A firestorm erupted online last week after video of a panel discussion in which I participated at the NCFIC “Worship of God” conference went viral, and defenders of Christian rap responded with hurt and outrage.
There are some plans in the works to address this issue at more depth in the near future (and you can read my series on Christian rap here), including a public discussion with Shai Linne, so I don’t intend to deal with this at any length right now. But since this was only a short video of a very short segment in a discussion panel, I would like to offer some fuller explanation of my comments on the panel in particular.
I’d like to make a few preliminary comments about the panel first, however, and then I’ll elaborate on the point I made:
1. I cannot speak on behalf of any of the other panelists; I can only speak for myself. I was invited to participate on this panel by the director of NCFIC, as were all of the panelists. None of us are members of any single organization or movement; in fact, I had not met any of the other panelists until that day, and I had heard of only one of them. All that to say, each of our answers is our own and reflects no unified voice. I didn’t agree with many things that the other panelists said, and I certainly repudiate the calling of names or judging of motives.
2. Part of the problem with this video is that (a) it is a panel discussion, and so by nature it is a “sound bite” format where not much in-depth conversation can take place; you have to remember that this is at the end of a 3-day conference, so the panelists’ comments are built off of their own sessions where they explained themselves more fully, and the audience was listening in that context. And (b), this is just one short discussion in the context of a much longer Q&A session, so more full explanation of certain presuppositions occurred both before and after this particular question. I hope NCFIC will post the whole panel at some point.
3. I’m not on a vendetta against rap to the exclusion of other forms of music. In fact, I equally condemn for use in expressing God’s truth some forms of music from within my own background and sub-culture. But I do think that the rap debate provides good context for discussing what I believe are some important foundational presuppositions about the nature of music, worship, culture, evangelism, and the communication of God’s holy truth, and so I welcome the debate.
4. Even though I do not believe that rap is the best way to communicate God’s holy truth, I am thankful for the noble desire of Christian rappers to spread the gospel to as many people as possible, and I praise the Lord for the many people who have come to Christ and been biblically challenged through Christian rap.
5. Finally, I fully understand that most readers will not agree with what I say below; my point is not to persuade with this post, it is simply to clarify my short comments on the panel. And I fully understand that if you like Christian rap, you will probably be offended by my comments. However, I would urge you to actually engage the arguments rather than calling me names or insisting that I don’t have any right to believe what I do. Please respectfully critique my arguments.
With that said, since panel discussions preclude thorough explanation, here is a fuller elaboration of the point I made in the panel.
The Bible must be our supreme authority in all we do, especially in the worship of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Scripture governs not only what we say (our doctrine), but also how we say it (our form). If we truly believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, then we must believe that God inspired not just the ideas of Scripture, and not even just the words of Scripture, but also the forms with which those ideas are presented.
Now, I think most Christians would agree that the exact words Scripture uses to present doctrine is not the only way to articulate that doctrine. In other words, we can translate the original languages of Scripture, rephrase certain ideas, and formulate theological systems that help to communicate biblical truth to our present culture. However, conservative Christians also believe that since the Bible is inerrant, and since it is our supreme authority, Scripture itself places limits on contemporary articulations of doctrine. In other words, some contemporary attempts to “modernize” theology go beyond the limits of legitimate “contextualization” because they are not faithful to the original.
The same is true for how the Bible presents truth. The Bible presents truth, not in abstract propositions, but through literary forms like certain kinds of poetry, narrative, parable, and apocalypse and through the use of literary devices like metaphor, simile, parallelism, analogy, and typology. Each of these literary forms and devices shapes the “feel” of its propositional content. Yet, like with what Scripture says, those aesthetic presentations of truth are not the only way truth may be presented. We have freedom to “contextualize” the way in which biblical truth is expressed. We can translate those aesthetic forms into those more familiar to our context, use literary forms from our culture, and update the language and metaphorical devices. In other words, there is much room for variety in forms depending on time, culture, and context. However, since we believe that the Bible is inerrant, and since it is our supreme authority, by its own examples, Scripture itself places limits on contemporary aesthetic presentations of doctrine. In other words, some contemporary attempts to “modernize” aesthetic forms go beyond the limits of legitimate contextualization because they are not faithful to the original.
