Michal and Her Theology of Glory: Naming the NCFIC’s Errors

The recent NCFIC panel on Christian rap was so exasperatingly obtuse I almost hate to say anything in response for fear of dignifying their position even a little. However, upsets within my own congregation this week have made it apparent we all need to rehearse why these men are wrong.

First of all, the presumption on display needs to be called what it is: arrogance. It doesn’t take too long for these men to expose they really have no idea what the flip they’re talking about. Their inability to talk about hip hop intelligibly on its own terms demonstrates a woeful lack of charitable engagement with the form or its appreciators. That happens, though- we can’t all be experts in every field, right?  The problem here, however, is how this eagerness to pontificate on something they know so little about is par for the course: this tradition’s teachers (broadly speaking) are so withdrawn from the issues and practices of real life and so swollen with imagined moral altitude they have nothing of gospel substance to offer the contemporary world. They do the gospel harm in the way they conflate the Bible with their own presuppositions and preferences. It repels outsiders who hear them louder and more clearly than they do themselves. This sort of overconfident/self-assured cultural superiority can only make sense to an ideology which deeply distrusts the body and emotions due to a quasi-Gnostic theology sustained by simplistic, neutered [1] readings of Scriptural texts. It doesn’t know how to be disreputable for joy’s sake; like Michal, it despises David for his unrestrained obedience of faith:

And David returned to bless his household [after dancing before the procession of the Ark of the Covenant]. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” And David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD- and I will celebrate before the LORD. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”
(2 Samuel 6:20-22)

The fear of experience, of surprise, and of exchange with the Other is codified within this tradition because it just cannot see how grace could have anything to do with it. Its zeal is plainly not according to knowledge because it brazenly denigrates our humanity in a way the Scriptures never do! [2]

I have no doubt each panelist was utterly sincere, but that doesn’t mitigate the erroneousness and gospel impropriety of their position- it only intensifies it. Peter was sincere at Antioch but his conduct wasn’t in step with the gospel (Galatians 2:14). Sincerity never justifies any false witness against another and the panel’s glib diagnosis and denunciation was exactly that. The accommodation of Christ to human culture  in the incarnation has no meaningful role to play in the question of contextualization for this paradigm. This type of graceless self-promotion (however sincere it is) is especially damning when it comes to Scripture, though. The panelists are treading the dangerous ground of a theology of glory that disowns ugliness, weakness, and contemptibility and thus never hears itself criticized by the voice of Scripture. Scripture’s only ever on their side, only ever affirms their socio-political ideology and personal practices because they’ve domesticated its confrontational address:

In Christian theology the critique of the cross stands in judgment on any use of biblical texts that serves self-affirmation of self-legitimation if this rests on illusion, deceit, or self-interest. Authorization on the basis of truth is a different matter. Transforming biblical reading de-centers individual or corporate self-interests, and allows readers to share the new horizons projected by what “addresses” them from beyond them as “other.” [3]

When the Scriptures become an easy go-to for asserting our own righteousness and imposing our unexamined preferences onto others, make no mistake, we have substituted death-dealing, invalid-shunning [4] Law for the gospel of grace.

Another point of contention that needs to be dealt a death blow is redemption talk: we sinner saints don’t redeem anything aside from the time. The Word made flesh is the sin offering of the world that has redeemed God’s good creation. We bring that gospel reality to bear upon the things of this world but it’s tragically myopic to view that as our “redeeming” that thing. “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15)- Peter didn’t do a dang thing to make pork okay that day. Christ’s triumph over sin and death reclaimed the universe and began the renewal we will see everywhere in the age to come. It gives the church far too much credit to describe anything we do this way. Jeremy Begbie insists that we can only cautiously describe our activity as redemptive, so dangerous it is:

More seriously, to claim that art [or any activity] can be redemptive might detract from the decisiveness of what has been established in Christ. So we need to insist that the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection provide not simply a detached pattern for the artist to work from but actually constitute God’s unique liberation of creation within creation. The task of the artist [or any believer!] is not to complement (or add to) the work of Christ but to share, by the Spirit, in its outworking. [5]

Elsewhere, Begbie does use the language of redemption to describe an aspect of human creativity in Christ but he follows his own advice and uses it cautiously, describing what “liberation of creation within creation” would entail:

The structures of the created world are God’s gifts of grace to be enjoyed; they are channels which enable true creativity, not primarily restrictions to obstruct us. Moreover, respect is not the same as absolute passivity. There needs to be an interaction with creation, a development, a bringing forth of new forms of order out of what we are given at the hand of the Creator. And there will be a redeeming of disorder, mirroring God’s redeeming work in Christ, a renewal of that which has been spoiled, a re-ordering of what is distorted. This redeeming activity will entail a penetration of the disorder of the world- human and non-human, just as the Son of God penetrated our twisted and warped existence. It will also entail judgment: an unmasking of disorder… [6]

