Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rap Music and the "Christian" Background of Western Culture

I enjoyed reading Scott Aniol's "Can Rap Be Christian" series of articles. He's provided a useful assessment of the issues and presuppositions, and he's asked some reasonable questions, which proponents of "Christian rap" (and, by extension, other "Christian" musical forms) need to answer.

Scott also, quite honestly, exposed a potential flaw in the conservative argument. If this flaw can be demonstrated to be genuine, it's a fatal flaw. And if it's a fatal flaw, conservatives will need to radically reexamine their presuppositions and conclusions.

Here's what I'm talking about: Many conservatives argue that Western culture has been more profoundly shaped by Christianity than any other culture. Here's how Scott frames that argument:
I think it is undeniable that Western culture by and large has been influenced by Christian values more than perhaps any other in the world. That is not to say at all that there haven’t been anti-biblical influences as well; there certainly have been. But by God’s common grace we haven’t been influenced by Satanism or Eastern mysticism to the same extent as other societies. That has influenced the development of culture.
Notice how Scott hedges several times in that paragraph: "by and large," "perhaps," the acknowledgment of anti-biblical influences, and the relatively narrow focus on the minimal influence of Satanism and Eastern mysticism. Later in the same article, he admits that the Christian influence behind Western high art was Roman Catholicism. His conclusion to that article qualifies his statements even more:
On the other hand, there are aspects of Western culture that are deplorable, especially with the influences of secularism and commercialism. There might be some aspects of tribal African culture that has [sic] escaped those influences and are therefore superior. At the end of the day, I believe that the inner culture of the Church will never sound exactly like the culture around it. Christians always have to pick and choose (and sometimes invent) the best forms for the expression of Christian sentiment. It’s just the case that in some culture [sic] that have been influenced for centuries by Christian values, there may be more from which to choose.
So at the end of the day, I think Scott is more honest than other conservatives who simply stipulate the superiority of Western culture. I'll say it a bit more forcefully: As much as I love baroque music, I think it's quite possible that the musical forms of the 17th century were detrimentally shaped by medieval Roman Catholicism—a religious system that was not Christian at all. Monotheistic? Yes. Well, maybe. Or maybe not so much.

That doesn't preclude the possibility of critiquing how the medium of rap music shapes the message of Christian rap. But it ought to give the conservative anti-rap crowd something to chew on before they assume the superiority of their preferred forms as a vehicle for the Christian message—whether baroque or SoundForth-esque.

So can rap music be Christian? Hmmm . . . well, in my first 5 minutes of exposure to Christian rap a few years ago (I think it was Curtis Allen "The Voice"), I heard a more detailed explanation of substitutionary atonement and election than in any sermon I can remember before I turned 30 years old. Maybe that doesn't make it Christian. But if it's not Christian, then let's be honest: neither are your kids Patch the Pirate tapes and quite a few of the hymns in your Majesty Hymnal.

At the very least, I think we have to say that music—whether a rap or a hymn—must articulate a Christian message in order to be Christian. Only music that articulates a distinctly Christian message makes it inside the door where the argument about musical form begins. Music with a message of moralism (clean your room, don't grumble) or some yammering about an old guitar doesn't make the first cut.

18 comments:

Michael Riley said...

Ben,

First, good thoughts here, in that I think that your question is certainly fair.

As the first commenter (at least, as I'm typing), let me through out some points for discussion.

First, it doesn't necessarily follow, if the cultural milieu in which baroque music arose was something less than Christian, that the music itself does not reflect Christian ideals. Of course, to be fair, then, the same is true of rap: we cannot say that rap is anti-Christian simply because it arose from a culture of lawlessness (or whatever other charge one might make; I am not making those charges here, but merely reflecting the argument that might be made). In other words, if the culture which produced baroque music was thoroughly Christian, we might have good reason to suspect that such music reflects Christian ideals (as the conservative argument goes); if the culture was not rightly Christian, the music may or may not reflect such ideals.

Second, you contend that medieval Romanism was "a religious system that was not Christian at all." I may well get myself in trouble here, but I think this statement could be disputed in several ways.

