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.