In a recent front-page article for Christianity Today, Russell Moore argues that Christian hip-hop could call the American church back to a powerful, even dangerous, gospel. Calling the American church back to the gospel – there’s glory in those words. On our better days we want that so badly that we can taste it. To change the metaphor, we can hear the sounds of glory from afar off. But what might that sound like? Here is where Moore’s proposal gets controversial. He argues that we can hear echoes of glory in hip-hop. In order to make such an argument, he obviously has to remove objections to hip-hop as an appropriate medium for the truth. Appropriately, then, he brings Ken Myers into the discussion. Through his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, andMars Hill Audio, Myers is known as a leading champion for distinctive musical life in the church.
Moore graciously notes that he appreciates Myers’ concern. Moore says, “No one can seriously argue that musical forms don’t change ‘the message.’ Moreover, I agree with Myers that hip-hop generally taps into a certain set of human emotions and situations, and not others.”
According to Moore, the CCM genre taps into adolescent romance. Country music, followed by Southern gospel, has a more bittersweet view of love, reflecting the griefs of life. Hip-hop, on the other hand, is much better suited than either of these other two genres to express the realities of sin and the cry for justice. Hip-hop is about rage against a fallen world.
The rationale seems to be that all of these emotions are legitimate. Thus, music which expresses these emotions is legitimate. There is a place for anger, thus there is a place for music which expresses anger.
But if I understand correctly, Moore has just whistled right past the hood where Myers dwells, for his response does not address Myers’ concern. Myers is concerned about the separation of form and content. Most people of Myers’ ilk do not have a problem with music that expresses anger, or any other emotion, in its proper form. Rather, they have a problem with anger that is vicious, not virtuous.
Enter the Virtues
Christians steeped in the multi-cultural tradition of virtue see music differently than most contemporaries. The A-team of historical-theological heavyweights, Augustine and Aquinas, represents well a tradition that agreed with Plato and Aristotle in seeing music as inherently ennobling or degrading. They see a “mystical inner kinship” between the movements of music and the inclinations of the soul.
In this way of thinking, music is not merely something which “taps into” emotions. And emotions are not merely feelings. Rather, music is something which both expresses the condition of the soul of those who love it and shapes the character of the soul of those who submit to it. “Emotion,” should we choose to call it that, is an inclination of the soul with higher and lower movements.
Great theological lyrics cannot change base passions into ennobling affections. To use an example from a different art form, those who oppose the proposed Eisenhower monument in Washington, D.C. would not be mollified by adding a plaque with words on it extolling Eisenhower, for their opposition rests on the inherent unsuitability of the design by Frank Gehry to be a monument. Neither is it helpful to claim that the opposition is politically motivated. It is the design itself which is flawed. Just so, those Christians who oppose hip-hop claim that the music itself is base.
Exit the Discussion?
And when I say “music,” I mean music—the sounds ordered with melody, harmony, and rhythm—not the lyrics. The one odd thing about Moore’s response to Myers was that he did not discuss music as such. While he acknowledged that “form matters,” he omitted any meaningful discussion of it. Moore discussed theology, race, class, poverty, and so forth, making many worthwhile and sharp-eyed observations, but he did not discuss music. Those on Myers’ side of the discussion may legitimately wonder, “What are we talking about here?” “How did a discussion of music turn into a discussion of race and class?” And even more troubling, “How did the motives of white Christians become the target rather than the inherent merits or demerits of the music?”
Moore gently chides white Christians for seeing the raw violence and sexuality of mainstream hip-hop as an evidence of moral degeneration in America. He says this is a poor narrative, although his biblical evidence for this statement is quite unclear to me. He also says this is an uncharitable narrative, since much of hip-hop is about frustration with the fall, not celebration of it.
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that mainstream hip-hop is an expression of frustration, not celebration. How does this rebut the charge of moral degeneration? Raw violence and sexuality are still morally degenerate expressions of frustration. We may have more compassion for those who act out of frustration as opposed to celebration, but this does not change our moral evaluation of their songs.
Although it may garner lots of attention, it shuts down constructive conversation when the whole narrative is cast in terms of racial and socio-economic assumptions. Catchy journalistic hooks shouldn’t trump constructive Christian dialogue. Bringing black and white brothers together is never going to happen through subtle or not-so-subtle accusations and counter-accusations of racism and classism.
We need more discussions with Myers, and more with Moore, among others, but we need more clarity and charity in the discussion. Dr. Moore’s piece appears to propagate more of the miscommunication which makes this discussion so frustrating and unfruitful for all who are in it. Practicing virtue in dialogue may actually help us to gain virtue in the powerful form of communication which is music.
Related: Ed Stetzer interview with Lecrae