Reforming Rap or Hip-Hopping to Hell? (Part I)

Many of you are probably aware of the recent controversy concerning Christian Rap music that has swept across the evangelical blogosphere like a wildfire the last few weeks. The first sparks were lit at the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC) Worship of God conference a few weeks ago. During the conference, a panel including (from left to right): Dan Horn, Scott Aniol, Geoff Botkin, Joel Beeke, Jason Dohm, and Joe Morecraft were discussing what forms of music were appropriate for Christians in the worship of God. At one point during the discussion the panelists were asked what their thoughts were concerning the popular genre of Christian, and in particular, Reformed Rap. Here is their response: http://vimeo.com/80291749 .

This video has gone viral and over the last few weeks there has been a tremendous backlash against these gentlemen by the Christian world in general. I feel that this is an important discussion; since music is very important to God it should be very important to us as well. If a particular musical genre can be utilized to communicate the gospel and important theological truths to people in their own cultural language, then by all means we should utilize it to the glory of God. However, if there are certain types of music that displease God, then we should avoid them entirely. As Christians we need to decide which one of these scenarios is the case with rap.

I plan to write this article in multiple parts: in this first article I will focus more on some of the basic principles that are relevant to this controversy. In my next article I will look more in depth at some of the particular arguments that were proposed by the NCFIC panel.

It should also be noted that some of the panelists have issued apologies or elucidations of their opinions over the last few weeks. Read Scott Brown’s apology here: https://ncfic.org/blog/posts/please-forgive-me , Joel Beeke’s apology here: http://www.challies.com/articles/joel-beeke-christian-rap-and-public-apologies , and Scott Aniol’s clarification of his statements here: http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-culture/explanation-of-my-comments-about-reformed-rap-on-the-ncfic-panel/ . All of my arguments and statements regarding the panelists will be written in context of these clarifications and apologies.

OUR OPINIONS ABOUT MUSIC MUST BE BASED ON SCRIPTURE

Perhaps one of the things that concerned me the most about the NCFIC panel discussion was the utter lack of a Scriptural basis for their statements. It seemed to me that their arguments were based more on their opinions and perceptions concerning rap music than on the Word of God. It would be fine for them to have their own personal preferences concerning what musical genres they liked or disliked, but if they want to dictate to others what music God wants us to listen to then they better have the authority of God’s word behind them. As Christians, if we truly affirm the sufficiency of Scripture then the Bible will determine what music we listen to and worship God with, not the opinions of man.

The simple truth is that based on Scripture you cannot make the blanket statement that rap music in and of itself is ungodly. There is no verse in the Bible that says that a particular beat or instrument or musical style is sinful. Neither does the Bible mandate any particular instruments or musical styles that we must use to the exclusion of all others. To be truly consistent, people who claim that Scripture specifically and exclusively prescribes that we use a particular form of music must stop using pianos and pipe organs, since neither of those are mentioned in Scripture. Likewise, many common hymns such as “Amazing Grace” would be off limits because the form and style of the English poetry in which these hymns are written is very different from the Hebrew poetry used to worship God in the Psalms.

God has designed our universe in such a way that there is an endless variety of possible musical forms and instruments with which to worship Him. God is pleased when we use our creativity and use different forms of music, which ultimately He created, in order to bring Him glory. In Psalm 150 we are told to praise God with trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, (and yes, dancing), strings, pipes, and even loud, clashing cymbals!

THE GNOSTIC TENDENCY

We must also remember that in any song, our focus should be first and foremost on the words. The music may compliment and help us remember the words, but ultimately it is the words in a song that are used to praise God and instruct in sound doctrine, not the music itself. Human language, viz. the conveying of ideas, is a powerful thing and we must be careful about the words we use. Consider James 3:8-10:

“But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” [1]

Words carry great power, since with them we can either praise God or curse other people. However, no such power is ever ascribed to music by itself in Scripture. In any song, it is the words that carry unchristian or demonic themes, not the music itself.

In fact, the idea that music in and of itself can be evil is essentially Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that matter in and of itself was evil, and that spirit was good. The men on the panel fall into the same error of ascribing inherent evil to an inanimate and material object: rap music

While each one of us may have our own opinions about what types of music best compliment and deliver the words, and are most appropriate in worship (I prefer the musical style of traditional hymns), we must remember that those are only our opinions, not God’s commands.

THE GENETIC FALLACY

Many opponents of Christian Rap music also claim that since it had ungodly origins then it is inherently evil. It is however, a logical fallacy, the genetic fallacy, to assume that something is automatically wrong just because of where it came from. We must look at rap music itself, and decide whether or not it is evil, not impute the evil of its origins upon it.

Furthermore, almost every instrument and musical style has been used for both good and evil at some point in history. For example, Clement of Alexandria actually forbade the use of flutes because of their association with pagan sensual practices:

“Let the pipe be resigned to the shepherds, and the flute to the superstitious who are engrossed in idolatry. For, in truth, such instruments are to be banished from the temperate banquet, being more suitable to beasts than men, and the more irrational portion of mankind.” [2]

In fact, the Bible even says that the inventor of pipes and lyres was Jubal, who was a descendant of the ungodly and wicked line of Cain!

