A recent evangelical conference associated with the National Center for Family-integrated Churches recently caused an unwelcome stir among believers when a panel of speakers was asked to comment on Christian rap music. I have seen the video of the panelists’ responses and was surprised, upset, and discouraged to hear them one by one in unanimity offer blanket denouncements, sometimes in very strong terms, of Christian hip-hop. Thankfully, there have been a number of appropriate responses by well-respected Christian thinkers, including one by Albert Mohler and a statement approving of Christian rap by Samuel Waldron, who was also a speaker at the NCFIC conference, but not on—and, I believe, unaware—of the small panel that addressed Christian rap. There have also been apologies offered by the host Scott Brown, and by at least one panelist. Additionally, a discussion with Dr. James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries and rap artist Shai Linne regarding this topic is planned for later today. I happen to know that James White has a positive view of several current Christian rap artists, who produce excellent biblical material.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts of my own. One reason is because I feel strongly about the Christian artisan in general. Another is that I have personally been greatly blessed by the music of several contemporary Christian rap artists. In fact, I have been more blessed by their music than by any other form of Christian pop music. So let me address some thoughts offered at the conference.
It was repeated by a couple panelists that it is not only important what we say, but how we say it. That is, form matters. Form as well as message should be under the authority of Scripture. To this I give a hearty Amen. How this indicts Christian rap was never really explained, and I can’t figure it out myself. It would certainly prohibit handing out tracts at a bikini car wash, even though that might attract more people. It would likewise prohibit using force or violence to evangelize. When it comes to music, this principle becomes a little more esoteric. Certainly, any art produced by a believer should aspire to recreate, as Albert Mohler said, what is good, beautiful, and true. There are some forms of music that I believe are not beautiful. They involve screaming. But even here, I would hesitate to take a dogmatic stance. Mohler further pointed out that even the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who made music explicitly in the service of the Lord, was accused in its time of “using crude structures, lowly themes, and of borrowing from unworthy musical sources.” This does not necessarily mean that no form of music is unacceptable. But anyone who listens to the Christian rap on the market, with an understanding of the genre, cannot accuse it of being ugly. It is well made and a joy to listen to, in addition to carrying a wealth of truth.
Bach, as we saw, was accused of “borrowing from unworthy musical sources.” Here we see another accusation offered by the panel at the NCFIC conference, when the cultural origin of hip-hop was mentioned. Certainly, hip-hop originates from anything but a Christ-centered milieu. Indeed, rap music often entertains some of the most unchristian themes and images in all of pop music. How then can believers in submission to Christ embrace this musical style? They can because the style is not the message. Opera often has very sensuous messages, too, but it does not mean opera cannot be used to glorify God. To see this issue from an alternate angle, let us take the example of the Christmas holiday. A couple years ago, I was confronted by a coworker about celebrating the holiday. She was a fellow believer and had seen some material denouncing Christmas, explaining its pagan origins and the pagan roots of common Christmas symbols such as wreaths and evergreen trees. She asked me to watch the presentation, which I did. Looking for help on this subject, I ran across some articles by the Christian Research Institute (with Hank Hannegraff). In one place he observes that
Sometimes it is urged that to take a pagan festival and try to “Christianize” it is folly. However, God Himself did exactly that in the Old Testament. Historical evidence shows conclusively that some of the feasts given to Israel by God through Moses were originally pagan agricultural festivals, which were filled with idolatrous imagery and practices. What God did, in effect, was to establish feasts which would replace the pagan festivals without adopting any of the idolatry or immorality associated with them. It would appear, then, that in principle there is nothing wrong with doing so in the case of Christmas.
This, now, is actually one of the things I celebrate about Christmas. The holiday, created by the Christian church, supplanted pagan festivities. This is not merely using a pagan practice to facilitate Christian observances, but rather, it is a kind of conquering. This same thing can be done for opera; it can be done for pop-rock; it can be done for poetry; and it can be done for rap. Christians should not only be producing rap—they should be producing good rap, and when they do, they take one more part of the world from the god of this world and there plant the flag of Christ.
One of the panelists said that the only defense he has heard for Christian rap is that it is redeeming rap. He opined that in the Bible, redeeming results in “fundamental change,” (his own words), and that he doesn’t see this change in Christian rap. Let me try to unveil the folly of this opinion, if it is not openly apparent. Redeeming cannot mean a “fundamental” change. It does not mean this in Scripture. Redemption means a buying back. It is a restoration. It is fixing that which is broken, not destroying it and starting over. Now, the Christian rap I listen to is absolutely 180 degrees different in its message, posture, and worldview from the rap on the radio (and the rap on traditional radio is the milder stuff, believe me). The only thing that is the same about it is that it is still rap. If this panelist means that to redeem an ungodly art form, it must be so changed that it is no longer that art form, then that is not redemption at all. It is simple rejection. If God “redeemed” us in that way, then we would all be annihilated and replaced with new people. God does not do that. Instead, we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, we are mended—we are restored back to what we always ought to have been, and a fundamental change has not taken place because we are still fundamentally the same persons we were to begin with (again, if we are not, then we have not been redeemed). What this panelist must have really believed is that rap itself is not redeemable. I do not believe that. In fact, I believe that the use of rap for the sake of Christ and the gospel is not only acceptable, but is a manifestation of the dominion of the kingdom of God in the world as rap is taken captive to obey Christ. And I believe this is true in every instance where something good but perverted that was once the domain of Satan is usurped by Christ followers and put in the service of the kingdom of God.
