The messenger is the medium (and other things old white guys don’t get about hip hop)

This is what happens when a bunch of old white guys talk about something they don’t understand.

Media theory.

Well, that, and hip hop.

Every man and his blog has already responded to this video – which has prompted not one, but two apologies from NCFIC – one of which is genuine and gracious, the other is an apology that people were offended at being called cowards. There’s a transcript of the video here.

Most of what needs to be said about how bad this video is has been said.

People like Owen Strachan, Thabiti Anyabwile, Tim Challies, Doug Wilson, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Joe Carter, and Justin Taylor have all chimed and said things I think are important. But what they don’t have…

They don’t have the video from the panel set to a beat. But I do. The beats come from the instrumental tracks on my (Reformed hip-hopping) friend Nat’s new albumSeven Scrolls of Suffering (get it here).

Most things are more persuasive when they take the Hip Hop form of a “spoken word” – so I put a beat behind that video above, and cut it down a bit. Into a video that shows what these guys actually think about hip hop, and another that shows what I think they should have said…

Two things the panel got right

I think it’s fair to say these guys actually do understand Hip Hop – they just don’t like it. What they don’t understand is the intersection between theology and a discipline called “media ecology” – it’s the field of studies developed around the work of Marshall McLuhan, the guy who said “the medium is the message”… This lack of understanding leads them to dismiss Hip Hop. But they get two things right.

1. As Christians – how we say things is important. Medium matters. The Bible uses and describes the use of many communication mediums that support the message. 

2. Mediums are not neutral – mediums influence the message, the recipients, and the messengers. 

The first one shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, the second one is slightly more controversial and is one of the central tenets of media ecology.

One of Marshall McLuhan’s big insights was that when it comes to communication mediums we become what we behold – he was riffing off the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 115. Particularly when it came to the power of idols – which were first century communication tools.

4 But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. 

A guy named John Culkin, one of Marshall McLuhan’s academic disciples said it this way:

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Think about what happens to the arms of a worker who switches from using a shovel to using a jackhammer.

That’s what happens to us when we communicate using different mediums. The mediums begin to shape us – so, for example, having the Internet in our pockets has probably rewired our brains to make us think differently, speak differently, and it has certainly changed the way we act. It is quite possible that Hip Hop, as a medium (a subset of music), equally has the ability to affect the communicator. But it’s probably not about the combination of beats and rhymes.

What they got wrong

And the guys on the panel are right to point out that when Christians use mediums, we need to “redeem” and “transform” them. One of the panelists, Scott Aniol, has expanded on what he meant here (I disagree with some of his conclusions, especially about whether or not Paul rejected oratory, or subverted it, but most of the working is sound). But they’re wrong to think that happens at the superficial level, by changing or removing a beat – or whatever the panelists think is what needs to happen when we play music or with film.

The transforming power of mediums isn’t really at the superficial level.

Mediums transform us because mediums have their own narratives, or value systems, that are used to differentiate them from other mediums, they are part of strong “myths” that create meaning for people.

We don’t “redeem mediums” at the superficial level, we do it by changing the narrative. We do it by not participating in these myths – but subverting them. By replacing them. With our own narrative.

It’s what the writers of the wisdom literature did with wisdom literature – wisdom wasn’t about what man observed as the fundamental ordering of the world, instead it was about the fear of God.

It’s what Paul did with oratory – which was all about the speaker. He made it all about the glory of Jesus instead. Jesus increased, while he decreased.

It’s what Reformed Hip Hop people are doing with Hip Hop. They’re not leaving the tools unchanged – because they are reshaping the narrative that comes with the tools. Every time they talk about why they rap. Every time they rap about Jesus and giving their lives and gifts to him, not about themselves, their winning of life, defined as sex, money, or power.

The medium is the message, the messenger is the medium, the messenger is the message

There are two big problems with the panel’s “media ecology” – one, is they appear to drastically downplay the content of a message, the other is they don’t see the messenger as the medium. Which is profoundly ordinary theology.

In the incarnation, Jesus was both medium and message – the word made flesh. Interestingly – he spoke in the communication mediums of his day – language is a medium. The alphabet is a communication medium – using a written alphabet profoundly transformed the cultures that became literate, and the cultures that didn’t. Jesus spoke the language of his time – using the forms of his time – like pithy wisdom statements, chiasmus, and parables. He lived a life that communicated, both through his actions and his relationships. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

As we carry his message as image bearers we are both medium and messenger – and, in some sense, we’re also the message – as our lives give testimony to who Jesus is. That’s the “medium” at play in the Reformed Hip Hop scene – a bunch of people living as God’s people, as his instruments, in a culture that is full of people living for themselves. Paul calls those who follow Jesus God’s letter, the image of Jesus, and God’s instruments. We are mediums. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3

18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21

We overturn the myths that come with the mediums we embrace by replacing them with our own powerful narrative. The narrative of the cross.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. – 2 Cor 4:10-11

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.