Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop

Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop December 19, 2013

So, I’m a little late to this particular party, but I wanted to address a little brouhaha that flared up a few weeks ago in the evangelical community over so-called “holy hip-hop.” It seemed like a good opportunity to enlarge upon my own philosophy of music when it comes to some of the more, well, un-musical genres. Consider this post a continuation of my earlier, hastily penned offering on the perennial question “What is Christian music?”

In a nutshell, a panel of fundamentalist pastors was asked to weigh in on the “Reformed rapper” phenomenon: young, theologically conservative men conveying rich scriptural truths…through hip-hop music. The panelists’ response was largely negative. Here is the link to the entire 13-minute session. (I wanted to embed it but WordPress isn’t cooperating, apologies.)
I’ll be honest: I agreed with about 90% of what I heard in that video. Was it a little over-the-top in some places? Sure. Judging by the way they just passed right over rock and roll, like “We all know that’s Satanic so we don’t even need to go there!” I’ve got stuff on my ipod that would freak some of these guys out. Also, one or two comments were a bit on the harsh side regarding the personal character of the rappers (though the one pastor has since apologized for the “disobedient cowards” line).
But so many other points they made were dead-on, not just for Reformed rappers but Christian artists like (white) rapper Toby-Mac, who fuses the look and feel of hip-hop with pop. The one pastor was absolutely right that Toby-Mac’s “backwards cap and ready to rap” look is unbecoming for a man of his age. It’s the job of older men in the church to help younger men into mature Christian manhood. And however sincere your heart is, the image you present is part of that process too. Another pastor brought up reverence and proper mood-setting, extending his thoughts to repetitive “7/11” worship songs or even “something you could waltz to.” Surprisingly, he even disparaged certain songs from his own hymnal as  joyless “funeral dirges.” Although the cultural connotations of rap were (rightly) key in the panel’s objections, these additional criticisms of “white-bread” Christian music underscored the fact that they weren’t speaking from racism or “fear of the Other. ” They were presenting a cohesive philosophy of worship and art that, at its core, has nothing to do with the race of the people performing it. This isn’t news to anybody who really understands the fundamentalist approach to these things.
However, it was only a matter of days before the race card was being played all over the place in outraged reactions to the panel. People from The Gospel Coalition and other outlets immediately began castigating the pastors as old, white, racially insensitive, Philistine louts who “don’t get creation.” I wish I were exaggerating. Frankly, I’m rather embarrassed for TGC, as they usually have higher standards for discourse and reasoning. Even Owen Strachan, one of my favorites, was offering hopelessly hackneyed arguments like “well, pianos and trumpets didn’t fall divinely from the sky, so what’s wrong with using certain sounds as a vehicle to proclaim the gospel?” Right Owen… because pianos and trumpets are just like an entire genre of music that’s previously been dedicated to glorifying all manner of filth and obscenity.
Look, I understand that some Christian conservatives have no problem with “redeeming” rap. I also understand that the intentions of such rappers are pure as the driven snow, that they truly desire to bring the gospel to young people, and that in particular they desire to model upright masculinity for young men. The lack of male role models is a gaping need in the culture at large, but particularly in the black ghetto culture. I believe it’s silly to create a false dichotomy where either you think everything about Reformed rap is awesome, or you think Lecrae is a dirty rotten sinner for doing it.
However, it’s entirely possible to view what Lecrae and his ilk does as regrettable or unfortunate in some ways without calling it sin.
My first problem with attempting to redeem the rap form is one that also extends to genres such as heavy metal: It’s not artistically worthwhile, musically or lyrically. The “music” is ugly, and the lyrics are typically incoherent and void of poetic merit even when they’re not outright profane. Yes, yes, I know the drill: “Well just because it’s not pleasing to YOU doesn’t mean it’s not good,” etc., etc., yakkity-yak, yadda-yadda-yadda. I’m also familiar with the people who will argue that there is great complexity involved in both hip-hop and metal “music.” (Really, you should hear metal-heads ramble on about the “amazingly intricate patterns” going on in their favorite artists’ music.)
And you know what, I’ll grant that maybe heavy metal composers are creating complicated patterns. And maybe it requires some skill to produce them. And I will acknowledge that you need an objectively good sense of rhythm to make a rap song flow consistently. But mere complexity and skill requirements do not good music make. There needs to be an element of beauty. And folks, let’s be real: Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. I know it, and so do you. Sure, there can be grey areas where one man’s Mozart is another man’s Miley Cyrus, but at a certain point, it’s pointless to keep up the facade of musical relativism. For example, compare this desecration of “How Great Thou Art” (you have my permission to hit pause at roughly 0:30…)
…with this specimen of angelic singing:
If you can look me in the eye and tell me both of these versions are just as aesthetically beautiful in their own way, you might as well stop reading right now because you are clearly past the point of no return!
So, there’s that problem. Simply put, this “art” is ugly, so why are we even trying to rescue it from the dumpster of pop culture in the first place?
Secondly, we’re not talking about a tribal chant that we’ve just stumbled across in some remote island jungle. We’re not talking about some untouched jumble of melody and rhythm that’s completely divorced from the culture. We’re talking about highly specific, instantly recognizable “musical” forms with concrete cultural connotations. The first question to consider is what this means for crossover collaboration. What does it mean for As I Lay Dying to tour with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, or for Lecrae to invite profane secular rapper Big K.R.I.T. onto a collab track from Gravity? It means they’re legitimizing profane art, whether or not their own art is profane. The gesture is what it is.
So how do we deal with densely theological, Reformed hip-hop on its own merits? Unfortunately, we still have a problem: You can’t scrub out the connotations of the sensory assault that is rap “music” just by pasting the Westminster Catechism on top of it. I found this paragraph from Owen Strachan’s review of Lecrae’s latest to be very telling:

We get another superb beat on Track 7, “Violence”—this one from the mysterious Tyshane, who also contributed the beat to “Black Rose” on Church Clothes. The track is itself an act of violence against your speakers, though in it Lecrae decries glorified brutality, another staple of hip-hop music.

