. Numerous Christian pastors and thought leaders responded to the panel and defended the legitimacy of Reformed hip hop and the artists within the genre.
(Editor's note: Some readers mistakenly assumed that TGC produced the video posted below. To be clear, TGC is not affiliated with NCFIC and was not a part of their recent conference.)
(Brent Hobbs has created a transcript of the video here).
Against — Dan Horn
. . . The question is where is the emphasis. And I would argue with the rap [sic], with the heavy beat, with those things that the physical distraction is so much that the focus is no longer on the words. And music should be about helping us to remember concepts that we need to remember. And help us to carry forward. Music is a wonderful tool as a memory aid. Rap's not that good for that because of the other problem with rap. The problem with any other form of music is who's the attention drawn to. And rap is about drawing attention to the rapper, drawing attention to how his skill is different than anybody else's skill. To how he is a special person. . .
Against — Scott Aniol
Music is a medium of communication and God cares not just what we say but he cares how we say it. That's the function of music. And if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, I believe the Scripture should govern not just what we say - in other words not just the content - because I'll agree, I've read a lot of the lyrics of the reformed rap and some of them are much more doctrinally dense than some of our songs. That's true. However if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, Scripture will govern not just what we say but it will also govern how we say it. So the question I always want to ask is (because remember Scripture is given to us in literary art forms: narrative, poetry, these sorts of things, parable, and those should govern our art forms as well). And so I want to ask with anything with hip-hop, with any form of music: does it compare? Are we allowing the art forms, the way truth is communicated in Scripture to also govern our art forms. When it comes the art form of hip-hop, very few will disagree with the cultural milieu out of which it grew. What it was intended to express by those who created the art form. The only defense I've heard by reformed rappers of why they want to use this form is they say, "Well we want to redeem the form of rap." But when I read Scripture, whenever there's redemption there's change. There's fundamental change. So I'm all about redemption of musical forms, but if we were if we truly redeem certain musical forms to express God's holy truth that will mean that those forms will change to actually be appropriate vehicles for the communication of God's truth as is expressed in the very Word of God itself.
Against — Geoff Botkin
. . . what concerns me about this this so-called "art form" - it's a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they're serving God. And they're not. They're serving their own flesh. They're caving into the world. They are disobedient cowards. They're not really willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged. Scott, thank you for saying that. If we are reformers we are going to change and fully redeem and replace the world. We're not going to make ourselves friends of the world and enemies of God. And so this is what concerns me about anytime Christians, in a cowardly way, follow the world instead of changing it and confronting it. And confronting the antithesis. And we need be doing this in every every possible art from - including film, including other kinds of music. And so, Scott, just to summarize: Reformed rap is the cowardly following of the world instead of confronting and changing it.
Against — Joel Beeke
I don't have much I add, I agree with everything that's been said. Just maybe add one thought. If my children, with their upbringing were to start to embrace this - I would use all these arguments, with intensity that they've been spoken. When someone comes to me, who comes from a culture that's raised that way, had no Christian background, and first hears this kind of rap and listens to the lyrics and gets really interested in Christianity - first thing I don't challenge them on is the form of the music. I try to take them in, disciple them, and break this in slowly to them. So let's have a little compassion for people who, for whom they related to this culture - which we don't really relate to at all probably - and work with them. And get them to this point where they understand these things. But that doesn't happen a day. That's only thing I would add to it.
Against — Jason Dohm
I'm gonna get sucked off the stage with the gasping happens with what I say here. I'm probably the only panelist who's ever had TobyMac on my iPod. Yeah. They want to know who Toby Mac is. We'll tell you after the panel. So here's what here's what drove it home for me: A few months ago I saw picture of TobyMac. Vintage TobyMac: backwards hat, ready to rap, and but he's 50 now. Wasn't 50, you know, when he became cool. And he's starting to have wrinkles on his face. OK, so he's 50-year-old man with wrinkles on his face - got that backwards cap, and he's ready to rap. And what didn't seem unseemly when he was a young man just looks really out of place in the pictures now. So the question is: 50-year-old men in the church - is their job to extend a hand down in the Church and to pull them up into Christian manhood? You don't see the discontinuity so strikingly until they start getting wrinkles. It's our job to reach down to our young men, offer them a hand and pull them up in maturity and Christian manhood. That is not doing that.
