Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hard Questions for Holy Hip Hoppers

What is it with middle-aged Christian white men and their infatuation with rap music?

Not me, silly!  I'm talking about people like the popular Christian personality Dr. Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky.  Christianity Today this month features an article by Moore entitled "W.W. Jay-Z?  How Christian hip-hop could call the American church back to the gospel—and hip-hop back to its roots."

Whew!

As you can tell from its wordy title, Moore's sprawling seven-page manuscript is an excruciatingly nuanced and cumbersome defense of rap and hip-hop in the evangelical realm.

"Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you'll note just how theological it is," gushes Moore.  "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."

Wow.  If that's all it takes for a song to be theological, are we Christians wrong for bashing Madonna and her trashy songs like "Like a Prayer?"

Of course, that's not what Moore is intending to say, but that's what he's implying.  It's as if theological jargon is sufficient for a genre of music to be considered legitimate.  "The new hip-hop artists aren't simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics," Moore explains, upping the ante mostly because he agrees with the brand of theology some rappers are espousing.  "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."

Okay.  So their words aren't offensive.  They're actually educational, especially if you're into finding words that rhyme with "hypostatic union."

But let's go back to a quote Moore provides by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, an organization attempting to bridge faith and culture.  "'Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained,'" Moore quotes Myers as admitting.  "'It is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.'"

I think we can all agree on that, right?

Myers continues.  "'Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence.'"  Moore consolidates Myers' further points this way:  "To use 'pious and humble' hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate 'the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,' since it is a style 'more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit.'"

Again, I think most of us who know anything about the genre can agree on this, too.  Indeed, I allude to the depravity which has helped to nurture rap and hip-hop (we white guys tend to use the terms interchangeably) in my essay on Brooklyn the other day.  The music of the urban ghetto is not so much an evolution of the spirituals from the southern slave fields as it is a far more conflicted, narcissistic, and accusatory narrative of people who have been intentionally marginalized by the political party that claims to be their voice, and patronized by poverty-perpetuating welfare programs.

Hardly the stuff of orthodox grace, mercy, love, and sanctification, is it?

This is not to say that listening to rap and hip-hop - whether it's from the secular markets, or the Christian market - is, in and of itself, a sin.  To the extent that "Reformed" rappers can put theology to a rhythm and prose that is catchy and memorable can't be the worst way to learn what some of these big religious concepts mean.  I can't even deny that the uncanny ability Reformed rappers have of creating something like that isn't some sort of gifting, especially since the stuffy academics who came up with these Byzantine terms had no intention of making them easy for mere laymen to understand.  Take some of these lyrics out of the sound, and even the beat, and they could probably stand on their own as worthy poetry.

From there, however, Moore wanders off into a desperate search for parallels between church history and the disenfranchisement that is part and parcel of rap and hip-hop.  Like a lot of eager whites, he pooh-pooh's the hard-core hate and anger infused into so much rap, almost as if, by his embrace of it, he's proving the point some rap artists are trying to make:  whitey just don't get it.  Moore even debates the worthiness of contemporary Christian music and southern Gospel to address some of the issues rap can more darkly explore.  Of course, I hold much CCM with even greater disdain than rap, since CCM is nothing more than a commercial compromise at the altar of rock's anthem of rebellion.  At least rap and hip-hop, although moneymaking machines in their own right, do have the elements of justice and social awareness woven - however loosely - into their fabric.

As far as southern Gospel is concerned, well, I'm probably making enough enemies with this essay as it is.

Nevertheless, in terms of rap and hip-hop's general appropriateness for regular consumption by believers in Christ, is it simply a matter of finding Christian - and even Reformed - parallels within segments of carnal hedonism?  Instead, shouldn't we be considering the purposes of a cultural contrivance and whether those purposes stand in the light of the Gospel?  Don't authentic rap and hip-hop expressions stand exactly for what Moore quotes Myers as saying:  they are about everything except the Fruit of the Spirit?

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

How do rap and hip-hop fit into this fruit?

Now, maybe I'm missing something about how believers in Christ are supposed to live and model His work in our lives, but doesn't the Fruit of the Spirit represent a better measure by which we evaluate anything, instead of the extent to which something correlates with themes from theological and doctrinal history?

Otherwise, why am I praying that the holy Spirit will help me to speak the truth in love, be less cynical and moody, be less in love with status symbols, be less selfish and vain, and even be able to actually carry a tune in choir?  I know that's something for which my choir director at church is praying!  With rap and hip-hop, all I need to be able to do is bend my knees in cadence with a beat, and drone into a microphone stuffed halfway down my throat.

I also wonder if contemporary Christianity's infatuation with rap and hip-hop could actually create the illusion of racial harmony while deep-seated issues like generational poverty, income polarity, education and technological inequities, and divergent political interests continue to fester under the surface.  Even if there was nothing spiritually wrong with rap and hip-hop, how much does embracing a musical style with such socioeconomic and political baggage count towards inter-racial love and understanding?

Can we get jiggy with Jesus just because something rhymes with "hypostatic union?"  After all, isn't combining divinity with humanity something only Christ has been able to do?


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