I don’t know whether I find that more comical or just sad. A blend of both perhaps. Again, the immediate question is why? Why is it so vitally important that you use this degenerate form of music to get across all these great messages against violence, misogyny, etc.? What’s the point?
“Well, it’s what the kids are listening to.” Oh I see, so we’re just throwing all notion of beauty and excellence out the window. Please, spare me the smug “missional” talk-talk.
Let’s cut to the chase: The reason why all these otherwise conservative pastors are so specifically touchy about hip-hop is white guilt. That’s it. That’s the whole debate in a nutshell. Of course, it’s most starkly apparent in more liberal Christians, who are so overcome with the mystique of “the Other” that they are fascinated even by the most offensive manifestations of hip-hop. At least Christian reformed thinkers like John Piper are unequivocal about the sinful destruction of secular rap music. Yet they are intensely uncomfortable with criticizing rap in a way that casts aspersions specifically on black culture, even though the form is blatantly reflecting the ghetto’s toxic cycle of sexuality and violence. And they are so self-conscious about their whiteness, so desperate to “build bridges” to the black community, that they very nearly view it as a sin to imply that we should discourage black Christian rappers in their “art.” Anybody who does so is instantly suspected of harboring some hidden animosity towards black people qua black people, which is rarely distinguished from a distaste for the toxic elements of black culture fueling its music.

I don’t deny that some Christian rappers have used rap as a tool to introduce young people to the gospel, but how many more young people have been left confused, thinking “I thought I left all this behind me?” Honestly, the best thing we can do for young black men coming into the Church from the ghetto is to urge them to make a clean break from that toxic background. If they retain a burden for ministry there, they should view it as a mission field, not an essential part of their identity. Although Lecrae’s lyrics may be full of biblical truth, the style in which he’s delivering them doesn’t encourage that kind of clean break.
Now, I see that hand: You’re going to ask me, “Well, what about rock and roll? Was that music not also wedded to a culture of debauchery and hence unfit for Christians to redeem?” Well, there are several factors to consider here:
1. Rock and roll was an art form capable of producing excellence.
2. Rock and roll was simply not as consistently vile as rap music. There was a much wider array of artists, many of whom produced music that wasn’t even offensive.
3. Even when rock and roll songs were problematic, the level of problematic is scaled up in rap music. I would argue that a song about torturing and beating your girlfriend is even worse than a song about making love with her, assuming the latter is merely implied without graphic sexual imagery. (But be it noted here that I’ve not held back in criticizing this type either.)
4. Although the sound alone of rock music may once have held such immediate cultural connotations as rap music holds today, some water has passed under the bridge since then. It’s been decades since rock music was the soundtrack of the culture. Today, an innocent, sheltered young person who isn’t being spurred on into temptation in a volatile cultural context can re-discover and enjoy rock music as simply good music. Now, some problems may still remain for those who are old enough to remember the emotions and temptations they might have felt when rock was young. We need to respect that and allow such people to make their own choices. At the same time, we can make the case that rock music as an art form has been effectively rendered harmless by the passage  of time. Could it be that this same thing may happen to hip-hop three decades from now? Perhaps, but that time hasn’t come yet. End rock and roll digression.
In conclusion, I see this whole mess as little more than a branding scuffle. There seems to be a clash here between two different conservative Christian types. There’s the “blue-collar” fundamentalist old guard,  now viewed as gauche, un- “missional,” and out-of-touch, and then there are the “white-collar” new reformed Christians. Some of the latter may actually have a taste for hip-hop, but I suspect that some of them are forcing themselves to like and defend it, motivated by a combination of misplaced duty and cultural snobbery. You heard me correctly, cultural snobbery. They want to accuse the fundamentalists of being culture snobs, but the truth is quite the opposite.
Now, Lord knows we need all the allies we can get in these culture wars, and I want to stress that I’m grateful for the work of TGC and the Reformed conservative movement. But if they have one blind spot, it’s that they pride themselves on being deeper and more nuanced than old-guard fundamentalists. This is the one area where they take on that disagreeable, superior tone usually reserved for the Christian left. But unfortunately, precisely because we need their alliance so badly, they have the influence and the power to make demands on other types of conservative Christians. Witness the fact that they’ve now wrung apologies out of several pastors on that panel, who’ve gone well beyond retracting the most exaggerated statements to embarrassed foot-shuffling all round. More is the pity. There was little to “apologize” for.
If you consider yourself a part of the “young, restless and reformed” camp, please know that it’s not my intention to offend you. I’m just pointing out that even our heroes can have weaknesses and blind spots. Just because your favorite pastor said it doesn’t mean it’s without flaws. I can’t demand that everyone be as cynical as I am, because we all have our own personalities. But I hope we all have some measure of common sense and a basic knowledge of what is artistically worthy and beautiful. Let’s use that, even at the risk of rubbing shoulders with some old fundamentalist fuddy-duddies.

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  • Saved Girl

    Interesting article. I’ve already seen the video, but your link doesn’t lead to it. It pulls up some stop motion thing. 🙂
    I’ve never been a fan of rap, since it’s “art form” has always been rather offensive to my ears. I did feel, though, that the video did require some apology, since the arguments they made, in my opinion, were generally hasty and not thorough. It seemed that they had moved beyond the point of explaining WHY rap was bad and gone directly to just telling people that it was bad.
    I don’t really follow or greatly respect most of the people who were all upset about it, but I was interested to learn that Voddie Baucham disagreed with the video. His teaching is very sound and he is a mature man in the Lord (he’s also black). He apparently thinks that Reformed rap is good. I would love to hear his reasoning behind this. He recently did an interview with some other men on James White’s show http://youtu.be/82a3xou5hds I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but I thought you might find it interesting as well.
    What is your opinion of Spoken Word? I’ve heard Todd Friel play a couple rap songs and some great Spoken Word stuff. It seems as though if you just took away the beat behind the raps, you would end up with a spoken word poem. In my opinion, there would be nothing wrong with that, since it would just be a rhythmic poem.
    I really appreciate your taking the time to write this. Your arguments really gave me something to think about.
    Speaking of “white guilt”, that seems to be the reason these same “otherwise conservative pastors” are singing the praises of Nelson Mandela and are completely unwilling to tell what he really was.

