By Russell D. Moore, Christianity Today
Starting in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Contemporary Christian Music drew largely from Top 40 pop music, a genre fixated on the awakenings–especially the
romantic awakenings–of adolescence. “I think we’re alone now,” “we’ll be together forever,” “I miss you so much” are nearly universal tropes, regardless
of decade. When Christians critique CCM as “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” tunes, they are not off the mark. At the level of form, this connects Justin Bieber
singing, “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go,” and songs calling worshipers to close their eyes and picture themselves embraced by Jesus forever
Country music, meanwhile, often taps into more adult themes. Love is everywhere, of course, but fans are more likely to hear about love across the
lifespan. It’s Conway Twitty singing about how even when his wife’s hair is gray and she is old, he’ll still love to lay her down (a theme also picked up
by Lecrae in a song to his wife). Moreover, the country genre–again, demanded by the music itself–often reflects on emotional angst: loss, pain, regret,
longing, and nostalgia for home.
Southern gospel and the hymnody closely associated with it tend toward the same emotional language. Songs about brokenhearted Mama pleading with her son
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” are not unlike hymns pleading with sinners, saying that Jesus is patiently waiting to enter their hearts, and “Oh, how he
wants to come in.”
Contemporary Christian pop isn’t well equipped to explain the Chalcedonian formula or address the existence of evil in a good creation, any more than boy
bands can really discuss the ethics of divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease. Southern gospel, like country music, can explore sin, but it typically
does so from the point of view of an individual having made bad decisions, more in grief than in rage or defiance. If country and gospel music are in the
company of psalms of lament, hip-hop is in the territory of psalms of imprecation (compare Psalm 58’s “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God” with 50
Cent’s “If you got a glass jaw, you should watch your mouth, ‘cause I’ll break your face”).
Snoop Dogg, Meet John Calvin
To some degree, the new hip-hop is broadly Reformed because neo-Calvinism–at least as it is filtered through youth conferences and popular teachers–is
“hot” at the moment. But that’s too facile a connection. Hip-hop itself, even in its rawest, most “secular” version, is unwittingly Calvinist, because it
has always had a realistic vision of sin. Hip-hop sees structural and social evil as a given, to be endured and raged against rather than appealed to.
At its best, hip-hop identifies the ugly realities of urban communities under assault by poverty, violence, and racial injustice. At its worst, it seems to
celebrate the horrors of gang violence, rape, and misogyny, hostility toward gays and immigrants, and an anarchic gun culture. The controversial “edge” of
hip-hop can be recognized from such songs as N.W.A.’s calls to kill police to Snoop Dogg’s explicit portrayal of women as sexual playthings to rapper Tyler
the Creator’s jarring lyrics, controversial even in the hip-hop community: “Come take a stab at it fa**ot; I pre-ordered your casket.”
Hip-hop isn’t the first form of pop culture to highlight and sometimes celebrate violence and depravity. Country and folk music do as well–though it’s
most often couched in a sense of regret for a past that can’t be changed (Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”), or with a wink in the
eye and a shrug of the shoulder (see Hank Williams Jr.’s substance abuse). Rap and hip-hop present an in-your-face defiance of moral norms, along with a
personal brand formed around them.
The “gangsta” image so prominent in hip-hop is part of this. The gang is seen as a community, a cadre of happy warriors like the pirates of the American
past, who were also immortalized in song and story. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (Notorious B.I.G.) were both gunned down in an East Coast-West Coast
rapper feud, and their deaths fueled the mythology of the dangerous world of hip-hop. The slain artists are memorialized almost as martyrs, sung about in
new rap songs that call for revenge against their killers.
Some, such as Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, worry that artists such as Tupac, 50 Cent, and Notorious B.I.G. contribute to an unfair–and socially
dangerous–image in the American imagination that “the ghetto” is “a dangerous, scary part of the city,” and that homicidal rage is “inextricably
intertwined with blackness.” This sort of racial stereotype can lead, Anderson notes, to the kind of white fear-mongering seen most brutally in such
atrocities as the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.
The “scariness” of gangsta rap to the white middle class means it is as often a political target as a means of political action. And the raw violence and
sexuality of so much hip-hop is often pegged by white Christians as another piece of evidence that America is “slouching toward Gomorrah.” But that’s a
poor narrative–especially biblically speaking. In the opening pages of Genesis, after the Bible narrates the development of music, we see Lamech singing a
song, seeking revenge against his enemies and the sexual conquest of multiple women.
