Critiquing NCFIC Panel Arguments Against Christian Rap

I saw the following video posted and mentioned on social media numerous times over the past two days. It is a panel discussion from a conference sponsored by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. The panelists begin from left to right and take turns each laying out their arguments for why they believe Christian hip hop is detrimental to the kind of life God is pleased with.

In many ways I hate to publicize the video, not only because I find the arguments presented fallacious and nonsensical - but also because I think there are some serious problems with cultural superiority among the panelists. But because I intend to interact with teach of the speakers below, I post it for anyone who would like to watch.

***UPDATE 1/4/2014: I see that NCFIC has taken the video down from Vimeo. While I understand some possible reasoning behind that, I believe it is important for people to be angle to hear the comments in their original context and tone. Here are links where you can download the video:
HQ (206 MB) LQ (55 MB)***

While working through the video,
I made a transcript, available here for anyone who would like to read it or use it to interact with the panel elsewhere. The names of the panelists are listed as (I believe left to right and in order of appearance) Dan Horn, Scott Aniol, Geoff Botkin, Joel Beeke, Jason Dohm, and Joe Morecraft.

Speaker #1, Dan Horn (Begins at 0:57)

I would be very against reformed rap. Let me tell you why. Words aren't enough. God cares about how we deliver the message. And there's two aspects of the delivery. The purpose of songs is to instruct. It's also to praise God, it's also to worship. But its to instruct and to admonish. We’re given the words because we’re a word-based religion, the emphasis needs to be on the words. And just having good words is not enough. The question is where is the emphasis. And I would argue with the rap [sic], with the heavy beat, with those things that the physical distraction is so much that the focus is no longer on the words. And music should be about helping us to remember concepts that we need to remember. And help us to carry forward. Music is a wonderful tool as a memory aid. Rap’s not that good for that because of the other problem with rap. The problem with any other form of music is who’s the attention drawn to. And rap is about drawing attention to the rapper, drawing attention to how his skill is different than anybody else’s skill. To how he is a special person… [Story about M. L. Jones & a preacher with an unimpressive delivery who brings great glory to God.] that’s what all preaching needs to be. It needs to move the attention away from you and towards God. Otherwise it’s about you. And my problem with reformed rap is I think in the end it’s always about the rapper, even if the words are correct.

Argument #1: The beat and music are too distracting in rap, so that the focus is not on the words.

My response: Our ears become trained and skilled at identifying differences in music and its lyrics in styles of music we listen to most. Exposure to a type of music is going to naturally make the lyrics easier to identify. It's not surprising that Speaker #1 has a hard time hearing the lyrics of the Christian rap song(s?) he tried listening to. He's not used to listening to rap. His ear is not trained for the task. The sad thing is that he imports his own (lack of) experience into everyone else who listens. He might consider that to someone who listens to hip hop on even a semi-regular basis would be able to hear well the lyrics of Christian rap. In fact, the style of music can actually enhance the focus on the lyrics, difficult as it may be to believe.

Argument #2: Attention is drawn to the rapper instead of to God.

My Response: I am especially saddened by this argument. There are many Christian rappers and hip hop artists who genuinely desire to glorify Christ and to use their own platforms as an amplifier for the gospel. Just like many Christian "celebrities": artists, pastor and writers. All of these can be tempted to bring glory to themselves. But the interviews and interactions I've observed in Christian hip hop have demonstrated a true desire to avoid pride and give glory to God alone.

One more example of poorly thought out arguments in this video: The idea that rappers alone, unlike other artists, seek to draw attention to their own unique abilities - and this makes it impossible to glorify God. Does an excellent Christian painter not show his or her unique abilities in every painting? Christian photographers show their unique eye in every photograph? Doesn't every Christian singer sing with a distinct voice and use those talents God has given? Uniqueness and originality are not detriments to God's glory. They in fact enhance and display His creative initiative in both creation and redemption. Is a rapper's voice and style distinct and identifiable? That only means the artist is good at his craft.

