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On the suggestion that ‘holy hip hop’ is the new Baroque

Anthony Bradley recently submitted a commentary for World magazine publicizing ‘holy hip hop.’ He writes, “If you are looking for theologically saturated Christian music that has the greatest potential for widespread appeal, your best option may be Christian hip-hop.” The first sentence gives away a great deal. First, he missteps in the first clause, for the music of holy hip hop is not theologically saturated. In fact, it is decidedly not so. It is the music of popular culture. One might argue that the words of ‘holy hip hop’ are ‘theologically saturated,’ but certainly no argument could possibly be submitted that the music is, and most of the remaining article seeks to argue that that’s not important anyway.

Even so, Bradley’s assumptions are evident right from the beginning. He believes that “widespread appeal” is a good thing. Widespread appeal to whom? To the morass of popular Christian culture that haunts Christian bookstores? To Christians all over the world? To the “holy, catholic church,” and Christians throughout church history? To the church fathers? Do they not deserve a voice in this “widespread appeal,” or does their opinion count for nothing? Or are we only concerned with the American youth of our present Christian epoch? And, if that’s our ‘target demographic,’ does this not itself say something about the state of our collective wisdom and values? As I hinted a moment ago, if we were truly considering a ‘widespread appeal’ of Christian music, as if that was important in and of itself, one would certainly not ever clearly find in ‘holy hip hop’ such an offering. How could such a goal be even measured or analyzed?

But why is this even a concern to us? Why is ‘widespread appeal’ something to be desired? Joel Olsteen and a young emergent pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have ‘widespread appeal.’ Even Robert Schuller has ‘widespread appeal.’ More Christians have sung the hymns of Harry Emerson Fosdick than Shai Linne. (!) I would argue that ‘widespread appeal’ should not be our focus in selecting music to worship God, and, if it is, it is only secondarily a consideration from a catholic vantage point, as a way of giving a voice to the saints in ages past and what they in their wisdom deemed worthy of public worship. Indeed, our worship is selected, not for the sake of ‘widespread appeal,’ but for the sake of God himself. We are worshipping him, not trying to win a popularity contest.

But let us be fair. Bradley did not utter this opinion in a vacuum. Truly, he was trying to contrast ‘holy hip hop’ against CCM, and surely, to his point, it seems like (based on what people tell me), ‘holy hip hop’ would win the particular arm-wrestling match Bradley sets up (although I’m not so sure how much of a ‘widespread appeal’ the Neo-Reformed perspective of ‘holy hip hop’ is going to be conjure up). With the exception of venues like TGC, many of the Reformed blogs I read are sounding certain warnings concerning the new ‘Young Restless and Reformed’ movement. And I would not count ‘Arminianism’ dead yet. But, again, to my earlier point, that Bradley introduces the caveat “widespread appeal” it itself very telling. Indeed, why do we have to find something that is going to have ‘widespread appeal’? What if, in our worship, we were to actually begin with the consideration, how can I best worship God in the public assembly of these fellow-pilgrims with the best texts fittingly married to some time-tested tunes?

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Correcting Categories, Part 3 - Music's Benefit

Well, Bradley seems to anticipate that very question. He says, “It is important to keep in mind that Christian hip-hop, unlike other contemporary genres, generally is not intended for use during corporate worship, so rejecting its appropriateness for the liturgy is not relevant.” This too is an interesting observation, and one I agree with (until the last clause). In fact, this to me says a great deal. Here is a music that is not fitting for public worship, especially congregational singing. Now I am not opposed to art music, or even a selection for solo or duet or choir in a service (though I myself do not think it is prudent to have this as a featured or even weekly element of our liturgy). But I find this interesting that we would have such a great divorce between congregational and the art songs used as a ministry in corporate worship. Indeed, when I read this, I think of the many times I have been told that certain people can’t rap or whatever (which to me seems like a bit of discrimination), and how such practice it is a very ‘elitist’ thing (if I may misuse that term ‘elitist’). Hopefully this kind of mindset does not permeate the ‘holy hip hop’ ‘culture’. (Or, truly, is it really that bad if it does? Is discretion of this kind really that bad?) But even if it does, what does it say for us when elements of our services need inauthentic “plugged in” accompaniment, or when the Christian music we listen to in private is so radically different from what we hear on Sunday morning? Is this even something we should be concerned about? Should we blithely pass our eyes over this trend? Is it healthy that the ‘sacred’ ‘music’ on people’s ipods generate in them different responses than the hymns they sing on Sunday morning?

