Can Rap be Christian? The Presuppositions
Are “Christian” and “rap” mutually exclusive?
Mark Dever’s answer after a 9Marks interview with Shai Linne and Curtis Allen (Voice): “Hardly.” This from one of the most conservative evangelicals alive today. It is primarily for that reason that I’d like to make a few comments about the interview. If this is what one of the most conservative evangelicals believes, you can be certain those less conservative believe it, too.
It’s no surprise that I’d like to make a few comments about the interview, but before I do, I’d like to make a few requests:
- First, please listen to the interview before you read this post.
- Second, please read this post. David makes some excellent point worth reading. Make sure to read his first comment as well.
I plan to address this interview in two parts. In this first post I’ll evaluate the presuppositions underlying comments made in the interview, and in the second post I plan to evaluate the medium of rap itself.
But first, a few preliminary comments:
- I highly respect Mark Dever. As I said, he is truly one of the most conservative evangelicals. In many ways he and I are standing side by side theologically and philosophically. I appreciate 9Marks and all the influence upon an evangelical theology of the Church they’ve had. It is also my understanding that the worship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church is very conservative, reverent, and thoughtful. It is for all of these reasons that I was a bit surprised (and perplexed) by this interview.
- In no way do I intend to question the motives, godliness, or sincerity of Mark Dever, Shai Linne, or Curtis Allen. They seem to be godly, consecrated men of God who desire to worship God rightly and proclaim his truth. I am certain that they are not driven by pragmatism in what they do but by the glory of God and a love for his truth.
- I am not one to say that “rap is just a bunch of noise; it’s not music; there’s no art there!” I listened for a good while to several full albums from both Shai Linne and Curtis Allen and will readily acknowledge that their songs contain a good bit of artistic lyrical complexity. There is certainly an amount of skill involved. Further, the particular kind of rap these men use seems to be better than other forms. We must acknowledge that not all rap is created equal. As I learned from the interview, evidently their “east cost” hip hop style employs this “multi-syllabic rhymes that can get really complex” as opposed to other forms of rap. Further, it is true that with their style there really is more of an emphasis on the lyrics rather than the beat. I’ll address more of this in my next post.
- “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
So I’m coming at this hopefully with an honest desire to evaluate both the music and the presuppositions that are beneath a philosophy that says that rap can be Christian.
Here’s the heart of where I’d like to focus. Mark Dever asks the following question:
Some of our listeners are fundamentalists, who would . . . dismiss much of popular music, not because of the words. . . but because of the rhythm that they take to be inherently sensual, because of the beat. Any thoughts about that?
In other words, “Are ‘Christian’ and ‘rap” mutually exclusive?” Here is Shai’s answer:
The idea of inherently sensual; it’s hard for me to hear that term without thinking about cultural preference, and what would be the objective standard by which you would measure this idea of inherently sensual? . . . I believe it’s a preference, it’s a cultural preference, and I don’t think we should spiritualize our preferences, but we should acknowledge them for what they are. I don’t believe that any musical form in and of itself, any medium in and of itself is inherently sinful.
Dever then asks:
OK. Let me come at it another way, then. What about music that would be really popular today that’s dissonant; that just sounds like cacophony; it just may sound to many people like a wreck . . . Isn’t there anything about the beauty of God that’s missed there?
To which Shai replies:
That’s a slippery slope. Again, horrible to your ears is wonderful to another set of ears. We all shy away from the idea of relativism, but I think it should only be shied away from in the sense of moral relativism. But when it comes to the arts, we have to grapple with the fact that it’s culturally conditioned. You did not come out of the womb listening to Handel. I didn’t come out of the womb listening to Run DMC. It’s something culture, it’s something that is, behavior that is socially rather than biologically transmitted. And so we have to recognize that. And are some mediums more ideal for certain forms of communication? Absolutely. However, but we have to start with the understanding that any time we’re talking about musical form, genre, etc. this is a cultural discussion. And another thing that I would say is that, first and foremost all things need to be submitted to God’s ultimate purpose, which is his glory. Romans 11:36 . . . And so the question on the floor is, am I willing to submit my preferences to the ultimate goal of the glory of God? Does hip hop fall under . . . the “all things” that is meant to go back to God, for God’s glory? And I would say, absolutely. And I would say that of any genre, and the main thing is what is being communicated? What are the words? What’s the information being transmitted?
He later said the following:
When you think about the things that make up worldliness from a Scriptural standpoint, I think about 1 John 2:15-17, I think about the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride in possession. Like those things are, they characterize all secular forms of anything, music or otherwise. And so the issue at hand is the content. Now when you speak about a medium that is characterized by sin now being used to promote the glory of God, when I think about that, I think that is what God has always been in the business of doing. That’s what he did with me. Shai. I was a vessel of communicating sin. God saved me through the cross and resurrection of Christ, and then has taken this sinful medium and used me to promote his glory.
