Thursday, January 23, 2014

Does God listen to Rap?

by Curtis Allen
2013 / 99 pages

"Why wouldn't He?" That's the answer the author gives to his title question.

Whether you agree or don't might depend on what you think of Rap's sinful origins. In chapters two and three, in the space of just 25 pages, Allan gives an authoritative, detailed account of these beginnings. He explains it started back in the late '60s, and that even though some earlier innovators tried to use Rap to promote a social consciousness, it was the pimp/drug dealer-glorifying "Gangsta Rap" that ended up dominating the genre.

Allen then investigates whether its sinful origins are reason enough to dismiss Rap. If they are, what then, he asks, are we to do with music itself, which seems to find its origins in the sinful line of Cain (Gen. 4). A good point, but I think a stronger argument should have been made with more examples, since this is a key point. It is a fallacy – the "genetic fallacy" – to condemn something simply for where it comes from. We don't do that with classical music composed by immoral composers, or foreign foods from pagan cultures, or anything else, so why would we do it with Rap?

One very large issue that is left unexplored is whether the driving beat of Rap impacts its appropriateness for conveying Christian content. That is a significant omission, since this is the question for some Reformed Christians. Allen describes the lyrics as the content, and the music as the context. And to him it seems it is only the content that matters. The context - the music - seems to be almost a neutral aspect.

But this overlooks the way different sorts of music can impact us in distinct ways. For example, the thumping beat of Rap conjures up very different emotions than the rising swell of the string section in an orchestral piece. The beat might spawn feelings of aggression. This is the sort of music we would warm up to for a basketball game, or might want on our iPod when we go running - it drives us. Some orchestral music can tug at the tear ducts, bringing moisture to the eye of even the most stalwart of men. So music is far from a neutral, unimportant aspect of Rap – it brings the power to the words. I would suggest that there is a reason that Rock and Rap, with their thumping beat, are closely linked with sex, drugs and perversions of many sorts: the beat does get us aggressive, it does get us riled up, and if that energy isn't put to good use, it will be put to bad. That doesn't mean Rock and Rap are inherently bad - aggression is not an inherently bad emotion.  But Rock and Rap are known for encouraging people to "lose yourself in the music" while God says we must instead be controlled. So we need to be aware of the emotions Rock and Rap can stir up, and ensure that they are properly channeled and directed. We need to ensure these emotions are constrained and controlled. There is a reason that the Billboard Top 100 is filled with sexually perverse songs – this is the aggression unrestrained.

However, this aggression need not be unrestrained. A songs lyrics can do a lot to properly direct and control the emotions the music stirs up. But if we are going to control these emotions, we have to understand that the music – the context – is far from neutral or insignificant. It is the music that brings the power to the words.

So this is a topic that should have been explored. However, the book is just 99 pages, so, clearly, it couldn't cover everything and what it does cover is well worth reading. In fact, it is worth buying for the historical background alone.

You can pick up a copy at here and here.

RELATED REVIEW: Another on music
  • Reformed rapper Lecrae's biography: Unashamed

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Triune Tale of Diminutive Swine

42 pages / 2012
by John Branyan

What if the Three Little Pigs was retold in Shakespearean English? And what if the third pig, just to mix things up a bit, spoke good ol' American English? Wouldn't that be the best fairytale ever?

A Triune Tale is purportedly a children's book, but it would be best appreciated by adults. And it might be of the greatest benefit to high school English students who don't yet appreciate Shakespeare's vast 54,000 word working vocabulary. (As author John Branyan points out in the comedic stand-up bit that inspired the book, that is a stark contrast to the 3,000 word working vocabulary of the modern North American.) How could any student not appreciate this display of verbal variety?

