Rap Tide

There has been a goodish bit of Internet response to this short video. A number of men were asked for their take on Reformed hip hop artists, and their response was overwhelmingly negative.

In that negative response, there were some fair points — the cult of perpetual immaturity that cool always tends to foster, the need to make a clean break with the rebellion that birthed the genre, the truth that musical forms matter, and so on. But surrounding the decent takeaway points, there was an overall failure to make appropriate distinctions, with the end result that the body of the criticism falls flat. A better and more thoughtful interaction by Russell Moore can be found here, which you probably ought to read if you want my comments below to make any sense.

What is rap for? What are the rules of the genre, and what is being attempted? I would argue that the natural form of rap is that of prophetic denunciation — the jeremiad. Now, by prophetic I do not mean the Strange Fire stuff, but rather the William Perkins stuff. As prophetic denunciation, the bulk of it should be apologetic and evangelistic, directed outwards, and not standard fare for believers.

Now, having said this, the fact that there are standards for the genre means that people can fail to meet them, and they can fail to meet them in different ways. If rap excels (if it excels) at the prophetic denunciation, this means that you have to deal with the fact of false prophets — those who denounce all the wrong things, however well they do it. Zedekiah, son of Chenaanah, was a false prophet, but he may have done a really fine job with the horns of iron he made. “And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them” (1 Kings 22:11). Craft competence is not the only issue. I doubt if Micaiah spent any time at all trying to get his pants to droop the way Zedekiah’s did.

The second way to fail to meet the standard is to denounce the right things, but to do so in a lame and/or cacophonous fashion. I have listened to at least one Christian rap album that, to be honest, was less pleasurable to me than three root canals in a row would have been. But how does a poor performance wreck or discredit a genre? I have listened to some horrendous Christmas music in my day also, but still love Christmas music. Certain forms of rap are moving and powerful, and I really think that should be recognized by all hands.

But other forms make me think angsty white boys from the burbs are trying to become angry black men from the hood, and as soon as the sales mark in upscale malls went past its first billion dollar mark, the whole thing turned vanillaician. So the standards for the genre must not be cash and popularity . . . but I am afraid that in many ways they are.

This means the whole thing has turned out too popular to remain prophetic in any meaningful sense for very long, and the only thing that could keep it from collapsing in a sudden pop culture heat death would be something like Reformed theology. Of course, wise rappers who labor in line with this truth will have to contend with the whole young, restless and Reformed thing as quite possibly our variant on the white, angsty thing. You know, being badass with Bavinck in the burbs. With the decree that disturbs. The way J.I. Packer blurbs all these books on my shelf.

And because it has become so popular, we have to deal with the fact that there are plenty of people who listen to it non-stop, all the time. But why on earth would any healthy person want to listen to angry denunciations all the time? Even if the denunciations were correct? There is a time for such anger, but it is not 24-7. Not good for your head, man. If someone else enjoys rap occasionally, in between blues, jazz, and waltzes, then the picture is quite different. Music goes with life, and a well-ordered life should not have the emotional anger knob stuck on eleven.

Second, an unspoken assumption in a lot of discussions like this is that if we “approve” of a certain form of music, then the next move is to insert that music into the public worship of God. This may have been what the panelists, in their responses, were pushing against, and it would make their criticisms more palatable to me if so — but nobody came out and said it.

Moore takes the time to ask what rap is doing, what it is naturally good at. Having said this, we also have to ask what a worship service is supposed to be doing. There are all kinds of music that I really enjoy, but that I would not want to see as any part of public worship of God. This is because of a principle that one of the panelists cited, which is that form matters. The form of the music matters, and the form of a worship service matters. They don’t always go together. The fact that I “like” something is not sufficient grounds for presenting it to God on Sunday morning. Cain liked his crop, but God received Abel’s offering. It was fine for Cain to like his crop, but not fine for him to present it.

So to accept a form of music is not the same thing as accepting it for worship, and rejecting a song for worship is not the same thing as rejecting it for the playlist you have in your car. I like kindergarten birthday party music, military marches, slop kettle piano blues, and don’t ever want any of them for the offertory. They wouldn’t fit. They don’t go.

