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.

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?]

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.

Lecrae Clears Up Church Clothes

Last week, Reach Records artist Lecrae dropped what has been his most controversial release yet, Church Clothes (you can download it here). It has reached nearly 200,000 downloads in about a week, which I wouldn’t say is anything to be scoffed at, particularly considering the messages Lecrae is adamant about. I wrote my thoughts about the release before it came out, and then added some reflection after listening (and, of course, did a review here). Continue reading Lecrae Clears Up Church Clothes

Desiring a Tattoo: A Case Study

This post may seem a little strange, so allow me to say a few things to start. First, this post is something that’s been brewing in my head for a few years, but I hadn’t formalized it. As such, I’m not quite as set on my thoughts here as I am for other posts. I request a bit extra grace should my thoughts be less rigorous or ill-explained. Continue reading Desiring a Tattoo: A Case Study

Lecrae, Church Clothes, and Mainstream Attention

[Update: My Audio Review for The Christian Manifesto]

Over at XXL Mag, a hip-hop oriented magazine, Lecrae was interviewed about his mixtape Church Clothes, which is set to release today, May 10th. I’ve watched a couple of debates on the topic already. People tend to land in one of two places: either Lecrae is doing God’s work by making music that will reach more people, or he has lost touch with the Gospel and forsaken the name of Christ. Continue reading Lecrae, Church Clothes, and Mainstream Attention

Lecrae Performs in a BET Cypher

I know I wrote extensively on Christian Hip-Hop for a week or two, and perhaps some of you are tired of it already. But if you found any legitimacy in the genre, here’s some great news. Earlier this week, BET had their annual awards ceremony. In fact, ever since 2001 the show has been a coveted award, giving only to the best in hip-hop. While there is a Gospel category, most Christian rappers don’t get invited or nominated for anything involving the BET awards. In fact, none of the artists I’ve linked to in the previous posts have performed there or been nominated, to the best of my knowledge. Continue reading Lecrae Performs in a BET Cypher

Christian Hip-Hop: Some Content May Surprise You

In my undergraduate education, I was a student of Biblical studies. I was also an avid rap fan.

Many people can hardly put those two things together. I’d often find myself writing out a theology paper while listening to the latest rap album I had purchased. While I did listen to some rap (and other genres, for that matter) that at times felt at odds with the content of what I was writing, that simply wasn’t the case with the rap music I was listening to. In fact, there were times when the lyrics would help provide me with a picture of something from the Biblical text. Continue reading Christian Hip-Hop: Some Content May Surprise You