  • John Situmbeko

    My goodness, what a well written and insightful post. I’m in agreement with pretty much almost all the points you have brought out, except I believe Rock ‘n’ Roll belongs where Rap belongs, away from the Christian’s ear. I say this not just because I don’t like Rock music, but because of why I don’t like Rock music.
    Yes, it may be true that the days have long past when all forms of moral decay were associated with Rock ‘n’ Roll such that a DJ took the phrase used to describe the rampant immoral behaviour that most listeners of the music loosely participated in upon listening to the music and named it after the genre, but what was it about rock and roll that made all despisers of immorality point it out as an evil form of entertainment responsible for making the frequenters of rock concerts to commit fornication in back seats of cars (the act which earned rock and roll its name)? What made Christians in that day and age repel with zeal that art form? As far as I know, rotten lyrics were not born with rock. Long before rock and roll, foul language in song (though mild in comparison to today’s disgusting and severely devolved language) was used. Sexual dance existed before Elvis ‘the pelvis.’ So, what exactly brought about the negative cultural connotations of rock in that era?
    I honestly think there is a link between rock and roll and evil that cannot be severed, either by baptising it in How Great Thou Art or by prayer and much fasting. I have listened, watched and read far too many findings, both from religious groups and non religious scientists that all tell of how rock music (independent of lyrics) is more of a curse than a blessing upon the human mind for me to leisure in its sounds. On the religious side, voodoo is credited as the ground from which rock music sprung, when Hendrix or whatever his name was, sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads (both videos and articles on that topic are plentious on the internet, some even show the actual crossroads where the transaction occured, he gave there his soul in exchange for talent in music. A monument there has been erected). Anthon Lavey (founder of the church of satan) has greatly praised rock music in all its forms as one of the devils powerful tools in furthering the degeneration of humans. On the scientific side, several tests, both on humans and mice, have shown rather undesirable outcomes of rock on the human brain. Several scientific resources on that topic exist on the net.
    I have resolved not to indulge into casual listening of rock and roll, a very questionable source of entertainment labeled as voodoo by the clergy, hazardous narcotic by the scientists, claimed by the church of satan as their right hand, defended by some as an art form fit for the worship of God.
    I however would not want people to take my word forward, but that each, after much research and study, come up with a conclusion about rock and roll.

  • Thanks! Sorry about the bad link,that was the weirdest thing. I swear that link led to the panel discussion in my dashboard but somehow WordPress read it as some goofy other thing once it was published. It’s been fixed now.
    I was also surprised that Voddie Baucham criticized the panel, since he’s generally more sensible than the rest of TGC on exactly this issue. Back when the Zimmerman trial blew up, Baucham was the only member not mouthing leftist talking points about race. I thought Baucham behaved more maturely than John Piper, sad to say. So I was actually slightly saddened to see him caving on this issue, but since my position is already very well thought-through, it doesn’t really make me hesitate, just wish he had seen the light. Even Homer nods. 🙂
    I’ve heard of spoken word, and I think it works best when it’s done humorously. It still recalls rap, so from an aesthetic perspective, it’s still not the greatest. I’ve heard better and worse examples. At its worst, it’s just really, really lame poetry set to a lame beat. (Witness “Why I Hate Religion and Love Jesus”). It still encourages sloppy writing, and anything that encourages sloppy writing can’t really qualify as good art in my book.
    I haven’t read anything really effusive about Nelson Mandela, but I read a weird article by Al Mohler where he admitted, “Okay, so yeah, like he was a terrorist and stuff, but hey, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Like George Washington, right?” *headdesk*

  • Well, first of all, let’s keep in mind that there have been focal points of social upheaval throughout history without any particular soundtrack. I think you need to look at a whole cluster of factors that surrounded the sexual revolution. What about the Vietnam War? What about the invention of the birth control pill? Also, some behaviors, like violent student protests, have political roots. You could start by looking at the infiltration of the universities by communist propagandists.
    Hmmmm, hadn’t heard that about Jimi Hendrix. Anyway, it’s true that African music forms “the roots of rhythm.” When Paul Simon went to make his African album, he said learning the music was not unlike his early memories of budding rock and roll. Now, as a musician, I think that’s cool, but I can see why it would freak you out.

  • Well, first of all, let’s keep in mind that there have been focal points of social upheaval throughout history without any particular soundtrack. I think you need to look at a whole cluster of factors that surrounded the sexual revolution. What about the Vietnam War? What about the invention of the birth control pill? Also, some behaviors, like violent student protests, have political roots. You could start by looking at the infiltration of the universities by communist propagandists.
    Hmmmm, hadn’t heard that about Jimi Hendrix. Anyway, it’s true that African music forms “the roots of rhythm.” When Paul Simon went to make his African album, he said learning the music was not unlike his early memories of budding rock and roll. Now, as a musician, I think that’s cool, but I can see why it would freak you out.

  • Saved Girl

    “I haven’t read anything really effusive about Nelson Mandela,”
    Try Clint Archer’s article on The Cripplegate. *headdesk* He really should have known better.

