UnknownI like Christianity Today. I’m a subscriber. I’ve also written for them — several times if you count Books and Culture. I have several friends and acquaintances who are current or former CT staffers. All that to say, I’ve been impressed enough times with the quality of work that Christianity Today produces that I give them the benefit of the doubt when, say, they do a cover story on Christian hip-hop.

Unfortunately, in this case, that trust was dashed to the ground. To put it plainly, May’s cover story, “W.W. Jay-Z,” written by Dr. Russell Moore is an unmitigated disaster. And that’s to say nothing of the misleading — but attention-grabbing — title on the cover, “Why the Gospel Needs Hip-Hop.” It is so horrendous that, upon reading it, I knew immediately I had to respond, but I couldn’t figure out where to begin or how to go about responding. A few of my early ideas were as follows: a line-by-line take down in which I painstakingly show what is wrong with just about every sentence. But who has time for that?

Next, I thought I’d just compose the snarkiest, most sarcastic screed of a reply I could conjure, but, considering the source (me), that seemed all too predictable.

Late one evening, as I thought about how disgusted I was by the piece, I even considered challenging Dr. Moore or any of my editor friends at CT to a rap battle. Actually, Ted Olsen, this offer still stands if you think you can hang.

Ultimately, though, those ideas are unrealistic and mostly terrible. I gave it time — which is something I’m trying do more of these days — and came up with a simple three point argument as to why the article, with it’s quest to find compatibility between Christian theology and rap music and its conclusion that rap offers an edge that contemporary evangelicalism is missing, is so awful.

So, here they are…

First, the author. Nothing against Dr. Moore — I follow him on Twitter and he seems very intelligent. I pretty much disagree with everything he says, and I think his characterizations of Brian McLaren border on personal attacks, but that’s not really relevant here. My problem with Dr. Moore authoring the Christian hip-hop story is that, despite his many impressive degrees, he seems wholly unqualified for the subject matter. More on that in a minute.

Because Moore is so unqualified, the following two problems arise. One, he uses Ken Myers as his pop culture expert. This is infuriating for reasons we will soon see. And the second issue that arises as a result of Moore’s authorship is that he seems to have no sense of the three-decade-long history of hip-hop, Christian or otherwise. He never mentions or even alludes to any of the current stock of rappers’ predecessors. I mean, not even dcTalk.

So, let’s start with Moore. When I saw his name attached to the article, I swiped ahead several pages (iPad edition) to get to the end of the article where CT typically puts a blurb about the author. With each swipe my anticipation grew, as did my hope that Moore had begun working on an extensive research project on the history of Christian hip-hop. Maybe I just had not heard about it. Truthfully, I’ve dreamt of writing this book, and even engaged my best friend and fellow Christian hip-hop devotee in the process of composing an outline for it. But now we’ve both had children so that’s probably on hold. Anyway, if we do want to eventually do it we can because, to date, no one really has (actually, Soup the Chemist, formerly of Christian hip-hop group SFC, seems to have written a book like this that he’s trying to fund through Kickstarter). Regardless, Dr. Moore isn’t writing it. In fact, in CT’s blurb about Moore there is no hint as to why he’s qualified to be writing about hip-hop at all.

But fine. That’s not totally necessary. I mean, if I had written the piece I may have asked CT to note that I am a former Christian rapper myself, thus giving me some “cred,” as the kid’s say, but that’s just me. And, who knows, maybe Moore is also a former Christian rapper. If he was, I hope he used the monicker RushMore, because that would be an awesome rap name for him. But the fact is, even if Rush doesn’t have any evident qualifications to write the piece, he could have overcome this by writing a well-researched and excellently sourced piece. But he didn’t.

This bring us to Ken Myers. I should say up front that this is my weakest argument. It’s very likely that some Myers fan is going to want to argue that he is the “pop culture expert” that Moore seems to think he is. And honestly, I’ve never really listened to his Mars Hill podcast, but I have read his pop culture manifesto, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, originally published in 1989 and re-released in 2012. This is a book that Marvin Olasky encouraged him to write (strike 1) and that he felt qualified to do because he “had studied film theory and criticism as an undergraduate” (strike 2). In the book, his basic conclusion is that “the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries.”

So he’s not a huge fan of the pop culture. It leads to young people being “aimless,” he writes. It renders belief in an objective moral order “entirely implausible.” In fact, he argues, pop culture isn’t really a culture at all. Myers originally came to these conclusions in the late 1980s. More recently, his publisher, Crossway, offered him the opportunity to revise the book but Myers wasn’t up to it. He writes, “an adequate revision would entail writing a new book.” Too much work, apparently. And, he adds, “Having reread it, I think this remains a useful introduction to the subject.” Yes, because pop culture has not really changed much since 1989.