One New Testament example of limits on how the gospel is presented is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1–5)
Here Paul discusses the means of communication he used to share the gospel with the Corinthians, and it presents some important principles about gospel proclamation. First, Paul is clear that regardless of noble motives and even sound propositional content, there are some methods of communication that are unworthy of the gospel. He specifically cites “lofty speech” as an example of one method that he may have been tempted to use, but did not. Second, this method of communication in particular—artful oratory—was a central part of Greek culture. The Corinthians would have resonated with that particular kind of communication, and Paul would have likely gained interest had he used it. Third, the specific reason Paul refrained from using this method was that it would have inherently drawn attention away from Christ and to his own skills instead. In other words, Paul understood that media of communication shape their content in certain ways, and he discerned that the medium called “lofty speech” would have shaped the gospel in ways contrary to the message itself.
This is where I personally find the aesthetic forms loosely grouped together in the genre called “rap.” I readily acknowledge that what much of the Christian rap I have heard says is a faithful articulation of what Scripture says. In fact, I would go so far as to say that what much of Christian rap says is more faithful to Scripture and more doctrinally rich than many of the songs from my own cultural heritage.
However, I would argue that how most Christian rap communicates that doctrine is not faithful to how Scripture expresses truth.
The Christian rap artists I’ve heard and read readily admit that the cultural milieu out of which rap was born is un-Christian. It is a culture of denigration, violence, rage, and self-aggrandizement. The aesthetic forms of rap emerged out of that value system as a natural medium to communicate these sentiments. In other words, that way of expressing ideas was faithful to its content.
So the Christian artists acknowledge this background, and while I completely agree with them that the sinful origin of something doesn’t necessarily render it sinful, I would still insist that such origins should at least cause us to ask whether or not the form came out of that culture because it was a natural expression of that culture’s sinful values.
I would argue that this is the case with rap. The form itself is edgy and denigrating in a way that I believe is inconsistent with the gospel and biblical truth when compared with how Scripture presents truth. I can find no example in Scripture of the good news of Jesus Christ being presented with the same kind of visceral intensity.
Furthermore, it is instructive that when disturbed, debase people want to express rage, hatred, and violence, they are drawn to this form of music. Why is it that certain other cultural expressions or musical forms that have traditionally been used by Christians to communicate truth do not have the same kind of magnetism for these values? While it is certainly true that “classical” and folk forms (forms used in traditional hymnody) have been used in some circumstances to express debase ideas, those forms are not characterized as particularly fit to express those ideas.
The only defense Christian rappers present in response to these observations is that they are “redeeming” the art form. I would certainly agree that these men are redeeming the lyrics and lifestyles. From what I can tell, men like Shai Linne and Curtis Allen are godly men, and as I’ve already noted, their lyrics are certainly considerably better than secular rap and even some Christian songs.
But if a form of music that is inherently denigrating is redeemed, it becomes something different. Simply changing the lyrics, as much of an improvement as that is, is not the kind of change characteristic of “new creatures” (2 Cor 5:17).
Let me illustrate it this way: Suppose that before I became a Christian, I was verbally abusive to my wife. That verbal abuse had two components. First, I yelled at her with a harsh voice, angry facial expression, and wild gestures. Second, what I yelled at her was profane and denigrating.
When I became a Christian, I decided that I needed to redeem the way I treated my wife. So, instead of saying profane, denigrating things to her, I began to tell my wife how beautiful she is and how much I love her. However, I continued to express these comments to her by yelling them to her with a harsh voice, angry facial expression, and wild gestures. Have I really redeemed the way I treat my wife?
This point of my comments on panel is this: I love the gospel, and I desire that the gospel be communicated to as many people as possible. But I also care how the gospel is communicated, because our manner of communication affects how the gospel is perceived. Christ can be magnified in how we present the gospel, or Christ can be demeaned through our presentation. It is not enough to say the right thing, we must say the right things in the right way. And we can discern whether the gospel is being presented appropriately by both comparing our presentation to how the gospel is expressed in Scripture and by evaluating our medium of communication carefully and critically to determine how it shapes our message.
With any art form, especially those used to communicate the truth of God’s Word, I want to ask, does this sound like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? Does it sound like compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12)? Does it sound like manner of life worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27)? Does it sound like behavior that accords sound doctrine (Titus 2:1)–sober-mindedness, dignity, integrity, and self-control? Does it sound like speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15)?
In my opinion, the medium of rap does not meet these criteria. I am thankful that the gospel is being presented, but I am fearful that Christ is demeaned by the manner of presentation.
Now, there are many other issues involved in this discussion that need to be addressed, including the relationship between culture and race (they are not the same thing), further explanation of how music communicates and shapes a message, the nature of biblical authority in these kinds of discussions, and more. My point in this post was simply to clarify my short comments on the panel, but each of these issues needs explanation as well. I hope to do that in the days and weeks ahead, but for now, you can click on the links above or search on this site for discussion on these matters.
I look forward to further healthy discussion between Christian brothers.