  • Steven

    Very interesting topic that you have presented (one of the reasons that I enjoy your blog and perspective). I’m fairly young, not that restless, and pretty much reformed but I’m not offended. I also love my southern gospel.
    Like the above poster stated, the video did not work for me, but i believe i’ve seen/read about the video you presented. It is an interested argument on both sides of the equation. For me, I do not have a “problem” per se with God honoring songs that have a rap component. There are some of (for example) Lecrae’s songs that have good content and a good arrangement. However some I think stray away from content and sound too hardcore hip hop. Take Shai Lynn’s song “false teachers”, there is a very clear (tough) message and its not overly produced. I believe that many young people can learn and enjoy these songs without problem. Yes, sometime the lyrical content is very blunt, but I believe that is how the culture lives. Sometimes a message needs to be subtle and sometimes blunt. Of course, with any genre of music, i believe caution and common sense needs to prevail.
    I also agree with you on how great thou art. The death metal version is not worshipful at all (i made it about 45 seconds haha). I would take carrie underwood’s version all day, its masterful imho. HOWEVER, there are many fundamentalists who find HER version sacrilegious, satanic and not honoring to God. Why? The use of drums, electric guitars, too secular in style, too many vocal movements that give glory to herself instead of God, she’s not really dressed appropriately to sing for God. (yes i’ve heard these arguments). **Remember, drums are from africa where paganism, evil dancing and witchcraft started and by listening to too many drums you will reset your heart rhythm (to 2 & 4 instead of 1 & 3) and become a devil worshiper.** So Ms. Underwood should have only sang that song with light accompaniment (guitar/bluegrass/or piano) if she wanted to really give honor to God.
    While I say some of the above in jest, that is many people’s heart issue. I have good friends in fundamental churches who have TOLD me these arguments and they believe them. In one way, i think it is great that there are some bible based rap artists who want to try to reach the community they came out of. Again, I’m very cautious with it. I don’t believe it is something to be desired in corporate worship. Much CCM borders on the “is it secular or sacred?” debate. I would say even some southern gospel borders on does this even have anything to do with Christianity.
    I believe everything must be done to glorify God.
    Thanks for your blog and having a forum to discuss such issues.
    **Note: this portion was not a dig at anyone or anything, but are “legit” arguments i have heard about “christian & secular music” while i grew up in a very independent fundamental school. I do believe its time we stop using pseudo-science in the name of Jesus to prove our preferences.

  • Oh no, I like Clint Archer too. Sigh…

  • Shhhh, my reader John can hear you. 😛
    Yeah, I was so surprised when I read that John Piper allowed a rapper to perform in his church. Even if you want to make a concession to Christian rap as an “art” form in general, it’s taking it to another level to bring it into church. Church music needs to be reverent. But, again, it comes back to white guilt. Piper is at the forefront of the breast-smiters’ club in that respect, so on reflection it really doesn’t surprise me.
    Of course I know some people are going to say I didn’t go far enough, but that’s okay too. I can respect them, and truthfully, I have more patience with their perspective than the people who flipped out criticizing the panelists’ video (I’ve fixed the link now by the way, it should go to the right thing). Sure, at its peak, that kind of fundamentalism can hurt people and just become crazy, which I’ve unfortunately experienced first-hand. But it doesn’t immediately rub me the wrong way like the people who play the race card.

  • Steven

    I like what you said about “white guilt”. I do believe that there is some of that there. Even with this guilt problem, it seems that the YRR crowd acknowledges it but they don’t really diversify their musical styles. While, again, I wouldn’t choose rap for corporate worship, I would not have a problem with a legit, christian rap artist (who’s style is more subdued) come and minister to a youth congregation. Of course, with anything, style sometimes prevails over substance.
    One example I can give (which may or may not even fit the context), One of my best friends growing up and to this day is black. As we grew up, he exposed me to a lot of music from his church (traditional/contemporary black gospel) and culture (rap/r&b/soul). I’ve grown to have a deep love for these various musical styles. I appreciate them, listen to them for my enjoyment and seek out other forms of music. For me, its not “guilt” (like some is) its just a musical taste that I like. I don’t enjoy ALL of it, but there is some that does relate and I enjoy it.
    I guess we could debate “What is reverence?” 🙂
    I’m still laughing over “the breast smiters club” – line of the day lol

  • I wouldn’t mind so much if the artist just came and shared his testimony. That might actually be powerful. But I still fail to see why the power of that testimony must necessarily be wedded to bad art.
    Ah, you mention black gospel, soul, etc. as styles you genuinely like, but that’s because they’re actually GOOD MUSIC. And this is a big part of my point: Black culture already has a rich heritage of excellent music to draw upon. Hip-hop is an unwelcome, unneeded, comparatively recent addition to that cultural milieu. Black Christian artists should sift the wheat from the chaff.

  • John Situmbeko

    But when you have the chief satanist and founder of a church dedicated to the hater and accuser of the brethren saying go ye therefore and listen to rock and roll, wouldn’t you be suspicious as to why he didn’t say go listen to something else, say, country music? Country has always had a fair share of songs glorifying the ‘joys’ of drinking till you pass out in the arms of an adulteress or two. If the arch deceiver tells you to go, do not go.
    Sorry, it was not Hendrix who sold his soul, it was some guy named Johnson. You should check out some of the “they sold their souls for rock and roll” videos on youtube, they really do expose a lot.

  • Well, I do see a very clear-cut connection to Satanism among heavy metal artists, many of whom were open demon-worshippers. Also, it doesn’t surprise me at all that many of the rock-and-roll artists were fascinated by/dabbled in the occult. The occult was everywhere in those days, it was a substitute religion for pagan heathens. I just hesitate to draw such a rigid cause-and-effect conclusion.
    One thing you need to realize is that the moral, intellectual and ideological groundwork for the sexual revolution was laid well before rock and roll came into its own. As far back as the 1950s, you can look at movies like Rebel Without a Cause as propaganda flicks for rebellious youth chafing under the yoke of sexual repression. James Dean and Marlon Brando were two of the biggest symbols of this shift. But rock and roll was still in its embryonic phase. It’s not the soundtrack to those movies. The young people aren’t shown going crazy at drunk parties. The message of rebellion is conveyed far more subtly and perniciously, through the use of modern artistic techniques and Freudian psychology. These things, again, can be traced right back to the academy, to white-collar professors who probably never liked or listened to rock and roll.
    Essentially, when the Greatest Generation came home and had their children, they resolved to give their kids everything they hadn’t enjoyed. This included sending these kids off to college. But who was waiting for them there? It was the intellectual elite, ready to fill their heads with godless, atheist, communist propaganda. And that propaganda sowed the seeds of justification for the immoral behavior that became the Sexual Revolution. Kids got the message loud and clear that God was dead, that man was supreme, and that this gave man the “right” to behave however he felt. What do you expect a generation of hormonally pumped-up teens to do with that newfound knowledge? Party hard and have lots of sex, of course. And that’s where rock and roll comes in. You could argue that it was the young people’s celebratory RESPONSE to what they learned in college. But it wasn’t the root cause of their behavior.