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Bradley continues. He notes that ‘holy hip hop’ has seen some opposition. This is where the article turns into (pardon my being a bit cheeky here) a humor piece. Bradley notes that some people think that rap is not proper for corporate worship (and for proof he has some tacky website). He adds, “This objection reveals some level of ignorance about the historical development of Christian music.”

No, seriously, folks.

And so Bradley is going to give us a little history lesson.

Dr. David Koyzis, in his book Political Visions and Illusions, highlights this ignorance by noting, “Many conservatives dislike ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ music and prefer, say, the baroque pieces of Bach or Telemann. . . . The very label ‘baroque’ was used in a derogatory fashion by conservatives of that day to describe what they felt to be ugly music.” Today many hail the “ugly” church music set to baroque as the height of Christian music and a form that should be normative today.

Here Bradley combines a straw man (‘traditionalists argue that we need to return to baroque music’) with a ‘root fallacy’ (how does the fact that ‘barqoue’ originally meant ‘ugly’ address the question of whether it is an appropriate medium or even the height of Western Christian civilization?). I am not sure of any conservatives arguing that we need to back to Baroque music. They may use some baroque music (or older, like in a tune such as Hamburg), but I have not heard any conservative arguing that all our music ought to be baroque.

Bradley then argues that the fact that some tastes in the past found some baroque music ‘ugly’ to insist that taste is relative, another rather large jump in logic. “What we consider to be “ugly” forms of music often depend on personal preferences and social location.” He’s obviously been drinking the Kool-aid, hasn’t he? There is no doubt that such ‘social’ factors are a consideration in our taste, but it quite another thing altogether to assert that because of that beauty is relative (one might recommend a bit of Roger Scruton on this), or even that the music we employ to worship or as a vehicle with which we meditate upon God via our personal ipod or a ‘Christian concert’ is itself an altogether relative and unimportant consideration.

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Shadows of reality

What Bradley really wants to argue here (though it is really not that clear) is that ‘holy hip hop’ may be the next baroque music. He says, “Christian rap may emerge as the last bastion of producing theologically driven Christian music for generations to come.” And we might forgive him, not only for his historical missteps, but having never really listened to Bach (let alone Telemann or Handel!) when he compares it to ‘holy hip hop.’ Even so, hip hop may “emerge” with some lasting popular effect, but it would be my hunch that it has the staying power of any other popular medium–not much longer. It will go the way of hula-hoops, disco music, and Ipads. In other words, I don’t think that Bradley truly appreciates the ephemeral and transient nature of popular culture. ‘Holy hip hop’ had better hope that ‘unholy’ ‘hip hop’ itself lasts longer than its predecessors, so that ‘holy hip hop’ will continue to have some ‘street cred’ among hip American evangelicals who have heard of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. My guess is that ‘holy hip hop’ is simply the J. W. Peterson or George Beverely Shae or Bill and Gloria or Carmen or MWS of our day (if it even ascends to their former levels of popularity). And just wait until Calvinism fades again into unpopularity; then these artists will really be considered, as Bradley says, ‘ugly.’

[Posted updated 9/19/2012 correcting some typos.]

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

15 Responses to On the suggestion that ‘holy hip hop’ is the new Baroque

  1. I'd be interested in seeing your argument against the song lyrics that were provided in the World magazine article.

    "One might argue that the words of ‘holy hip hop’ are ‘theologically saturated,’ but certainly no argument could possibly be submitted that the music is" – please give an example.