The first would be that, in terms of history, we may well be overstating the uniformity of sub- or anti-Christian ideas in the Roman Church of that time. I've been re-reading McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea, and he notes in the early going of that book that Luther's understanding of the Roman Church would have been based largely on his own experiences (understandably), but that the works-righteousness (and other issues) that he attributed to Rome may not have been as thoroughly pervasive as is commonly believed. If he's right about this, the suggestion that medieval Romanism was not Christian at all would be an overstatement.

Second, it may be that your proposal that Voice's rap is more clearly Christian than (for instance) some Patch songs may confuse categories somewhat. I have no desire (whatsoever) to defend Patch; I'll turn my attention back to baroque styling.

In this case, to decide which is more Christian (Voice's rap or the style of baroque music) is obviously problematic, because of the inclusion of words in the one. Reducing both sides of the equation to style alone leaves us with this question: which style of music is most consistent with the message of Christianity?

So the point of the second objection about Rome is this: musical stylings do not communicate propositional truth. That being the case, even if the Roman Church were profoundly mistaken on (for instance) justification by faith alone, it may still have produced music that creates encourages biblical affections about the nature of God, judgment, deliverance, etc.

Here, I'm not positing moral categories; I'm simply asking which of the styles best comports with, for instance, the picture of God painted for us in the Scriptures. This (in my understanding) is the proper consideration for evaluating whether (in this case) rap or baroque music is more "Christian."

Again, I liked your article, and hope that it produces some good discussion here.

Ben said...

Michael,

Thanks for the interaction. I'll try to respond to your points in order.

To your first, I completely agree. But I don't think I said anything incompatible with your point. If anyone's at odds with you here, it's Scott not me. He's making the argument that rap culture intrinsically carries anti-Christian baggage. I'm suggesting baroque may, but I'm open to the proposition that either it or rap or both might not.

To your second, for starters, I'm no authority on medieval Roman Catholicism. But I don't have doubts that Luther saw what he claims to have seen in his visit to Rome. Were there pockets of evangelicalism here and there? I have no doubt that there were. But I'm highly suspicious of claims that the medieval RC system was in any way Christian.

Concerning your comparison of rap and baroque, let me be clear: I'm not suggesting rap style is intrinsically more Christian than baroque. I'm arguing that if Scott can categorically deny that rap can be Christian, he's got to throw out a whole truckload of music that many pseudo-conservatives love, because that music is objectively less Christian than Reformed rap.

Now, you also seem to suggest that wordless baroque music may encourage "biblical affections about the nature of God, judgment, deliverance, etc. . . . [and accurately portray] the picture of God painted for us in the Scriptures."

That's a discussion broader than we can address here. And frankly, I'm wholly unequipped to analyze how instrumental music accomplishes those ends. I'm even a bit skeptical that it's possible (yeah I'm a Philistine). But I'm willing to hear someone try.

Joshua said...

It's hard to take seriously a post which says that A) The medieval RC church was not Christian at all, and B) medieval art was not very influenced by Christianity.

Both arguments are so extreme as to require massive substantiation.

Don Johnson said...

Ben,

Like Michael, I think you are making some reasonable points. A couple of comments though:

1. I don't think it is really proper to refer to the medieval church as the "Roman Catholic" church. Romanism as we know it today is really the product of the Council of Trent. The pre-reformation church is not as monolithic as the post-reformation reaction to the reformers.

In light of this, I think it is reasonable to posit that the 1500 years from Christ to Luther made a huge and undeniable impact primarily on Europe and Christianized its formerly pagan worldview in a profound way. My ancestors were Vikings and Druids, but that is so far back that I cannot imagine their worldview having any impact on the culture my forebears were immersed in for at least half a millennium, if not more.

2. In your conclusion, you seem to be confusing lyrics (literature) with music. I don't think lyrics are the main point of argument in this debate.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Paul said...

Of course rap music can be Christian. Haven't you ever heard "Big Toe" from Patch the Pirate's River Race cassette?

brian said...

I hesitate to post this comment since I'm no musical or cultural guru. But as one now living outside of the West, maybe I have a different perspective.

