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Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: Subjectivity (Rebuttal)

Shai Linne and I are having a conversation between Christian brothers about Christian rap. This post will not make sense unless you start at the beginning of this discussion and read through all the posts. You can find the other posts in this discussion on this page or on the right hand side of this post. This is my rebuttal to Shai’s fourth answer.

Scott-thumb-300x300Shai, one of the cornerstones of your argument has been that musical interpretation is culturally conditioned and therefore subjective–one may not expect someone else with different cultural conditioning to interpret music the same way. So, the reason I interpret hip-hop as agitated and denigrating is only because I have been culturally conditioned to interpret it as such. You, on the other hand, interpret the same music as something entirely different and perfectly appropriate for Christian purposes.

Now, you acknowledge that your interpretation of the music is also subjective and rooted in your cultural conditioning. But here’s the problem: if that’s the case, then why do you insist that your interpretation is more valid than mine? Are not our views equally valid? If musical meaning is based only on cultural conditioning, then everyone’s culturally conditioned interpretation is equally valid–musical meaning is entirely relative to an individual’s personal interpretation. And, consequently, musical meaning will be agreed upon only within very fractured groups of individuals who have nearly identical cultural backgrounds.

And yet you promote your interpretation of hip-hop with groups that actually have completely different cultural conditioning than you do. Why would you impose your interpretation of that music on them? Furthermore, you insist that my interpretation is wrong. To argue that my interpretation is wrong is to imply that there is some sort of hermeneutical standard outside of me upon which I should base my interpretation.

But there is an even deeper problem at work here. While I completely agree that our interpretation of music (as with everything) is conditioned by our experiences and backgrounds, to argue that musical interpretation is thus completely subjective is to deny the category of “human nature.” In other words, while it is true that you and I have different backgrounds, we share what is perhaps the most fundamental universal: we have the same human nature. We are both members of the human race, sons of Adam, distinct from the rest of God’s creation by the fact that we were created in the image of God. As Carl Trueman points out, “these aspects of human uniqueness provide a universal context for all human activity.” Trueman is emphasizing human nature as a defense for the validity of creeds written in vastly different times and cultures as valuable and meaningful for today, but it applies equally to other human activity such as music. He goes on to say,

Human nature is something which is more basic than gender, class, culture, location, or time. It cannot be reduced to or contained within a specific context such as to isolate it from all else. . . . Human beings remain essentially the same in terms of their basic nature as those made in God’s image and addressed by his word even as we move from place to place and from generation to generation. . . . Modern culture . . . prides itself on difference and on kaleidoscopic variety. Whatever the truth of this may be, it does not affect the essential core of identity that binds me together with human beings in modern China and with people in ancient Rome: we are all made in God’s image.1

In other words, I believe your argument on the basis of a very fractured understanding of cultural identity ignores the reality that we all share a culture of humanity. Therefore, while individual background certainly plays a significant role in personal interpretation, sharing a common human nature means that we all experience on at least one level a shared conditioning. And I have made very clear from the beginning of this discussion that the level on which I endeavor to base my assessment of hip hop is within this larger culture of humanity rather than factors unique to particular individuals or sub-cultures.

Shai_Bio-300x300Thanks for your reply, Scott. I’ll address a few of the things that you mentioned. You said:

“Now, you acknowledge that your interpretation of the music is also subjective and rooted in your cultural conditioning. But here’s the problem: if that’s the case, then why do you insist that your interpretation is more valid than mine? Are not our views equally valid?”

Brother, you’re certainly welcome to your opinion. Two people may hear the same piece of instrumental music and arrive at 2 different conclusions on what it’s communicating. The same could be said about abstract visual art and many other things. The validity of the view may be dependent on different factors, such as  knowledge of the particular medium being discussed, etc. But let’s go back to what your view is. You are making the claim that the musical form of Hip-hop apart from its lyrics is inherently sinful. That is a serious claim. To say that something is inherently sinful is to say that it is a transgression of God’s law; that it provokes the wrath of God which comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:6); that it is a work of the flesh, the practicers of which will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). In this case, we’ve moved from the realm of merely like/ dislike or prefer/ nor prefer to the realm of evil/ good or sin/ righteousness. You say the form of Hip-hop is inherently sinful. I say it’s not. We can’t both be right. Once you make the claim that something is inherently sinful, you now have the responsibility to demonstrate from Scripture how that is the case. You still haven’t done that. You said:

“And yet you promote your interpretation of hip-hop with groups that actually have completely different cultural conditioning than you do. Why would you impose your interpretation of that music on them?”

