Real Lives: Debate - The Pope has released a CD of his words - in rap Is this really the way to attract young believers?

Absolutely, says Peter Owen-Jones the Church is way out of touch. Not true, says Catherine Pepinster; this is patronising and embarrassing
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Anglican vicar

WESLEY HAD a horse. Saint Paul had a pen. Pope John Paul II clearly has a 32-track recording studio. Has he gone stark raving rap?

Rap - the music of the unwanted, the disaffected. Anger and arrogance set to the rhythm of a road drill. Let's disregard the obvious; this rap, in purist terms, is pony and trap, McDonald's bap. But despite its anodyne credentials, there will be an army of Anglicans trying to persuade you that this is essentially mutton of God posing as Lamb of God. They will add to the usual chorus that says this type of thing makes Christianity look ridiculous and we must all get back to the fundamental principles of the faith.

These are beautiful principles but they have acquired a lot of baggage down the centuries. You see, going back to the fundamental principles of Christianity is code for learning Hebrew and Greek, understanding ontology, sitting quietly in church and enduring hour upon hour of bible study. This is not a bad thing, but its appeal is very limited and it explains why so many priests have the manner of so many professors. It has also spawned an insular culture bent on reading history rather than making it. It is hardly surprising that these voices will cry out that the Pope is devaluing the Christian message; but they are not actually concerned with the message, they are far more concerned with the medium. That has been the underlying message from the Christian Church since the emergence of pop culture. It has become a refuge from society; a place to escape from advertising, rap, punk, abstract art, contemporary design. The consequence of this is that we have been unable to empathise and engage with any of it.

The Church's Easter poster campaign portraying Jesus as a revolutionary, with which I was involved, has provided more than a few surprises. Beside the Easter advertising, many of the national newspapers ran the well-known image of the quasi-Victorian Renaissance Jesus. It's that Jesus that those who want a return to fundamental principles actually want us to hold onto. However, this has probably been the most radical Easter campaign that the Church has produced and, surprisingly, it has also been the most successful. Its popularity, especially with the under-30s, has perhaps also demonstrated that the Church in this country has been unable to learn from or respond positively to many of the experiences of contemporary culture. In that sense we have let several generations down. The sadness is that there is still genuine love within the Church for young people, which makes the separation more painful. Once you leave the select mud of the Greenbelt Festival, the Church is clearly way out of its depth, which explains the perennial cry to return to fundamental principles. The Pope has obviously rumbled that one. Faith, Hope and Love, as Saint Paul says, these endure. They have endured from the Aramaic words of Christ into the Hebrew and Greek of the New Testament writers. They have endured through Latin down the ages. They have been sung and said in English, Russian and Swahili. Keble wrote poetry, Wesley wrote hymns, the Pope did rap and God said, "Come on, let's dance, you'll have the time of your lives".



WE'VE ALL endured them haven't we: the balding boss who thinks he's regained his youth by investing in a toupee; the father who tries to relate to his kids by playing air guitar along with Liam and Noel's latest song; the man in his fifties with a girl half his age on his arm, dressed in combat trousers and a Gap T-shirt? Now the 78-year-old Pope is at it too, with a CD of his homilies set to rap. To which the only (apt) response must be: "For God's sake! Act your age!"

For years, much of the Pope's antics have mystified people, both inside and outside the church. Yet many aspects of his thinking can be explained by a study of his own background. His obsessive devotion to the Virgin Mary and extreme idolisation of women as mothers is more understandable if one remembers how young he was when he lost his own mother. His commitment to social justice and distaste for extreme capitalism is as much a part of his experience of socialism in Eastern Europe as his abhorrence of communism. And his fascination with pop culture - be it the rap CD, the concert with Bob Dylan or the Vatican Christmas concert with the Corrs - is just what you'd expect of a man starved of Western trivia for so long in grim, grey, pre-Solidarity Poland. You can just imagine him excitedly sidling up to a stall selling bootleg tapes in backstreet Warsaw and handing over a sackload of Zlotys for a scratchy copy of "You Wear It Well".

Except he doesn't. The rap artist formerly known as The Pontiff is making a fool of himself. And he's making the rest of us squirm with his patronising antics as he tries to relate to the young. The young aren't stupid. What impresses them far more is the Pope's determination to speak up for the poor in the Third World with his insistence that something be done to cancel debt. Or his criticism of the United States for its squeeze on Cuba, or his attack on capital punishment as part of the pervasive culture of death. Or apologising for the Church's past mistakes.

These are the actions you would expect of a man at the head of a Church whose members expect it to speak up for the oppressed, and for the eternal values of faith, hope and charity. A rap record is an empty gesture from a man who, if he really wants to get with it, would do well to question his attitude to women. What a millennium gesture that would be, if he became not a rap star but a feminist, and graciously welcomed them to the sacerdotal class of the Catholic church.

As for music, why the need for a lousy version of an unfamiliar style when one that the Church could call its very own has become so hip, so happening, so Nineties? I refer, of course, to the suddenly fashionable but nevertheless timeless beauty of plainchant - to the sound of a unity of voices, without accompaniment, soaring to the rooftops, offering up lament and psalms of praise. Among them is the night prayer of the church: "Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep". To which I might add: from the daft notions of well-meaning old men.