Speaker #2, Scott Aniol (Begins at 3:06)

Music is a medium of communication and God cares not just what we say but he cares how we say it. That's the function of music. And if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, I believe the Scripture should govern not just what we say - in other words not just the content - because I’ll agree, I’ve read a lot of the lyrics of the reformed rap and some of them are much more doctrinally dense than some of our songs. That’s true. However if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, Scripture will govern not just what we say but it will also govern how we say it. So the question I always want to ask is (because remember Scripture is given to us in literary art forms: narrative, poetry, these sorts of things, parable, and those should govern our art forms as well). And so I want to ask with anything with hip-hop, with any form of music: does it compare? Are we allowing the art forms, the way truth is communicated in Scripture to also govern our art forms. When it comes the art form of hip-hop, very few will disagree with the cultural milieu out of which it grew. What it was intended to express by those who created the art form. The only defense I've heard by reformed rappers of why they want to use this form is they say, “Well we want to redeem the form of rap.” But when I read Scripture, whenever there's redemption there's change. There’s fundamental change. So I’m all about redemption of musical forms, but if we were if we truly redeem certain musical forms to express God's holy truth that will mean that those forms will change to actually be appropriate vehicles for the communication of God’s truth as is expressed in the very Word of God itself.

Argument #3: Respect for Scripture means we limit our art forms to those that fit what we see in Scripture.

My Response: Or, if we really respect the Bible, our music will only have a piano and pipe organ. I use sarcasm here to make a very real point: It is the tendency of all of us to read our own traditions, methods, and practices back into the Bible. We are blinded by cultural-centrism that judges everyone else's practice by the criterion of ME. I wish the irony would sink in with those who promote this view - that the art forms they view as "in line with Scripture" are almost always the same ones they have a certain level of comfort with. Might it not be the case that the comfort came first - and only later the conviction that their favorite forms were superior and "biblical"?

Argument #4: Rap is inseparable from its ungodly cultural heritage.

My Response: Numerous music styles that have since been assimilated into accepted church music have borne this same criticism. Rap and its cultural heritage may be inseparable in the minds of some people (a panel of old white guys, just as an example). But for many other people, rap is just another genre of the music we've heard and enjoyed for years.

To be honest, I've heard this argument made with a greater amount of persuasiveness from some older black pastors. But even the men I've talked to about this have admitted that they are so uncomfortable with the music style that it is hard for them to view the subject objectively. They admit that for younger generations it
may be possible for Christian rap to be a good influence. But coming from these panelists, for some reason, the argument is lightweight and doesn't carry any water. I suspect it's because as you listen to the panel, you can sense their distaste for the musical style. It's not so much that they can't separate rap from its worldly heritage, it's that they don't care to try.

Argument #5: Redeeming rap would mean a change to the form of rap.

My Response: So let me get this straight... The speaker is "all about the redemption of musical forms" and would love to see Christian rap redeemed - as long as the musical form changes? What kind of redemption is that? It's not. It's an end to the art from of rap and a replacement by something else. His statement that he is "all about the redemption of musical forms" is disingenuous at the deepest level, even thought I don't think he means it to be. The ones who are doing the hard work of redeeming an art form are the very ones he's criticizing here - Christian rappers.

Speaker #3 Geoff Botkin (Begins at 5:15)

Yes, amen to that. “Do not be conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And what concerns me about this this so-called “art form” - it's a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they're serving God. And they're not. They’re serving their own flesh. They’re caving into the world. They are disobedient cowards. They're not really willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged. Scott, thank you for saying that. If we are reformers we are going to change and fully redeem and replace the world. We're not going to make ourselves friends of the world and enemies of God. And so this is what concerns me about anytime Christians, in a cowardly way, follow the world instead of changing it and confronting it. And confronting the antithesis. And we need be doing this in every every possible art from - including film, including other kinds of music. And so, Scott, just to summarize: Reformed rap is the cowardly following of the world instead of confronting and changing it.

Argument #6: Christian rappers are caving in to the world.

My Response: The most distasteful of the panelist comments. Dripping with superiority and self-congratulation. Judgmentalism on display. There is really no argument made by this panelist, just assertion. And then poor use of biblical terms and themes (esp. "world/worldly). This guy just joins a long list of fundamentalists who categorize all sorts of things as "worldly" that really have no intrinsic moral value at all. Long pants for women. Long hair for men. Anything other than the KJV. Earrings for men (just wait for the last panelist). Tattoos. Theatre. Pop music. Rock music. Rap music. Worldly. All worldly. So says the fundamentalist. But we evangelicals engage the world, we don't hide from it.