I’m not imposing an interpretation of music on anyone, because I use and emphasize words. I make statements, claims, declarations and arguments in my music. I say things like, “Jesus is Alive” and “On the cross the wrath of God was spent on Jesus/ on behalf of all who repent and believe this” and “The Son of God, 100% divinity/ self-existent second person of the Trinity”, etc. If the people who listen to my music can understand English, they can compare what I’m saying with Scripture and determine for themselves whether or not what I’m saying corresponds to what the Lord has revealed in His Word. It’s the truth that resonates cross-culturally, even if people don’t prefer the style. It works the other way around as well. I can worship the Lord in congregations where I may dislike the musical style, provided the words are Biblical and God-glorifying. Truth is the common denominator. And truth is what Scripture emphasizes, not musical style. You said:

“In other words, I believe your argument on the basis of a very fractured understanding of cultural identity ignores the reality that we all share a culture of humanity.”

I certainly agree that we share humanity and the dignity of being made in God’s image. But do you see the irony in your quoting of Carl Trueman? Trueman is making a reference to written creeds, i.e. formal statements of propositional truth. The fundamental “sameness” of human nature is precisely why words of truth are far more important than fleeting musical styles that vary from culture to culture. You said:

“Trueman is emphasizing human nature as a defense for the validity of creeds written in vastly different times and cultures as valuable and meaningful for today, but it applies equally to other human activity such as music.”

I disagree. It does not apply equally to instrumental music. We don’t know what the music of ancient Israel sounded like. (If there was a way to preserve a recording of it, part of me would love to hear your analysis!) But we do have the Psalms. The Psalms are valuable and meaningful cross-culturally and cross-generationally because of the truth contained in them. The musical style they were composed in is not meaningful for today. My argument is very simple. When it comes to the music making of Christians, the Biblical emphasis is on the content, not the musical form. You’re claiming that the form of Hip-hop is inherently sinful. You still haven’t proven it, brother.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.



Endnotes:

  1. Trueman, Carl. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, 63 []

21 Responses to Discussion about Christian rap with Shai Linne: Subjectivity (Rebuttal)

  1. Jesse B. says:

    Nadab and Abihu worship the Lord with “strange fire”. I’m sure that their heart motives were right, but the sacrifice was not what the Lord commanded…….The FORM of that sacrifice. Psalms 29:2……worship in the BEAUTY of HOLINESS. Holiness is pure and holy and if a form of music does not line up with scripture, it is too be avoided.

    There are styles addressed in Scripture.

    Psalm 69:12 – the song of the drunkard
    Eccl. 7:5-the song of fools
    Isaiah 23:15- sing as an harlot

    There are others, but it’s clear that there are styles of music distinguished in the Bible. None of these have a positive context. I would not choose to express my heart attitude towards God with those types of songs.

  2. Samuel Nathan says:

    Jesse, where does the Bible command us to worship with a particular style of music? There were very clear and concise commands for altar worship, but what about musical style?

    Psalm 69:12 doesn’t say anything about the drunkard’s music being sinful, he is saying he is being mocked by drunks.

    Eccl. 7:5 also isn’t rebuking musical style, but rebuking those who would rather hear false praise than sound criticism

    Isaiah 23:15: you may see where I am going here, again says nothing about musical style being wrong or sinful.

    If one is to make a doctrine out of any portion of scripture, then logically it cannot hold that there are multiple interpretations. For example, Ephesians 2:8-9. There is only one way to interpret that statement, and therefore making a doctrine out of it is perfectly reasonable, we are saved through grace, not by works.

