Friday, October 3, 2008

Q & A Fridays #2- The Inevitability of Culture


This week's question comes from Howie and happens to be related to something I was already working on. Howie asked:

"My question is related to culture. To what extent is ‘culture’ allowed within Church?"

My answer to that depends on how one defines "culture". Properly defined, culture must be allowed in the Church because culture is inevitable in the Church. I'll explain that as I answer another related question that often comes up:

Question: Is rap a legitimate vehicle of expression for Christian music? Does it glorify God?

My answers are an emphatic yes and yes. Before I unpack why, I need to address some of the underlying assumptions inherent in the questions themselves. I'll do so by stating the same question another way.

"I believe that there are legitimate vehicles of expression for Christian music. The vehicle of expression I use, for instance, would be one obvious example. And clearly, my expression brings glory to God. However, as I observe this other vehicle of expression, questions come to my mind. I see nothing but filth coming through the popular secular version of this vehicle of expression. How can someone use something that is usually used to to communicate vulgarity and sin to communicate the glorious truths of a Holy God? "

To properly address this question we must first define culture. This is because any questions regarding vehicles of expression are actually cultural questions. A simple definition would be:

Culture = A set of behavior patterns that are socially rather than biologically transmitted

The American Heritage Science Dictionary expands on this simple definition by referring to "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought."

The AHSD goes on to say:

"Culture is learned and shared within social groups and is transmitted by non genetic means."

Defining culture properly is crucial when it comes to understanding how we express various aspects of the Christian faith. If we accept this definition of culture, what we realize is that culture is inevitable for anyone participating in human society. For instance: right now you are reading this blog. You are reading a particular language- English. By reading English, you are participating in a cultural activity, since language is included among the things that are socially rather than biologically transmitted. When you got dressed this morning, you put on a particular outfit. In doing so, you made a cultural decision. The same can be said about the way you cooked your food, how you wore your hair, what you bought at the supermarket, the way you arranged your living room and yes- even the music that you listened to in your car. All of these things are learned behaviors. You did not come out of the womb singing a particular style of music or dressing a certain way. It was taught to you.

How does this apply to Christianity? One of the challenges for the Church in every age has been how to properly relate to the surrounding culture and how culture should inform Christian expression. Our authoritative guide on these things is the Bible, of course. When it comes to music, the Scriptures are interestingly (and perhaps surprisingly) silent about style, but very loud about content. We don't know what it would have sounded like to hear King David singing one of his Psalms, but we do know what he said. If we were able to go back in time to listen to what it sounded like, we can be sure that it would not have resembled anything we hear in our western churches today. We also shouldn't be surprised if it had the same sound stylistically as the culture that David lived in. If we were able to go back and see him dance, we wouldn't expect to see him doing the "Holy Ghost two-step" popular in many Black Pentecostal churches, nor would we expect to see him break dancing or doing ballet. Yet, it shouldn't surprise us if his form of dancing resembled whatever dancing looked like in his culture.

Back to our questions:

Is rap a legitimate form of expression for Christian Music? Does it glorify God?

Yes. Rap is a form of rhythmic poetry associated with hip-hop culture. It is a medium through which messages are conveyed. The content of the message is what determines its legitimacy for Christian expression. The medium itself is no more inherently sinful (or righteous) than any other artistic medium. The extent to which a rap's content conforms to what the Bible teaches about appropriate standards of expression is what determines whether or not it glorifies God. The Bible has a lot to say about the content of Christian music. Here are a few passages:

"Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting." (Psalm 147:1)

Here we see the psalmist exhorting God's people to make songs that praise God. He refers to songs that exalt the Lord as "good", "pleasant" and "fitting". It is the content which is in view here. If a rap, country or classical song "Praises the LORD" then it is "good", "pleasant" and "fitting".

"1Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 2Sing to the LORD, bless His name; tell of His salvation from day to day. 3Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples! 4For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods." (Psalm 96:1-4)

In this passage, we see specific instructions concerning the songs we should sing:

The type of songs- New ones (vs. 1)

The object of our songs- God Himself vertically (vs. 1) and the gentile nations horizontally (vs. 3)

The subject of our songs- God and His salvation (vs. 2)

The purpose of our songs- The glory of God (vs. 3)

The foundation of our songs- The greatness of the true God over against the false gods of the pagan nations (vs. 4)
Perhaps the clearest New Testament instructions regarding Christian music are found in Colossians 3:16-17:

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:16-17)

I know that there is an in-house debate among Christians concerning the words translated "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs"- but regardless of how you understand those words, there is almost universal agreement on what this passage is teaching concerning content and the heart behind our musical expressions. Our songs should be Biblically informed (vs. 16), edifying to the saints (vs. 16) and done from a heart of gratitude that seeks to direct glory and attention to the Lord Jesus (vs. 16b-17).

With that said, I'm aware that some people are not able to enjoy Christian Hip-hop because they were entrenched in the sinful aspects of the culture before conversion and it's a stumbling block for them. Others have a hard time seeing the artistic value in it. In cases like this, the principle of Christian love should prevail. Out of love for Jesus and that person, I'm called to lay down my cultural preferences for the sake of their conscience. Of course, I have to recognize it as a preference before I can lay it down. I'll gladly rejoice in the finished work of Christ while singing another style of music with such a person- provided the content fits Colossians 3:16-17.

