Proving Rap is Sinful: A Quick Guide

If you’ve found the recent debate in some circles of Christianity about hip-hop to be a bit overwhelming, I’d recommend focusing here. I suspect that Scott Aniol represents some of the best arguments out there against the rap as a musical genre, while Shai Linne is not only a successful Christian rapper, but also a devote believer who has interned with pastors, and has released albums centered around theology (The Attributes of God was fantastic, and his most recent album, Lyrical Theology, Pt. 1: Theology is pretty solid, as well). It is always good practice to read and represent the best possible position, and I commend their thoughts to you.

I gave my thoughts on the topic shortly after the panel that sparked the whole thing. It’s a little odd to me to watch scholars who have spent very little time looking at hip-hop disregard it so quickly, especially when confronted with solid Christian brothers and sisters who so strongly disagree with them. This isn’t something like pornography, which can easily be dismissed as sinful; there aren’t huge groups of otherwise righteous people devoting their lives to it. But media, broadly speaking, has devotees among Christians–rap music is no different. While this is far from enough to conclude that rap is holy (after all, some cultural realities may be sinful), it should at least give us pause.

Here’s why you should care about the debate, no matter where you currently stand (and why I’m eager to follow along): if rap is inherently sinful, it ought to be avoided, plain and simple. At all times. Vigilantly. Let us not sin that grace may abound. If, however, rap is not intrinsically sinful, but only made sinful by some other quality (whether content, some particular style of beat, or something else), then we have to be careful about shutting out something that has apparently helped many people draw nearer to the face of God. There are reports of people who have been saved by rap music; I myself have been convicted and encouraged by Christian rappers, including Shai Linne.

If there were no good to be saved here, we could give it up. In fact, it might be wise to give it up, for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

From utility, it seems that we can’t quite discount rap on the suggestion that it might be sinful. After all, it is putting Scripture into the hearts of many listeners, both believers and skeptics. Even if sin plays a large part in rap music, isn’t the light worth preserving?

To convince me that hip-hop is not worth investing in, an opponent would need to address a number of issues: first, I’d need to see evidence that something about the musicality of hip-hop (the drum, the synths, the bass, the samples, or something else entirely?) is somehow universally going to result in sinfulness. If someone could genuinely explain how the beats of hip-hop universally encourages lust in people, or hatred, or any other sin, I’d be pretty quick to drop it (at least) in front of others, if not personally.

Second, if someone could prove that the the majority of those who are brought to Christ through rap music are somehow hindered by rap, rather than helped by it, then I’d be happy to sit and talk about other evangelistic tools. This is a bit of a utilitarian view, but if you can’t convince people that it is a sin, you could at least attempt to convince people that it is harmful.

Third, I think if someone actually spent time with an album recommended by a Christian fan of rap (might I recommend Shai Linne’s The Attributes of God?), listening to the album all the way through more than once, I’d be a lot more likely to listen to them. Perhaps this is asking much of those who think the music is sinful (though Scott Aniol did post a YouTube link for his argument from Christian “Death Metal”, suggesting that perhaps just listening for the sake of discussion is not a problem). But if it isn’t, I think this should really be a prerequisite.

Finally, I think those who wish to claim rap is sinful should provide some metric by which all music may be judged. How did rap (and death metal, apparently) end up on the short-list for sin, while many other genres have not (country, rock, folk, etc.)? Other than plain assertions, this hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

I don’t throw these challenges out to be trite, nor do I intend them to be rhetorical. I’ll listen to any responses, either sent to me personally or otherwise. My bias shows through, I’m sure, and I won’t pretend otherwise.

But I really do believe that the debate is important, and I wish to see it advanced. If the conclusion is one I don’t like (and, frankly, am skeptical we will be led there), so be it. May God be honored in all we say or do, whether we listen to hip-hop, debate hip-hop, or abstain from hip-hop. And may we all learn which way to best serve God.

I’m Dreaming of a Non-Pop Christmas

As someone who holds a retail job in December, I can tell you that I listen to more than my fair share of Christmas music on a daily basis: remixed versions of “Let It Snow;” endless ballads recounting the life and times of “Frosty The Snowman;” more renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” than are possibly justifiable.