  • Steven

    I do understand your point, but a case can be made that rap is a form of musical art. Does it suit everyone’s taste…no. Does polka…no. Does southern gospel…no.
    Agreed that we should sift wheat from chaff! Again, herein lies the problem with music as opposed to wheat. We know what wheat is supposed to look like and be. With music..not so much.
    From my understanding, Rap is the musical expression. Hip-Hop is the culture. The terms are many times used interchangeably. Of course, I’m not going to bet that I am totally correct in my thought.

  • Steven

    Wow there are some great points in your response and in John’s as well!
    On Robert Johnson – He was a great blues guitarist who lived hard and died young by murder. I do want to remark that while some believe the “sold his soul to satan” to play the guitar is true, there is much evidence to point out that this is myth. The myth is mostly centered around his song “crossroads”. While evidence points to this man not being a Christian and living a very sinful lifestyle, his talent does not mean he sold his soul to satan. Of course, the slippery slope argument goes something like this: Robert Johnson who may have sold his soul to the devil played blues music like no other. He inspired many folks to play blues, which the devil taught him to play. These folks are playing demonic music. Don’t listen to blues because it is of the devil. Any good philosopher or Christian thinker will see that this argument does not have any bearing. However, arguments like this have been taught to many kids without thinking deeply on the issue.
    Again, here lies one of the problems with how we as christians use subtle or small things to build an entire “theology of music”. I remember watching those propaganda videos of the evils of (insert music, band, genre, instrument, or entertainment) all based on hear say or half truths. I will agree with John and YGG that there is DEFINITELY some occultist, crude, sick, twisted (ect ect) things in the music field in multiple genres that should be avoided and warned about. However, sweeping everything with a broad brush has its harm as well.
    I may say this like a broken record, but its awesome to dialog about this in a civil and Christian manner. While we may have slightly differing opinions, I do believe we all want to serve Christ!

  • Thanks Steven, appreciate your insights as well! It’s a fine line to walk between on the one hand being aware of the sinfulness embedded in these musicians’ lifestyles and being able to appreciate their art, even when that art is in some sense borne of their lifestyles. I tend to look for human stories, and I sometimes find that looking into the history of some of these performers gives me a greater sense of compassion for the human race as a whole. I think it’s possible to cultivate that compassion and that ability to “see” people with clear eyes without being corrupted oneself. A good example is Alistair Begg’s research on the Beatles. I found this interview he gave to be fascinating and very much after my own heart. You can see that Begg genuinely likes the Beatles’ music while at once being very clear-eyed about the nature of their influence. But he also has compassion for them. Coincidentally, I was working on a similar and not yet published piece about Fleetwood Mac when I found this interview:
    This story, I thought, was particularly heart-rending:

    [John Lennon] crashed his car up in Scotland soon after he had married Yoko Ono. And as a result of that he was hospitalized. They ran the car into a ditch. And so here he is way in the-in the wilds of Scotland in a tiny, wee country hospital. And the local minister comes to make his rounds. And in one of the beds sits Lennon, you know, with his hair way down his back. And the-the man, bless his heart, duly goes up and introduces himself and says who he is. And he actually, I believe, from those who were part of this man’s congregation, had a wonderful opportunity to talk with him beyond the level of superficial things. And a couple of days later Lennon was stitched up and packed off and he left. And within a week or ten days the local minister was seen driving around the town in this lovely new car. And apparently what had happened was that Lennon, when he was discharged from the hospital, had gone to the local garage and had written a check and asked the-the garage owner to call the minister and offer to him any car of his choice at Lennon’s expense…

    Of course this wasn’t what the pastor really wanted. The greatest gift Lennon could have given was to accept Christ. A car is nothing by comparison. But he couldn’t express his affection in any other language. Buying a car for the pastor was the only thing he could think of. It’s truly tragic.

  • JordanP

    I have to disagree with you on your definition of “good” music actually is. You stated that skill and complexity alone are not enough to make good music, and that there has got to be an element of beauty included. That definition, in itself, is completely unquantifiable. What exactly is beauty? Is good music made up of a simple harmonic structure that we find aesthetically pleasing, or a mixture of the words and music building to some grand moment? Lets look at 12 tone music. You would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the classical music scene that would describe this as “good” music, but does that mean it’s not? Do you simply invalidate composers such as Shoenberg because the harmonic structure they have used doesn’t sound similar to what we are used to hearing. The same with Charles Ives, Phillip Glass, and Steve Reich. Do you take Indian Sitar music out of the mix? Again, listening to a 15 minute sitar piece would probably not be described as beautiful by most people in the western hemisphere.
    While I don’t enjoy rap music, I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that it cannot be considered good music, or offer anything meaningful. Do we disqualify it as music because it is just a series of rhythmic patterns? I know a lot of percussionists that would absolutely disagree with you. I think we need to be very careful when completely discounting something that has clearly led many people to Christ. Regardless of personal taste, or thought, Christian rap music is sharing the message of Jesus, and that, in itself, makes it useful and worthwhile. I think we tread a very fine line when we presume to know what an artist’s intentions are just by listening to their music.

  • Actually, I have listened to both North and South Indian music, including sitar music, and I do find it beautiful, though strange. I certainly don’t believe all music that I’m not used to must qualify as not beautiful. If you thought that’s where I was coming from you’d be mistaken. But, since you seem to be leaning towards the “eye of the beholder” philosophy, what in fact do you think of the two contrasting versions of “How Great Thou Art” that I posted? Do you yourself think we can’t make any objective statements about their relative beauty? I’m not asking you to agree with me on exactly what qualifies as beautiful music, I’m just wondering if you agree that we can start SOMEWHERE.
    I also believe I never said that rap music is disqualified as music because it’s a series of rhythmic patterns. While the question of whether rhythm alone constitutes music is a fascinating one, I wasn’t really getting into that particular debate. I focused on whether it’s good ART or not, which is slightly different.
    As for “discounting” Christian rap, I think we should define our terms clearly. I’m not discounting the work of the gospel in the hearts of young people who’ve been led to Christ through Christian rap. I’m also not judging the heart or the intent of the rappers who perform it. I believe their motives are good and pure. In that sense, perhaps you could argue that what they do is “useful.” But not everything God uses for good is excellent or worthwhile. God could use a really cruddy Bible translation to bring a lost person closer to him. Do we then hold off on criticizing the Bible translation? God could use a silly, cheesy Christian movie to save someone’s marriage. Does that render the movie off-limits for artistic criticism? Of course not. The same principle applies to Christian music.

