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Does Christ Redeem Cultural Expressions?

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series

"Is Rap Really a Canvas?"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

We have studied some statements by Shai Linne and boiled them down to four propositions.
1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

We have considered the first two, and now we turn our attention to the last two. Linne’s statements about redemption are fairly common views in this debate. In essence, such views see Christ as redeeming sinners and their ways, meaning that those now-redeemed sinners can turn those redeemed ways toward Christ and His glory.

What does Scripture say about our redemption? First Peter 1:18-19 is probably one of our clearest answers:

1 Peter 1:18-19 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

Notice who or what is redeemed. Believers are redeemed. What are they redeemed from? They are bought out of their former futile ways or behavior. If culture is in fact an expression of a belief system, then culture would be the conduct that emerges from that collective view of ultimate reality. Peter says that Christ redeems us from this very thing: from the culture that emerged from the futile and aimless views, propagated from one generation to another. Christians are in the process of progressively being changed from this old way of thinking and acting into a new way.

READ
Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: How does rap "flavor" its truth content? (Rebuttal)

Here’s the key question: Does Christ redeem the futile ways themselves? Does He redeem the ways in which we expressed our ungodliness, so that they may now be enlisted in His service? Or to carry the logic through, does He redeem the cultural artifacts that were used to express ungodliness? Here we do not mean, does Christ redeem the computer that was used for pornography, or does Christ redeem the sound system that was used for raucous parties. It is nonsense to speak of a redeemed computer or a redeemed boom-box. What we mean is, are there cultural expressions, such as music genres, certain leisure activities or forms of recreation, that Christ redeems and transforms?

First, we note that this would be an argument from silence, because the Scripture only speaks of believers being redeemed. Second, if Christ redeems us from futile ways, what will the implications be for those cultural artifacts that propagated those ways? A man who was a nudist and owned a nudist colony can be redeemed, and he is therefore redeemed from the futile way of nudity. What will that do to the cultural artifact of the nudist colony that propagated this sinful behavior? Well, put simply, it does not redeem it. The nudist colony ceases to exist, and the land it was on is now used for something God-glorifying. But it does not become a Christian nudist colony, for no such thing can exist. The cultural artifact of a nudist colony could not be redeemed or transformed. It could only be abandoned. It was itself a sinful expression of sinful hearts, and sinful behavior is not what Christ redeems. He redeems people from sinful behavior.
[To pre-empt my friendly objectors: Yes, I have chosen nudity as an example because we’d all agree that people need to be redeemed from nudism, and nudism has a vehicle that promotes it – the nudist colony. If you feel that this is an unfair comparison to rap, will you not concede that people need to be redeemed from what 99% of rap propagates? Won’t you agree that rap is usually used as a vehicle for these ungodly values? Is there no way that the shoe fits – that the form was developed because it suits the content?]

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Should we observe Independence Day in church?

If rap emerged from a worldview that did not have Christ at its center, and was used to express values and beliefs that were hostile to Christ, then the form itself is linked to its original worldview and purpose. Christ did not come to redeem arrogance, pride, murder, fornication, greed, rape, rebellion, illegal drug-use, gangsterism, hatred, and so forth. He came to redeem people from those things. To then say that Christ redeems the form that emerged from futile ways is to misunderstand what form is, and to misunderstand what redemption does and for whom.

Form is not a placeholder, it is an expression. If expressions are sinful, Christ does not redeem them. Redemption is not a hard-scrubbing of sinful barnacles off a neutral object. Redemption is buying humans out of sinful ways so that they may glorify God.

Despite accusations to the contrary, I hope my readers understand that I bear no hostility to rappers like Linne. Like Paul, I am thankful whenever the gospel is preached, even if the method or motive is not commendable (Phil 1:18). However, it’s some of the responses to these articles and other recent similar ones that are very telling, and curiously disproportionate, if this matter is indeed the non-issue and matter of preference that such responses usually say it is.

Regardless of how bystanders interpret my motives, my understanding of the Christian imagination and the affections leads me to see that matters like this are not peripheral, stylistic matters of personal preference. They go to the heart of how we imagine God, which is foundational and fundamental. We don’t want to be idolaters. That’s my agenda.