Moore uses Myers to argue that the “feeling” of rap music presents challenges for Christians who want to communicate biblical truth. And, as a person who just spent an entire semester making undergrads read Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, and further trying to convince them of the merits of each man’s argument, I absolutely agree that the medium is hugely important in considering the content. But both Myers and Moore have an embarrassingly limited sense of the medium of rap music. Here’s Myers on the “feeling” of rap music: “Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.”

While this categorization certainly applies to a specific type of rap music, after three decades and thousands of artists creating their own variations on the genre, it is nearly impossible to categorize the “feeling” of rap music in any meaningful way. I don’t listen to rap that threatens me with escalation or retaliation. The rappers I love are hardly “fierce.”

Rather than reference Myers, who obviously lacks the understanding or even desire to understand hip-hop culture (Moore laughably writes at one point that Myers is “concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an art form”), Moore could have called upon any number of true experts in the field of rap and hip-hop either in the Christian or secular spheres. I would have directed him to Josh Niemyjski, founder of sphereofhiphop.com and probably one of the most knowledgeable people on Christian hip-hop culture in the world. But that’s just me.

And this leads us to the final point. Although Moore refers several times to the contemporary crop of Christian rappers as “new,” he shows no evidence that he’s aware of what was “old.” In fact, I’m not even sure after re-reading several times if he is calling the whole phenomenon of Christian rap new, or just this most recent manifestation. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he’s just saying that Lecrae and Shai Linne and Trip Lee and their ilk are the newest brand of a Christian hip-hop culture that is just about as old as hip-hop in general. But if he knows this to be true, why not mention this long lineage? How can you have a meaningful conversation about the interplay between gospel message and rap music without looking at those who have both succeeded gloriously and failed miserably before this most recent crop?

If he had any knowledge of those that came before, the question of whether or not the gospel can be communicated through rap lyrics would be moot. He could have skipped that question altogether and looked instead at the ways it has been done. If he wanted to see his bias about rap being bolstered by threat of retaliation, he could have looked at how Christian groups like Gospel Gangstaz, T-Bone, and C.M.C’s (among others), appropriated (badly, as if that wasn’t obvious) the “gangsta” style for Christ. But from there, he would have had to acknowledge that there’s not just one feeling of rap music, and as such, Christian rap groups ended up being quite diverse, particularly through what I call the golden age of Christian hip-hop, the mid- to late-90s. Good luck trying to group LA Symphony, Tunnel Rats, Grits, or Cross Movement under one general “feeling.”

And speaking of Cross Movement, to not even acknowledge that the current stock of rappers, with their theological preoccupations and “young, restless, and reformed” flavor, were made possible by the advent of Cross Movement in 1997, is a huge oversight.

Ultimately, the answer to the question that Moore set out to answer — whether hip-hop is “legitimate Christian art” — is much simpler. Thirty years of history, and a number of legitimate Christian hip-hop artists, answer with a resounding “True dat!” Or, “Yes.” They’d probably just say “yes.”

And rather than try to find any kind of necessary correlation between the “fierce” sound of rap music and the particular Christian theology these new Christian emcees espouse, Moore could have simply realized that rappers fundamentally rap about what they know. This is the essence of “keeping it real.” Inauthenticity is pretty much the only sin in rap music. Lecrae and the like haven’t stumbled upon some magical relationship between reformed theology and rap music, they’re just rapping about what they know — just like every other rapper, Christian or secular, has done before them. But, then, you’d have to know that there were other rappers in order to reach that conclusion.

Eighteen hundred words later, I probably should have just challenged MC RushMore to that rap battle.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

  • Jonathan Povilonis

    Excellent article. I honestly will never again be able to understand the criterion “legitimate Christian art.” What could that possibly mean? Has anyone really argued that genre of rap is somehow, by definition, incompatible with Christianity? I just can’t imagine to whom Moore is trying to make his point.

  • Zach

    Between this, reading the original article, and the NPR piece I happen to catch this morning on Catholic school boys deciding what expensive out of state university to go to, I have become almost blinded by all the whiteness. I’m just going to close my eyes for awhile.

  • Nick O.