Since we're critiquing the West. . . What is the basest of all Western art forms? Put more clearly, what Western, cultural medium is put to use for all sorts of evil (violence, pornography, etc.)? The art form of television and film. I think we can all agree that referencing the movie industry and "Hollywood" brings up all kinds of negative connotations. Yet we (fundamentalists and evangelicals alike) praise any attempt to use such a medium and infuse it with a Christian message (be it a Bob Jones film, a VeggieTales movie, or even "Fireproof"). I guess I wonder why presenting a good message in a "bad" medium is OK for the big or small screen, but taboo for a particular musical style. Does rap really carry more baggage than Hollywood?

To which some may say, "But rap has always been bad, while television and film were initially good." However, while the genre of rap music is an historical novelty, it is rooted in other art forms, even ancient ones. Are we really going to argue that folk music and primitive tribal music are inherently evil? Sure, they may not be as developed as baroque, but neither was primitive, Jewish, "tribal" music. I hope we don't think Abraham sounded like Bach.

KevinM said...

Nice!

At a basic level, I think we all can embrace the idea that a given culture can be better, morally better, than another culture.

But when we parse the meaning of culture, our discovery methods lack rigor--we habitually compare our encyclopedic knowledge of our own (Western) culture with our thimble of knowledge about other (non-white) cultures. This should be important to Scott, because he is trying to establish a case for universals.

I guess I think it is fair for Scott to raise the question, but I suspect there's a lot about hip-hop culture that our white ears don't understand.

Coach C said...

Over the past 10 years, I have come full circle on this topic. I think it comes down to the most basic elements of Christianity - primarily the idea of the autonomy of the local church.

I personally do not find much that attracts me to rap music of any kind. It comes with all the baggage that has been listed above. However, for my friends who grew up in a different culture, the music is simply music. Culture changes and the church changes with culture. This is not necessarily the slippery slope that many taught us when we were young.

Remember how wicked the rock and roll of the 50's and 60's sounded to our parents and grandparents and how the teenagers of that day were influences in rebellion because of it? Today, the music of the Beetles and Elvis is met with chuckles and a sense of nostalgia - as long as the content is harmless.

[On a side note, I have more of a problem with the performance and "excellence" mentality that permeates our IFB worship services. I believe that there is just as much pride and distraction from the fundamental reason for corporate worship when the "three tenors" or the "string quartet" or the "woodwind ensemble" takes the stage as there is when a bass guitarist and a drummer rock out.]

Musical style is best handled by the members of a local body, within the confines of that local body. They are free to remove and set boundaries within their culture and determine how best to worship a holy, just, loving, merciful, sovereign God within their local church. Is rap music appropriate for my family and my local church at this point in time? I say no and would seek to prevent that sound from being a part of my worship service. Can I say that all rap is wrong at all times for all believers?

Absolutely not.

Brian said...

After reading all of Scott's posts, I would like to add something to my previous comment.

While I believe that the medium of rap music is permissible, just as the medium of, say, cartoon television is permissible, it may not always be appropriate or sufficient. In other words, VeggieTales uses a permissible art form to communicate a message. However, I for one think it often trivializes the message because of the inherent quality of the medium. Cartoons will likely never be able to capture a wrathful, holy God. Conversely, the medium of rap may not be appropriate or even able to communicate a meek and compassionate Savior.

I agree with Scott that the medium must match the message. I just don't think that this eliminates rap (or cartoons), it only means they are insufficient to communicate the entire message.

Which begs the question: what medium is sufficient? Preaching seems to be God's provision. I think Mark D. and his interviewees agreed on that point.

Who is sufficient for these things? Now that's another question.

mark said...

Baroque does not equal Roman Catholicism anymore than Roman Catholicism equals baroque. For example, Bach was a Protestant music director.

James Kime said...

"But if it's not Christian, then let's be honest: neither are your kids Patch the Pirate tapes and quite a few of the hymns in your Majesty Hymnal."

Ben, when is Christian limited to the substitutionary atonement or election message? Is not orderliness or obedience to your parents part of the Christian message? I know you weren't really limiting the Christian message to those two topics.

One of the explicit reasons why we are to sing given in the NT is teaching one another.

Col 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Explain how it is unchristian or "doesn't make the first cut" when teaching your children orderliness, obedience, or some other christian quality.

