Over the past few days the evangelical community has been talking about the kinds of things you would expect — the meaning of Thanksgiving, the turn to the Christmas season, the fact that some stores were opening on Thanksgiving Day and the various issues of the season. And then came rap. Out of the blue, when least expected, the topic changed to rap and the Gospel. Over the last few days a great deal has been written and said, sparked by a panel discussion at an evangelical conference in which rap music was dismissed as unworthy of evangelicals and of the Gospel.
I recognize the arguments made by the panelists. I am tempted to make them myself. In fact, I have made them myself … in my head. I know the arguments well. Form matters when it comes to music, and the form of music is not incidental to the meaning communicated. The biblical vision of music grows out of the union of the good, the beautiful, and the true in the very being of God. That union of the transcendentals means that Christians should seek only those musical expressions that best combine the good, the beautiful, and the true.
In other words, Johann Sebastian Bach. In my view, Bach got it just about right, even almost perfect. His music is an exhilaration of proportion and purpose in which form and message are precisely, intentionally, even magnificently combined. Bach is never far from me, especially when I am working and particularly when I am writing. I should acknowledge Bach in my books. Karl Barth listened to Mozart, and I love Mozart’s music (at least, most of it). But Mozart is a genius in a way that Bach was not, and genius can easily get in the way of musical art. Add to this the fact that Mozart’s worldview was seriously flawed. That explains why his magnificent but unfinished Requiem Mass in D Minor is so moving, but so unsatisfying. Beethoven’s pantheism and Enlightenment sensibilities do not ruin his music, but they do make his incredible music rather inaccessible for Christian worship.
Bach, on the other hand, is perfect. It is also important to know that Bach was a servant of the Lutheran Reformation. In his brilliant new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, conductor John Eliot Gardiner affirms that Bach saw himself extending the musical theology of Martin Luther, with the glory of God as his supreme purpose and the task of music “to give expression and added eloquence to the biblical text.” So we should just end the development of church music and Christian musical artistry with Bach.
But there is a problem with this proposal. Bach was writing music that was understandable to the culture of his day, and not just to the elites. As a matter of fact, many among the elites did not like his music, accusing Bach of using crude structures, lowly themes, and of borrowing from unworthy musical sources. And then there is the issue of his pounding music as found in his famous organ works. Those pedal sequences in his toccatas are jarring to the senses and physical in reception and impression. Hardly appropriate for use in church and the service of the Gospel.
And the people who would argue now about the unworthiness of rap music often think of Bach as the quintessential Christian musician. As I said already, I have made many of the same arguments myself. In my head. Thankfully not in public. Am I holding back?
No, I allow myself those arguments in my head when I want to absolutize my preferences and satisfy myself in the righteousness and superiority of my own musical taste and theology. The problem for me is that my theology of music will not allow me to stay self-satisfied on the matter, and by God’s grace I have not made arguments out loud that would violate that theology.
Rap music is not my music. I do not come from a culture in which rap music is the medium of communication and I do not have the ear for it that I have for other forms of music. But I do admire its virtuosity and the hold that is has on so many, for whom it is a first and dominant musical language. I want that language taken for the cause of the Gospel and I pray to see a generation of young Gospel-driven rappers take dominion of that music for the glory of God. I see that happening now, and I rejoice in it. I want to see them grow even more in influence, reaching people I cannot reach with music that will reach millions who desperately need the Gospel. The same way that folks who first heard Bach desperately needed to hear the Gospel.
The good, the beautiful, and the true are to be combined to the greatest extent possible in every Christian endeavor, rap included. I have no idea how to evaluate any given rap musical expression, but rappers know. I do know how to evaluate the words, and when the words are saturated with the Gospel and biblical truth that is a wonderful thing. Our rapping Gospel friends will encourage one another to the greatest artistic expression. I want to encourage them in the Gospel. Let Bach’s maxim drive them all — to make (their) music the “handmaid of theology.”
Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor is playing as I write this. It makes me happy to hear it. But knowing that the Gospel is being taken to the ears and hearts of new generation by a cadre of gifted young Gospel rappers makes me far happier.
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John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.)
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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