You should have seen me when I started studying Christian aesthetics. Beauty, I reasoned, flows from the nature of God Himself; it’s an objective and unchanging truth. As a result, that old idiom, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” was total bunk. It was, I insisted, a postmodern ruse designed to undermine the very nature of God.
I guess I figured that, if we were all really honest with ourselves, closed our eyes, and concentrated really hard, we might be able to identify once and for all what forms and genres were truly beautiful reflections of God’s glory and majesty. I started to apply this “wisdom” to everyday art, disqualifying everything in sight. Rap music, for sure, was one of the first things on the chopping block, along with abstract art and romantic comedies.
But the more I studied aesthetics and its relation to God, the more I started to fall in line with Augustine. Sin—and as an extension, ugliness—was a mere absence of goodness or beauty, not an opposing force. Even in the “ugliest” works of art and entertainment, there were glimmers of grace.
I began to see that God was responsible for a whole spectrum of beauty. This was not a “camel through the eye of a needle” situation; beauty wasn’t some elusive thing we were searching for. Human beings were born to create, and they were born to create beauty. The Christian person ought to be more willing and able than anyone to behold beauty wherever it is.
Here’s the thing: when we close our eyes and concentrate real hard, we’re still finite mortals with only a piece of the puzzle before us. We come prepackaged with preconceived notions, skewed perspectives, and advantages that blind us to some of the most profoundly beautiful works of art that exist. Scripture most certainly clarifies the nature of God for us. That is not up for debate. But what it doesn’t do is clarify for us how beauty is best proclaimed and demonstrated to the world.
We should marvel at rap rather than minimize and denounce it. The question we ought to ask about rap is not whether it proclaims God’s nature and truth to the world, but how. If we are predisposed not to get it, we should take a default stance of humble awe and wonder, expressing gratitude and trust in a God who makes Himself known to a startlingly (and, for some of us, uncomfortably) wide range of people and cultures.
If I’m being totally honest, I first rejected rap because I wasn’t interested in those who crafted it. Then, one day, I became aware of my own personal prejudices and privilege, and started to actively understand and appreciate those who led vastly different lives.
I wasn’t won over to rap by pristine theology or cultural common ground. It was an active love for those who are different from me that led me to fall in love with rap. In fact, the rap I first fell in love with came with all sorts of theological and cultural baggage that rubbed me the wrong way. Drake, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, and a whole stable of recent rappers lay themselves bare, misogyny, sexual sin, and disenfranchisement included. These specific struggles are ones I was never really in a place to experience, but as I heard these artists wax poetic about their version of normal, I started to understand how easy it was to stumble. Empathy gave way to appreciation.
I didn’t relate to those specific struggles, but I related to the feeling of inevitability and hopelessness that came with any struggle with sin. Maybe that feeling of intense and visceral struggle is the impulse behind didactic and preachy nature of Lecrae and Trip Lee’s holy hip hop. It rubs me the wrong way because it feels one-note and dishonest for leaving out inconvenient realities. Give me solemn authenticity over preachiness with blinders on any day. But more and more, I’m relating to that desire to simply repeat what we know to be true, over and over, until we actually believe it.
Oh, and by the way, that’s what artistic appreciation is all about. We start with the acknowledgement that there must be beauty in this form or genre somewhere. We insist on it, we tell ourselves it’s true, and we preach it to ourselves without really feeling it.
Eventually, we possess the eye of the beholder.
This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, Christian Hip Hop: Beauty and Challenges.