Against — Joe Morecraft
I don't think any of us are saying that in the worship of God there's only a certain kind of music that should be sung - like we should only sing country-western music in church. Or we should only sing classical music, etc. But I think what we are all saying is that some forms of music cannot be separated from the culture out of which they come. That's an important thing to bear in mind. When we have young men or women the church let's say the young men start wearing an earring. I say, "What's the purpose of the earring? The pierced ear?" And they'll say, "Well I just like it." or "I think it's nice," or "it's the fashion," and I say, "Do you know why it is the fashion? Do you know who you're identifying with when you wear this earring? You're not identifying yourself with the godly men in the church but with an entirely different culture out there. And same thing with certain forms of music. . .
Although they did not appear on the panel or attend the event sponsored by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, numerous pastors and thought leaders responded at various outlets to the video. Below are some of the sample responses:
In Defense — Mike Cosper
In a conversation like this, we are quick to say things like, "these guys don't get culture," and I think that's true. But if we stop there, it's probably too generous. Not only do they not get culture, they don't get creation. Culture and creation are inextricably linked, and to talk about one is to talk about the other.
Culture is what happens when image bearers live and work in creation. We were made when God took dust, shaped it, breathed life into it, and it became something new. That's both our origin story, and the origin story of everything we've made: trees and rocks become homes; petroleum products, plastics and metals become cars and iPhones. Culture is image bearers playing and working in creation.
In Defense — Carl and Karen Ellis, "A Letter to Our Young Brothers and Sisters"
We all have a tendency to confuse cultural norms with Biblical ones; yet this is especially harmful when done by the dominant culture of any society. All too often the dominant culture is blind to the knowledge that they, too, have a culture that is in need of redemption at the cross.
Ideally, as we grow, we learn to value cross-cultural interaction, and enter into fellowship that informs us of our blind spots. However, this is radically different from one culture determining what is proper application of Scripture in the context in which another culture lives. To say it another way, one culture cannot use itself or its aesthetic as the standard to judge another; only the Word of God can make that assessment.
In Defense — Paige Patterson, "The Rap on Rap"
There is no interest here to sanitize everything in culture or to be an advocate of the exclusive use of rap, country-western, or opera as the best approach to the participatory worship of the church. Churches are supposed to be composed of folks of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. As long as the cultural or ethnic form engaged does not violate morality or Scriptural truth, is it not subject, like the donkey that carried Jesus, to the Master's use? Some forms are more helpful than others and some are more aesthetically valuable than others. But to say to an earnest rapper, obviously gifted for this engagement, a man who is right in his theology and behavior, "you cannot use that medium and please God," even if some are led to Christ through that medium, is seriously off base.
In Defense — Urban Gospel Mission, "The Gospel and Rap"
I think it's very dangerous whenever someone makes the claim that any particular form of music, including rap (a neutral entity), is evil based upon their own negative, subjective experiences with those who have abused the genre. This misinformed judgment is similar to an African-American saying that because of their experiences with white people who promoted slavery and Jim Crow laws of the past, they now view all white Christian Reformed churches and leaders as sinful. Should they allow their subjective experience with a few misguided individuals now be allowed to dictate their view on all white Reformed Christians in general? By no means. In a similar manner, people should not make the same judgment on the genre of Christian rap or the personhood of these Christian rap artists. As followers of Christ, we should not allow our personal subjective experience to dictate objective truths about others and cultures that we don't truly know or understand.
In Defense — Brian Davis, "Death Rattle or Life Preserver? An Appeal to the NCFIC Panelists"
. . . I can't help but lament how careless these brothers were in their language, and how revealing it is of a cultural elitism that is far too welcomed in Christianity and made at home by some of our leaders. When speaking of Christian maturity, we do not bring up the prevalence of the fruit of the Spirit in peoples lives, or their rootedness in the Word of God and how firmly they cling to the gospel. Rather, we reference sideways hats, music styles and earrings, as if that is somehow a good measurement of maturity from God's point of view? Where is that in the bible?! We would all do well to do as these brothers suggest- adhere to every word we find in Scripture to ensure our worship is acceptable to God. However, the converse of such an admonishment is that we must be equally careful not to add to God's Word in our efforts for purity in worship. By neglecting the former we end up like Nadab and Abihu; by neglecting the latter we end up like the Pharisees.