    The passages you mentioned however, do not hold up to the same test, per my examples

  3. Martin says:

    Whereas I sympathize with Shai’s continuous questioning of the question whether music can be sinful, I also lament his ignoring of the arguments already know against his line of reasoning:
    http://religiousaffections.org/news-reviews/wrapping-up-medium-and-message/
    http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-culture/is-rap-really-a-canvas/

    These are just two examples. Scott did not become very concrete but the principle is clear: there is NOT ONLY culturally conditioned meaning in music but also INHERENT meaning that all humans can understand. This has been repeated so often here that I frankly wonder why Shai never engages with this argument, instead insisting it is all relative. The other argument is that that we live in a larger (Western) culture and that the understanding of this larger culture trumps any sub-cultural understanding. This, of course, stalls the discussion and we can’t make a lot of progress. I guess it’s up to him now to a) present a clear challenge to Scott to show music can be sinful and b) to address the argument that musical meaning is not only culturally conditioned.

  4. Jesse B. says:

    Samuel,

    This matter is difficult because of the fact that it is an issue of Christian liberty. There commands in the Bible that believers need to obey and then there are principles in the Bible that need to be applied to everyday life issues.

    I am only bringing out those passages to point out that scripture makes a distinction in styles and so, to me, that is a strong indication that I need to also.

    http://biblicalworshipstudy.blogspot.com/2013/02/musical-style.html?m=0

    I have a blog post that further explains my point. But it may not satisfy your desire to justify the use of worldly genres.

    I, of course, say that in Christ’s love.

  5. Rick says:

    Martin, the thing about Scott’s argument is that he is not addressing his original assertion that music apart from lyrics can be inherently evil. No one is denying that music can communicate…the difference of opinion comes in on how it communicates. Scott believes it is on a moral level when others of us believe it is only on an emotional level that simply cannot communicate morality apart from words (we have talked about this ad nauseam here). As Shai has pointed out, Scott has never addressed this. Shai is boiling it down to the crux of the matter and trying to get us back off the rabbit trails.

    You also mention that Shai should “present a clear challenge to Scott to show music can be sinful…” Isn’t that what he has done in nearly every one of his posts? In this one he said, “You’re claiming that the form of Hip-hop is inherently sinful. You still haven’t proven it, brother.” In the post before that he said, “I’ve been asking you all along to demonstrate how music apart from lyrics can be “inherently denigrating”. You still haven’t done that, brother.” I could go back to other ones as well but the point is that Shai has been asking Scott to show this and he is not doing it. This is the heart of the matter that Shai continually attempts to bring us back to, and Scott is the one ignoring the multiple challenges. Frankly, for a blog dedicated to conservative music and standing against sinful music, you would think it would be simple to point out the sinful/moral elements of music.

  6. Rick says:

    Jesse, I did mean to add something I’m confused about in your comment. How can something be a matter of Christian liberty if you are saying it is wrong? The things in Scripture that are matters of Christian liberty are not wrong but may need to be avoided because of the weaker Christian, but they are not sinful in and of themselves. I’m confused by your comment.

  7. Jesse B. says:

    Yes, Rick please exclude the first sentence in that post. Oops

  8. Martin says:

    Rick,
    “No one is denying that music can communicate…”
    Then why doe Shai insist that only the lyrics count and we should not pay too much attention to the style?
    On the challenge, of course I realize what you wrote. The point is, this debate has a form and next time, it would be Shai’s turn to ask Scott a question again. He’s done so before, I know, but what I mean is that he should push this issue again to get a clearer answer than he has so far. I certainly would not mind if we find that it’s not a moral issue but at the same time, that musical style is very important and needs to be chosen carefully. That would represent some middle ground between the two positions.

  9. Rick says:

    Martin, one of Shai’s first posts in this series said, “Can you clarify what you mean by “music communicates”? If you mean that music is a tool that can aid in the expression of human emotion, I agree. Most of the Scriptures you mentioned indicate that. But I would argue that how people respond to music is culturally conditioned and not universal. This very debate is evidence of that.”

    I would assume by this that he thinks it can communicate. Like I said, we’ve discussed this over and over and over and….. I do agree with Shai that the Biblical emphasis is on the content and NOT the style of music. He is exactly right on this point and it is difficult to dispute that.