At the same time, I agree with Moore that rap aligns naturally with imprecation, and consequently a rap song is more likely to be a contender at some point for a place in worship than, say, the wheels on the truck go round and round. But even here I would want to be careful.

Churches that accept imprecation too readily are most likely to be the kind of churches that don’t know what spirit they are of. And second, our church-wide confusions about the meaning of music for the Lord’s Day mean that we are not yet mature enough to handle a question like this. We should labor to recover the musical heritage of the church as the first step in adding to it — and we are all of us a long way away from that.

So, bottom line, be careful with your playlists. And, if you are a worship leader, be very careful with them. Make careful distinctions. With rap music, enjoying the good stuff is not the same thing as being pulled off by the rap tide.

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28 thoughts on “Rap Tide

  1. Analyse these:

    S.O. – So it continues => http://www.lampmode.com/so-it-continues-lyrics/
    Alert312 – Invisible man => http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JL3noitvo7s
    There isn’t much I can say about this that hasn’t been mentioned in the comments section of the original NCFIC post which has so far been 100% negative just as what was said in the video. Even you sometimes manage to get some positive comments !

    The major error these guys made was to try to criticise something that they clearly knew little to nothing about, best to refrain from commenting. The Russell Moore article however, is excellent indeed, quoting from lecrae to 50 cent, clearly well informed.

    You and Russell are both right on one thing though, this is what CHH does best =>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKUueKUo9Ik

  2. That first video seemed a bit of a set up. The author asks a question that is obviously loaded with racial innuendo without any non White panel members present.

  3. Only thought: I believe it was “wheels on the bus” which was referenced as part of the pretext to why forms matter. Yet, even the form of a childish melody can be used for children to engage in the musical worship of Jesus. Ala “Jesus Loves the Little Children” which is teaches youngsters that Gods love for people transcends ethnicity. Yet, the form of Gregorian chant wouldn’t help our children engage in celebrating Jesus. So form matters but only to the extent of its contextual appropriateness.

  4. I think the comments under the video are mostly spot on. I pray this discussion does not do more to bring disunity (or should I say even more disunity?) to the church, particularly among Reformed brothers and sisters of different races, but I suspect it will. Sad.

  5. To Robert: Christian rappers are doing a lot of good: they are making art the right way, which is to say, in the one right mindset for the arts. Artists make art by their nature; rappers rap by their nature; it’s not something suppressible. What you hear when you listen to rap by Christians is the same sound that cries out from the stones placed by the engineers who built Suger’s cathedral at St-Denis. It is the same song we probably both sing on some Sundays: Henry Lyte’s “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven!” Artists are not optional kinds of people, and the art they make is not an optional part of creation, to be accepted or rejected by everyone else. Artists and the Art they make is part of God’s design for this universe, and when an artist and his or her art is transformed by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity of seeing the kind of world that we will build and live in hereafter. Isaiah was a totally dope rapper with a sick rap, and we’re going to get to hear him live in paradise. Bach will probably handle the accompaniment. So regardless of whether or not a Christian artist’s work is effecting any “real/significant change for good” in the current context, it is worth making that art, and the saints should treasure it.

  6. Reuben, rappers are musicians. You are right that musicians have to perform as well as painters have to paint and writers write. That doesn’t exclude training or standards. The Old Testament musicians were trained and skilled. There is a huge difference between a best selling author and a fan fiction writer. Both write. Both write regularly. I doubt that any of those pastors on that panel would doubt the sincerity of the evangelical rappers or their hard rock counterparts. One group is mostly Black performers, the other group is mostly White performers. Both groups are being asked the same fundamental question: Do the genres of hard rock and hard rap lend themselves to sharing the Gospel through song or, are well meaning Christians trying to shoehorn the Gospel into the musical styles. I’m certainly not going to say that God can’t or won’t use it to bless specific individuals. Soft rap has certainly gained legitimacy in a lot of churches, especially Black churches.  I don’t see hard rock or hard rap as effective. When it comes to hard rap, I am willing to admit the possibility to cultural bias.That is why I would like to hear from Black conservative pastors.

  7. So, my son and I were just talking about this article and he said that rap seemed like an appropriate genre for Elijah making fun of the prophets a Baal on Mt. Carmel. “You Baalists are way too haughty, your god is probably on the potty.” My family groaned at my attempt to rap, but you get the idea.