Begbie’s position (the biblical position, in my view) demands the very thing the panel seems hesitant to affirm: that Christians must fully enter into the chaos of the fallen world (how else is it to be penetrated?), that Christian creativity must experiment with new styles and forms that don’t quite jive with established patterns. This is right and good, though! How else can we describe what happened at Joppa (Acts 10), or Antioch (Acts 11), or the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)? These upsets were the result of the outrageous grace of God irrupting into the continuities of the old age, establishing new orders reflective of the diversity-in-unity of the Trinity. You need ears to hear this harmony, though- ears bound up with Law only hear discordance and chaos in all the commotion. The church’s teachers must model how to hear grace at work as it disrupts comfortable old continuities so that the church can be a place where glimpses of the age to come can be seen and felt and people can be transformed by them. Alas, much preaching shrinks its hearers’ hearts, shutting them off to the possibility of reveling in the multitudes of ways God is pleased to accept, leading them to sinfully judge others; it’s harming the flock by painting dismal portraits of a conformist New Covenant that plays it safe and ignores the state of the real world outside the meeting house’s walls:

Unfortunately, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, the laments of hip-hop often fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Collective society depreciates the overall value of hip-hop and the list of reasons are legion… There are several episodes, especially in gangster rap, where their actions should, rightfully, be condemned, but the presence of those elements, no matter how harsh they might be may in fact speak descriptive truth about the nature and plight of inner-city life…

The same critiques and complaints continue, but the ultimate irony of the whole situation is that hip-hop, with its inconsistencies, blatancy and rough edges, is an earnest reflection of human life. We are inconsistent, we are violent and sexist, among an insurmountable list of inner-oppressors. However, humanity also has severe moments of clear and cogent truth-telling—at the behest of the Spirit. At best we are a mixed bag of motivations and actions that surrender often to our basest desires. If we had the full biographies of the OT prophets, I would imagine there would be much to condemn in their behavior, for they were human as well. Would we then stop listening to what they were saying? Probably. That’s what we’ve always done.

Hip-hop, I have learned in my growing love for it, is a cry in the wilderness of real suffering and despair. Things are not right with the world today. There is much to observe and describe honestly. Because if we are not honest about the reality of the situation, how do we ever expect to understand the nature of Christ’s work in the lives of people, communities and nations? No, hip-hop is not perfect, nor is it outright “redemptive,” but it speaks truth to a society that has, historically, ignored the laments of sufferers. It is often a clarion call to honesty: to name a spade a spade and recognize the truth for what it is. As is the case throughout Scripture, this is the only starting point. God has always been a proponent of saying the truth through a broken medium. Hip-hop is just another example of how God uses crooked sticks to make straight lines. And that’s why I love it. [7]

This prophetic unmasking of disorder is precisely the sense Begbie invokes when he says we can only cautiously speak of anything we do as redemptive. “Redemption” to most fundamentalists reduces to something like sanding off all the rough edges to make G-Rated kitsch (i.e. banal and free of offense). This misuse of redemption language piously overlooks the biblical portrait of creation, anthropology, eschatology, and therefore hand waves away Isaiah’s frank description of our “righteousness” (it’s as disgusting as used tampons) and Paul’s harsh language in Galatians 5:12 and Philippians 3:8! Unfortunately, it also ends up colluding with the Powers to maintain the unjust status quo. The Judaizers on the NCFIC panel have inoculated themselves against these prophetic voices and the voices of those who feel fitting emotional, aesthetic, doxological responses to them. And for this they ought to be ashamed.

[1] I was trying to be diplomatic, so I’ll put “boneheaded” in the footnote.

[2] One reason I suppose this tradition is so quick to allegorize the Song of Solomon and ignore its surface texture is that it so plainly celebrates the Edenic ideal of worshipful, ecstatic sex and that it does so so unashamedly.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons In Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 28-29

[4] Oh, by the way: we’re all invalids. And if you don’t think so, you’re just ignoring how sick you are: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

[5] Jeremy Begbie, “Christ and the Cultures: Christianity and the Arts”, p. 11. Available at http://knoxcentre.ac.nz/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/6-Christ-and-the-cultures-Begbie.pdf

[6] Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (London: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 179

[7] B.I.C., “‘We Rap About What We See, Meaning Reality’: The Prophetic Voice of Hip-Hop”, available at http://www.mbird.com/2013/10/we-rap-about-what-we-see-meaning-reality-the-prophetic-voice-of-hip-hop/

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