Like trying to find a parking space close to the Apple Store, coordinating relatives’ cross-country travel schedules, and enduring the crowds and lines that comprise every Saturday at the mall in the month of December, this kind of “pop Christmas” music has become another aspect of the holiday season that seems to stress and annoy rather than inspire and comfort. While many of us have our favorite seasonal songs (“The Christmas Waltz,” anyone?), pop Christmas music provides temporary enthusiasm for the holidays at best, and a pang of annoyance and even cynicism at worst.

But there are two types of Christmas music, and they represent two different types of Christmas. Pop Christmas music represents the Christmas that is about hot cocoa, falling in love, enjoying a fresh snowfall, and caroling in the snow. Beloved Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street also populate the pop Christmas world, relaying the importance of revitalizing one’s faith in Santa Claus (a fictional character loosely based on historical St. Nicholas) and thus ironically presenting a sense of faith and devotion related to a Christian holiday that is, at best, only tangentially Christian.

On the flip side, there is Christmas music that represents a deeper, richer, more theological Christmas. This genre of music can be a valuable resource for Christians as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. The weeks leading up to Christmas ought to be a time for contemplation and expectation, not merely gift shopping and baking and decorating. It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, it’s that we as Christians must remember to make time and space to get into the proper mindset during the Advent season. While this kind of non-pop Christmas music presents a starkly different message than its pop counterpart, most of the songs are still prominent enough to be part of the Christmas music canon, and therefore familiar to many. As we prepare for the ending of the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas itself, we can consider these well-known yet perhaps overlooked songs in a new light and, trite as it may sound, reorient ourselves to the true meaning of Christmas.

Take, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who has ever tuned into the Christmas radio station could probably hum the tune from memory, but the song itself is rather antiquated compared to many pop Christmas hits, dating back to the eighteenth century. The first verse is probably the most familiar:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

I find the subsequent verses, though, to be more spiritually engaging, particularly the second and fourth verses:

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

These verses contain several significant theological references. There is mention of the miraculous virgin birth. The second verse speaks of Christ’s fully divine yet fully human nature, borrowing language from the ancient Nicene Creed (“Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created”).  Finally, the verses convey the miracle of Christology—Christ’s position as a member of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father—particularly with the fourth verse’s allusion to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made trough him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (1:1-3)

There are more examples. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is full of Old Testament references to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, specifically the one in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.” This song is an excellent starting point for a conversation about how Scripture of the Old Testament points to Christ’s life and works in the New Testament.

I’m also a fan of the poem-turned-to-song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here is the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Again, the scriptural and theological allusions are simple yet deeply beautiful reminders of real reason we’re to celebrate this time of year, such as the heavenly hosts’ praises to God in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And, of course, there’s the poignant second line: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s a reminder that God is real; God is alive; God is present and human in the birth of Christ; God is with us. Immanuel.

These types of Christmas songs can help center us around the divine, mysterious, miraculous reason for the Advent preparation and Christmas celebrations: that God became man so that the rest of humanity could be redeemed and renewed and able to participate in the divine.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

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?]

Five Iron Frenzy’s “Engine of a Million Plots”: Waiting for the Sun’s Return

It’s finally here: Five Iron Frenzy’s first album in ten long years. And it’s…different than what I was expecting. But still awesome.

I am a long-time (life-time?) fan of Christian music, and I well remember that glorious moment, the summer in between my sophomore and junior year of college, when I realized that Five Iron Frenzy was a thing–indeed, not only a thing, but the thing, that glorious fusion of horns, guitar, and lyrics that seemed to waver, moment by moment, between exuberant victory and white-knuckled defiance. I (unknowingly) bought their last CD first, and to me every song sounded like a last stand, a Chestertonian revolution, brazen and unmuted.

Imagine my sadness when I realized that the album was, in fact, a last stand–a stand made years ago and long since over.

But like a trumpeting phoenix, they have risen from the ashes. And two weeks ago, having been forced into a  strange and unnatural sleep cycle, I awoke at 5:30 and began downloading my Kickstarter Early Access album.

