By Russell D. Moore, Christianity Today
A high school in Beaver, Pennsylvania, recently went into security lockdown over a rap lyric. Actually, rap here is a stretch. It was the theme song of a
20-year-old sitcom starring Will Smith.
A school official called a student’s voicemail and heard the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song on the student’s phone. She mistook “shooting some b-ball outside
of the school” as “shooting some people outside of the school,” and dialed 9-1-1.
In light of shootings linked to popular media, from The Matrix to The Dark Knight Rises, her fear is understandable. But there’s a parable here too. Even
in its most commercialized, bubblegum form, hip-hop scares middle-class America. The thumping rhythm and defiant lyrics can conjure up pictures of gang
violence, even in songs solely about basketball or love or heartbreak. Smith was right: Parents just don’t understand.
The violent edge of rap–“it’s just so angry”–is most often what I hear behind American Christians’ ambivalence about the new wave of Christian hip-hop.
But not all of this ambivalence is reactionary, revealing white-bread taste. It’s a real question: Can one authentically rap the Sermon on the Mount, with
its Beatitudes, warnings against anger, and meekness? No doubt one can set Matthew 5-7 to rhyme and meter, but would it still be hip-hop? If not, does that
rule hip-hop out as legitimate Christian art?
That was the question Ken Myers posed as we talked recently about Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae, Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and others (especially popular
among the “young, restless, Reformed” wing of the church). Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio and one of the most respected Christian thinkers on pop culture,
has long warned about the church’s tendency to separate the message from the medium. He sees this as an almost gnostic attempt to disembody everything but
truth propositions from art.
Music sounds “like feelings feel,” said Myers. That’s why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” conjures “feelings of melancholy,
humility, tentativeness, or ennui.” And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are “brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness.”
By contrast, Myers said, “Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its
address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.” In other words, rap is anything but about “reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness.”
“Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence,” Myers
said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or
the form, any more than one could easily perform “Girlfriend in a Coma” set to Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal.” To use “pious and humble” hip-hop lyrics
would be to ignore or denigrate “the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,” since it is a style “more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty
Myers’ critique of Christian hip-hop wasn’t a fundamentalist scold, wary of the Devil’s music. Instead, he was concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an
art form–as well as for the integrity of the Bible and the Christian tradition. For him, Christian hip-hop seems to be the latest incarnation in the
evangelical project to “engage culture” by separating form from message, and to bridge the divide between pop culture and the old, old story.
And he’s right. So often our attempts to be relevant are just ham-handed attempts to market the gospel with popular cultural tropes. And no one can
seriously argue that musical forms don’t change “the message.” Moreover, I agree with Myers that hip-hop generally taps into a certain set of human
emotions and situations, and not others.
But that’s where our agreement ends. I think Christian hip-hop is more than just the latest attempt to slap a Jesus fish on the bumper of a pop-culture
fad. Hip-hop is reminding the church about the reality of sin and grace–and returning the hip-hop community to its prophetic roots.
How Doctrine Sounds
Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you’ll note just how theological it is. The first time I heard a song by artist Flame was also the first time
I heard the heresy “modalistic monarchianism” denounced by name in any song. “That’s not the Scriptures that’s confusion, / and it takes stabs at the
hypostatic union,” raps the Louisville, Kentucky-based artist, before explaining the hypostatic union (the union of Jesus’ divinity and humanity). Rap
group 116 Clique, named after Romans 1:16, defends biblical inerrancy by using the term theopneustos (God-breathed)–also not the most common of lyrics,
rap or otherwise.
The new hip-hop artists aren’t simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics. Instead, they are modeling a broadly Reformed system of Christian
doctrine, which is characterized by an emphasis on humanity’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and divine election. Many of the leading rappers are associated
with prominent Reformed pastors: Shai Linne and Trip Lee have both interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., led by popular pastor Mark
Dever, and Lecrae and Tedashii regularly quote John Piper. Just as rapper will.i.am wove lines from President Barack Obama’s speeches into his songs during
the 2008 presidential campaign, the preaching of well-known Reformed speakers–many of them Southern and white–is interspersed through the new Christian
At first blush, this seems absurd. After all, hip-hop is far more akin to Malcolm X than to Cotton Mather–and for good reason. Some of the reigning
defenses of 19th-century slavery were offered through the prism of Reformed theology, especially in its Presbyterian and Baptist forms. The Southern
Calvinist concept of the “spirituality of the church” called white Southerners to “simply preach the gospel” and “avoid politics” during the Jim Crow
era–which meant propping up state-sponsored terrorism against African American citizens. Even in the culture-redeeming Kuyperian strain of Reformed
teaching, the apartheid of 20th-century South Africa stands to remind us that even the best theology can be used to evil ends.
This history hasn’t gone unnoticed in Christian hip-hop circles. Artist Propaganda prompted an Internet firestorm with his blistering song “Precious
Puritans,” which sought to remove the halos off the wigs of the dead white men revered by contemporary Reformed Christians:
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even if they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege, wouldn’t you agree?
Even so, the broadly Reformed tenor of contemporary hip-hop isn’t incidental, hopping aboard a faddish movement. Pop-culture expert Myers is right: form
matters–and so does artistic tradition. We see this in the two largest attempts by Christians to appropriate existing pop-culture art forms in the last
several decades: Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and Southern gospel.
[Part two of Christian Hip Hop in next week’s SUN]