    "What Bradley really wants to argue here (though it is really not that clear)" – this entire article is pretty vague. Did we even read the same article?

    I think the thing you are missing is that people are praising JESUS through this music. Whether it is your "preference" or not shouldn't matter too much in the larger scale of things. Who is to say what Jesus can and cannot use to further His kingdom and save souls.

    "And just wait until Calvinism fades again into unpopularity’" – wait….when is that happening?

  2. Hi, Caleb. Thank you for interacting. Frankly, I did not think that Bradley was that clear, but I assume that is because of time constraints. With respect, perhaps you think he's arguing a different thesis than the one I think? Feel free to suggest a different one.

    I am not arguing in this against the lyrics of HHH specifically, though perhaps one might be able to conjure up such an argument. But when you say (back to me): '“One might argue that the words of ‘holy hip hop’ are ‘theologically saturated,’ but certainly no argument could possibly be submitted that the music is” – please give an example'; I respond: If I did not think such an argument existed, I would not be able to think of one to give as an example.

    We fundamentally disagree here: "I think the thing you are missing is that people are praising JESUS through this music. Whether it is your “preference” or not shouldn’t matter too much in the larger scale of things. Who is to say what Jesus can and cannot use to further His kingdom and save souls." Frankly, I think God does care how we worship him. He says, for instance, to do it with reverence, awe, holy hands, without wrath, without doubting, and in accordance with the apostolic instructions (etc). I agree, with you, that any preference of mine should not matter at all, but we should all pursue an informed and considerate opinion. And, frankly, your last sentence is rather confusing. You don't want me to deliberate on what is acceptable or unacceptable music for worship, yet you are, in fact, saying what Jesus can . . . use. In other words, Caleb, you are yourself going beyond your very standard, for you are saying that HHH music that Jesus can use "to further his kingdom and save souls." I think you meant to say instead, "Who is to say what Jesus cannot use… etc." But your slip is telling. There is no such thing as true apathy or neutrality.

    Just to let you know, I am not excited or glad about any demise of Reformed theology (I consider myself a Calvinist), but I do think that the wave of popularity 'Calvinism' (for all its neoisms) is enjoying will subside (if the Lord tarries), as it has in decades past ebbed and flowed, even among groups confessing themselves to be Reformed (viz. PCUSA).

  3. Ryan, with all due respect, you are missing the entire point of the article. Never once does Bradley use the phrase "holy hip-hop"; this was your contrivance, and it is a phrase with an already negative flavor to it because of its trite sound. Bradley is speaking from a different philosophy on music than you are.

    Taken from his article:

    "It is important to keep in mind that Christian hip-hop, unlike other contemporary genres, generally is not intended for use during corporate worship, so rejecting its appropriateness for the liturgy is not relevant."

    There is a vast difference between what is acceptable for an individual and what is acceptable as music for use in corporate worship. That which is acceptable for the individual is that which is non-sinful and thus right. That which is acceptable for corporate worship is a much narrower category. Based on this quote, he is drawing those two distinctions, distinctions you choose to ignore (although you do mention them, albeit in a modified version).

    "I respond: 'If I did not think such an argument existed, I would not be able to think of one to give as an example.'"

    So we are supposed to give you the benefit of the doubt that there is such an example in existence somewhere out there, but you're not going to give us one? This is convoluted (and arrogantly self-centered) thinking, my friend. I can think of all kinds of arguments for which there is no example in existence, but does that make them valid? Or is it only YOUR imagination that we're supposed to trust here?

    On another note, do you sincerely think that whatever music you choose to use is actually "more holy" or more worth God's listening time? To him, all our acts of righteousness are filthy rags, a phrase that means the cloths used by women during menstruation! There is no human music that inherently suffices to worship God as he deserves.