In time, there HAPPENED along, as is frequently the scenario in classic tales of PROTAGONIST PIGLETS or RED-HOODED CHILD, 


CARNIVOROUS NATURE in full season, he called out to the STRAW-ENSCONCED swine, saying,


Pig NUMBERED FIRST recalled with sage foreboding that it is the MADMAN who trust in the tameness of the BELLY-PINCHED wolf. His reply in earnest,


I read this to my four-year-old, and while she enjoyed it, that was probably only because she likes seeing her dad laugh. This is a fantastically fun book to read out loud, with the screeching pigs and howling wolf speaking thisly and thusly. So it's very high on my list of best picture books, but it hasn't cracked her top 100.

            This this could be a great tool for a high school English teacher. For those of us who hated Shakespeare in school – why couldn't this guy just write in real English? – one can only wonder what might have been, if only we had first been exposed to a Shakespearean English tale that was laugh-out-loud funny. I'm quite sure this would have helped.
            You can order copies at You also find there a video of the original 8-minute comedic bit which spawned the book, which you can also see below.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Brightest Heaven of Invention

by Peter Leithart
1996, 286 pages

This book was a huge help to me in my own teaching of Shakespeare, hoping to cobble together some kind of logical Christian perspective on plays that can be diificult enough for students to comprehend, let alone appreciate.

Besides giving an overall suggested structure for the reading and study of each play, the introduction makes our love for stories clear, due to their ability to structure our understanding of our lives, and deals with the Bible as the master story.

You don't need to read Shakespeare to appreciate those insights; however, Leithart clearly has read both Shakespeare and the Bible with wisdom. Brightest Heaven of Invention deals with two of Shakespeare's histories - Henry V and Julius Caesar; two tragedies - Hamlet and Macbeth; and two comedies - The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing.

Let me explain why, and how much, I appreciated a few of these chapters. I had never taught (or even read) Henry V, and honestly didn't quite know how to approach history plays, but Leithart makes clear that the play turns on Shakespeare's revelation of whether King Henry V really can fulfill the description given to him in the play - "the mirror of all Christian kings." Similarly, while I have always enjoyed teaching Julius Caesar, I tended to treat it more as a tragedy than a history, which left me with two questions: "Who was the tragic hero?" and "What is the point of the play after Caesar's death?" Leithart shows how the play deals with how all the characters misunderstand and/or misuse power and either take it for granted or take it for themselves through force or fraud.

The chapter I probably appreciated the most was Leithart's view of Hamlet, a play about a young man whose tragic flaw had typically been viewed as indecision, which always seemed to me to be a very nebulous weakness. Leithart sees further by setting the play within the tradition of the revenge tragedy, which had been very popular with Christopher Marlowe and others writing just before Shakespeare. Seen in this light, Hamlet's mysterious encounters with other characters, including his (demonic imposter?) ghost father, become much more revealing and yet more sinister - and truly tragic. Leithart's analysis is brilliant.

Finally, let me deal briefly with the "gender issues" in the two comedies that Leithart looks at. While reading  his analysis of Taming of the Shrew, I read the play itself in a feminist edition (from a thrift store) that showed just how systematically women in Shakespeare's time were seen and suppressed as sources of evil.  Leithart's analysis of Petruchio's "taming of the shrew" Katherine demonstrated that there was more in play than simple oppression, but I don't know if Leithart's commentary acknowledged just how badly the Bible's commands for marriage have been misused, both in Shakespeare's time and in our own. On the other hand, Leithart's look at Much Ado About Nothing shows how a distorted kind of male bonding shuts down the possibility of love between the sexes, until some learn to see through their own self-willed pride and blindness.

With insightful questions after each of four lessons for each play, possible topics for an essay, and suggestions for the best video to accompany the study of the play, Brightest Heaven of Invention sheds Biblical light on every play Leithart looks at - a book I will continue to refer to every time I teach a play it deals with. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Lies of Saints

by Sigmund Brouwer
2003, 293 pages

The Lies of Saints is the third book in the Nick Barrett Mysteries series and the very best of the bunch.