My first impression (after the initial bout of excited giggling) was of an unexpectedly cold, dark world. In the weeks and days leading up to the release, FiF hinted that they “explored darker themes,” and that is certainly the case.  Winter comes, the fire dies, and frost envelopes everything. That is the world of EOMP. It opens with “Against a Sea of Troubles,” in which the singer is “adrift and lost” in a frozen world, and the fire is growing cold. Although I noted a few bright points (“So Far” is the only song that contains an unadulterated sense of Christian victory), the rest of the album seemed to confirm this condition. We work in a cold and cruel city that chokes the sky, we huddle around a dying fire, we suffer through a frost with no thaw…what if this winter lasts forever?

[Aside: There are, of course, a couple FiF constants that stand apart from this theme: Silly songs, and social commentary. “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter” is, unfortunately, nothing more and nothing less than an obligatory silly song: It’s catchy enough, but it lacks the charm of “You Can’t Handle This” or “That’s How the Story Ends.” . But in the area of social commentary, FiF comes out swinging.   In “Zen and the Art of XenophobiaFiF lampoons the type of American Evangelical who gets ready to “lock and load, just like Jesus did,” while proudly proclaiming that “Jesus was American”. And in “Someone Else’s Problem”, Five Iron delivers a biting critique of our willingness to tolerate abuses and ruined lives just because we’ll never have to look at the faces of the abused. I am always tempted to skip over these songs, because they aren’t fun, they aren’t uplifting, the make me uncomfortable… and that’s the point.

For Five Iron Frenzy, there can be no disconnect between the joyful doctrine of Christian victory and the difficult doctrine of Christian duty and service. Any attempt to separate one from the other results in an incomplete faith. It is not for nothing that their hardest-hitting social commentaries come on the heels of their most joyful and upbeat reflections on the victory of Christ-in-us, making it difficult indeed to partake of one and avoid the other.

Now, back to the rest of the review.]

That first impression of cold and cruelty was correct,  so far as it went. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the hope and defiance inherent in every single song, from the very beginning of the album. There is a hope that the singer clings to even as he longs “to only end the heartache, to shed this mortal coil”: The hope that “You cannot not be real.” 

Yes, despite the mixed faith of the band (two of the core members are now atheists), this album expresses a faith that, though beaten and battered, is undeniably Christian (in fact, one might argue that the Christian faith was meant to be beaten and battered). This faith is explored throughout the rest of the album, from “So Far”, a superhero themed meditation on Christian victory, all the way to “Blizzards and Bygones,” where winter threatens to last forever.

In “We Own the Skies,” the singer walks the cold and cruel concrete by day, having traded “my kingdom for a steady paycheck.” But by night, they huddle around the fire, “wish upon the fading light” and proclaim “Tonight, we own the skies,” with the characteristic brazenness of trumpets and voice lending the whole song an incredible sense of defiance and courage. And in his dedication of the album, Reese puts a biblical spin on it, referencing Ephesians 2 & 6:12.

“I’ve Seen the Sun” takes that sense of defiance and courage to another level, and again it is firmly rooted in a Christian worldview. The night is dark and cold, the water is rising, the singer is fighting what feels like a doomed battle…but he has seen the Sun come down, and he holds to its return. And we should expect nothing less from the world: after all, “the Savior says don’t be surprised / Everything’s gonna be alright.”

It feels like the last song, a fitting way to end an album that has revolved around the difficulties of staying afloat in the world.

And then comes “Blizzards and Bygones,” which does its level best to eradicate every last memory of the Sun. The cold is in your bones, the fire is faint, and and all that’s left is “a flicker of desire and a memory of youth.” There is no thaw, only a winter that will not end. It ends with a simple unanswered question: “Can you stand the weather if winter lasts forever?”

That is the question the entire album ends with. What do you do when even the memory of light fades, when the fire has died and the ice is thick? What do you do when the winter seems to go on forever?

If your only hope is that God cannot not be real, is that enough to soldier on, to light the fire again and again, to keep it burning and to keep the darkness at bay? Is “Blizzards” only an episode, only a stage of life? Does it fit into the reality described in “Against a Sea of Troubles”, “We Own the Skies”, or “I’ve Seen the Sun”? Or is this unending winter the true reality, the final death of all hope?

This album reminds me of Psalm 22, and of the book of Job, minus the vindication at the end. Ultimately, I think Five Iron Frenzy is emphasizing that there are no easy answers. As Christians, we anticipate the vindication of our faith, the fulfillment of our hopes… but in the meantime, we must endure a winter that doesn’t seem to end. We must fight to keep the fire lit, and we must light it again and again.

