Theology Thursday

Update:

The video has been pulled down and an apology issued by the NCFIC.

***

So this video came out the other day touching on an issue I thought was now dead in the water…but will probably kick back into life.

The Worship of God Q&A: Holy Hip-Hop from NCFIC on Vimeo.

The panellists are (in speaking order) Dan Horn, Scott Aniol, Geoff Botkin, Joel Beeke, Jasan Dohm, and Joe Morecraft.

The comments on the original post by the National Center for Family-Intergrated Churches have been fairly unianimous in expressing disappointment with how the panellists have interacted with the reformed-rap/holy hip hop movement.

And now that John Piper has tweeted to this link he has probably (and I think rightly) helped serve up the criticism:

 

Let me summarise what I understand are the main arguments from the panel.

First, there is a concern that the genre of rap and hip hop is primarily about drawing attention to the rapper. Therefore reformed rap is necessarily self-focused rather than God-focused.

Second, rap music comes out of a culture which is antithetical to scripture. While reformed rappers are attempting to ‘redeem’ the art form, the panel does not believe it has been redeemed enough – or question if it’s possible to even redeem this form of music from its cultural context.

Third, while there are some Christians who relate to this sub-culture it is ultimately a sub-culture they need to leave in order to grow in their faith and towards mature manhood.

Fourth, reformed rappers are conforming themselves to the ways of this world in direct disobedience to scripture (cf Romans 12:1-2) and are essentially ‘disobedient cowards…who are caving into the world… [and are] not willing to engage in the fight that needs to be fought’.

 

Let me spell out why I think these guys are flat out wrong in their assessment of reformed rap.

First – all music, no matter the genre, runs the danger of drawing attention to the performer. The music industry generally is self-focused so to single out reformed rappers as attention seeking is to be glaringly inconsistent when it comes to Christian pop groups, Christian country singers, Christian jazz artists, and Christian music composers.

Second – it’s true to say that rap music generally comes from a sub-culture antithetical to scripture, but the test for whether an art form, or whatever, has been redeemed enough from its subculture is not to look at it from the outside, but to look at it from the inside. In this case, is it clear enough in the rap/hip hop industry that these reformed rappers are uniquely different in their tone, message, and lifestyle as to mark themselves out as Christ followers? A couple of the panellists admitted that the rap culture was not one they were familiar with. Well, as one who has personally been familiar with this subculture I can say with great certainty that what these reformed rappers are doing is thoroughly unique and marking themselves out clearly as Christ followers.

Third – the argument that Christians who are familiar with this culture ultimately need to leave it assumes that the subculture is beyond redemption. This argument demonstrates the failure of the panel the properly understand what they are criticising. Rap culture is mired by sin – that’s pretty clear. But so are all cultures and subcultures.

In his letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul makes clear his approach to this sort of issue:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ESV)

His argument lays down important and fundamental principles when it comes to engaging and redeeming culture for Christ, so it’s worth teasing out a little more.

First he says that to whichever culture he is in, he will blend in. To the Jew he becomes like a Jew, the one outside the law he becomes like one outside the law. To the rap culture he will assume the clothing and language, and I’d go so far as to say he might even get the tattoos.

Now, before people react there are two caveats to blending in. First – Paul does all of this to win whoever he is blending in with to Christ. He’s not in it for the lifestyle or the perks, it’s all about winning people to Jesus – and part of that is to not put any stumbling blocks to the message in front of them (such as dress, language, and culture). The second caveat is that he is ‘under the law of Christ’ (that bit in parenthesis which really shouldn’t be in parenthesis because it’s important to his argument!). So while I argue Paul might go so far as to get tattoos if he desired to reach out to heavily tattooed men/women, I’d also argue that what he got tattooed would be different and still honouring to Christ. Whatever he did – the clothes, the shoes, the language, the lifestyle – he would adopt it to blend in (and not place a stumbling block to his message before the people), and he would do so in a way which would still honour Christ and earn no rebuke from Him.

Coming back to reformed rappers, and while I admit I haven’t heard everything from every artist claiming to be a reformed rapper, I will say that my listening has been wide and all that I have heard so far, and all that I know of the artists I have heard, I see much Pauline interaction going on and much redeeming happening.

The panellists seem to have their understanding of biblical culture wrongheaded. I can’t help but draw the conclusion that there is among them an assumed belief that there is such a thing as a ‘Christian culture’. It seems to me that Paul teaches, and lives out, that there is no such thing as a ‘Christian culture’ but only ‘Christians living and redeeming the cultures they are in’.

