What’s Rap Got to Do with It?
I’m a huge fan of theologian and pastor Doug Wilson, whom some may know from the film Collision that documents his peripatetic debates with curmudgeonly atheist Christopher Hitchens.
Wilson was prompted to write an open letter to black Reformed rappers several months ago when some dust blew up following a Christian conference sponsored by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches during which “holy hip hop” was passionately endorsed and condemned.
Passionate endorsements and condemnations continued after the conference, including one endorsement from a surprising source: Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Doug Wilson, like Al Mohler, has some thought-provoking and positive things to say about Christian rap that deserve a wider audience. The always surprising (and hilarious) Wilson forces—or leads as good pastors should—readers into a deeper more thoughtful analysis of cultural phenomena that Christians may dismiss as either irrelevant or destructive.
Wilson discusses God’s creativity in shaping cultures throughout history by raising up men and women to shake up a slumbering, impotent church.
Wilson reminds followers of Christ—the Logos—of the place and importance of words which our culture either dismisses or abuses. Wilson waggishly describes the work of many Ivory Tower scholars as being more “legocentric” than logocentric.
Wilson commends both the restoration of masculinity to poetry and the messages about marital fidelity and fatherhood that Reformed rappers call men to—messages that in some cases grow out of their own painful childhoods.
In this open letter to black Reformed rappers, Wilson also warns about potential pitfalls. He warns these young men against appropriating contemporary notions about art that Wilson calls “aesthetic relativism.” He discusses the dangers of material reward, warning these poet/musicians to “strive for success in the full knowledge that when you get there, you will be in the gravest peril of your life.” He warns them to resist “the cheap counterfeits of masculinity.” And he urges these artists to be wise to the twisted ways of liberal racism.
If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or students, or you care about the miraculous, inventive ways that God uses people to reach people, read Wilson’s funny-bone- tickling and serious piece “Dear XYZ” (And when you’re done, read Wilson’s brief defense of the use of satire in Christian writing titled A Serrated Edge. It’s a delightful antidote to what Wilson aptly describes as Christian “treacle”). And now here are Wilson’s thoughts on rap:
I hope you don’t mind receiving a letter like this, coming, as it does, out of the left field bleachers. To begin with a confession of the perfectly obvious, I am not naturally part of that demographic that buys, listens to, or is otherwise conversant in, the work you do. You might say it is not my cup of T. At the same time, I do follow cultural trends widely, and sometimes deeply, and have been aware of your active presence in the Reformed world for some years now. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.
So I want to ask you to think of this letter as the work of an appreciative and affectionate and somewhat distant Dutch uncle…although I am not Dutch. I believe you have been called to a very important task, and I want to urge you to honor God in that work. The reason for this letter is that I believe that the importance of your labor is such that it is going to generate a great deal of trouble for you, and I believe that I do know something about handling that, whether we are talking about causes or consequences.
As I observe the work you do, I wanted you to know that there are three things that I am very thankful for, and which I would urge you to guard and protect. There are also four things to be wary of, four traps, four snares.
Let me begin with the positive.
First, your mere existence is more than a little surprising. What are you even doing here? The Reformed presence among black rappers does not appear to be comparable to the Reformed presence among black Christians generally. Black Reformed rappers are a splinter of a splinter of a splinter. At the same time, your influence is strikingly disproportionate to your actual numbers. What is that about? The reason this is notable is that it is a hallmark of how God loves to work. He loves the unexpected twist, especially when it messes up the hair of the pious. From Nazareth? Really?
After the Puritan high water mark in 17th century England, the zeal began to ebb. Some of it was because the most devout were emigrating, and some was because of the natural forces of ossification that always tends to set in with every movement. By the middle of the 18th century, the non-conformists, descendants of the Puritans, were fully orthodox and dozing peacefully. And so God sent an Anglican priest named George Whitefield, an Anglican for pity’s sake, in order to preach England and New England back to life again, and over the course of a few decades he preached himself to death in the doing of it.
To reapply the words of the prophet, we must not despise the day of odd beginnings. To my mind, this oddity is very much alive in your surprising presence. That does not determine what this necessarily has to be, but it is enough to make me want to watch closely. I have written before about black swan revival, and believe it would be marvelous if black men were a significant part of the coming black swan.