Although “Blizzards and Bygones” comes last, I think it would be absolutely wrong to name it as the final reality. FiF has already answered the questions “Blizzards” raises, as much as they can be answered. When the cold closes in, when the fire flickers, “We burn the wintry frost of night / Tonight, we wish upon the fading light / Tonight, our burning hearts will rise / Tonight we own the skies.” In short, we continue the fight and wait for better things. It is not always easy: For every celebration of “so far, there’s nothing that you and I can’t do,” there’s another instance of unending winter, of cold that enters into your bones and refuses to leave. But the fight is still worth fighting, and the sun will return.

If you like ska, you should buy this album. If you don’t like ska, then you have no musical taste and you should still buy this album: It will probably help.

Lecrae’s Back: Church Clothes Volume 2

Lecrae’s done it again, and I’m glad I’ve seen less frustration and criticism this time out. Maybe it’s just that he’s managed to keep saying Jesus as he performs, well, everywhere. But just a quick reminder, for the naysayers. I reported this same bit before, but it bears repeating. Here’s an excerpt from a post Lecrae wrote when the first Church Clothes was released:

We limit spirituality to salvation and sanctification. As long as we are well versed in personal piety and individual salvation, we think we’re good. But most Christians have no clue how to engage culture in politics, science, economics, TV, music or art. We tend to leave people to their own devices there.

We subscribe to views like, “Politics and movies are evil or of the devil,” and we don’t touch them. Leaving them to be dominated by non-biblical worldviews. Or, since we don’t have a philosophy or filter, we do it the way culture says to…chasing vain ambition.

Most professing Christians have no idea how to direct their careers with biblical lenses, but instead of praying for and offering solutions we usually just shake our heads and dismiss these “sellouts & compromisers.”

We are missing out on the gospel’s power of redemption and glorification in all things.

Since then, he’s actually managed to avoid controversy. People loved Church Clothes, more-or-less loved Gravity, and have eagerly watched him interact with fame. Between 106 and Park appearances, interviews with secular media, and performing for BET, Lecrae’s really had a whirlwind year.

The closest he came to controversy was when he put out a song written to his younger self. In it, old (“Rebel”) Lecrae argues that new (“Rehab”) Lecrae has sold out, and is sacrificing the Gospel for the sake of fame. But Lecrae rebuts his own argument, claiming the maturity allows him freedoms he wasn’t able to embrace when he was a newer Christian.

It’s an admirable view, and mature Lecrae has definitely given us another good mixtape. You can download it for free, here. I haven’t been able to give it enough of a listen to provide a solid review.

We should definitely spend some time working through what it means to engage culture, whether that’s hip-hop, music more broadly, politics, film, alcohol, or anything else. I’ve found Brett McCracken’s book Gray Matters helpful in this regard (you can see my review here).

If you find yourself critical of this mixtape, so be it. If you don’t like the artistry, I’ll perhaps be surprised. But if you want to say that Lecrae’s made a mistake working with secular artists, promoting himself on secular media, and generally presenting a “walk with you” rather than “preach against you” attitude, I’ll leave you with this conclusion, that I wrote when the first Church Clothes came out:

And, finally, let’s remember that Lecrae shouldn’t be the end-all of our involvement with those listening to his music, believers or otherwise. If he is offering us words of encouragement, or perhaps a gateway into the lives of non-believers, let’s remember that we have our part to do as well. A corollary to this is that Lecrae isn’t the end-all influence in his genre. Just because one member of the body expresses things a certain way does not mean all members should. I’m grateful for Lecrae’s music, and I’m grateful for music from guys like Shai Linne, Swoope, and KJ-52. They all have different sounds, different focuses, and different purposes. But they help weave a tapestry within the genre that more accurately represents a holistic Christian lifestyle.

The Importance of Listening: A Lesson from Derek Minor

“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation.

Or at least that is what I argued in a recent post, where I attempted to work through what it means to listen well in an age where all we really care about is listening. Some take listening to be necessarily affirmative, but that’s a narrow view of what it means to hold an honest conversation. There are times when we should be listening to those we disagree with, as an act of love. There is something personal about listening to someone tell their story: we feel affirmed in our humanity, regardless of the person’s conclusion about the merit of our lifestyles.

