I 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.
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