    You offer some helpful push back here. The only thing I would say is that you haven’t fairly represented the main thrust of Myers’ argument about popular culture–an argument that, if specifically rendered, still carries weight, even if I agree that the book is outdated, and could use more affirmative asides about the artfulness/excellence of certain pop culture artifacts. But the majority of his book is concerned with pop culture *as a sensibility.* It’s concerned with one’s sense of self cultivation being governed merely by what’s popular, over and above some rooted orientation to what’s true, good, beautiful, excellent, etc. So what’s “good” becomes defined by the preference of the populace.

  • Tracy

    So we have a couple of scholars, Michael Eric Dyson and Cornell West, who have done famous and well respected treatments of hip hop culture, and are also known to have deep Christian convictions. But CT does the equivalent of asking Ms. Penny Bachmann, who teaches poetry at Bridgeville High School, to write an article about the possibilities for Christian poetry, while Christian Wiman is alive, and editing Poetry Magazine.

    Hilarious really. Any more doubts that evangelical Christianity functions as a tiny, insular, self-referential subculture?

    • Patrick Sawyer

      Tracy,

      As a professor in the humanities at a secular university I am quite familiar with Michael Dyson and Cornell West. While both of these men are credentialed academics, the label of scholar is a bit strong, particularly for Dyson. But this is less important to me. What I’m really curious about is what “deep Christian convictions” do you propose these men hold, particularly Dyson?

      And with respect, please name something other than how they self-identify, their identity associations with the black church, and the Christian discourse they co-opt in certain contexts. In reality, these things in and of themselves mean nothing in terms of whether they hold to authentic Christianity. I have heard them reject basic and fundamental doctrines of authentic Christianity and heard them take certain cultural positions that are antithetical to authentic Christianity. They are an interesting mix of soft legalism, antinomianism and universalism, each of which are spurious doctrinal positions.

      So I am curious, what “deep Christian Convictions” do you think they hold?
      Thanks.

  • http://salonauteur.wordpress.com KR

    I will admit that I have no interest in rap music or hip-hop culture, Christian or otherwise, but as a metalhead, I have heard similar “arguments” leveled against Christian heavy metal. They’re practically the same arguments, just slightly older, since metal is about a decade older than hip-hop.

    I’m glad you articulated three clear points instead of just unleashing a sarcastic screed.

  • http://www.whitehodge.com Daniel White Hodge

    I love these points. I am the author of two books on Hip Hop: Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur (VDM Academic 2009) and The Soul Of Hip Hop: Rimbs, Timbs, & A Cultural Theology (IVP 2010) and the forthcoming book The Hostile Gospel: Critical Reflections on the Post Soul Theology of Hip Hop (Brill Academic 2013). What get’s me is that the obvious “experts” are overlooked; as usual. Monica Miller, Ralph Watkins, Ebony Utley, Anthony Pinn…all are not even engaged or mentioned…I’m not trying to say “I’m the only one here,” but let’s be real and say that articles like the one on CT just yell White Dominance and Cultural Appropriation. Jonathan is right on in challenging the premise behind the article and its worth…CT took a “safe” route in putting this out there. Not surprising though, Christians in general are gonna have to do some major work in regards to “cultural learning” and racial piece is one of those major hurdles.

    Thanks for the post Jonathan.

    • http://www.hiphopchurchdenver.com Pastor Miami Mike Devine

      I am a spiritual mentor of Pac since Clinton Max and warned of his death. email me and I’ll let his bodyguard big frank explain that dude to the world…..

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    I would Dr. Moore responds; although he may just say “I only did what I was asked to!” The editors are a little more culpable here.

  • http://christianitytoday.com/women Katelyn Beaty

    Jonathan,
    Thanks for the honest push-back. As one of the editors who worked on the article, I take your critique seriously. Let me respond to a few of your concerns.

    First, after reading your post a few times, it seems the main problem you have with the piece is not the essay itself–its arguments, cultural analysis, theology, etc.–but rather its author, Russell Moore. You acknowledge up front that you “pretty much disagree with everything he says, and I think his characterizations of Brian McLaren border on personal attacks, but that’s not really relevant here.” Actually, I think it is relevant.

    It seems that, more than disagreeing with the content of Moore’s article, you just don’t like Moore and all that he represents. See, he references KEN MYERS, who wrote a book with CROSSWAY, that was encouraged by MARVIN OLASKY. None of these people or institutions seemingly have enough cool points. I mean, have they even read Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman?!?