  8. Regarding the video, a vast amount of ignorance on display. That’s one broad brush. Similar to a secular professor viewing all ministers through a Joel Osteen filter. There are levels of quality within any genre. In my opinion, one could choose most any genre and only the top 10-15% are worth listening to, regardless. Maybe less. Don’t see why rap would be any different. I enjoy and am edified by several of these artists. Also, have heard some real crap. As in most optional pursuits, discernment can be critical………………..one last thing, if the entire rap culture is out of bounds for me, what about Christian Blues? Would appear to be the ultimate oxymoron. Yet, it’s out there, and some of it is very good. Yet, if one is not a blues fan, it may not matter. That damn culture again.

  9. RK, You’re giving due dignity to artistic vocations, and I’m all for that.  You’re right, as far as you go.  That said, no vocation is simply an end in itself.  The brickmaker that makes crumbly, crappy bricks is not fulfilling his calling.  Neither is the one that makes strong bricks in odd shapes no bricklayer can use.  Nor the one who makes bricks of standard shape and strength, but has no distribution channel and no bricklayer even knows he’s there, filling warehouses with good bricks.  Every vocation has to actually serve somebody.  If no one is being served, you’re doing it wrong — being an artist is no excuse.

  10. The issue is NOT rap music but a bunch of elite white pastors demonstating the evil of racism at its core! Trying to control a discussion that none of them know nothing about. I wish DW for once would say that this panel was not only wrong but at the core is racist!

  11. john sather: I don’t know that your accusation is notably different from what I heard from the men in the video. Just as broad a brush but from another direction. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth there but how can you possibly know their hearts so definitively? Could there be racial connotations? Sure. But, sometimes ignorance is just ignorance.

  12. John, the reason I wouldn’t condemn that panel discussion as racist is that I didn’t hear any of them so much as mention race. I differed with their arguments, as noted above, but in my view the word “racism” is in danger of becoming useless through overuse. I wouldn’t want to lump that panel discussion in with the recent behavior of certain members of the Grosse Point Police Department . . . which really was racist.

  13. Doug, it appears this panel of white pastors are likely openly southern sympathizers…who likely love Rushdooney and Dabney. They are the type who long for the pre-civil war days; which is very scary to me…This panel was just terribly WRONG at best and at worst racist in their controlling bias. Actually I do not think the word ‘racist’ is over used….when a majority tries to control others like they attempted. I love the response of Dr. Carl Ellis: http://drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-letter-to-young-brothers-and-sisters.html?spref=fb

  14. Appears to be a good bit of word/emotional manipulation from both sides. John, “long for the pre-civil war days”? Really? It was that obvious from the video? And DW, while I never heard the word “race” mentioned, “culture” was bandied about with disturbing ease (but no obvious winks). When interacting with those that I assume are brothers I try to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I believe this has the potential to be an edifying ongoing conversation. It may prove helpful to stipulate that the men on the panel are neither potential pledges for the KKK, nor card carrying members of the NAACP. More likely, like most of us, somewhere in between, trying to find our way.

  15. Sorry Roy but their paternalistic language is simply NOT right. Tim Keller said “the system must change in order for the people to change. But one of the challenges, he presented, is that “white people” don’t have a concept of “corporate responsibility” which prevents them from dealing with “corporate evil” or “systemic racism.” //this why this white panel, discussing these biased & paternalistic thinking, need to be addressed! Encourage you to read Dr. Carl Ellis thoughts http://drcarlellisjr.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-letter-to-young-brothers-and-sisters.html?spref=fb

  16. @John – While I was quite disappointed at the panel, I think you are way out of line.  I was disappointed at the panel because I am a member of a family integrated church myself, this video was made by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, and I listen to rappers such as Shai Linne. The gentlemen in the panel may have been ignorant, but I am not ready to call them racists.  I am hispanic myself, and I know family integrated churches (in general) are not composed of KKK-card carrying members (for the record, there are blacks and hispanics in family integrated churches).
     
