This is a guest-post from Dr. Ryan Reeves, Assistant Dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Jacksonville Campus). He is also Assistant Professor of Historical Theology. His PhD is from the University of Cambridge and is centered in Reformation studies. Ryan is a friend of mine and reached out after the controverted NCFIC panel to publish the following. I’m thankful he did, because this essay is charitable, convictional, and personal.
This week social media went a-whirling over a video by a panel of Reformed leaders at NCFIC, who proclaimed that Reformed rap was either unnecessary or cowardly.
I am not a major consumer of rap (I stayed up for Headbangers Ball not Yo! MTV Raps), but I do appreciate it as a genre and recognize its overwhelming cultural vocabulary. So I don’t have the resources to defend Reformed rap itself—there are plenty of experts who can discuss it as an art form and defend it from criticism that rap is prideful and barbaric.
I do however see lurking in these debates a deeper issue about how we deal with faith and culture. And for that I offer a few comments.
Hundreds of years of church history have not given us an easy pattern to work through the issues of music and faith. Rare is the instrument or music style that was not initially rejected as faddish, immature, and unfit for Christian worship. If we had time, I could fill your day talking over the number of times the church has erupted into worship wars.
Still, when the panel at NCFIC proclaimed that Reformed rap is cowardly the response of many was laughter. (I myself made a joke that old men with beards and blazers are obviously the guys we want discussing rap music.) I am fine with this response, if only as a way of deflecting the pain of such criticism, but we need a more sober analysis of the issues if we are to make progress in our life together as different cultures within the church.
The root issue in these matters is the problem of form and content. Straightaway we can say that everyone involved in this debate shares the same content: the gospel of Christ. No one here is offering a different gospel message. The NCFIC panel does not suggest that rap is heresy. What everyone is debating, then, is the appropriateness of certain forms of expression, or certain ways to encapsulate the gospel we all share.
Our forms of communication, though, are maddeningly complex. Each of the ways we communicate, verbal and non-verbal, comes with cultural baggage and a host of symbols, gestures, and vocabularies. (The fact that you’re reading this online, on a screen, is itself a form of communication only a 21st century person can understand.)
Music is the most obvious genre that undergoes rapid changes. It was a generation ago that the Beatles were seen as rebellious. Now they play in dentist offices. And every song on a classic rock station seems tame compared to how their original generation experienced them.
But historians are quick to note that all forms of human communication adapt to new circumstances: how we speak, the meaning of words, gestures, clothing, body language—all are subject to change.
(Just go to the National Portrait Gallery in London and look at all the guys in silk leggings and wigs and you’ll come to an appreciation that being ‘masculine’ has meant different things to different people.)
If the panel had reserved its judgment for the cultural expression of rap then they may have been forgiven their perspective (or even their errors in fact). There is certainly no clear reason why all forms of music have to be accepted without question—and we can’t begrudge someone for asking the question. In an increasingly post-Christian world we often find ourselves confronting words and actions from hostile sources. Music easily binds us together and drives us apart, so there must be someone, somewhere who can ask an honest question.
Experts and fans of Christian rap will quickly deny this, but I would caution them (at least in most cases) to do so calmly and levelheadedly. Others may not ‘get it’ but the virtuous thing would be to help them get it, and thereby gain a friend and advocate.
Our European Baggage
The NCFIC panel, however, stumbled over a tripwire when they waded into lauding European culture and rejecting black culture. This, of course, may not have been intended but it is nevertheless unquestioningly part of their complaint.
The problem with the NCFIC panel is that it spends no time explaining why rap is harmful, and instead champions their own heritage as the norm for Christian expression. They seem to be unaware that the norms they are championing come with their own baggage: the baggage of white, European culture from the early modern period.
I’m an historian of early modern England, so you think I would be fine with this. But good luck telling me how early modern European culture is superior to the style and form of rap, which emerged from black cultural forms of spoken word, oppression, and church life. (By the way, so did Gospel, Motown, the Blues, Jazz and other forms of ‘acceptable’ black music.)
The subtle lie here is that sanctification is confused with a certain understanding of sophistication. Let’s remember that this is about music, not worship. The complaint about rap music, then, can only be that it is not good enough, or that it is a base form of music.
This is not simply an older generation shaking their head at youth culture.
These are church leaders standing on a platform, judging a culture as unfaithful and dishonoring to Christ based on the foundations of their own culture. They are not judging the content of Reformed rap, only the form. But the criticism cuts both ways: best not point out the baggage of another culture while shouldering the load of your own cultural baggage.
More importantly, this is not simply a preference for certain styles of music. This feels like paternalism. And that paternalism has to stop.
I have never, for example, met a Christian from another culture who feels that Protestant Europe is entirely irrelevant. They nearly all appreciate and affirm the gospel resurgence of Luther and Calvin.
But I often find a lot of pain resulting from how Euro-Americans cluck their tongues at others for their Christian lives—that they don’t straighten up and stop listening to rap music. That they do church differently and their preachers are too loud or preach too long or are not stodgy enough. And all of this is corrupting our youth and spreading into “our” church. Even when room is made for other cultures, it is often paternalistically, as if we are granting an exception to the rule of Christian life, and only after an appeal to us as the jury.
What utter nonsense.
We need to shine a light on the fact that European Protestant culture is not normative for all Christians—we don’t get to tell others how to sing, what to wear, and how to express their faith in Christ. Our gospel is the same, though our cultures are different.
Hold Our Culture Lightly
Besides it is a tender mercy to realize we are not the only Christians who have a say in Christian expression. We need to hold our European heritage lightly (albeit earnestly) in order that we can begin to have a healthy conversation amongst different Christian cultures. It may also help us to understand our own culture better.
In other words, our styles of music are neither superior nor inferior, but they do help us understand one another better. The same could be said for countless other cultural expressions: we can never assume that our preferences are synonymous with the gospel, though we can discuss our differences honestly and graciously.
In fact, the gospel drives us to hold our culture lightly. If we share the same Gospel, we share the same incredulity toward our own cultural dominance.