The Holy Hip Hop conversation continues across the web. If you missed my previous post on the topic, it's here. Thabiti Anyabwile has a great roundup of it here. Geoff Botkin has offered this in the way of apology, which many, (myself included) have read with a bit of disappointment. As Voddie Bauchamm said, it seems far too little, and far too late.
A couple of things have come up related to my post, and I thought I'd deal with them right off the bat. First off, some have been offended by my use of the phrase "old white guys." As a white guy myself, who feels increasingly old, I use this term without prejudice. I thought "old white guys" was more vernacular than "older Caucasian gentlemen" and more respectful than "old white dudes." To those who were offended, I'm sorry. To be honest, I don't know too many older Caucasian gentlemen who wouldn't self-identify as an old dude, but that's neither here nor there.
Second, people have been offended by my use of the phrase "Cultural Racism." The "R" word definitely has a potency, and I used it carefully and intentionally. I did not call these men "Racists," implying that they hold to an ideology that believes in the superiority of white folks. I have no reason to suspect that and good reason to bet they don't hold to one. Instead, I said that this is a clear instance of cultural racism.
Cultural racism is more subtle and harder to nail down. A great book to look at that deals with some related issues is James Lepine's "Highbrow Lowbrow: the birth of Cultural Hierarchy in America." Cultural Racism is largely implicit, and it's often institutionalized. For a long time, higher education institutions differentiated between "high art" and "low art", and "high art" tended be part of certain western European traditions. Traditions of others - the Irish, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, African, and Asians, for instance - were "low art" and "folk art." Studying them belonged to the world of sociology or anthropology, but not for someone who takes the arts seriously. Today, this isn't always the case in higher education, but the hierarchy still exists in the minds of many.
Marry that to Christianized notions of Platonic beauty and morality – i.e. to make something good, true, and beautiful is to make something godly and pure – and suddenly we have a means of baptizing preferences with holy water. Harold Best talks about this in "Unceasing Worship".
Best argues that we've conflated beauty in holiness in a way that obscures both. That we've taken the idea of "The beauty of holiness" and inverted it, believing in the "Holiness of beauty." If this is the case, then an aesthetic failure (a failure to make something that can be called "beautiful", and/or the failure to strive for this) is a moral failure. Sanctification, then, means aesthetic education as well as moral education (because they are intimately connected.)
Thus we arrive: My preferences for classical western high art culture are not only aesthetically superior, they are morally superior. Ethnocentrism - a preference for my cultural identity - and cultural racism - a prejudice against a particular race's traditions, history, and culture, is part of the engine that hums underneath these arguments, and I believe it catches us unaware. It is implicit, built upon a whole set of ideas that are working in ways we don't often notice. They have long-standing roots in our culture, and we are enculturated into them.
If Best is right (and I think he usually is), we need to reasses how we make aesthetic judgments. Holiness, Best argues, is about the heart. It's about conformity to the heart of God, loving Him with heart mind soul and strength. Beauty, and work in the arts, still finds its roots in the Creator, but not in moral perfection. Again - holiness is beautiful, but beauty isn't holiness. Instead, we begin to understand beauty in relation to creation, where God demonstrates an incomprehensibly wide sense of appreciation. He looks at all of it - from aardvarks to orchids, from neutron stars to quarks, from grasslands to deserts - and calls it "good."
In other words, instead of treating beauty as some platonic ideal, sending Christian artists in search of some gnostic perfect form of beauty, we recognize it as a character trait of creation, and as something that can be experienced in ways as wide and diverse as the heavens and earth can demonstrate.
So culture is what happens when creatures start playing in working in that wide world, and beauty and goodness in human handiwork will show up in ways that reflect creational diversity.
Let's look at this by way of metaphor.
Koa wood is one of nature's wonders. It's a species that grows in Hawaii, where the volcanic soil's rich mineral content gets drawn up into the wood. When cut and polished, the wood glows with a rainbow of color, looking like something from another planet. In any other soil, it would look far different.
It's a great analog for how culture works. Creatures live in creation, which is a diverse environment, and give birth to diverse cultures as a result. (Thus, the Inuits have 50 words for snow.) Now, of course, sin infects it all, but remember how sin works; it distorts and misuses. It worships created things rather than the Creator, but it's always derivative, always dependent, always captive to the bounds of the creation in which it exists.
The Bible gives us the most extreme possible case study: food sacrificed to idols. Paul says this to the Corinthian church:
"Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." (1 Corinthians 8:1-6 ESV)
Let's imagine this scenario for a moment. A shepherd raises a lamb - a beautiful, innocent, and gentle creature. He shows all the care and tenderness that's befitting of the relationship between humanity and creation, nurturing, protecting, and providing for the animal. He then takes it a temple for an idol, where not only animal sacrifice takes place, but prostitution and intoxication of all kinds. It's teeming with debauchery and sin. He offers this animal to the idols while he's there to worship, and the blood of this creature is poured out for other gods - for demons and perhaps Satan himself.
Paul's reaction? "an idol has no real existence; there is no God but one." He then goes on to say, "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do." (1 Corinthians 8:8 ESV)
I'm not sure a more severe example of cultural malformation can exist than this! It's one thing to say that these idolators haven't made eating meat a sin for the rest of us; it's another thing altogether to say that Christians can buy their barbecue.
What Paul understands is that nothing exists apart from the Creator's imagination and will. No matter the intentions of sinful creatures, at work in creation, they are always bound to be riffing on his ideas. He made animals. He made them tasty. So even if someone is sacrificing them to a local god, we can eat the meat and say, "Glory to God, almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth. He has provided for us!"
(Side note here: in an age of celebrity chefs, foodies, and "food porn", I think "food sacrificed to idols" is still very much a live concept.)
Now, Paul goes on to talk about the importance of conscience in these matters, and this is challenging. I shouldn't abuse my freedom and put pressure on the consciences of those who aren't able to eat. I shouldn't think I'm better off because I eat. I should be open to diversity of conscience in the church.
But there's a difference between conscientious abstention - "I don't rap because my conscience doesn't allow it" - and the NFCIC panel's take on rap. At no point did they allow for consciences other than theirs. In fact, the implication was that those who differ are "disobedient cowards" (a comment Geoff Botkin has backed off of... sort of... but not entirely.)
Let's assume the best of the panelists and believe that the apology is sincere regarding that language. Nonetheless, several times, the issue of maturity was brought up regarding cultural forms. They argued that maturity - sanctification even - should lead us to replace these inferior cultural forms with "more appropriate" ones. But by Paul's definition of maturity, they have it backwards. "The mature Christian is easily edified," Chip Stam used to say. Maturity doesn't narrow our engagement and appreciation of the world; it opens it. Widens it. Deepens it.
Christian Hip Hop has been around for a long time, but in many ways, it is still an emerging art form. Wisdom and maturity recognizes it not as a death rattle, but as signs of life. Gospel seeds bearing fruit in another corner of God's world. It's a call to rejoice in what He's doing.