    Second, your critique doesn’t show a deep engagement with Moore’s or Myers’s previous work. Your critique of Myers (whose content composes no more than 20 percent of Moore’s article) rests on a book he wrote in 1989. Not to say anything of the Mars Hill podcasts or his books since then, or any of Moore’s extensive engagement and thoughtful engagement with music as well. So why doesn’t Moore have enough “cred” to write this piece? Because he’s not writing a book about hip-hop? But by the same standards, you admit as much, you shouldn’t be writing about hip-hop either. We trust Moore and plenty of our writers to delve into topics they haven’t written about before. That’s what good journalists do.

    Now to your main critique (from what I can tell): The piece lacked historical context. I acknowledge that we could have pushed Moore to explore more deeply the history of Christian hip-hop. That would have strengthened the piece. The scope of the article, however, was the current wave–a sizable and real trend, about which we’ve interviewed one of the commenters here, Daniel White Hodge [look for the online interview soon]–of hip-hop artists associated with the Reformed wing of American Christianity. We could only pack so much historical context in.

    And I tried to pay homage to dc Talk in my introduction to the May issue: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may/holy-hip-hop-grows-up.html

    It just seems you would have been happier with the piece if you had been asked to write it.

    Katelyn

    • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

      This reply makes me so happy I can hardly stand it.

    • http://www.patrolmag.com Fitz

      Hi Katelyn,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I want to address each of your points here, but before I do I feel like I need to raise an issue with your charaterization of me and, by extension, Patrol.

      I think you do a real disservice when you try to make the argument that my critique of Moore and Myers is rooted in their not having “enough cool points.” If I’m not mistaken, you’re about my age and as such I’m sure you’ve seen that this kind of ad hominem attack is often leveled against us young(ish) writers as a means of dismissing our valid critiques. Many others have tried to level this insulting dimissal against us here at Patrol and it never sticks because the characterization doesn’t match the quality of the work we do. Additionally, I’m sure that my Intro to Media Studies students who just took a final exam this morning would disagree with your association of McLuhan and Postman with “cool points.”

      But on to your main critique. I think that you intentionally overlook the central arguments of my piece in favor of the more easily criticized claims about the author. I will take responsibility for this, though, as my arguments are fundamentally tied to what I believe was a poor choice of author on the part of CT. Just to review, my arguments are as follows: there is no need to justify the existence of Christian hip-hop culture in 2013 and the new wave of Christian rappers have not found some magical nexus between hip-hop culture and reformed theology, rather they’re rapping about what they know. These points are fairly obvious to anyone who knows the history and background of hip-hop, or, as I point out, to someone who might have taken the time to write a “well-researched and excellently sourced piece.” Just to make that point clear, I said in the piece that though Dr. Moore doesn’t have any evident qualifications to write about hip-hop, he, like any respectable journalist, could have overcome this by doing the work of a journalist. But Moore is a theologian, not a journalist.

      I also take issue with your claim that I “just don’t like Moore and all that he represents.” Surely you know that a critic can disagree with a person without disliking him. The truth is, I don’t know Dr. Moore so it is impossible to say whether I like him or not. What I do know is that I disagree with many of my closest friends and like them very much. Also, I’m not sure what all Moore “represents.”

      Now, briefly, you must know that raising the spectre of Moore and Myers’ previous work is a straw man. I wrote a response to an article which, especially for Moore, stands apart from much of his other work. I referenced Myers’ 1989/2012 book because that appears to be the justification behind Moore’s claim that Myers is a “pop culture expert.” That said, you affirm my point about the irrelevancy of Myers’ book when you emphasize the fact that he wrote it in 1989.

      Finally, I don’t think there is any shame in admitting that, yes, I wish I had been called upon to write the piece. As I state, I respect CT and as you know from our past email correspondence, I look forward to the opportunity to write for the magazine again. I am not insulted, then, by the allegation that I believe I would have been a better choice to write this. But I also acknowledge that there are others who would have been more suited to the piece. In the last 24 hours I’ve heard from many friends and acquaintances who are still involved in some capacity in the world of Christian hip-hop and they all agree that this article was a missed opportunity to reveal Christian hip-hip culture to a wider evangelical audience.

      Woah, super long response. Sorry about that. And thank you again for taking the time to engage with my critiques.

      Fitz

      • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Anderson

        But Fitz, you also dismissed Myers as a credible source on culture (pop or otherwise!) while admitting you haven’t listened to or paid any attention to his central body of work the past 20 years….which is a bit like Moore ignoring the history and background of Christian hip-hop, isn’t it?

        Which is to say, if (on your argument) Moore is unqualified to judge the merits of Christian hip-hop you are equally unqualified to judge the merits of Myers as a source.