READ
Rap and Bad Art
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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

7 Responses to Does Christ Redeem Cultural Expressions?

  1. I'm shocked that you think nudity is sinful! While it may have sinful connatations in western culture, in many cultures ……………….

  2. In a blog "conversation" I attempted a while back regarding this topic, one of the verses used by those who said rap can be redeemed is Col. 1:20, because it refers to Christ reconciling "things" to Himself.

  3. Thanks David. You provided several useful concepts, especially the distinction between canvas, form, and content. In this context, I would understand sound to be a canvas, music to be a medium, style to be a form, and lyrics to be content.

    I have been following articles on this site for while now and would like to submit a controversial thought: that the word 'moral' should be omitted from the phrase, "media are not morally neutral until informed by content." The crux of the argument is whether music style can communicate moral concepts – as such, this is mainly a comment on Part 2 of this series.

    I tend to believe that insisting there is a moral dimension to musical (or other art) style/form is not helpful to this discussion. I quote several passages from your post to illustrate:

    # "media are more or less ingressive to the messages they carry. And some are positively hostile or contradictory to the original ideas and affections of the messages they carry."

    # "the form was developed because it suits the content"

    # "if popular culture was a worthy or fitting medium to communicate the transcendant"

    What these quotes show is less a MORAL function of form than a utilitarian function. The latter is the one I prefer to use over the moral one. What I mean is that we must learn to match the music to the message. This is very well done in the movie business, as well as in advertising. These folks know exactly what music to use to match the message they want to communicate, or the mood they want to create. Good composers will do the same; I believe Keith Getty or Kevin Bauder have illustrated this very well in past presentations. Music either fits the message or it does not, and it is in this sense that we must select it as Christians, both for worship and for other uses.

    Experts are still split over what music (without lyrics) can or cannot communicate. Many would agree that basic feelings (anger, joy, fear…) can be communicated but not more complex ones, such as envy or pride. Others contend that it is impossible to really measure any of those effects and submit that music may evoke even other feelings or mechanisms that may only resemble the basic feelings. Be that as it may, music by itself remains a very imprecise means of communication. Once combined with images or lyrics, however, it becomes a powerful means to reinforce (or modulate in other ways) the message, as you already wrote. Yet, I hesitate to ascribe moral value to that function since the moral implications depend on the context and not on the combination of lyrics and music style.

    For example, putting Psalm 23 to hard rock music is an obvious mismatch between message and form. I can't think of a good application where such a song would be appropriate to use but don't see that it would per se be immoral to do; it simply is not a useful approach since the message will lose its power due to the musical form used. Hard rock is also unable to communicate the noble Olympic spirit, which can be seen in the current controversy around the London Olympics theme music.

    Likewise, putting biblical ideas to pop music tunes tends to trivialize the message, i.e. we again have a problem with a mismatch. I don't think this is usually done intentionally, rather it seems to me that the knowledge about techniques to combine musical form and message was lost among most Christian (and other) music writers and performers, whereas it is alive and kicking in the movie and advertising industries.

    On the other hand, a performer could intentionally sing the lyrics in a way to mock the biblical content, and then it becomes a moral issue. This intent, however, is not in existence among Christian performers. For this reason, I believe that the insistence on the moral qualities of musical form is not helpful in this discussion. We should focus on an intelligent choice of musical form instead, one that enhances the message, rather than taking away from it. Media are not neutral – they heavily impact on the message. Yet, even with Psalm 23 set to hard rock (or rap if you prefer), the lyrics still dominate (if you can understand them) and are not inversed (howbeit heavily discounted) by the music. Christians need to (re-)learn how to select musical forms that are appropriate for the message and situation (such as congregational worship) in a utilitarian, rather than a moral, sense.