As to the argument about music style, I couldn't care less when the style of music was written. That is a pathetic argument and one that should be abandoned. Classical writers were not all christian.

Anonymous said...

Do you guys always engage in topics that are so rare, so unusual, so "one in a million," so completely random that you'd have a better chance of getting hit by lighting, twice? Why not discuss whether a Christian from the lower portion of the southeastern counties of Kentucky should rearrange the theme to Monday Night Football (to take out the beat and turn it classical) and present it as a duet, during the full moon when Haley's Comet is making its rounds? Rap, really? Who cares? Why not talk about something that actually has relevance or at least talk about music that more than .007% of the population has heard? I've never heard OF Christian rap before, much less actually heard it. I have no opinion on a subject I've never even heard of before so I won't comment on whom I agree or disagree with. But if you're going to debate, can you at least make it on an interesting topic?

d4v34x said...

Anonymous,

DC Talk came out in the '80s. Time to catch up, yo!

Brother Kime,

I think Ben means that the PtP music/character advice you both reference omits an express foundation in the character of God.

David

Coach C said...

Anonymous,

You need to get out from under your rock (and I don't mean rock and roll). Rap and hip hop are art forms that dominate popular culture at the moment. I work with college age young people and rap/hip hop is probably the favorite music of a large majority. In my line of work, I hear secular rap/hip hop on a daily basis and Christian rap at least every week.

I am not really a fan of such art forms, but I have met more than one believer whose faith I consider to be genuine who is a major fan of Christian rap/hip hop. It is an issue for a large number of people.

Anonymous said...

Apparently I really have been living under a rock. Ok, I have heard the name "DC Talk" before, but don't have the slightest clue what their music is like. Maybe if I actually heard them I'd like them.

There's a lot of things in life where I'm probably just weird and the "odd man out." For example, I find it truly bizarre that there is a whole network devoted to food (Food Network). I enjoy going to McDonald's and having a Big Mac, but actually going there to watch them make it is utterly boring. I'd almost rather watch paint dry (HGTV). Likewise, I also find it very dull, boring and insipid that there are whole tv shows devoted to cleaning someone's house. I must just be weird....Sorry, continue on.

Anonymous said...

Change in music causes controversy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1piBem7yzY&feature=related

healtheland said...

People who tie Christianity to western culture are absurd. Christianity was created in the ancient near east. It spread to Europe just like it spread everywhere else. And God's special revelation is limited to the Bible. (That is, unless you are a Pentecostal who believes that prophets and apostles still exist today. And I used to be Pentecostal until very recently.) Culture is not God's special revelation. Culture is a product of common grace. You can split hairs and say that some idealized fantasy of western culture is better than jungle cannibal culture. But even if it is true, so what? It is still culture, which means that it falls short of God's righteousness, which means that it cannot save. Goodness, the very idea of "high culture" came to us from the Greeks who were as pagan as the sky is blue. Western culture did not originate with the Bible, it originated with Greek pagan philosophy.

Folks who make these arguments ignore the thousands of years of typology in the Old Testament designed to teach us the difference between sacred and secular. God's revelation is sacred. Culture is by nature unholy. People can go on thinking that just because they were born in a certain place and live a certain way that they are closer to God than half-naked folks who chase antelope and in the jungle, but when judgment day comes around they are going to find out just how wrong they are.

And yes, the idea that western culture was "Christian" and that all other cultures were "heathen" was precisely what was used to enslave, brutally subjugate, and commit genocide against non-Christian "heathens."

Look, either people are going to be sola scriptura or they aren't. If you are sola scriptura, you believe that God's special revelation ended with the canon. If you are not and believe that God's special revelation continued throughout culture, and that westerners are God's favored people like Israel are something, well then you need to throw out sola scriptura. Even R.J. Rushdoony type covenant theology on steroids acknowledges that special revelation ended with the canon. So why claim that special revelation is mediated through the culture of sinful man?

Anonymous said...

Your comment about Roman Catholicism as not Christian is astoundingly ignorant. I am sorry that sounds like a flame, but you need to learn, or re-learn, basic history if you want to correctly analyze it. Ben, please, please, please hit the history books and learn what the middle ages were really like for the sake of yourself, your readers and your congregation.

Michael