Against Erasure: Why Hip-Hop and the Gospel Belong Together

There is a lot to say about the recent flurry of posts regarding the NCFIC panel about Christian hip-hop. I’ll start by pointing you to Joe Carter’s round-up of the whole thing. Included is a transcript as well as the video, and then a number of links from around the web that refute the panel. And rightfully so. The panel is woefully mistaken in lots of ways.

A quick caveat, that will sound familiar if you’ve already read some of the responses: I write this not because I wish to defame any of the men on the panel, but because I wish to encourage truthful and Gospel-centered rhetoric from all sides. Not all of the responses have been equal, though most of the ones that Joe linked above are excellent examples. I’m a fan of the genre (in spite of finding the genre of music and the culture surrounding it later in life), so the panel was somewhat personal. I cannot imagine how it must have felt for those who are actively involved in Christian hip-hop, though perhaps much of it was old-hat (sadly).

Most of what was said was presented as fact, when each should have been conditional. Some examples:

The question is where is the emphasis. And I would argue that with the rap [sic], with the heavy beat, with those things that the physical distraction is so much that the focus is no longer on the words.

-Dan Horn

If it is the case that rap music, entirely and wholly, loses the words (and, as I suspect is the case, is just not easy to hear when you don’t listen to it very often), perhaps then we can make the case that it should be abandoned or changed. But surely some music borders on the sublime, regardless of lyrical content (or the absence of lyrics)? A beautifully played instrument reflects the glory of God, even when there are no lyrical signposts to say “God made this beauty: seriously, look at God.” Some music can bring you to tears, and hip-hop is no exception (if you don’t believe me, give Beautiful Eulogy a listen).

. . what concerns me about this this so-called “art form” – it’s a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they’re serving God. And they’re not. They’re serving their own flesh. They’re caving into the world. They are disobedient cowards. They’re not really willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged.

-Geoff Botkin

If it is the case that Christian rappers are giving up on their Christianity to pursue rap, that would be evil. But perhaps that’s not fair to Mr. Botkin’s point. I suspect he means this: Christians who choose to create and dwell in the culture of rap have made friends with the world. They’ve decided to give up on being set apart, and attempt to blend in, live in a sinful culture, and make a living doing it. If that were the case, it would be frustrating.

But the point, aside from making a strangely personal attack (that he apologized for, sort of), is that I believe Mr. Botkins (and the rest of the panel) simply don’t know the medium well enough to recognize when someone is acting against it, and when they are conforming. P.O.D. often got attacked for “conforming”, but the band consistently represented Jesus in their context: I recall Skillet’s lead singer telling the tale of P.O.D. encouraging women to put their tops back on at a show, in spite of every other band encouraging them to strip. From the outside, it was hard to see P.O.D.’s representation: but some were capable of seeing it, precisely because they were part of the culture.

One respondent nailed this point:

The elephant in the living room is that you and your colleagues—as intelligent as you are—do not know anything about Hip Hop. It is frustrating to hear you speak about it with the confidence of an expert.

When those who do not know hip-hop come forward and tell people that it is sinful to participate, it flies in the face of wisdom. Perhaps there are some things we ought to outright condemn, but those things were already listed for us once: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Col. 3:5, ESV)

If we see those things growing in us on account of us listening to rap music, let us drop the rap for something that will encourage us to live God-honoring lives. But so should it be for all styles of music. Augustine even once contemplated the usefulness of music itself, since it can draw our ears to the performer rather than the glory of God. (Granted, Augustine makes some odd moves here; pleasure in good things on earth is incompatible with pleasure in God, since man is so far removed from God. I tend to believe that beauty and glory can be reflected in skillful musical expression, and that we can see it by appreciating that musical reflection. But the point remains.) And, if we push this further, we should have the same concerns about anything: if your right hand (or your musical genre of choice, your film of preference, or your web-browsing habits) causes you to sin, you ought to cut it off. But that doesn’t mean you have to cut everybody’s hands off.

I’ll move past the points that should have been conditional, and on to the ones that just shouldn’t have been made, frankly. The first:

When it comes the art form of hip-hop, very few will disagree with the cultural milieu out of which it grew. What it was intended to express by those who created the art form.

-Scott Aniol

If culture is made by creatures, and creatures are fallen, much of culture will be fallen. That seems straightforward, and I’m not sure I’d disagree. But lots of good comes out of evil. Look at Matthew (the tax collector), Zacchaeus, Paul (remember the guy who persecuted Christians?), or even someone like the author of the fourth Gospel, who is pretty clearly influenced by Greek thought, much of which was evil. Or, if you’d rather look at a more direct music and culture comparison, just listen to some old hymns, and realize that many of them are put to the tune of drinking songs. These were in a culture many would say is sinful (drunken bar culture), but were redeemed (and, indeed, are now only remembered in their new form). There was a bit of utility in this (everyone knew the tune), but there was also a sense of redeeming that which someone had used to encourage evil (though I don’t think drinking itself is evil).

Albert Mohler responded as someone who is ignorant of hip-hop ought to respond: he was honest (and admitted to making many of the same arguments, albeit internally and not at a panel), and willing to defer to those with other cultural backgrounds:

The good, the beautiful, and the true are to be combined to the greatest extent possible in every Christian endeavor, rap included. I have no idea how to evaluate any given rap musical expression, but rappers know. I do know how to evaluate the words, and when the words are saturated with the Gospel and biblical truth that is a wonderful thing. Our rapping Gospel friends will encourage one another to the greatest artistic expression. I want to encourage them in the Gospel. Let Bach’s maxim drive them all — to make (their) music the “handmaid of theology.”

The bottom line in all of this is simple, I think: rap music, much like any genre of music, has potential. It can be misused, and frankly, perhaps it often has been misused. But there are hungry souls out there, and to argue against providing a culture with a relevant Gospel presentation is heinous. Let us never sacrifice the Gospel, and let us always preserve those who bear the image of God. Even hip-hoppers.

[Edit: This morning, another apology was issued. You can read it here. I think most will offer forgiveness. In fact, many have done so, and I extend it as well. Now that the apologies are over, I hope that NCFIC will say what they mean about hip-hop. Or, if they’d prefer, just point to those responses that they found convincing, and own up to the growth they’ve experienced through the thoughtful critique from Christian brothers and sisters. After all, isn’t that what this discussion has become? A way for us all to encourage and edify one another?]

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Mackman

    You nailed it right on the head. They don’t know enough about hip-hop, so it all sounds and feels the same to them. They find it hard to understand, so it’s probably not worth understanding. And they had very little to say that couldn’t be said about any other culture.

    I have to admit: I was hoping for something a bit more combative. But on reflection, the panel actually contained very little substance to combat against. It was almost entirely cultural assumptions and biases portrayed as fact, so all that’s left is to unmask the bias and hope for an apology (a real one, this time).

    The good thing out of all of this is that I’m listening to Lecrae and 116 Clique again for the first time in a while! And I’m realizing, once again, that the freedom inherent in rap allows them to express “realness” to a much greater degree than many other forms of music.