It’s also an uncharitable narrative. Much of hip-hop is at root about frustration with the Fall, not a celebration of it. Honestly assessing a world that
seems without mercy leads naturally to a Darwinian self-protection–fight back against what can kill you, by any means necessary. When the future looks
inalterably bleak, with poverty and racism woven into the very fabric of reality, why not embrace your lot in life and get ahead while you can?
The life experiences of hip-hop’s leading artists have taught many of them that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” theme of Western culture (and
optimistic advertising campaigns) is a myth. Their willingness to say this honestly, without fear, resonates with listeners. In this sense, hip-hop is as
anti-Pelagian–as skeptical of inherent human goodness–as Augustine was. It just lacks Augustine’s corresponding teaching on the sovereignty of grace. So,
the new Christian hip-hop isn’t introducing themes of depravity; rather it picks up on these themes and carries them to the Cross. In other words, the new
Christian hip-hop isn’t so much about Calvinizing Christian music as about Christianizing Calvinist music.
Rather than deny the violent realities of humanity, they use Reformed categories of penal substitutionary atonement to make sense of it all. Christian
hip-hop is Cross-centered in a way that previous Christian attempts to mimic pop culture weren’t–and perhaps couldn’t be. To be sure, the Cross and the
blood of Christ are everywhere in CCM and Southern gospel. But in both genres, the cross and the blood seem merely symbolic. The cross is there, but its
meaning is often left undefined, as the real goal of “looking for a city” and “moving up to Gloryland” stands in the foreground. Hip-hop puts the spotlight
on sin and justice and reckoning, on the sinner who, hidden in Christ, has already borne the wrath of God and walked out into the newness of resurrection
In the new Christian hip-hop, rage against the machine is replaced with the Spirit’s “groaning” for kingship to be visibly restored through the unveiling
of Jesus’ lordship. “We live in a cold, cold world,” Tasha Catour sings over Lecrae’s litany of ills, from violence, sex abuse, and poverty to sugar
daddies and “McDonalds selling poison.” “A lot of people thinking I’m on a hopeless endeavor,” he concludes. “I know someone who can change the weather
Swagger Like Us
But if Christianity (especially in its Augustinian and Reformed forms) fits well with hip-hop’s rage against a fallen world, can it ever reconcile with the
genre’s ubiquitous swagger and boasting? Myers is right: A sub-Christian aspect pervades the constant braggadocio, and that is one of the defining
characteristics of rap. Some suggest it goes back to Muhammad Ali’s boxing-ring rhymes about his superiority over his rivals. Even the most commercially
mainstream hip-hop artists can affect a prideful stance that makes Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” seem monastic.
But this swagger isn’t what it first appears–even in the hip-hop lyrics themselves. A common theme in hip-hop is hypermasculinity, expressed through power
and conquest, true–but also common is a heart-cry of lament against an absent father. Eminem rages against his father, “’cause he split, I wonder if he
even kissed me goodbye.” Jay-Z sings of being “a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared.” He asks the void, “Do you even remember the tender boy you
turned into a cold young man?”
Yes, rap lyrics boast of material prosperity and limitless sexual novelty, but is there anything more vulnerable than a man crying out for the missed
chance to say, “Abba,” or to hear a father say, “You are my beloved son”?
And this is perhaps the most immediate point of connection, jumping the boundaries of race and class in America. Adolescents in gated communities and
private schools can’t identify with gang violence or poverty, but they know the private hell of a father who walks away.
Christian hip-hop picks up on this longing, but places it in a cosmos where fatherhood and identity are reclaimed in the gospel–and in which familial
abandonment doesn’t mean a never-ending cycle. Lecrae, whose drug-addicted father left the family, sings of his preconversion longing to be just like the
male role models in his life, mimicking their misuse of sex and drugs. “I got this emptiness inside that got me fighting for approval because I missed out
on my daddy saying, way to go,” he sings.
Lecrae ended up finding himself in the gospel. He cries out, “I made a mess but you say you’ll erase it, I’ll take it. You said you came for the lame, I’m
the lamest. I broke my life but you say you’ll replace it.” This changes the sense of masculinity toward breaking the pattern: “I got a little son now and
he do whatever I do.” Here is the bowed-head repentance Myers doubted. And it fits quite well with the form of hip-hop musically and, more significantly,
is deeply resonant with the sort of broken-heartedness that Jesus commends.
Even when it celebrates sin in base ways, secular hip-hop’s swagger points not only to the universal pull to glorify the self, but also to a secularized
doctrine of election. The artist announces he is special, evident from his physical power, wealth, and success, and the women who love him. Christian
hip-hop doesn’t evaporate this swagger but instead redirects it to Jesus. The artist’s dignity is found not in himself but in the resurrected One, who
stands triumphant before his Father and announces, “Here I am, with the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13, NET).