  • JordanP

    My point is that it is all an eye of the beholder argument. Your argument operates under the assumption that a specific set of criteria exists by which we can deem music either “good” or “bad”, but not such set exists. This makes it simply a matter of personal taste. I wasn’t saying that music that you find strange qualifies as not beautiful. I was just asking what exactly constitutes something as beautiful.
    As for the “How Great Thou Art” examples, I do prefer the Carrie Underwood version. Though, I can most certainly find some excellent examples in the heavy metal version. The drummer is exceptional. As a band, they are very tight, and it is obvious they have fine tuned their craft. They have some definite examples of fine musicianship. Again, it’s a matter of personal preference. While I prefer one version over the other, I can’t discount that the other has value, and even may be preferred by some. And I’m not saying that we can’t criticize music. I’m just saying that we can’t definitively label music as either “good” or “bad” because it is all a matter of personal taste.

  • So a song by the Bee Gees has no more or less musical merit, objectively speaking, than a Bach sonata? I know I’m pushing it here, but it seems to me, once again, that we need to start somewhere.

  • JordanP

    Again, to some yes it would. For me, even to mention the Bee Gees in the same sentence as Bach makes me shudder. But, it is still a case of personal preference. I know many people that would listen to Wagner with contempt, but turn around and say a Lari Goss orchestration has more musical substance.

  • You’re still using phrases like “to some” and “for me.” Are you truly not prepared to say that Bach is, truly and objectively, from a God’s eye viewpoint if you will, musically superior to the Bee Gees?

  • JordanP

    I’m saying who am I to say. I could never be so presumptuous as to think to understand what God finds superior in any facet of life.

  • JordanP

    To go even further. If it glorifies His name, would he even find something superior over another.

  • John Situmbeko

    Steven, you may be right, perhaps the story is just a myth. But there is an actual ‘crossroads’ with a sort of monument consisting of two guitar-like structures built there. According to one video I watched, there is even an inscription which gives the account of what transpired there. The crossroads has significant meaning in occult symbolism. (perhaps that’s why a bluegrass song sung by the Isaacs entitled “Walk On” says, “When the devil’s at the crossroads trying to make a deal, walk on.” Not that I’m saying the Isaacs are involved in the occult, just that maybe the writer of the old song knew something about the ‘crossroads.’)
    And if you think of it, when we Christians sing, ” ‘Tis done, the great the great transaction done, I am my Lord’s and He is mine,” people can’t believe we really are His and He ours unless we show it by our lives. Johnson sang of being the devil’s, and the devil his, and boy did he ever show it or what? The story says he was booed out of every club because of his terrible playing, but after the deal with the devil, he was master of the art. Whether he met up with the devil in person or not, he sure did leave no doubt about who he dedicated his art to.
    Now, about the sexual revolution and how it was laid, I honestly have no historical knowledge of it, so thanks YGG for laying it down for me. Isn’t it interesting to note that rock and roll was sort of an art form of rebellion? That the ‘do what thou wilt’ philosophy of rebellion was so closely related to rock music? That does explain why when I hear rock music, I hear rebellion, rage and hate. (really.) To me it doesn’t speak peace, or love for my neighbour. “How Great Thou Art” above sounds as if the artists were forced to pay homage to one who killed their sisters and burned down their houses and barns filled with livestock. The whole thing just gives off a rather offensive signal of undiluted wrath mingled with super human hatred that only the enemy of souls can inspire. Could it be that the rebellion that attached itself to the art form in its early years has been accentuated as the music has (d)evolved? It is very probable. That’s one reason I think it is as an art form, unfit to communicate the message of grace, love and peace. Beautiful lyrics don’t diminish its rageful feel.
    That’s why I also feel God doesn’t want it, He just stands it and tolerates it. Yes He does have a favourite kind of music, peaceful and joyful music that goes well with the message. And since the message of rebellion is not for us to carry, I don’t see why we should scream our lungs out and play violent tunes at God like a bunch of insensitive teenagers deprived of their phones by their parents, and call it “praise from a heart of gratitude.”
    Revelation 15:2 paints a picture of us, standing on the sea of glass with harps. Yes, plain simple harps. Why would God give us harps of all instruments? Could it be that He likes them more than all other instruments? Probably the case. Imagine, while here on earth we make joyful noises when we think of our home in heaven. When finally we get there, our faith at last turns to sight and joy unspeakable and full of glory is ours. Shouldn’t the ‘noise’ be more joyful? It should. What does God then arm us with to relieve ourselves of the joy build up? Harps. To me that tells a lot about what kind of music God likes. And why does He place us on the sea of glass? Perhaps to discourage us from jumping up and down like lunatics of the first order, lest we splash or smash the sea of glass. Okay that last part is meant to be a joke.
    The point I’m trying to make is, God is said to love all music the same. But here when the party starts and He’s the DJ, He shows a preference for harp music, instead of saying “each man choose his instrument and let’s make the courts of heaven rock.”
    Yes, God gives us license to use all instruments, but notice when it’s time for Him to choose how He chooses an instrument that even when played with bitterness, fails to fully capture the bitterness because it is mild. Christians play rock music with love but the sound is bitter (who can dare disagree that How Great Thou Art above sounds bitter, making your soul cringe as if you have witnessed the descecration of the temple?).
    Indeed we can use all instruments, including the electric guitar and drums, but the way we use them matters because with instruments we can communicate a message effectively or not so effectively.