And this later:
Right, so when I think about the cultural mandate and how God has given from the beginning the world for man to go, be fruitful, multiply, explore, discover, use the gifts and talents God has given to promote his agenda, that was what originally should have taken place. I think the arts fall underneath that. So artistic expression is one of the ways that we demonstrate the way that we are created in the image of God. And so the artistic expression in and of itself is a reflection of God’s image in man being played out. So that in itself, again, we always say, take, we just want to take the content of the gospel and pointing people to the glory of God and Christ and then inject it into this medium.
So today, I would just like to evaluate the kind of thinking necessary to argue that “no musical form is in and of itself sinful.” I’m not arguing one way or another whether rap can be Christian at this point (I’ll do that in my next post). I’m simply examining whether a musical form could be inherently sinful.
There seem to me to be three primary presuppositions that inform the opinion that no musical form is in and of itself sinful:
- Music is just a cultural preference.
- There are no objective standards by which you can measure if something is inherently sensual.
- Any cultural expression can be used to promote the gospel and the glory of God.
I believe that these three presuppositions make three significant errors.
First Error: Denial of the Influence of Depravity Upon Human Communication
My primary objection to this line of reasoning is this: it assumes that no medium of human communication can ever be inherently sinful.
Songs are products of human creation. They are mediums of human communication. And since humans are totally depraved, there is always the potential that the way a man communicates could be sinful. Again, I’m not arguing that the human form of communication called rap is sinful (yet). But these men won’t even allow the question.
They essentially lay the burden of proof upon those of us who might argue that rap is sinful. However, I would appeal to their Calvinism and insist that the burden of proof lies rather upon them to prove that this product of human creation is in fact not tainted by human depravity.
The Bible teaches that every person is totally and completely depraved.
Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Ephesians 4:17-19 “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Both man’s will and understanding are corrupt.
Titus 1:15 “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.”
The natural man cannot do anything good, nor can he understand spiritual things.
John 8:34 “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
He does not and cannot seek God, nor does he desire to do so.
Romans 3:10-18 “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Depravity consumes man’s body (Romans 8:10), mind (Titus 1:15; Ephesians 4:17-18), heart (Ephesians 4:18, Jeremiah 17:9), will (John 8:34, Ephesians 2:3), and emotions (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Thus man is totally and completely depraved. Total depravity does not mean that man is as depraved as he could be, but that all of man is completely depraved. No part of man escapes the reach of depravity. Not his will, not his actions, not his preferences, not his culture, and certainly not the way he communicates.
Rap is a form of communication. It communicates not only through the lyrics, but also through the form. If the lyrics are what is communicated, the form is how it is communicated, which itself is communication. Because rap is a medium of human communication, we must admit that it could be sinful. To deny this is to stray dangerously close to Pelagianism.1
Further, to argue that “we shouldn’t spiritualize our preferences” is dangerous since it denies that our preferences can ever be wrong. It implies that our preferences can never be questioned and that we can trust our preference implicitly. On the contrary, we must acknowledge that as depraved sinners, “the heart is deceitful,” and we cannot trust our preferences alone to make judgments. We must use criteria outside ourselves to judge, and just because that criteria is difficult to determine or understand does not negate the responsibility.
So I insist again, considering the total depravity of man, that the burden of proof lies with them to prove that this cultural expression is indeed good, especially considering the culture of drugs and violence that created it and with which it is still commonly associated (as acknowledged by Dever in the interview).
Second Error: Failure to Recognize that More is Communicated than Mere Propositions
My second problem with their line of thinking is that they seem to be willing only to think in terms of propositional communication instead of also recognizing the reality of other forms of communication. We would be foolish to assume that when humans communicate, the only thing being communicated is propositions. Body language, tone of voice, word choice, and sentence structure all communicate much more than mere propositional truth.
Music is a medium that communicates, similar to the way a certain body posture or tone of voice communicates. I do not allow my son to speak to me in certain tones of voice. Sometimes the simple phrase “Hello there,” could have different subtextual messages, merely in the way it is spoken — sometimes between friends, between acquaintances, and between lovers. This I think will be conceded on all sides.
Let’s take a particular tone of voice, a haughty tone. Arguably, such tones of voice are culturally determined. (Perhaps certain tones communicating certain subtextual messages are even intrinsic to the human condition [i.e., not culturally determined], but that it is not important to my argument.) When an individual who uses a haughty tone of voice becomes a believer, how can that “tone of voice” be “redeemed”? Should he continue to employ this tone of voice that evokes or communicates haughtiness in his life? Or is it that the entire way of communicating changes in the new man? His haughtiness is done away with in Christ (save the remnants of indwelling sin), and he, when he is evidencing his sanctification, will speak, not only with totally new words, but with a completely new tone of voice. The tone of voice that communicated haughtiness is replaced by “new tones” that communicate humility and submission. The sultry tone of voice employed by the whore is not, when she is converted, made into Christian service to entice sinners to repent, but this very tone of voice changes to a new one of chastity and simple graciousness. What should be employed in the new creature is not the same tone of voice that communicated, say, anger or lust or pride, but now steadfastness and brotherly love and humility.