Twenty years ago Victoria Sebastian, and her daughter, disappeared without a trace. Soon after she was declared legally dead. Now someone wants to know what happened and has hired private investigator Kellie Mixon to find answers. However, answers prove hard for her to come by after a serious car accident lands her on her back in a hospital bed. Fortunately her good friend Nick Barrett is always willing to help, and he clearly has sleuthing in his blood. He soon makes connections between Victoria Sebastian's disappearance and others who have disappeared as much as 100 years ago.

This is a solid mystery with a stellar cast of characters. In addition to Nick, former world traveller, former college astronomy teacher, current amateur sleuth, there is Angel, his ward, a teenage street-smart mostly-honest hustler who might make her first million before she's able to drive. Then there are the two ancient antique salesladies who have as their hobby the meeting out of justice to the telemarketing industry. Add to that a pastor who says just what his parishioners really need to hear, and you have the makings of some great verbal interchanges. The dialogue was so good I must have read a good ten percent of the book out loud to my wife.

One example: Barrett is helping out Kellie Mixon because he is a good friend. He is also the perfect gentleman – he knows Mixon has a boyfriend, so he would never think to act on his attraction. Or so he thinks. But his pastor – the eighty-something Samuel Thorpe – knows the way of men and women and is more than a little concerned. He knows that what a man intends can change quickly, given the wrong sort of circumstances. So when Nick pops by for a visit, Pastor Thorpe decides this is the time for a needed, awkward conversation.
"It's a ticklish business to be friends with a woman," Samuel said, "particularly one like Miss Kellie. She's fine-looking, and smart and of good character. I'm certain you're not blind to that. I doubt for that matter, that it's escaped her notice that a woman could do worse than land a man like you. But as you mentioned, she's in a committed relationship, Nick.... Now I'm not suggesting that you have or intend to do anything inappropriate. But it's like driving a car. Good drivers aren't the ones who can handle a car in a skid and keep it on the road. Good drivers are those who recognize when conditions are bad and take action not to get into trouble in the first place."
"Kellie's in trouble," I said. "She needs help. That's all I'm doing." 
"You don't have to justify your motives to me. Just beware of them yourself. All I'm saying is if there's trouble way up the road, it'd be a lot better for you to see it coming and slow down before you reach it."
This is the kind of conversation we would like to be capable of having, the sort of pointed message we wish we had the courage to give... or receive. There are also a pile of laugh out loud parts that I just had to share with my wife.


Though this is the third book in the series, it can be read as a stand alone. In fact, I would advise it – while this is a great read, the first two are marred by a gospel presentation that has an Arminian "try your hardest" bent to it. For example in the second book, Crown of Thorns, Angel explains the gospel this way:
"Nick told me all I got to do is believe that God made this world and all of us. Said some people get hung up on how God made the world when maybe all we got to do is wonder why. Said if I can believe that God made this world, then all I got to believe is that God wants me to come home to Him after I die, which is why God sent Jesus, and all I got to do is believe Jesus came from God and follow what Jesus told us when he was here. So I said to Nick, 'what's that?' And Nick told me it was to try to love God as best I could and try to show that love to other people. I told Nick there had to be more to it than that, and he said other people keep trying to build rules around it, but no, Jesus spent his time fighting against people who made too many rules, and no, there weren't much more to it than that. He said love is a special thing, and of all that's in the world, love's the one thing that points us to God."
"Believe and try to do good" sounds enough like the gospel to fool people into believing it is the real deal. But it is a world of difference between this and what we hear when Jesus calls us to "repent and believe."

The author's theistic evolutionary beliefs are also evidenced here.


Sigmund Brouwer remains one of my favorite Christian authors despite his theistic evolutionary and Arminian beliefs because, while he misunderstands what God is like, he has a great insight into what Man is like. And he is a superb storyteller!

So of you like good dialogue, a good mystery and simply superb storytelling, skip the first two books and pick up The Lies of Saints.

Canadians, you can pick it up at here, and in the US it can be found at here.