I’m finding myself somewhere between pity and embarrassment as I watch otherwise respectable middle-aged white men tripping over one another to be first in line insisting that they’re not racist because they’re OK with Reformed Rap and Holy Hip-Hop as valid worship forms. Not everyone is riding the wave (see esp. Darryl Hart’s comments here), but I’m definitely feeling inundated right now. How did we get here? Let me suggest three culprits:
- Evangelicalism: In one sense I am forced to concede that I am an evangelical, because I affirm tenaciously the central tenets of the Gospel. But while evangelicalism is ever concerned about the practical success of the Gospel, the movement has never really been about the “central tenets” of anything (indeed, the admission standards to the Evangelical Theological Society have absolutely nothing to do with the evangel). Evangelicals place primary concern on horizontal interests (how to successfully connect with the people we need to reach and the people we need to keep). Whether people are properly catechized to live and worship in the right way is secondary to whether they are being touched by the Gospel.
- Neo-Kuyperianism: There is nothing profane in culture, so everything in culture can and must be redeemed. We must eliminate explicitly sinful deeds, of course, but those are incidental intrusions into culture—the culture itself is a product of people in God’s image variously and creatively fulfilling the dominion mandate. Every culture is equally good or at the very least equally neutral. To affirm otherwise is racist, which is probably the worst possible label you can affix to an evangelical.
- Celebrity: Christianity is, to a greater or lesser degree, publicly performed by celebrated individuals and subsequently experienced by worshippers in the form of personal admiration, pleasure, and ecstatic experience. Though these experiences may be felt in a group setting, the experience itself is individual, not corporate.
Since I am not a card-carrying evangelical, am not a Neo-Kuyperian at all, and am contemptuous of celebrities, every possible reason for embracing Reformed Rap and Holy Hip-Hop as a worship form disappears for me. Note the following:
- Since I despise Christian celebrity, I cannot fathom how rap or hip-hop can find a place in public worship. At this point I am saying nothing about the credibility of the art forms in general, only that some forms are totally non-conducive to biblical worship (see, e.g., Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Congregational rap does not and cannot exist. No rap exists other than celebrity rap.
- Since I reject Neo-Kuyperianism emphatically, I do not define culture as neutral people in God’s image variously and creatively fulfilling the dominion mandate in neutral ways. At the very root of every depraved human culture (no discrimination here) lie elemental principles and philosophies that are woven into the very fabric of its cultural expressions (Col 2:8, 20). I do believe in common grace, and thus that all people are not equally evil or as evil as they can possibly be, but the fact remains that common grace often functions more as a brake on a runaway train than as the track on which the train runs. As such, (1) some cultural expressions are so hopelessly interlaced with depraved assumptions and associations that they are irredeemable (eating meat in a cultic context); (2) others are so closely connected with depraved assumptions and associations that they should be politely declined (eating meat that is perceived by pagan community itself to be evil), and (3) still others must be eaten (eating meat after it has been successfully extricated from depraved assumptions and associations so as to be profitable for the cause of Christ) (1 Cor 8–10). From where I live in a semi-rural suburb of Ann Arbor, the cultural forms of rap and hip-hop hover somewhere between (1) and (2). It is possible that my evaluation is wrong and that the evaluation of my own particular pagan community is likewise wrong, but I do not see how the use of these media could ever be justified in my context.
- Since I do not self-identify primarily as an evangelical, my first question in matters of corporate worship is not a horizontal one (i.e., how can the gathered church successfully connect with the people it hopes to reach and the people it hopes to keep): a great many other questions precede this one, and none that impel me to use rap or hip-hop. That is not to say that I eschew evangelism or tear 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 from my Bible; however, (1) I do not see the context of this passage as one of worship, and (2) I find qualifications placed on the sentiment of this passage elsewhere in Scripture.
Is it possible that I am a self-deceived racist. I truly hope that this is not the case. I take solace in the fact that for 20 years I’ve been a fairly aggressive equal-opportunity critic (more so, I admit, than my colleagues, and at times more than has been wont—please see this as a personal reflection, not as an institutional one), and during those years my targets have overwhelmingly consisted of very white musical forms. In questioning the use of rap and hip-hop in worship I am not demeaning the race or tastes of those who embrace the forms, much less calling them “disobedient cowards” (which, by the way, was way out of line); instead, I am doing my best to make a biblically-informed judgment of the propriety of these forms in worship. And at the end of the day I don’t find a place for them.