  • Oooooh, nice thought about “Walk On.” Cool historical tidbit there.
    Well, I agree with you on “How Great Thou Art,” but the version I’m using is heavy metal, not rock and roll. However, I will also agree that certain songs weren’t meant to be performed in a rock style. I find it hard to picture a good rock and roll version of “How Great Thou Art,” because it’s written as an elegant, majestic anthem. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to write a good Christian rock song.
    Regardless it’s fascinating to see the breadth of opinion we seem to have on this thread. 😛

  • You’re conflating the art with the message it carries. God could graciously receive a mediocre song of praise as sincere worship while still recognizing the difference between good and bad art.

  • You probably won’t like this very much, but the way you’re forming these arguments is pretty much identical to what non-Christians do when they’re arguing that there is no such thing as a moral absolute. Of course, I realize you would reject moral relativism, because you believe the Bible provides an absolute standard of morality. But epistemically, I’m afraid this artistic relativism you’re articulating is cut from the same cloth.
    I suspect that part of your problem is that you were never properly introduced to the concept of the natural light—truth that can be intuitively grasped by anyone apart from the Bible. The idea that morality can simply BE, can simply exist, like a number, uncreated, is probably strange to you. If I had to guess I’d say you subscribe to some version of “divine command theory.” You’d certainly be in good company.
    But I think your philosophy of morality is affecting your philosophy of art in an ironic way. Because you think of absolutes in strictly theological terms, you don’t have a way to deal with absolutes in a non-theological realm. So, you’re okay on the moral end of things because you can point to the Bible, but when it comes to art, there’s no handle you can reach for. So you refuse to make a judgement call because you feel like you can’t.
    Forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, I’m actually not annoyed with you. I’m just interested to figure out the process behind your ideas.

  • John Situmbeko

    I thought heavy metal is simply progressive rock and roll, an annoying offshoot.

  • Not being intimately familiar with heavy metal, I can’t give you the details on its relationship with rock and roll. But I can tell you there’s a lot of rock and roll that doesn’t sound even remotely like heavy metal.

  • JordanP

    I feel like we are talking in circles around each other. I’ll say this, there is no evidence that God disseminates praise to him into good, bad, or better than. Also,your argument has come from an opinion, there is no factual evidence to suggest otherwise.To say that Christian rap is bad music, or a lesser art, we would need hard evidence, and we don’t have any. All wehave are statements of personal preference.

  • As PRAISE, you are right—sincerely and lawfully rendered, all praise is equally precious in God’s eyes. However, suppose we tried it the other way—could we not imagine an excellently written song, well-performed, that was not done sincerely? In that case, we would say it was not good worship and that God didn’t receive it as sincere praise. But this is a separate question from whether the song/performance was artistically excellent. These are two completely different ways of judging the same performance.

  • So you know I have to disagree with you because I love both metal and hip-hop but I disagree lovingly. 😛
    First, I’d like to say if you can’t hear the traditional Western aesthetic of beauty in metal and hip-hop that you are not listening to right metal and hip-hop. There are many songs out there in both genres that display as much beauty as the examples that you provided of beauty in music (progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater have some very nice melodic songs for instance).
    Secondly, I do think that a Western understanding of beauty does not correlate exactly with a biblical understanding. Throughout Christian history the image of Jesus on the cross beaten and bloodied has been seen as a thing of beauty despite its goriness. As paradoxical as that sounds, the violence that was bestowed upon Jesus on the cross is something beautiful because of the deeper truth expressed through his death on the cross (I find this Q conference talk especially helpful on that subject: http://www.qideas.org/video/beauty-in-culture.aspx).
    Which brings me to my last point, does music (or any art) need to be primarily concerned with beauty in order to be music? I do not think so. That can be one way to understand and enjoy a piece of music for sure but not the only way. As the grotesque image of a bloody Jesus on the cross is superficially unappealing, it is the deeper meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross that makes that image beautiful. And that I think is another avenue through which one can appreciate music is if it is revealing truth.
    The violent sounds of many metal and hip-hop songs might be in terms of a traditional Western conception of beauty unappealing but what are the functions of those genres of music? Both metal and hip-hop have been concerned throughout their history in revealing truth and a harsher musical sound helps to deliver that message in a more forceful manner than a beautiful melody could. Zao’s “All Else Failed” is a great example of this, demolishing musically and lyrically the idea that we can in our own power be righteous before God and in the end presenting the truth of the gospel in establishing our righteousness before God (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p39NyNsYxMo).
    To be clear I am not saying that truth and beauty have to be mutually exclusive and neither are they the only way in which one can listen and understand music but they are two major conceptions of how we interpret music (and art in general).
    Just some of my ramblings off the top of my head as I think through your article and I might have more thoughts later but I love ya for writing this piece. Definitely makes for a good conversation on music and in which ways Christian should create music.

  • Thanks my friend, as you know I am never one to shy from speaking my mind on any given topic. 😛
    I’ll have to consider your thoughts in more detail later. I hear what you’re saying about how the raw scream of heavy metal can convey a deeply painful reality more immediately and powerfully than something superficially “pretty.” I dislike trite musical expressions as much as you do. I’m just not convinced that metal, because it’s loud and violent and screamy, is necessarily more profound. Furthermore, you mention that hip-hop is concerned with delivering “truth.” I would submit that if that “truth” mostly consists of reiterating that brutish men enjoy degrading their girlfriends, beating up policemen, and accumulating “swag,” that’s not really a truth worth dwelling on. Furthermore, it’s not delivered in a poetically excellent way. It’s not that I’m against songs that describe the human condition, or tell a story of sin. But I think that when a) the sin is wallowed in and glorified in graphic detail, and b) when there’s not even any artistic excellence to commend it, we’re dealing with an art form that’s simply not worth the time spent on it by Christians.
    Again, thanks for commenting bro, always enjoy your thoughts even though we disagree. 🙂

  • Yes I agree that is a huge issue with a lot of mainstream hip-hop but I guess I should be more specific in the hip-hop I’m referring to which is conscious rap. Artists such as The Roots, Tupac, De La Soul, Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five (see “The Message” http://youtu.be/gYMkEMCHtJ4) and countless others. A lot of reformed rappers in my mind come out of that hip-hop tradition of shedding light on social issues. Probably the best example of this in Holy Hip-Hop is Sho Baraka’s “The Talented 10th” (https://play.spotify.com/album/7ga1WWaRUZLJREH23DlcXw). Musically this is top tier hip-hop and his lyrics hit hard on the realities of African American life in the US but always within the context of the hope of the gospel.

