Book of the Month/March 2014

Listen Rap

This small accessible book is a very sane and very good introduction to a much controverted subject.

I write this review as an observer of rap, and admittedly not as a devotee. In fact, I recently told a friend that if I write about it too much, I will undoubtedly commit a howler or two, like calling it hop hip. So what is my perspective on it? Besides being the perspective of a non-expert, I think it would be most accurate to call me an appreciative and supportive non-fan. You can read some of the reasons for that here in a post called Dear XYZ.

This book, Does God Listen to Rap?, by Curtis Allen, can be divided into two basic sections. The first describes the origins of this form of music, giving us the history of it. Where did it come from, and why did it catch on?

“So let’s be honest. Rap isn’t exactly rooted in the rich soil of holiness” (p. 37). Having established in that first section that the origins of rap were pretty tawdry, Allen goes on to show in the second part of the book why — scripturally — that shouldn’t really matter to us, at least not as a stand-alone argument. He gives thoughtful arguments from Scripture on why the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy when it comes to music. I have read a lot of cultural analysis, and Allen comes to the subject in fresh ways. For one example, he develops one argument from the fact that all music came from the line of Cain (Gen. 4: 17-21), beginning with a gent named Jubal. We don’t know what his stage name was — perhaps JubalZ.

Allen is sympathetic with those who are put off by rap’s origins, but is well-versed on those rappers — may their tribe increase — who love the Lord and who are not participants in the grime.

But there is still a lot for some Christians to overcome. What happens when someone well-versed in the traditional music of the church, let’s say, is persuaded by the arguments, at least to the point where he is willing to give it a listen? A lot rides on what you expect from it when you come to it. My brother-in-law once came in from some hard labor outside, in need of a cold drink. He opened the fridge and saw what he assumed to be a bottle of cold lemonade. He glugged it down, and it was mostly consumed before he realized it was chicken broth. What you have there is a collision of expectation and reality.

When someone comes to rap for the first time, and it is represented to him as a form of music, which it is, what they encounter (because of their musical expectations) can really throw them. But suppose they change their expectations?

“What makes rap music different from all other musical genres? Pretty much just one thing: Its primary ‘instrument’–rhythmic, rhyming human speech. Think about it . . . You can rap over any style of music and people will call it rap because what’s really central is not the underlying music — regardless of its style — but the words that run over the top. Rap is rap because it features rhythmic, rhyming human speech over some kind of rhythmic musical background” (p. 92).

So if you think of it as “a poem” with musical elements, you might have a better time of it than if you think of it as a song with a lot of missing musical elements.

“Rap is also unusual in the way it uses words. Where a typical CCM song might have 50-70 words, and a typical hymn has about 200, rap songs are often 300-500 words long. A well-written rap song can fit a lot of content into a short time. Many have said that listening to a good Christian rap song can be like hearing a mini-sermon” (p. 92).

A mini-sermon. Let’s call it a homily, shall we? So let’s call it a homily with a driving beat, which, let’s face it, a lot of homilies down through history could have used.

So if you come expecting a charged verbal expression, you will not be thrown by the beat. But if you come expecting a specific idea of a “song,” you could easily be bewildered by the absence of many of a song’s components.
Allen also has a brief section on a recent controversy in rap circles, a controversy that revolves around the question of “selling out.”

“Lecrae uses the Acts 17 philosophical approach in the hope of giving people stepping stones toward the truth of Christ. Although he has experienced some backlash from well-intentioned Christians, Lecrae has solid biblical precedent for his approach” (p. 95).

Also mentioned in this regard are Humble Beast’s Braille and Propaganda.

The one thing I would want to note here is that “selling out” ought to be defined in terms of the mission, and the character of the artist, and not in terms of whether the label is headquartered in Nashville. People can compromise wherever they are, and they can stand tall wherever they are. Someone can sell out by signing with a Christian label, and someone can refuse to sell out by signing with a secular label. Of course, life is complicated, and it can also go the other way, and frequently has.

This is a war, and war is risky. So when Christian artists “crossover,” they might be doing it for the sake of the gospel, and we had better pray for them hard. Or they might be doing it for the chicks and bling, which is more problematic.

One last thing. I thought this was a really valuable book, and I highly recommend it. I didn’t find myself colliding with any of its basic assumptions on cultural engagement that Allen set out for the reader. The one criticism is that I would have liked further development on one point. He didn’t quite argue that “all that matters is the words, and so the music is irrelevant,” but it is possible that he believes that. I don’t think that anything is neutral, including forms and styles of music — but I agreed with him that believers can take a form of music that came into existence out in the world, and adapt it for our use.