    As you said, Shai will be asking Scott questions next round, but I’m not holding my breath that Scott will answer this question. Since the very first question in this series (“Are you saying that music, apart from lyrics, can be sinful in and of itself?”) Scott has had the opportunity to demonstrate it. Shai continues to ask by stating that Scott hasn’t demonstrated how music apart from lyrics can be inherently wrong. As many times as Shai has asked before, you would think Scott would have already addressed it. If music can be inherently sinful then everyone must be able to identify music that is sinful….why can no one tell us how to do this???

  10. JDeng says:

    The problem I see here is that Scott has changed the topic in question. He’s gone from

    “Is the music of rap inherently sinful?”
    or even
    “Is a given style of music inherently sinful/not sinful?”

    to

    “Do our interpretation of music styles have any absolute moral standing?”

    I see these two as completely separate and more or less exclusive questions. Whether our opinions carry any weight at all is still outside the absolute moral measuring stick of what God defines as sin and what is not sin. I appreciated that Shai pointed the conversation back to what really matters: glorifying God, and defining sin.

  11. Jesse B. says:

    Rick,

    Scott has addressed that inherently sinful or good music can not be determined. In the comments for the article “Is Rap Really a Canvas”, Scott even agrees with you that it can not be proven from Scripture, but that there are principles all throughout Scripture that believers are to apply to their lives. Here is the comment:

    http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-culture/is-rap-really-a-canvas/

    Scott Aniol on June 11, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Rick, I applaud you for how you sought to prove that rap is acceptable from Scripture.

    I completely agree with you on the following statements: “I cannot go to Scripture to try to prove that rap music, or any other style, is inherently acceptable for communicating biblical truth. . . . I can, however, draw some general conclusions from Scripture, and personally apply them to rap music, or any music for that matter.”

    That is one of the many facets of confusion in this discussion. The Bible is not dogmatic about musical styles, but there a numerous principles that need to be applied to the believers life and practices.

  12. JDeng says:

    BTW can anyone tell us when this debate will end? I think we’re all losing steam here.

  13. Rick says:

    Jesse,

    You said, “Scott has addressed that inherently sinful or good music can not be determined. In the comments for the article “Is Rap Really a Canvas”, Scott even agrees with you that it can not be proven from Scripture, but that there are principles all throughout Scripture that believers are to apply to their lives.”

    That just simply doesn’t “mesh” with what he says elsewhere. In one of the previous posts with Shai, Scott says, “This music is incompatible with Christianity for a few reasons. First, it expresses impurity, sensuality, enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, orgies, and things like these (Gal 5:19-21). There are musicological ways to explain this….” So if there are musicological ways to show that rap expresses impurity, sensuality, etc., then he is saying that you absolutely can prove that rap is sinful. You have to wonder why he hasn’t yet though. So if he is really saying in the other thread that you can’t prove it from Scripture, then he contradicts himself here. Which is it?

    You also said, “That is one of the many facets of confusion in this discussion. The Bible is not dogmatic about musical styles, but there a numerous principles that need to be applied to the believers life and practices.”

    I completely agree with you. But it certainly brings up a question…if Scripture isn’t dogmatic about musical styles, why are there so many people that are ultra-dogmatic about it???

    BTW, the “Rick” in the other comments you linked to is not me! Perhaps I should change my nick.

  14. Jesse B. says:

    Rick,

    I am going respond with conducting an experiment and if further explanation is needed, I will definitely ablige.

    Please listen to the 2 following examples of the National Anthem.

     

    Example A.  

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=x1-jWl0O34U (This should work fune.  I did this from my phone)  this a version of the National Anthem done by Roseanne Barr in 1990

     

    Example B.

     

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=6iSdhPau220. This is the national anthem after 9/11

     

    Excluding the visuals, I’m sure you could pick one that’s good and one that’s bad.  please tell me what 1 you think is good or bad and tell why it is good or bad.  Also, is there an attitude that is conveyed in each example and what is it?  There are surely some principles that are in one that is not in the other.  Those principles are what make it good or bad.  