Second, your art is unabashedly logocentric, and comes at a time when a lot of our fifty pound heads are stroking their postmodern chins and wondering what the big deal is with words anyhow, and are now thinking to make their scholarly pursuits a lot more like the work of my grandsons, which is to say, legocentric. But Christians are people who worship the Word, which means that we must, of necessity, have a high view of words. And here you come, with dense, hand-packed, cream-laden theology, and all presented in words that high school students want to memorize. Because Jesus is Lord, words have power. Poetry has power. Poetic words have authority. This is your only authority, and you must never let it go. Without the rhythm of the Word, you have nothing to offer us — but with it, everything.
Third, over the course of centuries we have let the masculinity of poetry slip away from us. We still have poetry, some of it great, but we don’t have popular poetry that appeals to men. You are calling men to take responsibility as husbands and fathers, you are calling them back to true masculinity. You are doing this in a time when our nation is undergoing a father famine, and this crisis is particularly acute in the black community. Many of you have been yourselves shaped by the weight of fatherlessness, and have spoken eloquently about it. Continue to do so — when God breaks into the downward spiral of generations, someone has to be the first real fathers. You be that, and speak about it. Call men to it. Call men to find one woman, and call them to faithfulness to her, and to covenant faithfulness to all the children she gives them.
At the same time, there can be no opportunity like this — a glorious opportunity — without a thousand and one possible ways to screw it all up.
So first, beware of lame defenses for your art. We live in a time of aesthetic relativism, and so this means that when someone sniffs contemptuously at what you are doing, you must resist the temptation to hide behind a “who’s to say what good art is?” It is cheap and easy, and our relativistic age will applaud if you do. But it is the defense of a poser. Develop a true aesthetic, grounded in Scripture, and in the way God made the world. You shouldn’t want any defense of your art that would work equally well with the lamest attempt at art known to man. If you adopt the relativistic apologetic for what you are doing, thinking Christians will have every right to write you off. Do not hide behind “preferences,” to each man his own. In the recent imbroglio resulting from that panel discussion, I saw more than a few of your defenders offering the rousing defense of “beetles fancy other beetles.” Aesthetic relativism is a true death rattle in our culture’s throat, and if you accept this cheap and chintzy defense, Morecraft’s point will be proven right.
Second, when the devil can’t get you to fail, he will switch directions and will get you to succeed. Unfortunately, that usually works very well. Beware of money. Beware of mammon. Beware of the world’s blandishments. Beware of everything that goes with it. Many men have suddenly come to the place where they realized that they could now, at last, buy the world. But when they were all done, and they read over the papers they had signed again, they found out that the world had actually bought them. If God prospers you, and you start to “make it,” you may rest assured that there will be a long series of choices that open up before you, and a good half of them or more will represent death. You should therefore strive for success in the full knowledge that when you get there, you will be in the gravest peril of your life.
Third, the Bible says nothing negative about putting powerful words in a rhythmic framework, and delivering that word to the people who will listen. Whatever you do, do it heartily, with all you have and are. But there is a danger on the flip side of the masculinity you are seeking to recover. Beware of cheap counterfeits of masculinity, for which we have a lot of words — swagger, bravado, machismo, swank, bluster, and male peacock bling. Those rappers who do not fear God have successfully made this kind of thing a virtual hallmark of rap. About this kind of attitude, the Scriptures say a great deal, and you must have nothing to do with it. The idea that true authenticity is found in a raw, untutored, and slovenly slouching is actually a white boy schtick, invented and refined by seventeenth century opium addicts. Your rejection of this kind of thing must be one of the most obvious things about you.
And last, when it comes to the racial component of this — and there is a racial component to this — do not be children. You live in a world where true accomplishment by a black man is extraordinarily difficult. Some of the difficulty arises because of internal cultural factors like missing fathers, lousy schools, and an entitlement mentality, but much of it also comes from the attitudes of the outer society you simultaneously live in and are excluded from. Liberals exclude you from that society by giving you freebies and calling it accomplishment, and want you to receive your participant ribbon like it was the Medal of Freedom or something.
And bigots exclude you by means of open hostility and contempt, patronizing tolerance, or some exasperating combination of those. Sometimes it is open, and sometimes coded, but it is frequently there. The situation is complicated by the race hucksters who play the race card every chance they get, and you don’t want to be associated with them. Racism can be coded, but these guys can find the deep codes of racism on the Arby’s reader board.
So I grant that when it comes to true accomplishment, you live in a time when you will have to work twice as hard to get the same results as someone else without your challenges. But given that, what will happen — in terms of true accomplishment — if you only work half as hard? If God blesses what you do, then no collection of men will be able to get in the way of it. You and God will outnumber them all.
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