On Wednesday afternoon, several friends alerted me to THIS video from the National Council of Families in Churches, a clip from a panel discussion between six men about Reformed Hip Hop. The question asks for the panelists' opinion about Reformed Hip Hop, noting that while the doctrine is sound some may not be comfortable with the style.
What follows is what you might imagine would follow if you asked six old white guys to comment about Hip Hop. Their answers are a mix of religious language, old scare culture, and cultural racism. Note that I said cultural racism; this distinction is important. Cultural racism is defined by a sense of cultural superiority, wherein a group assumes the moral, aesthetic, or intellectual superiority of their traditions and language over that of others.
I don't believe that these men would argue for white superiority as a matter of inherent worth. I do believe - wholeheartedly - that they articulate the superiority of their culture over the culture of Hip Hop.
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.
After all, what is music? The most rudimentary definition is that it's sound arranged in time, and clearly both sound and time are God's ideas. He made creation so that it hums and buzzes and resonates. He wasn't surprised when Stradivarius found a violin hiding in a maple tree, or when Leo Fender found a Telecaster in a block of ash, and he wasn't surprised when DJ Grandmaster Flash (amongst others) started mixing vinyl records and beats to give birth to Hip Hop. Even the idea of sampling is derivative of the Creator's imagination: have you ever heard sound echo in a canyon?
To dismiss these cultural artifacts as evil is to give the devil far more credit than he's due. He's never made anything, he's only corrupted. Human handiwork, too, is always and only derivative; we haven't so much invented as we've discovered. We are merely "Thinking God's thoughts after him," as Johannes Kepler once said. God is the first musician, the first inventor, the brains behind it all, including hip hop. He is the greatest DJ in history. The Providential Producer of every good thing.
A tree can't be evil if God has called it good. When someone carves it into a drum, it's still good. When someone plays music on that drum, it's still good - including the sounds it emanates. When someone starts worshiping a demon while they beat the drum, they're rebelling against a holy God, and they deserve to be rebuked. But the drum is still good. So is the sound that comes out of the drum; Satan didn't invent it, he merely deceived someone into using it for evil means.
Culture is the milieu that emerges when lots of image bearers start playing and working with creation, and in a fallen world, it's always a mixed bag of glory and tragedy. It's glorious because humanity is glorious. We are shockingly imaginative, capable of great compassion and generosity. It's tragic because we're blind and broken, capable of hatefulness, selfishness, murder and exploitation.
Wisdom recognizes that all cultures are just such a mixed bag. This is just as true of Western European post-reformation culture as it is of medieval culture, contemporary middle Eastern culture, and contemporary Hip Hop Culture. Each has their idols. Each has their glimpses of glory. Each has a way of showing off the beauty of creation. And each one desperately needs the purifying power of the gospel.
The members of the panel want to highlight all that's wrong with Hip Hop culture, but they seem blind to their own culture's problematic history. (For instance, it includes Jim Crow.) Apart from the gospel, their culture too - their western European, classical, hierarchical culture – is filthy rags.
Come to think of it, these men not only get creation and culture wrong, they seem to have misread the end of the story too. The saints of God don't gather around God's throne and sing "When the Role is Called Up Yonder" in English. Instead, the story ends with cacophony. With the greatest expression of multiculturalism the world has every known. "Every tribe tongue and nation" will be gathered around the throne, worshiping the Lamb. This isn't monoculture.
But the panelists don't see it that way. Christian maturity, they argue, is to look more like them. To transition to more "culturally appropriate forms" for discussion about God.
To bolster this, they hold out the example of Toby Mac, who is 50, exhibits some facial wrinkles, and wears a hat. This isn't the sign of Christian maturity. I suppose they'd rather he wore sweater vests and suits.
But Toby Mac is a pop musician, not a pastor (and not a part of Reformed Hip Hop, either, though we won't pick that fight now). Is it possible that different vocations, in different spheres of culture, call for different wardrobes? Think how different a teacher, a plumber, and an undertaker have to dress. Is maturity a matter of dress code and style? or a matter of the heart? (1 Samuel 16:7)
Joe Morecraft made the same argument, essentially, when he took a sidebar about earrings. To Joe, to wear an earring is to identify with a culture other than the "godly men in the church." Note the implied cultural hierarchy: clearly, Joe can't imagine a culture in which godly men might have their ears pierced.