While I spent most of my time reminding readers that there’s a difference between listening and affirming everything you hear, we often need to be reminded that listening is itself an act of love. The Church ought to be listening to those around us, in the context of meals, friendship, or travel. There are some individual churches that are attempting to do this well, and of course some people are better at this than others, but it is rare that we spend time going above and beyond the call to listen: giving voice to those who need it most.

If there is any genre of music focused on story-telling quite like hip-hop, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps country, or certain brands of folk music, but you’d be hard pressed to find a rapper who hadn’t shared his life story on at least one song, usually early on in their career (and, at least in a few instances, multiple times throughout, as their stories shift).

One artist in particular took it upon himself to tell the stories of those he’d spoken to throughout his career. In the song Dear Mr. Christian, Derek Minor, with assistance from Dee-1 and Lecrae, writes from the perspective of his audience, targeted at himself. For those of you who aren’t usually interested in hip-hop, the video for this song actually includes the lyrics. Hopefully that will help.

The chorus expresses a sort of exasperation with attempting to tell stories to Christians:

Dear Mr. Christian, I know you’re on a mission

I know you say the answer to my problem is religion

I know I’m supposed to change the way I live and stop sinning

But I’d appreciate it if you take some time to listen

There’s a lot packed into those four lines, and the critique of Christian action is scathing. The speaker of the chorus has already heard the answers: this isn’t a problem with evangelism, in that sense. This isn’t an individual who has never heard the gospel. They understand that the gospel offers change, and even that Christianity calls us to stop sinning. But their frustration is, unfortunately, rather justified: many Christians don’t know how to listen without qualification.

We’ve bought into the cultural stance that listening is the same as affirming everything we hear. Rather than attempting to nuance what we believe to include the ability to listen without absolute affirmation, we often decide to just run away from listening.

Of course, there are two sides to the issue. Some Christians run the other way, opting instead to listen and affirm everything they hear. Stories become intrinsically helpful and holy, regardless of their content. We’re really interested in ‘messy’ stories, these days. Gone are the days of clear good and evil in films, and the music industry is starting to follow suit. We’ve seen Christians advocate for “real” stories above all else in the last few years.

In spite of some hesitations that I think are well grounded (the strongest concern is the unintentional glorification of sin), we would be do well to encourage this sort of interaction. Listening to non-Christians is important, if only because the current cultural norm is to focus on the importance of voices. But more-so: our communities are able to be even more picky than before, thanks to social media. If you aren’t even willing to listen to a story, that person will go elsewhere, and you’ll never have a chance to share the gospel.

So listen to your neighbors. Hear their struggles, have meals with them, spend time understanding who they are and what makes them tick. Maybe they’ll listen to you, as well. But the best way to make disciples in today’s day and age is to start by listening.

Instrumental Music vs. Vocal Music

As I sat and listened to Gustavo Dudamel conduct the renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic in the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall, I couldn’t help but look around at the audience. There were a few young adults scattered around but no teenagers and no children. Why is it that attending symphony performances has become an “elderly” thing to do? I understand that these kinds of performances are expensive, but they usually offer student discounts, group rates, and other special offers – all you have to do is plan ahead. Why is it that our generation can pack out the Staples Center for a Taylor Swift concert but can’t manage the time to experience a distinguished conductor with arguably the best orchestra in the country?

Instrumental music used to be all that people listened to, young people included. The music that young people love today and listen to on repeat usually has lyrics attached to it. These lyrics tell a story about some aspect of life, most often romantic love, and they make it clear what the music is about. The main focus is on the lyrics; people listen to it so they can sing along. Obviously, you can’t sing along to instrumental music, and because of that, people often find it boring. However, if they really took the time to listen to it, they might find it more interesting than vocal music. Instrumental music requires us to imagine our own story for the song. The music gives us themes and emotions, but we have to fill in the rest. Sometimes, there is no story, but only a range of emotions the composer wants you to feel. You have to think and focus on the music that you’re listening to; you can’t just follow along with lyrics that you can sing without thinking about. Listening to instrumental music requires more effort, but it has a rewarding payoff that many people miss. Not only do doctors use it to help improve both physical and mental health, but it can also alleviate stress and anxiety. Maybe we wouldn’t be such a busy and stressed society if we listened to instrumental music more.