But suppose we have done so, and believers have been rapping for a couple centuries. I think we should be looking for drastic development and improvement of the musical form as a result. If that is not our task, then all we are doing is riding an evanescent fad. There will be certain Elizabethan sonnets that will continue to be studied centuries after the rage of writing sonnets has passed. This is unlikely for the be-bop-a-loo-bop-she’s-my-baby forms of poetic diction. So gifted Christian poets and lyricists should never be content with throwing their words down into the sinkhole of momentary culture. They should be aiming for something higher, and books like this help.

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23 thoughts on “Book of the Month/March 2014

  1. Good stuff. I hate rap probably because of the attitude that usually comes with it, but I reckon the entire Bible is written in just this sort of form, that is, not only rhythmic lines (for chanting) but also rhythmic strings of ideas. I have a book which analyzes the text of Galatians with the premise coming out soon. It explains not only some things which commentators have argued over for centuries, but also some of Paul’s unexpected word choices.

  2. As an outsider to fundamentalism, I marvel at the incongruity of the general tone of the Bible and the feel of what passes for music in even conservative evangelical worship services.    If you want to reflect the spirit of the book you deem “holy”, it doesn’t seem to me that you’d want to bring in music from a hoedown or a rock concert.   Perhaps the Kyrie from Durufle’s Requiem is fitting or something of equivalent solemnity and reverence.  There are cultural connotations to music, and those associations bring a flavor to the service, do they not?
     
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbIiuMxG2Y0

  3. Hi Doug,
    Excellent filibuster, only absent the phone book reading and the recipe for fried oysters.   You might have reviewed a volume on radioactive decay.    I hesitated to comment for fear that it was a parody and I could become the punchline.  Is there community service as a plea bargain we hadn’t heard about?
    Only one criticism you could find.  Uh-huh.  What about the basic thesis that God listens to rap?   A resounding “yes” from you.  God welcomes a catawampus extra large ball cap, baggy pants hanging  to just above the crescent moon, and an ubiquitous oversized tee with pugilistic gesticulation.  No melody, so can’t judge that.  Uh-uh.  Lyrics bereft of beauty.  But it’s music, you assure your readers.  And based on what?   The premise that all music is just an extrapolation of another iteration of the line of Cain.   There is no sacred music.  Aha.

    I can’t bake cake or arrange flowers for your progressing view of the world.

  4. Alan, the things you object to there I also do — and Allen didn’t defend or talk about at all. In addition, the problems you describe all fall under the heading of my one criticism. So the thesis that God listens to rap cannot be reduced to the thesis that God listens to lyrics bereft of beauty recited by a poser.

  5. And James, I take your point — but this book wasn’t really about what kind of music we should have in a worship service. There would be all kinds of music I listen to that I would be opposed to having in a worship service.

  6. As a father, I have requested to review music before my older kids bring it into my home where the younger ones hear it.  I allow stuff I don’t like if I can’t form a Biblical argument against it, occasionally asking them to keep it to themselves.  Listening to some of Lacrea is philosophically deep and very theologically accurate (I caught one opinion I disagreed with in a whole album, which is pretty good for today’s CCM.) 
    But I have asked that rap not come home on this basis: I feel that rap is music of rebellion, even in its form of “intentional unbeautifulness.”  (Indeed the Lacrea album I reviewed was titled “Rebellion,” though to be fair it was preaching rebellion against the world.)  It did not surprise me that my one child with whom we have the most struggles is most drawn to it.  I suspect that the words preaching “follow” may be undercut by the form speaking “rebellion” in the background.

  7. <p>Roy,</p>
    <p>God doesn’t need our edification.   As a byproduct, I could be edified, but in this case, it doesn’t matter whether I ever existed.   Is God worshiped?  He’s not going to accept as worship something not fitting of His nature, and we can judge these things.  If we can’t, then we can’t judge anything, because there is only one truth, one goodness, and one beauty, transcendent, proceeding from Him.</p>
    <p>It’s a typical consideration today, whether I like it or not.  Will it edify <i>moi</i>?</p>
    <p>The gospel needs no enhancement, including a syncopated accentuation on the off beat.  If people have to have their gospel slathered in bacon grease or with three creams and a splenda, then they aren’t enough like OK with it.  Preaching isn’t akin to having the right duck call or brand of peanut butter for the catch of the holding bar.   All of this is an insult to God.  It’s just the opposite of glorifying Him.  The fact that it gets any respect here is beyond me.</p>

  8. Alan, thanks for the considered response. I would never assume to argue this issue as universally edifying. But……never? Under no circumstance? The Gospel may need no enhancement, but I’m pretty sure it needs to be shared and there’s more than one way to skin a bacon slathered cat.