    However, you are missing the point. Worship is not music. Worship is merely the act of ascribing to God the worth due his name. This can be done verbally, without the use of music. Therefore, we cannot assume that music is only to be used strictly for worship, as words themselves are not necessarily to be used to directly praise God all the time. Paul (in speaking to the Corinthians about food offered to idols, an issue analogous to the modern issue of music) speaks of glorifying God in whatever action you are partaking in, including the mere act of ingesting food and drink; this is what I believe we are called to do with our methods of communication as well. Not directly praising per se, but always glorifying. This may seem like a mere semantic difference, but this distinction is key.

    You speak of a "great divorce" between "congregational and the art songs used as a ministry in corporate worship"; I am pretty much an opponent of "art songs" in the church at all, as I have been to far too many bodies of believers that almost replace congregational singing with performance. That does not, however, invalidate performance in my eyes; it is merely the distinction that, when a body of believers is gathered together, they are to worship God together. Congregational singing is far more conducive to this end.

    Performance is not, as a result, bad, however; it is merely not appropriate for corporate worship, since it is not an act of corporate worship, it is merely an act of individual worship on the part of the performer. I am not even saying you can't have "special music" in a church from time to time; I just think time spent in congregational singing should far and away outweigh the time spent on performance.

    Performance is not wrong. It's just not as appropriate for when the body meets together.

    You are missing the point of the article and essentially proving Bradley right. There is nothing "inauthentic" about "plugged in" accompaniment, if one is worshiping God with it; this is a bit of a digression, but I am a computer scientist; is my entire profession "inauthentic" to you? Can I not glorify God with my talents because they are electronic?

    To your point about Bradley speaking on its popularity, again, Bradley is not saying that the fact that it is popular makes it right; he's beyond that discussion about whether it is right or not. Rather, he is merely reporting the fact that it is popular, and, by virtue of the example he cited, is capable of presenting great truths.

    Your main article is rife with assumptions about the intentions of the writer. Next time research the position before you attempt to dismantle it.

  4. Greg,

    I didn't mean for the phrase 'holy hip hop' to be a stumbling block. It is something I have heard its very defenders use as a name of the genre.

    I agree with you concerning performance and congregational singing. I said as much above.

    I also agree that worship is not music, although music is a means or vehicle of expressing worship.

    Hopefully that clears out some of the debris. And yet I want to discuss your criticism of my piece. Let's start here. What is the point of the article? You have said several times I missed it (three times in fact), but you did not ever give me a positive alternative.

  5. I'm going to jump in just briefly here, to clarify a point or two that seem to be creating confusion.

    In Ryan's original article, he said, "One might argue that the words of ‘holy hip hop’ are ‘theologically saturated,’ but certainly no argument could possibly be submitted that the music is" (emphasis partly original, partly added). Ryan is making a very particular point here: music, being non-propositional, can't be theologically saturated. He says, specifically, that the words can be, but the music, as music, cannot be.

    Caleb then asks for an example. Frankly, his request is almost impossible to decipher; what does his want an example of?

    Ryan takes his question in the most straightforward manner, and points out its inner incoherence. Ryan asserted that he cannot even conceive of an argument that music can be theologically saturated; if Caleb is asking for an example of such an argument, Ryan already said he can't provide one!

    Then Greg's comment continues to miss the point; adding character attacks that only make sense if Greg doesn't understand the actual conversation. Ryan is not saying, "Trust me: I've got this great example of an argument, but I'm keeping it under wraps to add to the mystery." He's merely reiterating his first point: "How can I possibly give you an example of an argument, when I've already told you that I can't even imagine how such an argument might be constructed?"

    Second, on the name holy hip hop: Ryan is completely, utterly correct on this. It is not a term of his "own contrivance," designed to demean the genre; it is a well-established label of this genre of music. The fact that it isn't found in this one article is of absolutely no significance. In fact, a quick Google search indicates that several of the awards for the genre are called the Holy Hip Hop awards.