    The analogy you used with the “Can’t wait to see you” message as a nice letter or on a butcher's knife does not represent musical form options well. It seems the knife option communicates very well what the intent was, i.e. a threat. As such, using the knife is the right medium to enhance the intended message. The medium here is necessary to clarify the message. Choosing one style of music over another does not, however, change the meaning of the lyrics in the same radical way as the above example (unless it's intentional mockery). Does this make any sense or am I overlooking something here? I realize this would be an important change in the argumentation but if it represents the facts better, it is a necessary one.

  4. Martin,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. We are certainly in agreement that musical form communicates meaning, and this meaning can be appropriate or inappropriate.

    Our disagreement is whether form is utilitarian or whether it possesses a moral dimension.

    My position would be that any form that trivializes holy things is, properly speaking, profane. It does not have to blaspheme. It merely has to belittle, even unintentionally. If something has profaned, it is moral, for it is a violation of the Third Commandment.

    When we speak of the inability of people in general to perceive meanings in the musical forms they prefer, several things are at work. One might be compared to a youth whose vocabulary is not large enough to let him know when someone has ridiculed him. Should people not be willing to understand the language of music before loudly telling others what it does not mean?

    Another matter in play is that people can become desensitized to meanings. A person who is soaked in the eroticism of hip-hop and rap is not likely to see any eroticism in Strauss.

    Finally, as the comments in articles like this amply demonstrate, the real problem is not what people know about music; it's what they love. And all of us, me included, are willing to lie to ourselves to keep what we love. To see the responses on Facebook, on this site, on Sharper Iron, is to see people who have become so identified with their music that an attack upon their music is understood as an attack upon their persons.

    The thinking seems to be that if such lovers of rap or rock aren't themselves involved in immorality, gangsterism or anarchy, then they cannot accept or allow that the music that they love or use for the gospel is primarily about sex or rebellion.

    In the end, I think the widespread ignorance of what these forms tend to communicate should not lead us to soften the blow. Inappropriate, indeed. But inappropriate in these cases is more than juvenile clumsiness. For those involved in using this music for evangelism or worship not only defend their right to love and use the music, but they defend their right to remain ignorant of the meaning of form.

    They profane, and then they refuse to even investigate if they have done so. This is moral.

  5. Thanks David. It would be boring just to leave it at that, so let me try to offer some additional thoughts.

    The concept I would like to introduce here is to consider musical form not a means of communication that is able to convey moral or immoral concepts but rather, merely a tool that can be used to enhance or (if used inappropriately) debilitate the message. The impetus to discard musical form as morally relevant stems from a) the inability of music by itself to clearly communicate meaning, and therefore moral concepts, and b) the need for intent and/or context for musical form to have moral implications.

    I already referred to the limits of music in terms of communication in my previous post. It must be recognised that musical style communicates something. Yet, it never dawned on me that the up and down in the Stones song 'Satisfaction' was meant to depict sexual intercourse until I learned that this was the original intention. I believe we need to realise that music is unable to convey precise concepts reliably to all listeners automatically, even though careful analysis may discover the composer's intent. Scientifically, it has proven difficult to determine what exactly musical communication consists of but it is clear (and we agree), from a utilitarian perspective, that certain styles of music can be combined with other means of communication (e.g., movies or lyrics) to reinforce the desired impact. Yet, it is only in combination with clearly intelligible messaging that music usage can have moral connotations. Music may be able to invoke feelings or thoughts of anger, rage, etc but as others have already observed, such feelings are not necessarily immoral. That depends on the context, and a Christian movie editor may perfectly well choose to play some angry sounding rap music in the background (the lyrics may or may not be important) during a scene when the protagonist enters the Bronx, simply because the music creates the desired feeling in the viewer that enhances the scene, i.e. it actually improves the movie. On the other hand, singing a song that expresses unbiblical concepts reinforced by a fitting musical style clearly entails moral implications – but does so because of the clear lyrical meaning conveyed, rather than the music used to enhance the meaning.