Another objection raised by the panel was that making rap was following the world. Indeed, it was called a cowardly following of the world. Perhaps these panelists were unconscious of the fact that by wearing modern suits and ties, they too were following the world. My point is that once any activity that the Bible does not declare sinful is labelled following the world, where does one stop short of monasticism? Making movies with Christian themes, or using a harpsichord to play a Christian song is also “following the world” strictly speaking, but it is certainly not following the system of the world that is opposed to God. We must be careful to properly define what it means to be following the world. A Christian who makes rap with sensuous, greedy, violent, or boastful lyrics to fit in with his friends or with their expectations is definitely following the world. On the other hand, a Christian who makes rap that declares the true attributes of God is not following the world, even though his music is certifiably rap music. Why? Because the rap music itself is the Lord’s, and it can be used to promote either worldliness or godliness, just as 17th century tunes can be used to promote worldliness or godliness. In fact, I would here like to reiterate that when a Christian makes any artwork, it should be made well, to the best of his ability. The Bible tells Christian musicians to play skillfully (Ps. 33:3, 47:7, Ex. 1 Chr. 25:6,7). Should we expect Christian rap that is well made to sound anything like the rap of the world—say, Jay-Z or Eminem? Yes, of course, because it’s good rap qua rap. As it is evaluated even by those who do not know God but do know rap, it should be deemed quality, because it has been made as unto the Lord.
One of the most encouraging things I could hear that is related to this was from an African American friend of mine at my old job. He was big time into hip-hop music. He read XXL magazine. I introduced him to Lecrae while giving him a ride home one time. Later on, I made him two mix CDs of some of my favorite Christian rap songs from a variety of rappers. Once he got around to listening to the first one, he told me it was “awesome.” He couldn’t believe how good it was. I was so proud to hear it. Friends, that’s how Christian rap ought to impress itself upon the world—as being, not merely tolerated by the church, but attended to with the attention, skill and production value befitting those who labor as slaves of the master Jesus Christ and work their crafts as unto him. I do not say that rap is inappropriate for Christians; I say that poor rap is inappropriate for Christians.
Finally, let me testify to the incredible upsurge of Christian rap withing the last decade or so. Like I said, this music has richly blessed me personally. I have marveled at the quantity and quality of the content of contemporary Christian rap. So much of it has been so theologically rich and accurate, that listening has been like attending mini Sunday school lessons. The true gospel and ecclesiology, soteriology, hamartology, anthropology, etc. that I have heard in the music of rappers such as Flame, Trip Lee, Shai Linne, KB, Tedashii, Beautiful Eulogy, Lacrae, Sho Baraka, Ambassador, and (if you want to get a little old school) Cross Movement, has stunned me. These artists are for the most part Reformed, and familiar with Christian documents that are hundreds of years old, as well as being well taught and articulate in doctrinal truths. It is ironic to me, that such messages have come from such an unexpected place: hip-hop. But it is like the Lord to raise up unexpected sources of clarity, teaching, and edification. I see the sovereign prerogative of God, if not the humor, in what the Spirit of God is doing through the work coming out of so unpredictable a corner of the musical and cultural world.
Let me finally defend hip-hop in particular as a channel for gospel truth. Hip-hop seems specially suited to the task of proclamation for a couple reasons. First, hip-hop songs are all about the words. The beat and the instrumentation are present, are there to be heard, and are an essential part of the production, but unlike a classical piece or most other forms of music, the words are the main focus, the central piece. Take away the words from a rock-and-roll song, and you still have rock-and-roll music. Not so with rap. In rap, the words make the style. Rock is music with words. Rap is words with music. Second, in terms of sheer word count, rap is especially equipped to divulge messages at greater length than other pop music. Rap songs fit many more words in the same amount of time as other forms of sung music, and hence are more able to “preach” than other forms of music.
Upon watching the panel yesterday, I was not only disheartened, but embarrassed. Let me say that I would not be embarrassed if the men making the statements were not my brothers in the faith, at least as zealous as I am for the lordship of Jesus Christ. But I think their answers were informed more by prejudice and misunderstanding than the Bible. To close, I am embedding a few videos of rap songs that have encouraged me in the faith, and I hope will likewise encourage you. These videos merely scratch the surface.