     

    Also, I should know that there is more than 1 “Rick” in the world.  lol

  15. Jesse B. says:

    Certainly one example conveys a right attitude and way to sing the National Anthem, while the other seems to be mocking our Anthem (especially if you have seen the video and the actions in that performance)

    In my opinion, listening and singing popular so – called Christian music is very comparable to these 2 examples and may even be far worse than some may think.

  16. Rick says:

    Jesse, this is apples and oranges. In your two examples, one was poorly done (not on key, etc.) while the other was done well (on key, etc.). How does this relate to music that you would say is sinful??? Are you saying Roseanne Barr’s rendition was sinful? And how is that likened to Christian music that you don’t like?? Why wouldn’t you go get a video of “so-called Christian music” that you think is sinful and show us how it is sinful?

  17. Jesse B. says:

    I used that as an example for 3 reasons. 1. Because everyone will agree (I hope) on that song and that one example is good and the other is bad or at least a misrepresentation of the original intent and it is not fitting for the message of that song. (Even though both the lyrics and music are the same) and 2. Because even in secular music, there are principles in good music that make it good and it is obvious. 3. If I were to use the example of a “christian” song that I find distasteful, that would very likely be a rabbit trail. By using the National Anthem as an example, all will agree on the principles of that song and music that make it good, or bad. I understand that these examples may be extreme, but it is clear that one is bad and one is good. Even in your first sentence, you made the judgment of those beings apples and oranges. That is the point, that using the world’s music and genres is in diametrical opposition to the way God commands believers to approach Him.

    Also in the above examples, it is clear to see how much of a disagreement there is among the 2 version, though it is the same melody and words. To approach a Holy God in a flippant and casual way ( some cases are obviously more extreme then others), is sin. Anything other than what God commands is sin. Look at Cain or Nadab and Abihu.

    Another point that needs to be brought up (and no one has, not even Scott or Shai) is that all of the genres in popular “christian” music already existed. No genre or song that is ” christian” is completely original. Therefore, that genre already has a preconceived association with it, no matter what lyrics or intent the artists give it. The genre was already created and it’s intent was already determined. If there is a “christian” song out there that is completely original, I would love to know about it.

  18. Rick says:

    Like I said before….apples and oranges. But let’s assume you went and picked a Christian song which you would say the music was flippant and casual. That would be your opinion. What you see as flippant someone else may see as reverent. There is no rule book that says, “this tune is flippant ant this one isn’t” or “this element of music is sinful.” At the very best you would have an argument that is a Romans 14 issue and should be avoided. However, the premise from the very beginning of this has been that music apart from lyrics can be sinful. So somebody needs to show us that. Don’t give us opinions….pick a song and show us how the music is sinful. If you can’t, then it seems you would have to say this is simply opinion or preference. And it is ok to have a preference. It is ok to say I prefer hymns rather than something more contemporary.

  19. Martin says:

    Now here is one post from three years ago that at least sheds some light on why Scott would argue that music is moral: http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-culture/multiculturalism-veiled-missional/

    The ensuing discussion brings up some familiar themes. It seems to me the key lies in the definition of culture as either ‘preferences of taste’ or social background (a lifestyle or set of customs), as Shai is doing, or as “the set of values, the network of beliefs that are institutionalized in a people’s collective life and that govern their behavior,” which Scott also uses in other posts on the subject. Clearly, using the latter definition implies that “Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith” and that “Cultural institutions, artifacts, and expressions that deny, suppress, or distort [the divinely established] order ought to be recognized as inferior to those that acknowledge, honor, and enjoy it.” A corrupt culture, then, will bring forth cultural forms to express its corrupt ideas.

    Now there seems to be some agreement here that mainstream rap is anti-Christian in the sense of promoting violence, profanity, and the denigration of women. We also seem to agree that mainstream rap is depraved and as such, sinful (it expresses concepts and ideas contrary to biblical values). The question is, however, whether such cultural forms can be ‘redeemed’ by replacing the lyrics with lyrics that express biblical values. To achieve that, Christians using those forms would have to create a separate sub-culture that is materially different from the mainstream culture where the cultural form has originated.