    <paragraph> Was I a bit irked?  Yes.  I don’t think Shai Linne is a coward, and I thought that was out of line.  But you are doing exactly the same thing they did — painting with a broad brush and judging the heart.  The irony is that this is not something worth coming out with guns ablaze.  For crying out loud, we are not talking about people defending heresy or some perverted form of sex.  We are talking about music notes (both parties even agree with the lyrics!!!)  Why do people on both sides have to start a war over music notes?
     
    <paragraph> With all due respect John, I think your comments are showing quite a bit of ignorance about other cultures too.  I’ve been around long enough to know how volatile the subject of mixing modern music genres with Christian lyrics can be.  Have you ever heard the criticisms people threw at the idea of Christian heavy metal (which I still listen to)?  I suspect these gentlemen would say exactly the same things about heavy metal they said about rap .  There is nothing unique about their criticisms of rap — I’ve heard the same arguments about metal ad nauseam.  For example, did you hear the argument about the origin of rap?  Guess what, that argument was used before there was such thing as rap music — the exact same thing was said about the origin of rock music.  Those arguments don’t have anything to do with race.
     
    <paragraph> One of the gentlemen (the second one, a young guy) seemed to allude to the regulative principle of worship.  There was, as Pastor Wilson rightly says, a lack of distinction in that panel between regular Christian music, and worship music.  I am pretty confident that was another reason for the rejection of rap music.  And that has absolutely nothing to do with race.
     
    <paragraph> Could they have expressed themselves better?  Yes.  Frankly, I don’t have a problem with their views — I know some brothers will see things that way, and I respect them.  I don’t want my liberty to be a stumbling block for the weaker brother.  I do have a problem with the way they defended their views.  I think if they had criticized other genres as well their criticisms would have been more balanced.  I also think if they had refrained from ad-hominen attacks they would have made a better impression.

  17. John, I’m just not getting racism as the primary function here. Ignorance aplenty, but not racism. The first time I watched the panel discussion I was stunned. The next time I shook my head. I read your referenced link the first time you posted it. Solid stuff. I’m all in. The whole kit-n-caboodle. But I didn’t read it as overt racism. I read it as an acknowledgement of ignorance and an admonition to persevere in its face. Don’t misunderstand me. The video was all kinds of wrong. But, leaning more towards the wrong of ignorance (arrogance) than that of racial condescension or hatred. I just hate to see this derailed and put into the unopened, despairing drawer of racism. I believe the subject is worthy ongoing consideration.

  18. Cool! people responded to my thoughts! In response, I would say that “art” (e.g. painting, sculpture, music, theatre, etc,) is both more and less subject to the standard of communal benefit than other crafts. By its nature, (unlike brickmaking,) it cannot be separated from an audience-even if that is an audience of two (God and the artist). But also by its nature, it is quite free of the burden of usefulness as a determinant of value, since a large part of the essential nature of art is the act of creation and design itself, which has intrinsic value as the active expression of the imago dei- rather like having a child, or loving another person. An audience doesn’t have to be appreciative to validate a glorious act of creation and design, or vice-versa, as has been touched on already. I see I should have qualified, however, that I do not consider right-mindedness interchangeable with technical skill and virtuosity!

  19. well, never mind this discussion being about art anymore. When people get the opportunity to hate on each other in a fight about racism, all beneficial conversation ends.

  20. Reuben, sure it’s about art. But not just art. Also, I’m hearing very little “hate on each other in a fight about racism.” Most of the comment threads on these links are civil and thoughtful. HMS, thanks for the link. Does an excellent job of beginning to define parameters for an ongoing discussion. I believe relegating this to yet another black/white conundrum would be a disservice………meanwhile, let’s all prepare to worship our sovereign God on this beautiful Lord’s day. Thanks for the dialogue.

  21. To try to control someone or some group because one is in a majority (or they think they are) is simply WRONG and yes it can be racist!! Reminded “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others … not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”― Dietrich Bonhoeffera
    As I said before, the panels paternalistic language is simply WRONG. As I mentioned, Tim Keller stated “the system must change in order for the people to change. But one of the challenges, he presented, is that “white people” don’t have a concept of “corporate responsibility” which prevents them from dealing with “corporate evil” or “systemic racism.” //Again that is why the all white panel, discussing their biased & paternalistic thinking, needs to be addressed and called what it is. 

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