The people lining up to defend and laud rap and hip-hop, some from the very demographic of middle-aged white men who recently started a kerfuffle by objecting to Reformed rap and hip-hop, is a curious and not entirely encouraging development. I am referring particularly to the efforts by Ligon Duncan (and now Al Mohler) to distance themselves from the panel of family-friendly Calvinistic speakers who were filmed saying what many have taken to be racist, elitist, and culturalist assertions about rap and hip-hop. I am not sure if this is a substitute for the sporty red convertible, or an attempt to show once and for all one’s integrationist bona fides. (The next time Anthony Bradley writes about racism in the white evangelical church, he should remember this incident.) But whatever the incident may say about middle-aged men with ties to a region of the country where race relations have not been good (though the rest of the country was no picnic of integration), it says lots of discouraging things about the health of our culture.
Maybe I am too old to get rap or hip-hop. Frankly, I like melody in a song. Is that Eurocentric or middle-aged? Maybe, but listening to poetry, no matter how good or vicious, with some kind of rhythm or progression of chords, has never struck me as all musically appealing. It strikes me as the “musical” equivalent of The Three Stooges’ comedy. I never was a fan of those three white guys and have never understood their appeal. But I wonder if the panelists who objected to rap would be receiving the same kind of rebukes had they said similar things about The Three Stooges — the culture out of which the humor emerges is questionable, the themes betray vicious parts of human nature, such creative expressions cannot be redeemed. For the record, “disobedient cowards” was not helpful. (Also, does it get me any street cred if I liked but didn’t love 8 Mile?)
Now, if they had said about The Simpsons what they said about rap, should I get on my high horse because I find that cartoon series to be about as accomplished as Rocky and Bullwinkle? I would hope not. Not to go all elitist on anyone, but I am convinced that as good as The Simpsons is, I don’t think it will endure. Sure, it will live on in syndication for as long as its fans have access to cable. But it is not a creative form that will stand the test of time like the one that says a book on Shakespeare has much more of a chance of gaining an acquisition editor’s attention than a book on Ricky Gervais’ original series, The Office. Yes, Shakespeare has the advantage over Gervais of being assigned in all sorts of schools, all over the world. But Shakespeare does speak to a wider and more profound range of themes than The Office, and so can reach audiences that are old and young, Asian and Canadian, boy and woman.
But I am not sure that defenders of Reformed or Christian rappers are capable of seeing the difference between The Three Stooges and Shakespeare when they analyze like this:
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. . . .
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.”
I don’t know why it would be offensive to put rap and hip-hop in the same ephemeral category of The Three Stooges, The Simpsons, and Ricky Gervais. To do so is just as implicitly elitist and hierarchical as the white-guy panel was. One difference is race. But were these panelists really referring to race or to a sense that some forms of cultural expression are worse than others? Race may have played a part in their comments, though the rush to find the racist code in their language despite their explicit silence is hardly the best evidence of Christian charity. Still, the overwhelming urge to laud and defend rap as just one more valid and good cultural expression is not a good sign. It shows that the so-called conservatives in the culture wars are just as multicultural as the people who continue to promote race, class, and gender as significant categories for understanding culture.