I love the revealing statement about how true reformers "redeem and replace" the world. This guy just added a whole new concept to what reformation has been about through 500 years of church history. It's a telling comment though. He realizes they can't leave it at redeeming rap. It must be replaced.

Speaker #4, Joel Beeke (Begins at 6:31)

I don't have much I add, I agree with everything that's been said. Just maybe add one thought. If my children, with their upbringing were to start to embrace this - I would use all these arguments, with intensity that they've been spoken. When someone comes to me, who comes from a culture that’s raised that way, had no Christian background, and first hears this kind of rap and listens to the lyrics and gets really interested in Christianity - first thing I don't challenge them on is the form of the music. I try to take them in, disciple them, and break this in slowly to them. So let's have a little compassion for people who, for whom they related to this culture - which we don't really relate to at all probably - and work with them. And get them to this point where they understand these things. But that doesn't happen a day. That's only thing I would add to it.

Caveat #1: If someone grew up with no Christian background, but became interested in Christianity through Christian rap, we shouldn't attack their love of rap immediately. We'll save that for when they have matured a bit as a Christian and are ready to be instructed in the better way.

My Response: At least here we have someone admitting that Christian rap could conceivably do some good in the world. Possibly help someone's spiritual growth. But only for someone with "no Christian background." And did you hear the affirmation of the prior comments? Did nothing at all seem out of place or poorly stated?

Caveat #2: We don't relate to this culture. At all.

My Response: Yeah.

Speaker #5, Jason Dohm (Begins at 7:27)

I’m gonna get sucked off the stage with the gasping happens with what I say here. I’m probably the only panelist who’s ever had TobyMac on my iPod. Yeah. They want to know who Toby Mac is. We’ll tell you after the panel. So here's what here's what drove it home for me: A few months ago I saw picture of TobyMac. Vintage TobyMac: backwards hat, ready to rap, and but he's 50 now. Wasn't 50, you know, when he became cool. And he’s starting to have wrinkles on his face. OK, so he’s 50-year-old man with wrinkles on his face - got that backwards cap, and he's ready to rap. And what didn't seem unseemly when he was a young man just looks really out of place in the pictures now. So the question is: 50-year-old men in the church - is their job to extend a hand down in the Church and to pull them up into Christian manhood? You don't see the discontinuity so strikingly until they start getting wrinkles. It’s our job to reach down to our young men, offer them a hand and pull them up in maturity and Christian manhood. That is not doing that.

Argument #7: Aging Christian rap artists don't look right performing any longer and are unable to be an example of biblical manhood.

My Response: What an incredible double-standard. Do any people "look" like they did 20 or 30 years ago. Isn't it obvious that anyone involved in the media culture goes to great lengths to continue to look young? And this panelist is going to criticize a brother in Christ for not living up to the botox ideal? Or for not wearing a suit and tie or at least a polo shirt and khakis? Dress your age, Toby Mac. In the music industry, it is a badge of honor to continue making relevant (to the market) music over such a long period of time. Once again the cultural centrism of the panelists is on full display - if you're going to be someone young men can look up to, you need to act, dress, and behave in the ways we're comfortable with.

Speaker #6, Joe Morecraft (Begins at 9:07)

I don’t think any of us are saying that in the worship of God there's only a certain kind of music that should be sung - like we should only sing country-western music in church. Or we should only sing classical music, etc. But I think what we are all saying is that some forms of music cannot be separated from the culture out of which they come. That’s an important thing to bear in mind. When we have young men or women the church let's say the young men start wearing an earring. I say, “What's the purpose of the earring? The pierced ear?” And they'll say, “Well I just like it.” or “I think it's nice,” or “it’s the fashion,” and I say, “Do you know why it is the fashion? Do you know who you're identifying with when you wear this earring? You're not identifying yourself with the godly men in the church but with an entirely different culture out there. And same thing with certain forms of music.