Everyone knows the names of Bach and Mozart and could probably recognize Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony, but who are the modern-day composers? The ones that compose film scores – Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Howard Shore, to name a few. Most people who do listen to instrumental music today listen to soundtracks. While these compositions are beautiful and creative, they are more similar to popular lyrical songs than other instrumental music. There is already an image and a story attached to these compositions – the one from the movie or television show. They don’t require any new imaginations, but rely on your knowledge of the film.

There’s something about allowing our mind to connect the dots in the music that we don’t want to do. We don’t want to imagine our own images and story for the music that is playing; we want it to be told to us. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with lyrical music or film scores; I definitely listen to them more than classical music. But I am saying that there’s a lack of a desire to listen to instrumental music. In this world where we idolize those who can sing, we don’t have enough respect for those who create, conduct, or perform purely instrumental music. Either people weren’t raised on it or they say it bores them and puts them to sleep. But instrumental music, if you’re really listening to it, makes you think and can expand your mind. It forces you to listen to it over and over again so that you can hear each theme and every new emotion and form a complete story or image of your own to match the music. It can calm your nerves and dissipate your stress.

You don’t have to give up vocal music to appreciate instrumental music. But the next time you’re sitting in traffic or needing to unwind a little, try listening to instrumental music. Instead of lulling you to sleep, it could help you focus better than vocal music does, if you let it. If you have a favorite film composer, listen to his music for a film that you haven’t seen and see if you appreciate it as much. I love popular vocal music as well as the next person, but I’ve made a conscious effort to listen to more instrumental music, and my appreciation for it has grown. Not only that, but I’ve found myself less stressed about life in general. My generation assumes that they can’t like instrumental music because it’s not fun or popular, but they are also always busy, expecting every new technology to make their lives easier when it only makes it more stress-filled. If they put the effort in to understand instrumental music, they would discover just the opposite of their expectations and might even be able to relax. Then maybe one day we could sell out a concert hall for a symphony performance and have it filled with people a variety of ages.

Additional Thoughts: Giving Grace to “Crossover” Artists

Last week I penned an article for Biola’s new Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. You can read the article here, but I’d like to expand on my conclusion. Here’s how I ended the article (yes, spoiler alert):

Here’s the principle we all ought to keep in mind: grace should govern our every move. We may disagree with certain decisions that No Malice, Brian ‘Head’ Welch, P.O.D., Lecrae, or whoever may make, and we should seek to encourage the Christian scene to carefully consider its actions, but we have an obligation to extend grace, especially to those who are seeking to glorify the Lord. Correct gently, remember that all truth is God’s truth, and pray that these brothers will only get better as years go on.

I stand by the principle, but I was afraid of just one question. A friend of mine asked me the one thing that I knew I hadn’t really touched on: “How do you define grace?”

The question is deeper than the article could hope to cover, and I won’t come close to exhaustively answering it here. I could examine grace in terms of salvation, in terms of interpersonal relationships, in terms of sin, or any number of other options. The core of the question, though, is more pointed. How do we give grace to artists that we don’t really know? What does it actually mean to extend grace to a celebrity? Here’s how I answered the question to my friend:

Let’s remember that some language won’t be viewed the same by all listeners. [No Malice] is a guy whose album is absolutely steeped in redemption language. He has a straight-up altar call at the end of the album (“If you want to follow Jesus, pray this prayer with me”). It’s absurdly Christian. If any other artist did this album, we’d be fighting the cheese, occasionally. But instead, we’re fighting four to five swear words.

The point I’d like to drive home is just that we should carefully look at an entire work, rather than a few missteps; we shouldn’t lose the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. Most of us (hopefully) already practice this when we interact with fellow believers: you see their sin, but you stay friends with them.Mostly, it is best to look to what is good in someone when you can. Correction is important, of course, but easiest and most effective when enacted or encouraged in those we know very well. If you don’t know someone’s story well, it is much more difficult to speak to their personal lives.