A word for those who say that a medium used to transmit vulgarity shouldn't or can't be leveraged for the glory of God- don't forget that the God of the Bible has always done just that! Words on a page or language from the mouth can communicate filth- God used both to transmit the Holy Scriptures. What's more vulgar than the cross as a form of execution? God leveraged the cross for His glory and it stands as the indispensable centerpiece of our faith. What's more vulgar than an unregenerate, sinful human being such as me or you before conversion? Yet, God chooses to indwell sinners via the Holy Spirit and then leverage us for His glory! Be careful that you don't cling so closely to cultural preference that you inadvertently argue against God's glorious design in redemption.

We all have a tendency to assume our culture is the standard for Christian expression and to correspondingly view other cultures as inferior at best or sinful at worst. This is partly because our culture is so closely tied to our very identity. And no one wants to see their identity as a mere preference. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we try to find righteousness in the fig leaves of our culture. Biblically, however, believers are called to find our identity in Jesus Christ alone. As tempting as it is, we should not allow our language, artistic taste, style of dress or musical preferences to define us. If we are Christians, our primary identity is as children of God who, by the grace of God, have been united by faith to Jesus Christ and therefore recipients of all the benefits that Christ purchased for us through His sinless life, atoning death and glorious resurrection. We are called to use language, the arts and music to spread His fame among the nations so that His great name might be exalted in all cultural contexts, whether we like them or not.

Much more could be said, but I'll stop for now. I welcome your comments.

grace and peace,
shai












6 comments:

Purple Soapbox Admin said...

I love your point Shai. I'm glad that you defined culture, because many people are confused to what it is or they conveniently put their own interpretation to the word. What people do sometimes is idolize the past, to the point there there arguments have no proper ground. In the end sometimes our personal bias can blind us to the errors of our forefathers. Even those guys in the Reformation had their problems, and they were not totally right on everything. The enemy is not the modern day in which we live, but our enemies are sin, satan and the flesh.What makes any culture bad is if sin gives the culture its identity.

JRL said...

Shai,

Thank you for the thought you put into your answers. I really appreciate the biblical responses and not an opinion based answer. Really enjoy the content of your music as well.

Eric Vaughn said...

i think one part that is missing is the misuse of culture in the church. I agree 100% that the medium itself isnt vulgar its just the content. but i dont know if you are aware of the emergent church movement, who use pop culture, without redeeming the content, within the church. for instance they did the song mateiral girl within the church to bring in the younger crowd. its pretty sad. so your answer on the hip hop culture in the church is spot on, but there is also the presence of unredeemed pop culture in certain churches.

grace and peace,
eric

Howie said...

Wow! Shai!
Thank you for such a comprehensive answer. It must have taken a lot of thought and a lot of your time. Part of the reason why I asked this question is because when I observe churches around me many are segregated by different cultural backgrounds. Do you think the many denominations are also influenced by culture? I find it quite frustrating because we together are one big church! But I hear a lot of oh I’m Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Non denominational. Anyway I’m truly grateful and encouraged by your response and I am challenged to lay down my own cultural preferences for the sake of edifying others!

One thing to note: I found when you said ‘Biblically, however, believers are called to find our identity in Jesus Christ alone. As tempting as it is, we should not allow our language, artistic taste, style of dress or musical preferences to define us.’ So challenging and just heard Lecrae’s new album track called Identity basically sums up what you said in rap hahahah!

God Bless,

Howie
I live in Australia btw. In case your figuring the cultural Demography.

shai said...

The following comments were made by Mike but got erased by accident:

shai,

I love you in Christ and I agree, as far as I know, with most of your theology. We hold the reformed faith in common, and I praise God for that. I also love music, and I love hip hop. I particularily enjoy your music as well. I say all this to display where my heart is at toward you. I love you, brother.

I wanted to comment on some of the things you said in this post of yours. I would ask you to consider them and take them for whatever they're worth. I appreciate your consideration and time.

First, I wanted to note something in regards to your comment on Psalm 147:1. You stated, "Here we see the psalmist exhorting God's people to MAKE songs that praise God." However, I do not see anywhere in this verse where the psalmist says anything of that sort. He says, PRAISE the LORD.

Second, in response to your comment on Psalm 96:1-4. You note that the psalmist says "sing a new song." But I would point out again that he does not say, WRITE a new song. He says, sing a new song. I would also point out that you assume that he is, in fact, not talking about the very psalm he is writing itself.

I wont get into the whole exclusive psalmody debate, lol. That is not my purpose in this response. I just wanted to point out a few things.

I love you in Christ, brother.

In Christ,

Mike

shai said...

Mike,

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you pointing those things out. I should have been more clear that I was drawing inferences from the texts I mentioned. I did have a question about something you brought up regarding Psalm 96. You said:

"I would also point out that you assume that he is, in fact, not talking about the very psalm he is writing itself."

You're correct that I'm making that assumption- especially in light of verse 2-

"Sing to the LORD, bless His name; tell of His salvation from day to day"

The psalmist doesn't do that (tell of the LORD's salvation) in the rest of the psalm. How would you explain that if he were only referring to the psalm itself? I look forward to hearing back from you.

grace and peace,
shai