Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: Subjectivity (Rebuttal)
Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is my rebuttal to Shai’s fourth answer.
Shai, one of the cornerstones of your argument has been that musical interpretation is culturally conditioned and therefore subjective–one may not expect someone else with different cultural conditioning to interpret music the same way. So, the reason I interpret hip-hop as agitated and denigrating is only because I have been culturally conditioned to interpret it as such. You, on the other hand, interpret the same music as something entirely different and perfectly appropriate for Christian purposes.
Now, you acknowledge that your interpretation of the music is also subjective and rooted in your cultural conditioning. But here’s the problem: if that’s the case, then why do you insist that your interpretation is more valid than mine? Are not our views equally valid? If musical meaning is based only on cultural conditioning, then everyone’s culturally conditioned interpretation is equally valid–musical meaning is entirely relative to an individual’s personal interpretation. And, consequently, musical meaning will be agreed upon only within very fractured groups of individuals who have nearly identical cultural backgrounds.
And yet you promote your interpretation of hip-hop with groups that actually have completely different cultural conditioning than you do. Why would you impose your interpretation of that music on them? Furthermore, you insist that my interpretation is wrong. To argue that my interpretation is wrong is to imply that there is some sort of hermeneutical standard outside of me upon which I should base my interpretation.
But there is an even deeper problem at work here. While I completely agree that our interpretation of music (as with everything) is conditioned by our experiences and backgrounds, to argue that musical interpretation is thus completely subjective is to deny the category of “human nature.” In other words, while it is true that you and I have different backgrounds, we share what is perhaps the most fundamental universal: we have the same human nature. We are both members of the human race, sons of Adam, distinct from the rest of God’s creation by the fact that we were created in the image of God. As Carl Trueman points out, “these aspects of human uniqueness provide a universal context for all human activity.” Trueman is emphasizing human nature as a defense for the validity of creeds written in vastly different times and cultures as valuable and meaningful for today, but it applies equally to other human activity such as music. He goes on to say,
Human nature is something which is more basic than gender, class, culture, location, or time. It cannot be reduced to or contained within a specific context such as to isolate it from all else. . . . Human beings remain essentially the same in terms of their basic nature as those made in God’s image and addressed by his word even as we move from place to place and from generation to generation. . . . Modern culture . . . prides itself on difference and on kaleidoscopic variety. Whatever the truth of this may be, it does not affect the essential core of identity that binds me together with human beings in modern China and with people in ancient Rome: we are all made in God’s image.1
In other words, I believe your argument on the basis of a very fractured understanding of cultural identity ignores the reality that we all share a culture of humanity. Therefore, while individual background certainly plays a significant role in personal interpretation, sharing a common human nature means that we all experience on at least one level a shared conditioning. And I have made very clear from the beginning of this discussion that the level on which I endeavor to base my assessment of hip hop is within this larger culture of humanity rather than factors unique to particular individuals or sub-cultures.
Thanks for your reply, Scott. I’ll address a few of the things that you mentioned. You said:
“Now, you acknowledge that your interpretation of the music is also subjective and rooted in your cultural conditioning. But here’s the problem: if that’s the case, then why do you insist that your interpretation is more valid than mine? Are not our views equally valid?”
Brother, you’re certainly welcome to your opinion. Two people may hear the same piece of instrumental music and arrive at 2 different conclusions on what it’s communicating. The same could be said about abstract visual art and many other things. The validity of the view may be dependent on different factors, such as knowledge of the particular medium being discussed, etc. But let’s go back to what your view is. You are making the claim that the musical form of Hip-hop apart from its lyrics is inherently sinful. That is a serious claim. To say that something is inherently sinful is to say that it is a transgression of God’s law; that it provokes the wrath of God which comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:6); that it is a work of the flesh, the practicers of which will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). In this case, we’ve moved from the realm of merely like/ dislike or prefer/ nor prefer to the realm of evil/ good or sin/ righteousness. You say the form of Hip-hop is inherently sinful. I say it’s not. We can’t both be right. Once you make the claim that something is inherently sinful, you now have the responsibility to demonstrate from Scripture how that is the case. You still haven’t done that. You said:
“And yet you promote your interpretation of hip-hop with groups that actually have completely different cultural conditioning than you do. Why would you impose your interpretation of that music on them?”
I’m not imposing an interpretation of music on anyone, because I use and emphasize words. I make statements, claims, declarations and arguments in my music. I say things like, “Jesus is Alive” and “On the cross the wrath of God was spent on Jesus/ on behalf of all who repent and believe this” and “The Son of God, 100% divinity/ self-existent second person of the Trinity”, etc. If the people who listen to my music can understand English, they can compare what I’m saying with Scripture and determine for themselves whether or not what I’m saying corresponds to what the Lord has revealed in His Word. It’s the truth that resonates cross-culturally, even if people don’t prefer the style. It works the other way around as well. I can worship the Lord in congregations where I may dislike the musical style, provided the words are Biblical and God-glorifying. Truth is the common denominator. And truth is what Scripture emphasizes, not musical style. You said:
“In other words, I believe your argument on the basis of a very fractured understanding of cultural identity ignores the reality that we all share a culture of humanity.”
I certainly agree that we share humanity and the dignity of being made in God’s image. But do you see the irony in your quoting of Carl Trueman? Trueman is making a reference to written creeds, i.e. formal statements of propositional truth. The fundamental “sameness” of human nature is precisely why words of truth are far more important than fleeting musical styles that vary from culture to culture. You said:
“Trueman is emphasizing human nature as a defense for the validity of creeds written in vastly different times and cultures as valuable and meaningful for today, but it applies equally to other human activity such as music.”
I disagree. It does not apply equally to instrumental music. We don’t know what the music of ancient Israel sounded like. (If there was a way to preserve a recording of it, part of me would love to hear your analysis!) But we do have the Psalms. The Psalms are valuable and meaningful cross-culturally and cross-generationally because of the truth contained in them. The musical style they were composed in is not meaningful for today. My argument is very simple. When it comes to the music making of Christians, the Biblical emphasis is on the content, not the musical form. You’re claiming that the form of Hip-hop is inherently sinful. You still haven’t proven it, brother.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.
- Trueman, Carl. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, 63 [↩]