This illustrates what I am after. Redeeming the culture does not mean we use a “tone of voice” or “manner of singing” that communicates the worst depths of depravity in a song about Jesus or justification, but a new “tone of voice” or “manner of singing” that communicates completely different subtextual messages.
Consider, as an illustration, the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal. Notice how even Wikipedia describes the event:
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was a song sung by actress/singer Marilyn Monroe on Saturday, May 19, 1962, for then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, at a celebration for his forty-fifth birthday, ten days before the actual day of his 45th birthday, Tuesday, May 29. Sung in a sultry voice, Monroe sang the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, with “Mr. President” inserted as Kennedy’s name. . . .
Afterwards, President Kennedy came on stage and joked about the song, saying, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way,” alluding to Monroe’s delivery, her racy dress, and her general image as a sex symbol.
Obviously Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image communicated subtextual messages that were missed by nobody.
I know and acknowledge that the evangelical consensus of the day is to reject that all sorts of things in life, including music, have cultural and even intrinsic meaning. But I refuse to concede this point, especially in a matter as important as the worship of the one true and living God, whose worship demands reverence and awe on the part of his creatures, not pride, lust, and anger.
Yet what is interesting is that throughout the interview, Dever, Linne, and Allen actually discuss what hip hop inherently communicates. They seem to admit that more than just propositions are being expressed. They discuss why hip hop is particularly suited for the communication of biblical truth. I’ll evaluate that assertion in my next post, but the assertion itself implies that a music form has value; it has something inherent to itself that (in their opinion) allows it to communicate biblical truth in a particularly fitting way.
I would much rather them admit that musical forms communicate (and therefore could be inherently wrong) and then argue why rap communicates messages that are fitting for the gospel than to deny that musical forms communicate at all. At least then we’d have somewhere to begin a healthy debate. But they seem unwilling to even consider that a musical form could communicate sinful messages (apart from the positional truth in the lyrics). They laugh and scoff at such a “fundamentalist” claim.
As I have noted, however, they do talk about what hip hop communicates, and they even discuss the difference between kinds of hip hop and the “flavors” they communicate. They discuss the differences between “east coast,” “southern,” and “midwest” hip hop. When Dever asks them about the differences between the “flavors” of these forms, they say,
Shai: Ah, Curt help me here.
Curt: It’s hard to describe it in words.
Exactly! They know instinctively that there is a difference in “flavor,” they know that these forms communicate, but when you enter the realm of moods and affections, it is hard to put it into words. Yet this is what they mock when we conservatives attempt to discuss (with mere words) why we think the “flavor” of certain musical forms is incompatible with the gospel.
When Shai asks, “What’s the information being transmitted?” he needs to recognize that propositional truth is affected by “flavor.” “Flavor” changes how something tastes, does it not?
And so I say, engage us in debate about whether certain “flavors” are fitting for the gospel, but do not deny that such “flavors” even exist. Either musical forms communicate or they do not; you can’t have it both ways.
Third Problem: Assumption that Culture is Neutral
Flowing from these last two is the problem of assuming that culture is neutral. “It’s just cultural” is an oft-used scape goat, yet I would suggest that it is illegitimate because it fails to understand what culture is.
Culture is the external expression of values. Cultures do not develop in a vacuum, they are developed in the crucible of human value systems. Cultures are embedded with value.
Shai insists that our preferences are “culturally conditioned.” There is no doubt that he is correct, but he fails to recognize that “cultural conditioning” is a transfer of values. Both Linne and Allen grew up in a hip hop drug culture. I doubt either of them would deny that certain values were transmitted to them through that culture. Rather, they resort to a reductionist approach and insist that hip hop culture “is just” good at transmitting worldviews.
So certainly rap or any other cultural expressions are “cultural.” Certainly no one is born with a set of cultural preferences built in. Appreciation for culture is certainly learned.
Yet this is no proof that we cannot evaluate culture. Rather, because of the depravity of man, we must evaluate culture. Again, I’m willing to debate what values are embedded in various cultures and whether such values are fitting for the gospel, but the typical evangelical is unwilling to even consider such a debate.
In summary, music is a medium of communication. It is the how of communication. All humans are depraved. Therefore, all forms of communication must be judged by criteria outside ourselves in order to determine whether or not they are fitting ways to express certain propositions.
Next time: we’ll consider hip hop culture and rap music specifically.
This article was written by Scott Aniol with considerable input from Ryan Martin and Michael Riley.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.
- See John Makujina, “Forgotten Texts and Doctrines in Current Evangelical Responses to Culture” presented at ETS. [↩]