This argument rang familiar with me, as I recall someone else who got in trouble with religious leaders when he refused to associate with them, choosing to identify with sinners, drunks, and hookers. But anyway.
Another argument that several panelists articulated is that rap can't be separated from the cultural milieu from which it grew. There are two problems with this argument.
First off, who says it needs to be? Yes, there are Rap stars whose example is horrific, but Christians have been a part of Hip Hop Culture since its earliest days (see PID, a.k.a. Preachers in Disguise, whose first national release was in 1988, but who were making tapes before even then). If Hip Hop Culture has had Christian expressions from the very beginning, why is necessary to separate from it? Why would it be necessary to transition to more "appropriate forms"? Is it possible that this art form isn't just a means for evangelism, but for discipleship too?
Second, if Hip Hop can't be separated from its cultural milieu, what other forms of communication are defiled and condemned? Did Wagner's sexual deviancy, antisemitism and German Uber-nationalism defile and condemn all classical music? Did Robert Maplethorpe's homosexual erotic photography defile and condemn all photography? Has porn ruined the whole internet?
Again - we come back to the creational issue. Wagner's ideas are a corruption, but the things themselves - music, art, and media - remain useful.
The truth is that any cultural artifact can become a stumbling block, like food sacrificed to idols was for some of the Church in Corinth. Perhaps, for the panelists' consciences, hip hop is too sensual. Maybe they watched one too many Digital Undeground video back in the day, and they can't hear a sampled kick drum without thinking lustful thoughts. If so, they are wise to avoid it - but that's a matter for their conscience, not a matter for their legislative authority.
To draw hard lines, as they do, to call Christian rappers "disobedient cowards", as they do, is to demand more than the scriptures demand.
This quote in particular, is the most offensive. It's offensive when Geoff Botkin says it, and it's offensive when no one responds to talk him down.
How are they disobedient? Because they refuse to learn the musical language of "appropriate" (read Euro-centric) forms?
He says they're cowards because they're "not willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged." Which fight is that? Proclaiming the gospel to the rebellious, the suffering, the dying world? I think their lyrics are pretty evident and demanding in this way.
No… They're cowards because they won't abandon a cultural form. They're cowards because, according to Botkin, the gospel should "redeem and replace" these forms.This is where the rubber meets the road: with what? What must they replace them with in order to be brave?
This is where issues like cultural hierarchy and cultural racism become so evident. They're cowards because, to Botkin, to look and sound like someone who lives and breathes in a Hip Hop (read: African American Urban) culture is to conform to the ways of the world.
Make no mistake about it: this is a gospel issue, plain and simple. I want to say this very carefully. Christian rap is not a gospel issue because Christians need to do it, but because their freedom to do it - their freedom to let the gospel take root in the soil of their culture and bear fruit in their communities, with their voices, sounds, and heart language, is something worth dying for.
It's a gospel issue because what they demand - abandoning and replacing their culture with something more "appropriate" - is another gospel altogether.
It's the reason Paul wrote the book of Galatians. It's the reason he rebuked the Judaisers. To condemn a whole culture, to demand cultural conformity is to add on to the free, culture-renewing grace of Jesus and say, "Jesus plus our cultural norms."
"Foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?," Paul roared. Today, he might roar, "Foolish Euro-centric-classicists, who has bewitched you?"
Ultimately, all six of these men start from the wrong place. They approach Hip Hop as suspicious outsiders who need to protect the church from its encroachment. They fail to start from creation, where all culture - including hip hop - has its roots. They fail to see the beautiful diversity of the church, where there is no Jew, Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, Slave, or Free.
Hip Hop is the marriage of musical impulse - a creational gift - and technological impulse - also a creational gift, and ultimately, it was God's idea. To demean it as a cultural artifact is to demean his work, and to demean it as an expression of his church is to disparage the bride of Christ in the midst of their worship.
It reminds us how easily old controversies can reemerge. It's guilt-by-association, cultural hierarchy nonsense that has been trumped about since Peter and Paul had their argument about dinner guests in Galatians 2:11-14 – an argument that Paul clearly won. Peter didn't want to be associated with Gentiles when a group of Jews joined the church at Antioch. Paul called this hypocrisy. Peter repented. Game over. Let's hope that happens here.