  • I also think you might like The Roots because they play hip-hop on real instruments. Their second album contains a lot of acid jazz influences which you might enjoy. https://play.spotify.com/album/3N0wHnD5Rd8jnTUvNqOXGz
    Also on their “Undun” album they do an instrumental version of Sufjan Steven’s “Redford” in four short movements which is pretty excellent. https://play.spotify.com/album/5UQo0dIJc9nfkt2HWd2GCp

  • Okay, but even that “socially conscious rap” brings a host of issues and baggage along with it. Some hard questions need to be asked—is this really speaking “truth”, or is it just speaking for a certain narrative of the truth? Is it being honest about the causes of the black American condition, or is it simply drumming up more un-founded, illogical blame-placing on “the whites”? Is it admitting how the black community has been sucker-punched and betrayed by the Democratic party, or is it toeing the party line and praising Barack Obama? Is it really about justice proper or just “social justice”? Hard things that still need to be addressed, even within Christian hip-hop.

  • Lydia

    Are we talking about Tupac Shakur, here? He’s famous for a pro-abortion “choice” lyric, lauded by the left, to the effect that since a man can’t make a baby, he doesn’t have the right to tell a woman whether to have one or not. http://abortioneers.blogspot.com/2010/01/keep-ya-head-up-by-tupac.html
    That’s the kind of social consciousness we can do without. And especially, that blacks can do without, considering the number of black babies being aborted every day.

  • Lydia

    I found that Tupac quote in thirty seconds’ googling, by the way, when I read the comment about “socially conscious” rappers and “the black experience” and wondered, wryly, if any of them were addressing the abortion holocaust among blacks.
    Not that, even if they were addressing it in the right way, that would answer any of the other points concerning both aesthetics and associations of the genre.

  • Lydia

    This is an example of someone who can be relied on to give edifying rap? Good grief. Better stick to the ones who at least claim to be rapping Calvinist theology.

  • Sadly I don’t see a better way to interpret that lyric. The rest of the song isn’t too bad, and I’m sure it’s viewed as this big improvement over standard misogynistic fare. But you trade misogyny for feminism, and it’s out of the frying pan et cetera.

  • You are right, truth and social justice as expressed in hip-hop are the musician’s version of those things and not actual truth or true justice. There might be glimmers of actual truth and justice but it will always be corrupted by our sinful ideas of what those things mean. I was thinking of socially conscious rap more as a conceptual framework where someone speaks truth over an forceful beat. Is the truth in hip-hop off the mark as someone mentioned concerning the one Tupac lyric about abortion? Definitely, no doubt about that. But I think hip-hop when it is really great can highlight the struggle of the disenfranchised and point people towards solutions to rectify their situation. Whether that comes from within or outside the community.
    Different approaches to social justice is something I discussed in a comparison of a song by Tupac and one by Lecrae. http://www.theretuned.com/the-state-of-hip-hop-divergent-views-on-social-justice-in-changes-and-send-merepresent/
    I like that Tupac highlights the woes of his community but his version of social justice is severely lacking, while I find the call of Lecrae’s song for Christians to affect change in the ghetto with the gospel to be quite good.

  • Thanks for the link Matt, I’ll be sure to check it out. I have to ask though—I’m not sure what you mean by truth being “off the mark” when it’s expressing an opinion about something. I could see what you mean if we were discussing a song that’s JUST describing the human condition. But Tupac makes a flat-out false statement in his song—it’s not “truth that’s off the mark,” it’s just a lie, plain and simple.

  • Michael

    Finally, someone (and it took a Christian Rapper/Holy Hip-Hop artist) to stand up the Gay Mafia). Read article and watch youTube video. However, note, there are comments by the gay community that are vile and disgusting, and an assault on Christians worldwide. What this Christian hip-hop artist Bizzle did may prove to be a turning point in the war on Christians being waged by the Gay Mafia and the media.
    Posted on CharismaNews.com: http://www.charismanews.com/culture/42667-watch-christian-rapper-answers-macklemore-s-same-love-gay-anthem
    See story below and view this video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9KQ4_uH1RA
    Source: Charismas News (Feb. 5, 2014)
    The Super Bowl may have diverted the attention of some, but many evangelicals have yet to forget Macklemore’s pro-gay “Same Love” anthem performed during the 2014 Grammy Awards—not the least of which is Christian rapper Bizzle, whose response song is making waves across the web.
    The rap song, being branded as “anti-gay” and “homophobic” by various news media, landed more than 120,000 YouTube hits in a week from its release. The video begins with a quotation of 2 Timothy 3:1-5, a passage that warns of increasing sinfulness in the last days. But the message of the song isn’t the typical biblical argument against homosexuality; it accuses the gay rights lobby of unfairly comparing themselves to the civil rights struggle of African-Americans such as Bizzle himself.
    Macklemore hasn’t responded to the pimp-turned-Christian’s rebuttal track, but the rest of the secular world has. In an online article, one Philadelphia newspaper describes Bizzle as “compar[ing] gays to pedophiles,” while a pro-gay site accuses the rapper of “boost[ing his] career by attacking more successful hip hop artists.”
    The real parallels between homosexuality and other sexual behaviors the Bible lists as sinful, such as pedophilia, cannot be ignored by Christians. Yet Bizzle’s core frustration is the race issue: “The Bible is all right until it calls what you like sin, and I feel so disrespected that you were so desperate you would compare your sexual habits to my skin,” the rapper laments.
    What do you think of the tension-filled response song? See it for yourself:
    Does not look like these rappers are afraid at all, as the one preacher blurted during the debate about holy hip-hop. The only question now is: will anyone of the evangelical Christian leaders or preachers stand with this black rapper as the LBGT community assaults him viciously.
    God Bless you,

  • Thank you Michael. I will definitely check those links out. I was careful to note in my article that I disagreed with the “disobedient cowards” remark. I feel it was careless, and this story demonstrates that Christian rappers are doing bold kingdom work.