So when a public artist makes a decision that doesn’t make much sense to you, or possibly seems wrong, stop and pray. Consider if you have all of the facts. Was their decision absolutely sinful? Or did it just rub you the wrong way? Did it fly in the face of God or in the face of man? Do you know what position that artist was in when the song was recorded?”

Public figures, whether they are rappers or bloggers, politicians or pastors, should be careful with their words. We all should be, but public figures especially so. Our responsibility as listeners is to seek the best–all truth is God’s truth, after all–even as we discern good from evil. While we need not condone clear and obvious sin, we would be wise to remember that those who create art, write words, or otherwise live publicly are, in fact, not perfect.

Lecrae Answers the Questions Many Have Asked: “Rebel” or “Gravity”?

A couple weeks back, Lecrae released a track exclusively through Rapzilla, one of Christian hip-hop’s top sites (if not the top site for the genre). In the track, Lecrae pits a version of his old self (“Mr. Rebel”, named after his third album) against his current views (“Mr. Gravity”, after his fifth album, released just last year).

If you’re not familiar with the debate Lecrae is having with himself, here’s the short version: “Rebel” spends time talking about the Gospel in extremely straightforward ways. Jesus is mentioned in nearly every track (if not every track). Lecrae has songs called “I’m a Saint” (where he mentions that scripture describes all believers as “saints”), “The Bride” (talking about the Church), and “Indwelling Sin.” The album doesn’t pull any punches, lyrically speaking, and you’d never listen to any song and wonder what Lecrae was talking about. In contrast, “Gravity” is an album that, in some people’s eyes, hides a bit behind the music. “Free From It All” doesn’t mention God at all, unless you make the jump from “Freedom from the frustrations of fame” to “Freedom in Christ.” While “Mayday” features explicit references to Christ (“Got a couple Scriptures from my Grandma/Sayings from a preacher/But can’t live out these standards that we heard it takes to reach ’em/But when I look at Jesus/He lived the life I couldn’t/Suffered for my crimes so I wouldn’t”), it also includes Lecrae professing respect for secular artist Big K.R.I.T. (who also appears on the track). He respects K.R.I.T. for confessing, but it is still a far cry from the Rebel days.

Fans have been quick to point these truths out. They’ll push back every time Lecrae releases a new track. We saw it when he came out with the title track from his mixtape Church Clothes, we saw it with the BET Cypher, we saw it with his involvement with Statik Selektah’s album, and I’m sure we’ll see it again on both Church Clothes 2 and his next full length album. The controversy finally got strong enough that Lecrae felt he should respond to his old views, in the form of the rap above.

Christian music has fought this fight in many other genres. And we’ve even fought it in Christian hip-hop. We’re just seeing more mainstream success than ever before, so people feel the need to jump into the discussion.

A good friend of mine, Calvin Moore, argues that the real failure of Lecrae’s argument isn’t actually his current position, but rather in the way he relates to those fans who agree with the “Mr. Rebel” verse.  If I follow his argument correctly, it’s relatively simple: Lecrae is in a mature place, but not everyone can be there. If Lecrae doesn’t work to bring people, he’ll only continue to face criticism, and possibly even tacitly harm those who don’t stand in the mature position with Lecrae.

If that’s the argument Calvin’s making, I think he’s right. But the whole discussion has a lot to do with a broader discussion of how Christians ought to interact with culture. I’m indebted to Brett McCracken for his thoughtful work on culture. His book has helped me articulate my position a bit more clearly. The broader discussion is this: how should Christians interact with art? Should every piece of art we make contain an expressive representation of the Gospel, of Jesus’ name, of God’s great love? The key word there is “expressive”, and you could easily substitute “explicit.” Can you make Christian art that doesn’t mention Jesus’ name?

If you answer the question with a “no”, you’ll be disappointed in the direction Lecrae is heading with his art. But if you believe that Christians can reflect their Creator without an explicit “Jesus” reference in every bit of it, there may be room on your iPod for Lecrae’s newest music.

