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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?

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?

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.

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.]

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 Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).