    You wrote that trivialising holy things by combining inappropriate music with biblical messaging profane, and thus immoral. I would submit that it is rather like bad preaching. A pastor can trivialise or even corrupt biblical messaging by presenting it in a flippant way, by choosing the wrong illustrations, by omitting important aspects, or worse, by using incorrect theology. Yet, he will usually do that with well-meaning intentions, such that I find it difficult to accuse him of immorality (unless there is a clear intent to deceive). The problem is that such preaching may well lead the congregation into wrong beliefs or unchristian practices, which, of course, has severe moral consequences. The blame for that, however, does not squarely lie on the pastor but also on the congregation (Job 21:14, Isa 28:9, Hsa 4:6, Act 17:11). Thus, the pastor in this example is a bad preacher (and should be replaced) but not immoral because of that fact. In my understanding, the Bible strongly emphasises the need of knowledge and understanding to improve Christian instruction and worship. Both a love for the truth and a knowledge how to apply that love in practice are needed for reasonable Christian service. Clearly, trivialising the message takes away from it but we should refrain from judging people's motives and instead try to educate Christians to “expound the way of God more perfectly" and to "rightly divide the word of truth." You have repeatedly shown on this blog how important that is.

    To summarise, although mismatching music and message can have moral consequences it is not necessarily immoral in its intent but may simply be lack of wisdom (Eph 5:17, 1.Tim 1:7). As to your final lines, I would wholeheartedly agree that we are dealing with a case of “For this they willingly are ignorant of" (2.Pet 3:5). That many Christians today are a bunch of juveniles has been well illustrated in a recent Christianity Today article (www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/june/when-are-we-going-to-grow-up.html) . It seems as if the church has all but forgotten exhortations to grow in understanding like that in 1.Cor 14:20, and I definitely see a preference among Christians for easy answers and a superficial use of the Word of God, rather than seeking for the true depth, breadth and height. One would think that Christians love the truth above all but in practice we do not always find this to be the case. I found an interesting quote that illustrates this dilemma, taken from the book ' Body, Soul and Human Life' by Joel Green:

    “In the U.S., for example, staunch Democrats and hard-core Republicans hear the same data but, predisposed to interpreting them differently, they walk away with opposing conclusions. In an fMRI study conducted at Emory University prior to the 2004 presidential election, Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they were asked to evaluate damaging information about their own candidate. Notably absent among the subjects involved in this study was any activation of the neural circuitry implicated in conscious reasoning once they were confronted with the damaging evidence. The researchers concluded that emotionally biased reasoning leads to the “stamping in” or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associated with the participants “revisionist” account of the data with positive emotion or relief and the elimination of distress. The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and persons can learn very little from new data. (p. 119)"

    I wonder whether this is simply an aspect of human depravity and our inability to swallow our pride and choose good over what we know deep down is evil (and also comes dangerously close to 2.Tim 4:3 and Rom 1:31). With such a natural tendency to grasp any straw that may present itself in order to maintain our current position and avoid having to change anything, your task is indeed herculean and requires both refined thinking and the power of the Holy Spirit to be effective. Sadly, there are still few who consider what you have to say with respect to musical choices. I, for one, very much appreciate your ministry.

  6. And thank you for your thoughtful contribution, Martin. I wish more would take time to think on these things.

  7. Interesting read. I wonder how you feel about Christian rock or pop music? Or even hymns which borrowed some of their tunes for bar songs? Or clothing (fabrics) that were considered off limits to the Hebrews in the OT but we wear freely? This argument eventually leads down a never ending rabbit hole because the arguer has undoubtedly violated his own argument by his/hers cultural norms that did not originate in God.

    Additionally, how should a Christian, sing, dance, create art, read, etc? These are all of the facets of culture. The israelites did not wear cotton dockers, levi’s, or members only jackets. Based on your argument, we should be mimicking the culture of the the OT.

    I believe your idea of culture is simple and you use rap as an example because it’s easy. But I’m sure that there are aspects of how you talk, walk, dress, etc. that were not birthed from God.

    Additionally, I always find it interesting when a caucasian writer/blogger takes another culture/race to task on the deficiencies of their “Christian” culture. Please do not take that statement as a racist or prejudice statement because I do not view your comments in that way. Cultural redemption is necessary because culture is inescapable.

    Lastly, Revelations 7:9 states, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. We can have unity in diversity as we submit all we are the Jesus.

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