Medium and Message

I recently came across an article referenced by one of my favorite bloggers, Justin Taylor, who posted a link to an article written by David Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary entitled, “Is ‘Holy Hip-Hop’ Holy?“. His basic thesis was questioning the medium and method of Gospel rappers. He didn’t target a specific person or group but the most well known Gospel rap group is 116 Clique, comprised of artists Lecrae, Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashi, and recent addition KB.

He first questions Gospel Rapper’s ability to use hip-hop as a stepping stone to evangelism. He does not deny that some people may come to the Savior through the medium of hip-hop, but he does question the church’s open support of it, using Matthew 7:16-20, “fruits reveal roots” as a segue to the following question:

Are the origins, associations, and present fruits of a musical genre or sub-culture to be seriously considered when deciding whether to incorporate it into the public worship of God?”

In other words, should we think about how hip-hop began before we choose to use it as a medium to communicate God’s message? Murray responds, “[Most] Christians have little idea about the origins, associations, and present fruits of Hip-Hop culture. They see a sanitized version of it on church stages, but know next to nothing about how it began, what it is associated with, and do not have to live with the brutal, terrifying, blood-soaked, and tear-stained fruits of it in the inner cities day after day, and night after night.”

My first problem with this is who Murray credits for the creation of hip-hop. Yes, there were cultural icons that came out and popularized hip-hop and cut the first album. But is that its origin? I think not because

God created rhythm and rhyme.

As Matt Chandler, Pastor of the Village Church says often, “There is no sacred-secular divide. Music cannot be Christian or non-Christian because it doesn’t have a soul.” There are only mediums that can be used for either self-glorification or for the glory of Christ. In this case, hip-hop can serve as a medium to promote yourself, or the goodness and love of the one true God. I do not buy into the belief that the medium is the message. Mediums seem to be amoral, neither good or bad if separated from the message.

Murry offers the example of the Apostle Paul and his method of preaching by correctly stating that it was distinct from that of the Greeks who wanted signs and miracles. However he goes on to say, “He did not use the common Greek Socratic method or the accepted Jewish Rabbinic model. He used God’s method and model of preaching – culturally unacceptable then as now.” I think Murray goes to far because, while Paul was distinct, it was the message that made him distinct, not the medium. Paul quotes Aratus, a Greek poet in Acts 17:28 when he says, “[For] in him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, For we are indeed his offspring.” In this instant Paul has used a common medium, Greek poetry, and applied a distinctly Christian meaning to it. He has no regard for its original meaning, the authors intended audience, or the authors goal. He rips this quotation from its context, exploits it, and applies a Christian meaning to it. This is something that Paul does often. He uses earthy wisdom, poetry, and even idols to present Christ in a manner that his hearers can grasp, which is essentially what groups like 116 Clique are doing with the Gospel and hip-hop.

My point is this, who cares about the roots or origin of a medium? This seems like the same type of logic that fought against allowing pianos in churches because they were also played in bars. God created music, rhythm, and rhyme for his people to use to make much of Him. We have been given a glorious message—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Likewise, we have been given a multitude of mediums by which we share this glorious message. Mediums come, go, and change but the message remains constant,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures [1 Cor 15:3-4].

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3 thoughts on “Medium and Message

  1. Marcus T. says:

    Having read Murray’s blog and later update, my stance is that he is ironically speaking out of his life-context and experience, and does not have a nuanced-enough position on the ‘holy hip-hop’ question.

    The issue is essentially about gospel contextualization. “Who cares about the roots and origin of a medium?” Actually, a lot of people. But typically not God.

    In missions to tribal peoples, there are rhythms that aren’t used in creating a hymnology for various African tribes because THE PEOPLE associate them with their previous spiritist rituals. Instead of opting to attempt to ‘redeem’ these rhythms made by the God of all music, missionaries/nationals occasionally find it more strategic to consider such things as “meat sacrificed to idols” for the benefit of their weaker brothers.

    While the medium matters because the medium encapsulates the message (some go so far as to say the medium IS the message), I would say that Murray simply does not have a comprehensive enough grasp of the medium or issues in contemporary hip-hop cultural contextualization.

    • I agree with you that the medium does matter. I was only attempting to say that mediums will change but the message does not. In that sense the medium cannot be message. I also realize that one of Murray’s points was that hip-hop shouldn’t be used in public worship. I agree with this but not because of his reasoning. It is not because of hip-hop’s origins but because its difficult for most people to follow (lyrically speaking).

      In the case of tribal people groups, I agree that they should probably lay those rhymes/chants to rest because they were formerly used in pagan worship. The hip-hop context is different in my opinion because the intended audience isn’t using hip-hop to worship a false god (although I guess you could make the argument that it is self-worship) or religious practice.

      I think we are agreeing… but I’m not sure. I definitely agree with your statement on Gospel contextualization and Murray’s incomplete grasp on the medium of hip-hop.

  2. Oh and I just read the update and now I disagree with him even more. His part talking about Lecrae and Tedashi’s song “Go Hard” promoting aggression made me feel really aggresive. They are talking about battling sin. Just read some John Owen… if you don’t attack sin with vigor and even anger, it will not die.

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