“His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” -Genesis 4:21

Does this mean that because the lyre and pipe came to us out of a violent and wicked culture that we cannot redeem both instruments to the worship of God? Certainly not, because we are specifically told in Psalm 150 to praise God “with harp and lyre” and “with stringed instruments and pipe.”

John Calvin remarked:

“It is truly wonderful, that this race, which had most deeply fallen from integrity, should have excelled the rest of the posterity of Adam in rare endowments… Let us then know, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind; just as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see, at the present time, that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race. Moreover, the liberal arts and sciences have descended to us from the heathen.” [3]

God has often used unbelievers to invent new medicines, machines, tools, etc. that have been a blessing to His people and the world. The same is true with musical styles, including rap.

PAINTING WITH A BROAD BRUSH

Another theme that stood out to me in the panel’s response was that they made many blanket statements concerning rap music as a whole and tended to paint with a very broad brush. Rap is a very diverse genre, and even within Christian or Reformed rap circles there is much diversity. However, the NCFIC panel did not acknowledge the difference between different styles of rap or different rap artists. For example: one of the panelists said that “rap is about drawing attention to the rapper.” While this is certainly the case with many rappers, there are also some rappers whose focus is on drawing attention to God, rather than themselves. When dealing with a very diverse and complex field such as rap, it is very dangerous to make blanket statements and say that what may be true of most rappers is also true of all rappers.

CONCLUSION

To conclude, I would say that Scripture is our ultimate authority, and when Scripture is silent we also must be silent. The Bible should determine what music we listen to, not the opinions of man.

The words in a song are what communicate either holy or sinful ideas, not the music itself.

We cannot automatically assume that a style of music is evil just because of where it came from. We must look at the music and what message it is trying to communicate before deciding whether it is sinful or not.

We must avoid making blanket statements about a very diverse field and lumping together very different people and styles into one broad category.

These were just a few of my thoughts about the controversy. I thought it was best in this article to list out some general themes and concerns I had with the panel’s attitudes. In my next article I will go more in depth and address some of the specific arguments presented by the panelists.

______________________________________________________________________________________

FOOTNOTES

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Version unless otherwise indicated
[2] Clement of Alexandria: Paedegogus
[3] John Calvin: Commentary on Genesis 4:20

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6 thoughts on “Reforming Rap or Hip-Hopping to Hell? (Part I)

  1. Excellent stuff. I’d never heard that about the flute and lyre: Fantastic work connecting it with the Psalms.

    As long as the controversy is about whether the music itself is inherently sinful, there’s never going to be any progress. It has to center around the complete communication: The music, the words, the context, the intent, and the result. It has to be about the harmony (or disharmony) between each and every part of the communication, not on whether a mere arrangement of notes and beats constitutes evil. Once we’re talking about that, THEN we can move into a productive debate about what constitutes GOOD Christian rap, where everything agrees, and what constitutes BAD Christian rap, where one or more of the components doesn’t quite fit.

  2. In the past, I was not fond of rap music. I was of the opinion that the message of the words in rap songs condoned and glorified sinful activities. However, I think it is possible for rap music to be used to glorify God if the words used in rap are about serving, loving God, and a Christian way of life.

  3. I have never been a fan of the rap genre. I use the term “genre” instead of music because for me rap is much more a collection of words, set to a rather monotonous repetitive beat, lacking any musical tone. It contains not a known note from either scale, bass or treble. Therefore, I could never use the term music when referring to this form of communication.
    Historically, this style of verbiage began as a medium to glorify all sorts of misdeeds known to man. Only because of the many newer drugs known today did rap surpass the biblical listings of man’s transgressions.

    With that being said, if someone, somehow, can use this form of communication to use the word of Christ to reach lost souls, so be it.

  4. Interesting article, Reagan. I was saddened (and more) when I watched the NCFIC clip in question. It really just struck me as men speaking about something they knew next to nothing about, in addition to being outright slanderous at times. The apologies (by some of the men) that ensued were needed and I pray that love will cover over a multitude of sins and lead to greater unity in the body of Christ. I believe God is glorified by the words that we speak and the intent of our hearts. And I can attest that I am blessed to listen to and learn from reformed rap, unlikely fan though I may be as a 40ish year old, very suburban, homeschool mom. Now I’m off to the grocery store and will be listening and praising and quoting me some Lyrical Theology the whole way :).

  5. Good stuff here Reagan. Stereotypes are always a problem and when you admittedly are unaware of hip hop artists like Lecrae and Shai Linne, then you are probably going to lump them in with others and be way out there. I would say that these two particular artists are more biblical than many popular “Christian” pop groups that get played on K-Love Christian radio.

  6. Beautifully written! Wes and I enjoyed reading about Jubal! We are excited to see how The Lord glorifies Himself through you, Reagan!
    Very good thoughts and yes it is a wonderful blessing God uses His children to share the gospel in the form of music as well!

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