  6. Ryan,

    Since the 1980's people have been saying that hip-hop doesn't have any staying power and will go the way of disco. The difference is within Inner-Cities across the nation and in areas across the world, hip-hop is more than a genre of popular music, it is an entire culture within its self. Unless you really try understand elements of hip-hop culture, you will not really understand the music of the culture.

    As for examples of Holy-Hip Hop being Theological Saturated, check out the music of LeCrae, Flame, Shai Linne, Trip-Lee, The Cross-Movement, and the list goes on and on. In our ministry, we used certain songs from these artists to illustrate Presuppositional apologetics, penal substitionary atonement, original sin and total depravity.

  7. Yeah, I could be wrong about the staying power of HHH, but I don't think so. But your comment is very interesting on another level, Joel. What kind of culture is this entire hip hop culture in the inner-cities? What are its distinctions? It seems to me the culture of hip hop in inner-cities is marked by elements quite different from the kind of behavior the Bible has for believers.

    I am not looking for examples of theologically saturated words. I am looking for an example of theologically saturated music. Here's what I said: "One might argue that the words of ‘holy hip hop’ are ‘theologically saturated,’ but certainly no argument could possibly be submitted that the music is…" Evidently that statement of mine is, again, raising a distinction that some of the readers here are not picking up on. Please note, I was drawing a distinction between words and music. Some may call it quibbling, but I think it's an important one. The music itself is not theologically saturated, even though the words may be. But, seriously, it was hardly a main point of my article.

  8. Greg,

    "You are missing the point of the article and essentially proving Bradley right. There is nothing “inauthentic” about “plugged in” accompaniment, if one is worshiping God with it; this is a bit of a digression, but I am a computer scientist; is my entire profession “inauthentic” to you? Can I not glorify God with my talents because they are electronic?"

    Your comment certainly reads like one commenting outside his discipline or under extreme duress. This illustration shouts "I have failed to make the connection, and here is proof." Do you really think that Ryan is objecting to electronic amplification? I would imagine that his pulpit has a microphone on it: is he a royal hypocrite? Before you hiss "YESSSSS!!!!" through clenched teeth, take a deep breath and ask yourself: in this context, is it wires, transistors, capacitors, inductors, and diodes to which he objects?

    Perhaps he is objecting to this idea that we have to package our entertainment in exactly the same packaging that is used by people who hate God for their entertainment. One of these packaging matters is electronic amplification, which in pop culture is exaggerated beyond simply helping people to hear.

    If you spend any time in the ghetto (I live in the ghetto), you will notice that people play hip-hop of the un-holy stripe at ear-splitting sound pressure levels inside sealed vehicles. You can hear it for blocks. DOOFDOOFDOOFDOOF. BVVVVVVVMMMMM. When they get close, you can even hear the swearing. Functionally, it works like flying the Jolly Roger on a ship: other ghetto-dwellers are either impressed or intimidated by it. You don't think "nice guy" when a ghetto sled rolls by real slow pounding bass. There are usually guns behind those windows.

    Is this a metaphor you want to attach to Christian doctrine?

    I think that if you familiarized yourself with the narcissism and violence inherent in hip-hop culture, you would be duly horrified that these folks are trying to bring it into the church, whether through public liturgy or private use.

  9. Well said, Ryan. This is one of the most well-written articles I've read in a long time on the "Christian" use of this kind of music.

    I only take one tiny issue with something you said, and maybe you didn't mean it the way I took it:

    "What if, in our worship, we were to actually begin with the consideration, how can I best worship God in the public assembly of these fellow-pilgrims with the best texts fittingly married to some time-tested tunes?"

    Must the tunes always be "time-tested"? I'm not convinced at all.

    Pss 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is 42:10; and Rev 5:9; 14:3 all speak of singing a "new song". "New song", as I understand it, would include a new tune as well as possibly new text. Indeed, Pss 33:3 and 144:9 speak explicitly of the use of the musical instruments in singing these "new songs".

