Asking the right questions

At the risk of being trampled by the ireful in the latest slanging match over rap and hip-hop, I wonder if I might interject? It seems to me, watching from a distance and not trying to read every contribution, that the debate quickly escalates into absolute and swingeing declarations that fail to take account of the various issues that ought to come into play. I may be wrong, but I hope I can lob a few thoughts into the debate.

I suggest that there are at least three questions that ought to be asked in assessing not just rap and hip-hop but other musical genres and forms.

First, and most generically, in what ways can a Christian appreciate, enjoy and embrace either a form or genre of music in and of itself, or a particular instance of that form? There are issues here of taste, excellence and morality, all of which need to be taken into account. Can and/or should a Christian enjoy certain forms of the musician's art, taking into account the manifestation of God-glorifying skills (even in the realm of common grace and some expression of the image of God remaining in man), the cultural context and baggage of a certain form or genre, the deliberate or unintended communication of certain moral perspectives and messages, and the appetites and tastes of the person who is listening?

It is at this point where, for example, we might say that we can recognise the cultivated excellence involved in a given form or genre, or a particular expression of it - the skills of the rapper, the voice of the tenor, the talents of the guitarist - while mourning and rejecting entirely the unmitigated moral filth that those skills have been prostituted to communicate. I am not suggesting that we can or should simply filter out the wickedness and enjoy the excellence - the former might so thoroughly compromise the latter that the whole package needs to be put away. For example, a singer with a fantastic voice might sing a thoroughly lewd piece from a highbrow operetta. I might recognise and in that sense appreciate the quality of the voice but I cannot truly enjoy it or embrace what it is communicating. At that point the vehicle and its contents are so closely intertwined that I cannot take the one without the other and must therefore give both a pass.

Likewise, we might recognise or believe that there is little discernible or negative cultural or moral baggage in something that we feel free to enjoy. I do think we have to be careful about simply assuming that what we quickly call high culture is good and that - at the other end of our spectrum - low culture is bad. There might even be a genuine intent to glorify God in something but - once exposed to it - we would wince at the misguided and miserable attempts to do so in a form or genre in which the participant(s) have no real capacity or skill. Sometimes there is nothing remotely joyful about the noise being made. So we might say that, even though the intent and content appear purer, it is such a terrible effort that we simply cannot appreciate it.

Between these various extremes there might be some middle ground, and that might be different for different Christians as a matter of trained conscience, personal experience or particular sensitivity. I know some believers who can appreciate the artistry of a certain song or piece of music and who experience no pressure from or attribute no weight to its particular content and context; other Christians, hearing the same piece, cannot even begin to contemplate listening to it. That might be because either party (or both parties) need to be better instructed, or it might be that something which is sin to one is not sin to another (and that is not situational or shifting ethics). Neither am I at all suggesting that there is a neutrality to culture here, considered either as high or low. Every Christian needs to think through these matters for him or herself, and to be aware of what they are imbibing and what it carries with it, whether we are listening to Bach or Tupac, Einaudi or Eminem, Rieu or Rihanna, Beethoven or Bon Jovi, Jay Z or Joe S (as Johann Strauss was known to the other chaps in the neighbourhood), or their equivalents across the genres (or the 'real' artists to whom aficionados turn with disdain for the big names in the mainstream who are, by definition, no longer true to their roots or rootz, depending on how cool you are being). Philippians 4.8 really means something here: "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."

Second, and a little more narrowly, to what extent is a certain form or genre an appropriate vehicle for the communication of distinctively Christian truth? Here we are focusing in on those things where there is a deliberate attempt being made to bring honour to God through the accurate and appropriate communication of divine truth, evangelistically or homiletically or in some other sphere.

It may be that a Christian says that they enjoy a certain kind of music and that they would rather listen to a Christian or Christianised expression of it than a worldly expression, raising questions about whether or not the music itself communicates something of moral weight and content, either in itself or by its usual associations. These are the murky waters in which all manner of claims for the redemption of certain genres are made. Here, we may be assured, are the death metallers who profess conversion and begin singing death metal praises to God, for example. Here are the personally godless classical artists who wrote religious music and lyrics of a high order. Here, I suppose with a shudder that is poorly expressed via the keyboard, is Cliff Richard. Here - to get to the nub of it - are those who rap high and full and careful theological truths. Here also are the testimonies of men and women who were exposed to the rich theology of certain lyrics from Christian rap or hip-hop and were either converted and/or instructed. Here too are those who say that certain genres or forms are beyond redemption. Here are all those middle-of-the-road soft-rock guitar bands or whatever else they might be 'updating' and 'improving' classic hymns by setting them to modern musical forms or writing their own stuff. And here are countless Christians who stick in their headphones, wind up their gramophones, turn on the wireless, bung a disc into the player in the car or plug in their MP3 players, stream a few albums, and make this their casual or consistent listening.

And here we must wrestle with the questions of the moral weight of both style and substance, defences and accusations and defences again about pragmatism, worldliness, separatism and fundamentalism, about babies and bathwater, and whether or not the baby has swallowed so much bathwater that you must either retain or reject both.

But third, and most specifically, is this question: is a certain form or genre a legitimate and appropriate means for the corporate worship of the gathered church? This brings us into a whole new realm, for it raises the issue of the artist and his or her audience and the distinctive dynamics of the saints of God gathered in one place for the purpose of worshipping God. The answers to these questions are sometimes assumed in the debate, but often they have been neither raised nor addressed. I have offered some thoughts on these matters before, so will not do so again in full. So we must take what is entirely proper and appropriate for a Christian's private enjoyment, or even legitimate and beneficial as an element of his private worship, and ask by what set of criteria it must be judged when it comes into the realm of the gathered church at worship. Is worship a performance with God (or, indeed, men) as the audience? For the record, preaching as performance is at least as inappropriate as singing as performance, if not more so. Is the worship of the gathered church a matter of what we imagine God enjoys or what we would hope that he appreciates? What role does excellence of form play? Is it simply a matter of our sincerity or are we arrogating to ourselves the right to employ our gifts, real or imagined? What questions should we ask: 'What will God allow?' or 'What does God prefer?' or 'What does God require?' I have my own convictions on these matters, and they are going to make a huge difference to what happens in those services of worship where I have been given a measure of responsibility and authority.

Whatever genre or form we consider, and whatever its context and content, when we come to the issue of worship in its more narrowly defined sense, we must bring it under the particular scrutiny of Scripture. Leaving all other considerations aside, I cannot see that this provides for an operatic solo any more than for a rap performance; it does not provide for a classical concert as the church's expression of her worship any more than it does a rock opera. At this point, it is not about my personal tastes and preferences, my experiences or lack of them, or what I might appreciate and enjoy at other times. It has to do with God's requirements, and the Scriptural demand for the whole participation of the whole congregation of saints in the sung worship of the gathered church.

When we have these conversations about music, we might still end up with very different and deeply-held answers. But let us at least acknowledge that the issue requires us to ask the right questions, and to ask them all the way back to first principles, ultimately out of a concern that the Lord God we serve be honoured in all things, but also as an expression of our concern to deal rightly and reasonably, accurately and carefully, with one another.