  9. Alan, It is obvious you have very little or no experience with the topic you criticize. For example you said, ” God welcomes a catawampus extra large ball cap, baggy pants hanging  to just above the crescent moon, and an ubiquitous oversized tee with pugilistic gesticulation.  No melody, so can’t judge that” If you had any experience with Timothy Brindle, Shai Linne, or Evangel you would know all your characterizations are false. In fact, the form found in the lyrical composition of rap done by the men I referenced adheres to the biblical example of music better than any other genre including classical. These men reject the sinful fashion statements that you cited. On melody, some of it has more than others. For example, Evangel uses Bach pieces as the background melody that drives the song. As far as objective beauty, the gospel proclaimed faithfully is objectively beautiful. If you were to look at the Psalms and try to find a genre that best reflects the form and structure found there you could find nothing closer than what we see in reformed rap. Parallelisms, metaphor, theological density, and lyrically exhaustive content are all employed more closely to the biblical model than any other genre. God not only listens to rap but also gives these men the gifts to praise and honor him through it. In the proper cultural context with work from the congregation some of the songs I have seen would make marvelous congregational songs to worship our Lord. You are correct in your assertion that there is only one Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. However, you are not the final arbiter of what qualifies as accurately reflecting those attributes. Your failure to see it only reveals your ignorance of the subject and not any inadequacies in the genre.

  10. I want to publicly apologize for not capitalizing the pronouns used to refer our Lord in the previous comment. I typically do but failed to catch it before it hit enter.

  11. John McNeely, thank you for your post. I attempted a reply in this vein but had to delete it when it came out overly reactive in the same manner as I took the posts from Alan. I believe there are many issues that are served well and served righteously by dogmatism. I don’t believe this is one of them.

  12. Doug,
    Thank you for making my book your book of the month this month. When I wrote this book, or at least had the idea for it, I didn’t know how much it would be necessary. Primarily because of the acceptance of the art form across the board, I thought the issue might have come and gone. Boy was I wrong! After last December’s infamous “Rap Panel” and even some of the comments here on your blog, it is clear that there needs to be a way to think about these kinds of issues that scripture does not directly address. What I was trying to do was seriously answer the question the book is asking, and was willing to say no if I found biblical support to suggest that. What I have come to realize is that there is a difference between having a perspective that is scripture and having one that is an application of scripture. The two get confused often, and does so to the detriment of the church. Do not lie is the perspective of scripture. Not liking or listening to rap, at best, is an application of scripture. In the sense that one uses biblical support for not doing it. 
    I appreciate that you were not only willing to read the book, but to give it enough merit to make it your book of the month.  And, if for no other reason, your comment about me coming at the topic with “fresh ways” means a lot. I know you mean what you say and you say what you mean. If time permits, I would love to interact with you on this topic. However, I, too, am a pastor, so I know how busy things get. Please feel free to check me out at http://www.curtisallen.net. Again, Doug, thank you! I hope people debate the merits of the book and not just what you wrote about it.
    In Him Alone,
    Curtis Allen

  13. First, I’m giving up on formatting.  I thought I was using standard paragraph html and to no avail.  I will say it encourages brevity, so if that is purposeful, congratulations to whoever thought of it.  ~~John, most interesting to me is a man who apologizes for not capitalizing pronouns referring to Deity yet endorses rap for worship.   Scripture doesn’t capitalize those pronouns.  It’s obvious you have little or no experience with pronouns.  I would be happy to have even less experience with rap.   I don’t have to know much about Playboy to reject it.  Neither do I have to try everything under the sun to judge all is vanity.  I can walk into a campground outhouse and not be there very long to know that it stinks.   I don’t want to experience more Jesus on velvet.  I don’t need more in hip thrusting worship teams to refine my veneration palate.  Give me no more God’s Gym or Hello Kitty Bible versions.  I can turn on a trash compactor and know in an instance that the sound isn’t beautiful.  It’s not even a rare talent.  ~~I could say 500 more words behind a life-size bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken than in the typical hymn, and it takes less muscles to drool than it does to smile.  I don’t want my news man announcing the deaths in Afghanistan with a Ronald McDonald wig on.   I don’t want my theology spit out in Lawrence Welk or in Arthur Duncan tap cadence.  ~~I really could go on and on and on, and if you don’t get it, you’re likely not going to get it, because you don’t want to get it.  Don’t try to turn this into some kind of lecture on expertise like I might hear standing in front of the Great Rock of Inner Seeking at the National Museum of Art.  ~~The concrete anchors for the moorings for the arguments against same-sex marriage are the same as right here.  You can’t protect the one without the other.   And if you know, it’s either hypocrisy or pandering, or both.

  14. Alan…..is there any truth to the rumor that you were excluded from the “infamous rap panel” because the participants found you views too extreme? Seriously man, this comes across to me as waaaay over the top.

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