    We need "new songs", Josh Bauder-type "new songs", and other songs like his.

    I may have been going beyond what you intended, but "time-tested" seems to lie at a point of emphasis in your sentence. After all, it is the single adjective that you used to describe the types of tunes we need.

    (Then again, I myself love and trust the time-tested tunes.)

    If I missed the point of your comment, consider this a plug for "new songs" in Christian worship.

  10. Jeremy,

    Good point. While I would not read the language of a "new song" as necessarily mandating newly composed music, I agree with you. We should, out of our love for God, be filled with songs, and even ones we attempt to write ourselves. I was not trying to limit our music to particulars that are time tested, though I do believe that our 'new songs' will stand within that tradition and suitably reflect the same mores as the 'time-tested' tunes.

    Thanks for the interaction.

    RJM

  11. I would also add that whatever new songs we do write (and I hope we do too!) should be written in the tradition of the time tested hymns of the Church. They should be further cultivation of the heritage we have received.

    Anything new we write will be in some tradition; I think Ryan is right that is should be the the time-tested tradition of the people of God rather than in the novel tradition of pop culture.

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  13. Here's Mars Hill on LeCrae: http://theresurgence.com/2012/09/08/why-lecrae-at
    This is about evangelization. It will be helpful if we (as RAB also does) distinguish between corporate worship, entertainment for Christians, and evangelization when we speak about music. On the latter, John Makujina has made a strong case in his book, Measuring the Music, that music should not be used in that field. That's a big discussion, of course, and far from over. That hip-hop is useless for corporate worship is clear to all participants. It's simply not feasible, given the skill level required which the usual member of a congregation does not have. The posts here on rap and hip-hop also amply discuss the incompatibility of the angry tone of rap etc. with Christian messaging in worship. So LeCrae can attempt to worship God through his music but the thesis is that he does this in a way that ignores some of the biblical guiding principles, as mentioned in previous comments.

    On the other hand, the genre is well able to express social criticism and anger at the failure of society at large and also the church to make this world a better place. As such, it may have some merit and can express Christian thought on some issues, but probably only in a negative way, given the emotional baggage and bias of the style. There is also the issue of association, i.e. that other (non-holy) hip hop is overly vulgar or sexual. That is certainly something that should be considered by Christian users of the music, coming to what constitutes wholesome entertainment for the believing community. The genre really is associated with lifestyles and attitudes that would be expected to change once a person turns to Christ.

    So does LeCrae reach the unchurched with his music? Who knows (if anyone knows, please post the sources). I suspect that consumers of his music may rather be Christians that would like to stay with the music styles they were used to before coming to believe, or have even gotten accustomed to when growing up in their churches. Having the Christian lyrics then allows them to stay with what they are accustomed to in their listening habits. Of course, these habits could alternatively be changed, and that's one thing many churches seem to shy away from attempting, rather giving in to the existing preferences of their youth (at the expense of the elders, contrary to 1.Tim 5:17).

    The matter is then rooted in trying to be 'hip' (pun intended) and be seen as normal and cool by non-Christian peers. And it reflects the degree to which Christians, as anyone else, are impacted by the culture around them, and adopt the same tastes as the rest of society. This, then, leads to the question why we are so afraid to be different. I guess in the 80's the backward masking discussion and other such pseudo-scientific mania has led to committed Christians being seen as weird and radical. The conclusion was that 'radical' must be avoided at all cost. What we see now, the indiscriminate adoption of music styles and other cultural artifacts, may be the backlash, a reaction to the mistakes made some three decades ago.

    So we are again looking for the golden middle way: a method that allows Christians not to be friends of the world but to be salt and light; to reject incompatible cultural elements intelligently, able to defend their faith – and their cultural choices. Sounds like a summary of this entire website, which is certainly contributing towards that goal!

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