        I raise that point only to suggest that there’s a flaw in the criterion you’ve laid out for who gets to speak about what, namely that you seem to be applying it rather inconsistently.

        Matt

        • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

          Woah, speaking of people I disagree with but still like.

          I did say in my post that my arguments against Myers are not firm. So you’re right, I’m not a fully credible critic of Myers’ work. But of course, he’s a supporting character in my blog post and thus I don’t think your comparison holds up.

          As I said in the original piece, and in my response to Katelyn, I’m not saying that a person must have expertise before writing about a topic. I’m saying that a journalist should thoroughly research and expertly source a topic that they’re writing about…especially when it’s the cover story of a major magazine. To insist that I said otherwise is to misrepresent my point.

          And that point remains…Dr. Moore does not appear to have done this kind of work, to the detriment of the piece.

          • http://www.hiphopchurchdenver.com Pastor Miami Mike Devine

            Man, that CT article would get ripped and smoked in the pen and put to better use by inmates. Thanks for givin true pioneers a voice with this blog. 305 767 6217

  • Devin

    Just read it. To be honest it seems a bit too petty. The author obviously doesn’t like Russell Moore, that shows. It basically looks like he wishes he was the one to write the article. Not a bit of grace in the article either, just anger. He requires someone to meet his standard of what someone knowledgable of hip hop should be like. Well I must ask, how about someone knowledgable about Christianity? Let’s not forget, Hip Hop still isn’t wholly accepted in the Christian world. Most likely those people would understand and consider what Moore would say on the issue over some veteran hip hop enthusiast. So we need to think of who reads CT and what their aim for the article was. Just because it doesn’t fit our little idea of what the article should look like doesn’t mean it’s detestable.

  • Paolo Romano

    This is typical “Fitzy-G.”

    Throw an intellectual hissy fit online about a popular topic and a “traditional” publication’s coverage for pageviews.

  • http://johnthorntonjunior.blogspot.com John Thornton Jr.

    I agree with most of the commenters on here: It’s pretty obvious that when you sift through all of the extremely legitimate points you make concerning good journalism, historical cultural awareness, and the value of working knowledge from experience, all you’re really doing is throwing a hissy fit over some bone you have to pick Moore.

    Okay, I’ve got to get back to getting “cool points” by reading McLuhan and Postman not because they are incredibly important thinkers who anyone writing on pop culture (or just anybody for that matter) should have read, but because I clearly just want to name drop them to score some points against the dweebs like Meyers and Moore.

  • L

    Christianity Today seems at this point culturally irrelevant and theologically shallow. I applaud your impulse to improve it, but some things cannot be saved. It’s bound to happen to salt that stays stuck in its own little salt shaker instead of getting shaken out and scattered crystal by crystal through the world.

    • Patrick Sawyer

      L,

      Could you give us a couple examples of where Christianity Today is “theologically shallow”? Thanks.

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  • http://www.hiphopchurchdenver.com Pastor Miami Mike Devine

    relating to that moore article I thank you for clearing the air of his bull….critic and not good at it. Idol KING wrote a tightest rap on sermon on the mount…on explosion 2000 brainstrom records. Yeah, when sssSuP book drop em next. Em not a Star(
    I went from 2LIVECREW2Christ…rap saved my life. I am a pioneer of 2 genre and grew up on Dallas Seminary under Dr. Tony Evans. Tom Skinner—props due.

  • pimptrickgangstaclique

    Pretty sure being a Christian rapper gives you anti-cred tbh

  • http://sphereofhiphop.com Josh Niemyjski

    Hey Jonathan,

    Thanks for the mention. Definitely flattering and feels good to be recognized, thanks for that.

    I’ve struggled with how the “CCM” world sees hip-hop music from believers (which is a very wide spectrum). While I am thankful for the little pieces here and there, I don’t always feel like it’s ever been even close to being understood.

    Over the years I’ve been doing Sphere of Hip-Hop, and also in my work at record labels (Uprok Records and currently Illect Recordings), I don’t get much assurance that things have changed or ever will change. Maybe the latter is too cynical. The current growth is because most artists built their own following apart from the support of Christian media and radio. That’s frustrating but not surprising given things I’ve heard in private meetings with “industry executives”.

    Bottom line… evangelicals are missing a big opportunity to reach youth culture. Not all of these people respond to or like rock music. Hopefully it changes but I’m personally not holding my breath BUT that isn’t stopping me from living out my calling which is to serve urban culture.

    Hit me up via email if you’d like to connect. peace!

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