“Yeezus” and Pushing Boundaries

If you’re a hip-hop fan like I am, you’ve already listened to and absorbed Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus. If you’re not a fan of the genre, I really doubt this album will convince you. Perhaps some of Kanye’s older works would have a better shot (808s and Heartbreak or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Kanye writes vulgar music. Not just language (though I’ve already written about my thoughts on that issue), but right down to the actual content itself; this is R-rated stuff, easily. I actually think that’s what makes the album tricky to digest as a Christian (more so even than tracks like “I am a God”), but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The other thing you already know about Kanye, most likely, is that he’s really arrogant. I mean, just listen to what he said in an interview with The New York Times:

I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.

But none of this is news. It really isn’t. If you’ve followed his career at all (who could forget this?), you’re aware that Kanye thinks Kanye is a god. So the title Yeezus wasn’t really even that surprising.

Maybe an album called Yeezus sounds like an odd thing for an evangelical to spend a significant amount of time listening to and thinking about. And for many evangelicals, it certainly would be. But as someone who is concerned about the genre, I’m really fascinated by the sorts of things that Kanye consistently does. He’s the sort of artist who sets trends for years to come. He may be arrogant to say he’s the “Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture,” but he’s definitely often taking hip-hop and pushing its boundaries. And Yeezus is no exception. The problem, ultimately, is that it doesn’t work.

When judging media–music especially, but that has more to do with my reviewing experience–I’m often thrilled to praise artists who are willing to try something different. The other side of the experimentation coin, however, is the increased potential for poor music. For example, I love the experimenting Tedashii did on his last album, Blacklight, in the sense that I love that he experimented; tracks like “Riot” and “Can’t Get With You” are different for him, but ultimately fall flat (though “Riot” performs better live than on an album).

There’s something intrinsically stretching about experimentation. Sometimes writers are told to try writing something completely different (I was once told that I should try my hand at fiction writing; I got through two short ‘chapters’ before realizing it wasn’t for me, but I learned a lot about the unique problems of fiction writing through that little experiment), and with good reason. It is far too tempting to fall into the same rhythm, time and time again, especially musically. After all, Kanye must know what sells. He’s proven that he can release album after album of high quality music.

So what happened with Yeezus?

Well, he’s experimented too hard, in this reviewer’s opinion. Kanye’s focus on this album seems to be split two ways: first, he’s interested in attempting to flesh out some new and experimental sounds; second, he appears focused on marketing. While Kanye’s strength has always been production, his lyrics have never been as weak as they are here. The album feels thrown together haphazardly, rather than constructed to bring the listener through some sort of experience.

What lessons can Christians learn from Kanye West, a man who actually says “I know [Jesus] is the most high/but I am a close tie.”? We can learn three things.

1. We can learn to seek excellence in our respective fields, even if it means making mistakes. While Kanye may not be quick to admit to his mistakes (I refer back to the interview linked above), he’s certainly willing to act in ways that others never would (remember his skirt kilt?). By taking risks, by stepping out, he’s trusting that he will survive to the next day. While Kanye may fall flat (see: Yeezus), we can put our faith in something higher.

2. If nothing else, Kanye is honest and confident about who he is. You’d have to be to say and do the sorts of things he does. There’s a lot of talk right now in Christian hip-hop about what it means to be authentic: should Christians rap about their sin (which may imply a glorification of that sin), or should we purify our lyrics and rap sermons? I think Kanye reminds us that sometimes being honest works well, even if that honesty is brutal or difficult or unpleasant. Lots of people relate to Kanye’s music–far more people than most other artists–and this is in large part due to his presentation of both himself and his story.

3. We can learn where self-idolatry leads. Kanye may be rich, and he may be living a sweet life in many respects, but he doesn’t seem content whatsoever. Even in his interview he says he simply isn’t happy. While happiness shouldn’t be the great determiner for the state of our souls, we should be capable of having joy regardless of our circumstances. That’s something we don’t see in Kanye, even when he proclaims his status as a god, and the reminder can be important. People relate to him for a reason: many people live every day unsatisfied. Kanye’s music can be a stark reminder of this, but we can also see the answers that don’t work before attempting them ourselves (note: money, fame, sexual gratification, and traveling the world do not solve the problem).

So do I recommend you listen to Yeezus? Not really. If you weren’t planning on listening to it already, there’s no real need to change your intentions. But as you listen to the latest album from whoever you like, as you watch Man of Steel or any other Hollywood film, consider this: how is Jesus the answer to the question this work asks? I suspect you won’t need to look far to find the answer.