I don't want to be controversial or unloving, Brother Biggie, but I believe rap is the death rattle in the throat of the dying culture. And I think also that we must not use music in the worship of God where the words get lost in the music. And all people hear is the music. Now that doesn't just mean rock-and-roll, that means some songs, you know, that you can waltz to. That people remember an old tune or identify that particular beat or rhythm or kind of music with something in their past and so, even though they might be singing the right words the connotation is something entirely different. And I think that the music that we use in the worship of course all the words must be true. We must sing our hymns to God, they must be about God, and anything we say about ourselves in the hymns must be with reference to God.

And I think the music by which we sing must fit the majesty of the words, and the dignity of the words, and that there be edification and instruction as well as praise in the words. For instance: music where everything is just repetitious, you say the same thing over and over and over and over again and people call it various things, and it may move them emotionally, but that kind of music is so boring - I think it's also disrespectful to God, it doesn't reveal any kind of real knowledge of God.

So music as all of us know is a very sensitive thing. There’s certain kinds of music I like and certain kinds I don't like. We use a great hymnal in our church, but some of the tunes are funeral dirges and I don't like singing funeral dirges in church. You remember what it says the Old Testament? The purpose of music is to raise sounds of joy. That is to help us in our joyful praise of God. You must always ask yourself, particularly you young people who listen to music a great deal on your iPods and all the rest: What does this music do to me? How is it making me feel? Is it making me feel anxious? Bitter? Upset? Lustful? How is this music making me feel? And the same thing I think we should ask when we’re worshipping God: Is the music enhancing and strengthening the words that were singing, to the glory of God? Or is it basically the tune that we’re after?

Argument #8: Same as argument #4: Rap is inseparable from its cultural heritage. (See above.)
Argument #9: Same as argument #1: The words get lost in the music. (See above.)
Argument #10: The music we sing should fit the majesty and dignity of God.

My Response: Here and a number of other places panelists have failed to make any distinction between the music we sing corporately in worship and music that is intended to be listened to and enjoyed that way. I agree with this particular point as a general statement - but not that the principle applies to Christian hip hop. Plus rap is not written for the corporate worship service, and a good amount of this speaker's argument is invalid as soon as we realize this distinction. But even without that distinction, the best Christian rappers do exactly what he's describing here: they produce music that allows them to have deep doctrinal content, pointing to the glory and supremacy of Christ in a way no other form of music can. And the panelist may not be able to see any "dignity" in hip hop, but I and many others do. Especially when young generations absorb and internalize the content and style and talent of the rappers we've been discussing here.

Argument #11: Rap doesn't bring about the right kind of emotions and response. (Implied)

My Response: There are plenty of people who enjoy and are edified, encouraged, taught, by Christian rappers. The best examples of Christian rap bring about the best kinds of response to music: seeing and knowing Christ, desiring to follow him and forsake sin, passion for evangelism and biblical roles in the family, the list could go on. And on. And on. For speaker #6, Christian hip hop may not be edifying. But can we at least recognize the possibility that it possibly could be for many others?

Final Thoughts

  • We can and sometimes must critique cultures of which we are not a part. But this panel is an example of how not to. If you want to critique a culture from the outside, I see a number of requirements: humility about possible lack of understanding, intellectual curiosity about the subject being explored, caution in pronouncing rightness or wrongness in grey areas, a willingness to believe the best in others, a sense of one's own culture's strangeness to outsiders. More could be named, but these are some of the traits I find almost completely absent from this panel's comments.
  • The wisdom of being slow to speak and quick to listen is on vivid display here. Why speak so firmly about a subject you have obviously not seriously engaged?
  • Pastors (and I am one) often have a tendency to make broad sweeping pronouncements on issues we're not all that familiar with and have no expertise about. We ought to slow down.
  • Wisdom requires that we frame disagreements on non-essentials as questions of preference, not as questions of right or wrong. Why is it that out of six speakers, not one said anything like, "I personally have a hard time seeing how there could be much spiritual benefit from Christian hip hop, but I know others think differently..."?
  • I'm only marginally familiar with the Family Integrated Church model (and have in the past had generally positive impressions), but if this panel is representative of the logic and spirit of the movement, then may its tribe decrease.
  • I have avoided charges of racial insensitivity in the interest of charity, preferring to focus on "cultural-centrism." A number of people commenting elsewhere have detected racial insensitivity and I will not disagree with that charge, even though I've not chosen to emphasize it throughout this post.

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