Fourth, to call reformed rappers ‘disobedient cowards’ is one of the worst ad hominem attacks I’ve heard so far from a Christian commenting on reformed rap. It’s a massive failure on the part of Geoff Botkin, who said it, to actually engage with what he is criticising. Nothing he says actually engages. He just states that rap culture is not Christian culture and therefore Christians shouldn’t be conforming themselves to it.

In summary, and for our edification also, here is where I think this panel fails in its engagement with the question and how we can better engage with any issue before us: the panel put forward their opinions rather than tried to apply scripture. When the panel did apply scripture it was misapplied for the fact that it’s clear the panel didn’t understand what they were critiquing.

There are always going to be debates and issues – latest trends to critique, latest evangelistic methods to analyse, latest church models to assess. But always we need to first understand what scripture might say on the issue rather than just share our personal dislike. That takes hard work – and sometimes our initial dislike will itself need to be conformed to what scripture says on the issue.

So here’s Russell Moore’s article in Christianity Today from earlier this year which demonstrates a much more biblical model of interaction, analysis and critique.

It’s worth quoting at length. Here Moore raises similar issues of the NCFIC panel by Ken Myers and begins to show why reformed rap is actually much more different than expected:

Myers’ critique of Christian hip-hop wasn’t a fundamentalist scold, wary of the Devil’s music. Instead, he was concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an art form—as well as for the integrity of the Bible and the Christian tradition. For him, Christian hip-hop seems to be the latest incarnation in the evangelical project to “engage culture” by separating form from message, and to bridge the divide between pop culture and the old, old story.

And he’s right. So often our attempts to be relevant are just ham-handed attempts to market the gospel with popular cultural tropes. And no one can seriously argue that musical forms don’t change “the message.” Moreover, I agree with Myers that hip-hop generally taps into a certain set of human emotions and situations, and not others.

But that’s where our agreement ends. I think Christian hip-hop is more than just the latest attempt to slap a Jesus fish on the bumper of a pop-culture fad. Hip-hop is reminding the church about the reality of sin and grace—and returning the hip-hop community to its prophetic roots.

Moore noting that reformed rap is deeply theologically rooted:

Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you’ll note just how theological it is. The first time I heard a song by artist Flame was also the first time I heard the heresy “modalistic monarchianism” denounced by name in any song. “That’s not the Scriptures that’s confusion, / and it takes stabs at the hypostatic union,” raps the Louisville, Kentucky–based artist, before explaining the hypostatic union (the union of Jesus’ divinity and humanity). Rap group 116 Clique, named after Romans 1:16, defends biblical inerrancy by using the term theopneustos(God-breathed)—also not the most common of lyrics, rap or otherwise.

The new hip-hop artists aren’t simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics. Instead, they are modeling a broadly Reformed system of Christian doctrine, which is characterized by an emphasis on humanity’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and divine election. Many of the leading rappers are associated with prominent Reformed pastors: Shai Linne and Trip Lee have both interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., led by popular pastor Mark Dever, and Lecrae and Tedashii regularly quote John Piper. Just as rapper will.i.am wove lines from President Barack Obama’s speeches into his songs during the 2008 presidential campaign, the preaching of well-known Reformed speakers—many of them Southern and white—is interspersed through the new Christian hip-hop music.

Moore on how hip hops growth from the ‘underclass’ of American culture and life allows it to be much more realistic about sin as well as much more profound in its application of the Cross to redeem sinners:

Rather than deny the violent realities of humanity, they use Reformed categories of penal substitutionary atonement to make sense of it all. Christian hip-hop is Cross-centered in a way that previous Christian attempts to mimic pop culture weren’t—and perhaps couldn’t be. To be sure, the Cross and the blood of Christ are everywhere in CCM and Southern gospel. But in both genres, the cross and the blood seem merely symbolic. The cross is there, but its meaning is often left undefined, as the real goal of “looking for a city” and “moving up to Gloryland” stands in the foreground. Hip-hop puts the spotlight on sin and justice and reckoning, on the sinner who, hidden in Christ, has already borne the wrath of God and walked out into the newness of resurrection life.

There’s more to be said but the rest of the article is worth reading.

Next week, examples of reformed rap that you can sink your teeth into!

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