Rap Redemption: How Not to “Redeem” a Genre

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past week or perhaps were in a turkey-induced coma since last Thursday, I am sure you have watched the NCFIC panel about “Reformed” Rap:

Worship of God Q&A: Holy Hip-Hop

And you have read these responses:

Did a NCFIC Panel Really Say That Reformed Rappers are ‘Disobedient Cowards’?” by Owen Strachan

Creation, Culture, Redemption, and Hip-Hop: A Response to the NCFIC Panel” by Mike Cosper

Thinking about Thinking about Rap — Unexpected Thoughts over Thanksgiving” by Albert Mohler

A Few Words on Redemption

tumblr_mka51kwHdR1reveuro1_1280Over this weekend, so many posts exploded on this topic parsing every word and phrase that by now it’s useless to enter that part of the discussion.

However, I do believe this whole language of “redeeming” a genre of music is something we need more thought about.  What does redemption of a cultural phenomenon even look like?  In a word–better yet, in a verse–here is what I think we are all trying to get at: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

We as believers and fellow compatriots with the Apostle Paul are in the repo business.  We take possession of everything we find and we make it obedient to Christ.  Whether it’s a thought, a genre of music, a medium of dialogue, etc., we bring these parts of who we are into complete submission to Jesus.

It’s important to note that Paul is talking about a process that is at work within us.  He states it in a different way here: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:19).  Our personal expression in thought, action, deed, and creativity must all now be made slaves to Jesus.

During the NCFIC discussion, one of the panelists mentioned that reformed hip-hop artists claimed they wanted to redeem rap.  His comment was that redemption of the traditional rap genre is close to impossible because redemption necessarily entails a change.  I would disagree.  I would say that redemption necessarily entails a return.  You see, redemption is all about transaction.  God’s process of redemption is all about buying back what’s rightfully his.  God is redeeming a Created Order he originally declared to be “very good.”  The problem is not that giraffes need to become less giraffy and more something-other-than-giraffy.  The problem is not that people need to become less peoply and more something-other-than-peoply.

Redemption is all about the Divine Return Policy.  God is reclaiming, redeeming, what is rightfully his.  As believers, we are employed in the process of bringing all of creation back to God.  Redemption is about returning.  In order for that to fully happen, he will renew the Heavens and the Earth, but notice that Jesus declares, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5), and not, “Behold, I am changing everything!”

Redeeming a genre of music is no different than redeeming any other art medium–whether paint, or photography, or marble, or architectural blueprints.  Music is an art form, and we often forget that.  When we speak about genre, we have to realize genre has as much morality as a bucket of paint or a slab of marble.  It’s how you use that paint that can either bring honor and glory to Christ or detract from it.  I will admit, some mediums make themselves more readily accessible when it comes to bringing glory to Christ.

Here’s an example. You will have easier success in applying paint to a canvas in your endeavors to honor Christ than you will in applying a plate of spaghetti to a canvas.  You might eventually succeed in bringing glory to God by spreading pasta and sauce all over a canvas, but it’s gonna take a lot more thought and creativity (which is not necessarily a bad thing!)

What “Redeeming” Culture Is Not…

All this to preface what I really wanted to address, which is the misconception of what “redeeming” a particular item of cultural looks like.  Here is what “redeeming” culture does not look like:

1. Trying to imitate the best “secular” artists.

If you are just out there to imitate, you might as well hang up the mic, the paintbrush, the whatever.  God is not interested in your best efforts to sound like someone else.  If you are a Christian artist and you are merely doing your best impression of something you have heard, just stop.  For Christ’s sake and for all our sake, just stop.

2. Lauding every artist who wears his/her “Christian” badge as the savior of the Church and the greatest thing since sliced bread.

I’m going to shoot straight with you here.  Most modern Christian art is terrible.  Do you think it brings more or less honor to Jesus that Christians generally have a poor aesthetic taste?  When the world watches us stand up and clap our hands for something even they can tell is garbage, what does that say about the Creative God we claim to worship?

What is worse, we idolize “Christian” artists as though creativity was the only qualification to be a spiritual leader in the Church.  Do you realize that Michael W. Smith slapped his endorsement on the back of The Shack?  And he was heralded for years as a forerunner in worship music!  “Redeeming” means that we don’t swallow every piece of “Christian” artwork whole simply because it wears the name “Christian”.

3. Changing or censoring “Secular” art in order to “Christianize” it.

When Paul talks about making everything obedient to Christ, he does not mean we should go rewrite the words to songs or paint over parts of paintings that we find offensive.  He is talking about us charging into those areas of culture and using our abilities and gifts to bring about Christ-honoring creative works.  If you are rewriting Katy Perry songs by changing a word here and there and inserting “Jesus” every once in a while to “Christianize” them, you are wasting your time.  What the world needs is not Christian police or Christian plagiarists.  The world needs to see Christians who excel at their endeavors, who surpass all others in creativity and artful originality.

4. Prizing banal drivel and conformity to the Contemporary Christian market.

When you turn on a CCM radio, you can recognize it immediately…and it’s not because of the words.  CCM music has a certain feel to it.  It has a certain sound to it.  Why do all of the songs sound alike?  Because we feed to beast.  We buy the stuff.  We go into our Lifeways and our Christian bookstores and pay money for music that would normally end up in the waste bins of most major music labels.  If we want to change the music culture, we are going to have to start prizing truly good music.

5. Being unwilling to spend more than $15 for a piece of artwork.

Modern Christians are notorious spendthrifts when it comes to art and aesthetics.  Just look at most of our modern church buildings compared to the cathedrals Christians used to build.  It is expensive to produce quality art, and if we as believers are going to be serious about “redeeming” these cultural elements, we are going to have to be willing to endow our creative brothers and sisters with more than a couple of bucks from the bottom of our pockets.

How Do We Get Involved?

Ultimately, if we want to “redeem” the arts, it is going to start with creative artists, but unless Christians seek to encourage, endow, and support these artists by developing a God-honoring and Christ-obeying concept of aesthetics and beauty, it will never get off the ground.  Redeeming rap or any other genre of art takes as much work on our eyes as beholders as it does on the minds of those who redeem art.

(photo credit)