    Watching the documentary “Christcore” recently, I noted that those who were using hardcore metal were immersed in a sub-culture that looks outwardly exactly like that of secular hardcore, yet there was no swearing, sexuality, or alcohol involved in their concerts. There were also prayer and moments of introspection. The question is, is this sufficient to shed the cultural associations of this genre and make it compatible with biblical thinking and behaviour? Is syncretism a real danger here or not?

    Then there is the fact that many Christian artists have crossed over towards mainstream (rock, rap, etc.), becoming part of the larger culture and less and less distinguishable from the mainstream. This seems to be common pattern which occurs in all contemporary genres adopted by Christians. This indicates that artists have no real success in creating a separate ‘Christian’ sub-culture but are admitting that they are part of the larger ‘genre culture’.

    Given that, I can at least understand that certain genres are deemed sinful per se. After all, they were created to express unchristian values and ideas, and enjoyed by people with non-Christian lifestyles and ideals. I do believe that per the above definition of culture, Christians should be part of a Christian culture that would produce artifacts that differ in substance from those produced of other cultures (overlap and partial cross-compatibility notwithstanding).

    The argument is then:
    a) rap culture is sinful
    b) rap expresses the sinful tendencies of this culture
    c) these sinful tendencies remain attached to the genre (since the music expresses them, even though it does not cause or provoke them)
    d) therefore, singing rap is a sinful activity Christians should abstain from.

    The above has already transpired now and again through the past two months and I hope I summarized it well enough.

    My beef with this line of thought is that a cultural expression such as music (without the words) is simply expressive (hence the word) of attitudes, ideologies, and emotions. It represents these but is not equal to these. Of course these expressions are understood a certain way (by cultural conditioning or naturally – rather, both) and that means there will be incompatibilities with specific lyrics. Yet, combining musical genre and biblical lyrics in a way that is incompatible is not sin but simply bad art.

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  21. grant says:

    thing is…. marijuana is not discussed in the bible. whatsoever. i dont think drugs are ether. and yet i can completely destroy recreational marijuana with scripture on multiple layers.

    for example.
    -its illegal
    -were told to be sober minded and vigilant. it does the opposite.
    -were told not to be mastered by anything. if it were legal. and we dismissed all the other many arguments, it still wouldnt be recommended due to addictive nature.
    -above reproach – it has the appearance of evil.
    -whether you eat or drink- glorify God. it is easy to have an explanation for how you glorify God by rapping a sermon, but you cannot answer how you glorify God by smoking weed.
    – on that last one. its not that everything is permitted except whats explicitly forbidden by scripture. im sure scott would agree, and has in this article. its true, just because you cant “point to” specific scripture doesnt make it ok. everything is not permissible. things are neutral and their use it what is moral or unmoral. thats why it says eat and drink to the glory of God. there are forbidden things. but things not discussed by scripture must be used for Gods glory. even if it wasnt illegal, and it didnt effect sobreity… like, say coffee…. the question becomes “how do i glorify God?”
    i can glorify God with one cup of coffee in the morning. thank you Lord for waking me up. take a day or two off just to be careful, whatever…. this is a two edged sword. everything is neutral, but everything is not permitted. christianity isnt doing whatever u want and avoiding only the 10 commandments. you must be able to point to a pure motive, or else its likely sin, and vain. this is a good way to reality check ourselves and realize our desperate need to turn to Christ. when we look back at our day and realize how many things were pointless, even if not expressively forbidden, and how little we acknowledged God and gave thanks, like pagans. this should give us a sense of neediness and desperation. nothing is good unless it honors God and i think a lot of this argument comes from seeing something wrong with most christian rap which is vein, worldly, in the muddled middle, compromising, and ultimately i don’t think its intended on glorifying God. but shai is one of the exceptions. scott may be right 90% of the time, but this is an important discussion, because it gets down to the point that objects arent evil, what people use them for are evil. hemp is good and was made by God. and we can use this hemp / cannibus / marijuana to glorify God….. by making a rope. the evil depraved mind, experiments with rolling stuff up, lighting stuff up, seeking some sort of euphoria. music of all kinds can be used to glorify God. by singing for him. rapping for him…. and yes, we should be careful about our instrumental selection to be appropriate to the best of our ability. those who say instrumentals are sinful, im afraid, are blind on this particular subject.

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