Interestingly, in Christian hip-hop, theological debates are less often about Arminianism versus Calvinism (both of which teach a doctrine of election and
undeserved mercy) than about rebutting prosperity gospels and liberation theologies (both of which have perverted doctrines of election and teach earned
favor). Perhaps these artists are especially aware of the latter errors because they’ve heard them sung before–and have seen where they lead.
The sense of being a chosen people is an important theme in folk art of all sorts, especially among people who have been marginalized. Slave spirituals
echoed the election of Israel in Egypt in order to remember that, whatever slaveholders and their chaplains said, God had his eye on his people and would
deliver them. Appalachian mountain music celebrated the dignity of country people, and laughed at their cultured despisers’ stereotypes of them. Antiwar
folk songs pointed to the destiny of the seemingly politically powerless youth with “the times, they are a-changin’.”
Christian hip-hop retains this sense of personal identity through election, but again frames it in terms of union with Christ. Christian hip-hop boasts,
yes, but it seems to be using the medium to do exactly what Paul did: “boasting” in his accomplishments only to throw them all aside and “boast” instead in
This theme is especially important for combating social or familial or economic fatalism. Christian hip-hop communicates with urban youth and beyond them
to the rest of the culture, “You are not merely the sum of your background experiences.” The music combats predestination with more predestination: the
predestination of drugs, gangs, and family background with the predestination of a God who chooses what the world dismisses to bring about his purposes.
So can the Sermon on the Mount fit in the genre of hip-hop? Myers is right–it’s hard to imagine the Beatitudes rapped. But it’s also hard to imagine the
Sermon on the Mount in an apocalyptic text, or a war-song of David, or an imprecatory psalm. In the multitude of genres, God’s Word points to a
kaleidoscopic reality that coheres in a very complicated Person, the Lord Jesus.
Open to Parody
The gifts of the body, left isolated, result in the chaos of competing self-interests. But used together, they build the church. The various musical
expressions of the big themes of God and the world can, left isolated, cramp the prophetic word. But when these forms–including hip-hop–are in concert
with one another, they can call Christians to learn old truths in surprising ways.
There are pitfalls here, to be sure. The evangelical-industrial complex can ruin any medium with marketing and kitsch. And hip-hop brings with it a
particular vulnerability to the kind of self-parody that serves neither hip-hop as an art form nor, more importantly, the gospel as a truth claim.
Several years ago, comedian Jamie Kennedy introduced the character of an aspiring hip-hop artist named Brad Gluckman, or “B-Rad.” Kennedy’s character would
arrive on the scene with sagging pants, a backward baseball cap, and an affected street slang, talking about his hard life growing up in the ‘hood. The
joke was that this ‘hood was a beachfront gated community in Malibu, California, where he lamented waiting in long lines at “Star-bizz-ucks.”
Kennedy’s character was modeled somewhat after the ‘90s one-hit wonder Vanilla Ice, who talked about growing up on the perilous streets of inner-city Miami
before reports suggested those streets were in a gated community in the Florida suburbs. But more than that, the character mocked affluent white American
youth culture consuming the “edginess” of musical genres from hip-hop to death metal, all while safely cocooned from the dangers of gang violence, urban
poverty, racial injustice, police brutality, domestic violence, and drug trafficking.
But could it be that Christian hip-hop is less another wave of evangelical marketing than a critique of it? Could it be that this generation of hip-hop
artists is less about making rap safe for Christian kids and more about making the faith as dangerous as it used to be?
Maybe Christian hip-hop is not about using hip-hop as a “bridge” between evangelical faith and urban youth. Instead, maybe it’s about building a bridge in
the other direction: a bridge of empathy for a largely white, middle-class church to a fatherless, economically forgotten, and sometimes angry youth
culture. If so, maybe it can help pull American Christianity out of its white middle-class ghetto and into the vastness of the kingdom of God–a kingdom
that has room for both Jonathan Edwards and Jay-Z.
If country and gospel music are in the company of psalms of lament, hip-hop is in the territory of psalms of imprecation.
Christian hip-hop doesn’t pick up themes of depravity and election, but rather jumps into such themes in the larger hip-hop community. It isn’t so much
about Calvinizing Christian music as Christianizing Calvinist music.
Hip-hop’s leading artists have learned that the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” theme of the American dream is a myth. They’re as anti-Pelagian as
Could it be that Christian hip-hop is less another wave of evangelical marketing than a critique of it?
Russell D. Moore is President-elect of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. At present, he also serves as Dean of the School
of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of
Christian Theology and Ethics.