In Defense — Owen Strachan, "Did a NCFIC Panel Really Say That Reformed Rappers Are 'Disobedient Cowards'?"
Several panelists make the very tired, very old (and, it must be said, very stereotypically white) argument that the "beat" and format of hip hop is fundamentally undignified, self-exalting, and hostile to sound communication. My mind boggles at these comments (did pianos descend from heaven, by the way? Did trumpets? Aren't all instruments products and creations of fallen beings?). I can think of many rap songs that were in and of themselves like a systematic theology textbook for me.
In Defense — Timothy Trudeau, "Christian Emcees Are Disobedient Cowards"
There are only two ways in which to approach every single issue. Whether the issue is abortion, youth group, marriage, or in this case Hip Hop—what does God say, and what does man say? When we want to know what God says, we go to His word.
The sufficiency of scripture means that the Bible—God's word—is the final authority on all issues. This doctrine understands that if the Bible does not speak directly about an issue (i.e. Computers, Birth Control, and Contact Lenses) it does not mean the Bible doesn't have a position. It also does not mean that omission equals opposition. This doctrine also allows for freedom to land in different spots on issues much like Calvin and Luther. These two were quite different, perhaps as different as you are from a "Reformed Rapper".
In Defense — Thabiti Anyabwile, "A Round-Up of the Holy Hip Hop Squabble"
Blame-shifting also occurs by painting the offenders as "intelligent" or "thinking" while painting the attacked as "emotional" and "hurt." To say you were "hurt" by these things makes one look soft, weak, and unable to "intelligently engage the argument" on a "non-emotional" level. As if there weren't plenty of emotion displayed on that panel and as if Black men are one roiling ball of emotion. Think of the NFL's old notion that Black quarterback were "athletic" but they weren't "smart" or "thinking" QBs like the white guys. That kind of thinking was on display here, making African American hip hop artists "too sensitive" and too likely to cry "racism" too often. This is a trick bag, too. The fact that some brothers were legitimately hurt isn't the problem; it's the effect. The problem was the sinful slander, malicious misrepresentation and mob mentality displayed on the panel. The focus needed to stay there, and I'm glad it did-facilitated in part by the restraint of those demeaned and the speaking up of those who weren't.
In Defense — Ligon Duncan, "The Holy Hip Hop Hullabaloo"
If you are part of the Reformed hip hop culture. Thank you. God bless you. Do not grow weary in doing good. Do not be discouraged. There are folks, a lot of folks, like me, who deeply appreciate you, have been (and are) blessed by you, who are learning from you and who are rooting for you as you boldly proclaim a big God full of grace, a God big enough to be sovereign over suffering and to turn it to our good.
In Defense — Albert Mohler, "Thinking about Thinking about Rap — Unexpected Thoughts Over Thanksgiving"
The good, the beautiful, and the true are to be combined to the greatest extent possible in every Christian endeavor, rap included. I have no idea how to evaluate any given rap musical expression, but rappers know. I do know how to evaluate the words, and when the words are saturated with the Gospel and biblical truth that is a wonderful thing. Our rapping Gospel friends will encourage one another to the greatest artistic expression. I want to encourage them in the Gospel. Let Bach's maxim drive them all — to make (their) music the "handmaid of theology."
Scoring the Debate: The great Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that,
Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message.
The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. (Understanding Media, p. 8)
What applies to railways and freight trains applies also to music and Reformed hip hop. How does the medium of Christian hip hop shape and control the scale and form of human association and action?
I suspect that sort of question lurked behind the assertions made by those panelists who vehemently opposed the use of the rap genre to express Christian themes. It is a legitimate point of inquiry and the panelists were warranted in attempting to address it based on their own knowledge and from their own perspective.
Unfortunately, their knowledge of the genre appears to be woefully inadequate and their perspective rooted in cultural bias. The stunned reaction and forceful pushback by the respondents was more than warranted. Yet while condemnation is certainly justified (a few of the panel comments bordered on racist), those of us who believe, as I do, that the medium of Reformed hip hop is defensible should give these men—and other critics—an opportunity to hear an informed defense of the genre as a genre.
It's not enough to condemn, we must also convince. But before we can convince others that the genre itself can have a positive—or at least neutral—influence apart from the message it carries, we should first be sure that we ourselves understand the medium we are defending.
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