By: Jared Jeter
Christians often seek to “engage” their surrounding culture through the arts. Some do this for the sake of evangelism, others so they can have “Christian” versions of things they enjoy. Still others seek to reflect God’s glory in the art they produce. None of these are inherently bad goals. Christians should produce art to reflect God’s glory, to enjoy the art itself, and to utilize for evangelism. Since “Christian” art should intentionally reflect God’s glory, Christians must do art well. Christian music has long been marvelous at this, as the music of men like Bach and Handel evidences. Recent Christian music, however, has often failed. In order to reach the people of the culture, many Christian musicians have sought to divorce the medium from the message in favor of taking popular music and inserting Christian lyrics. The medium and the message often do not mix, leaving the music fragmented and incoherent, thus not fully reflective of God’s glory. One alleged example of this is Christian hip-hop, but it is a mistake to completely write it off. Hip-hop as a whole (lyrically and musically) can be a God-honoring art form.
Scripture warrants “speaking the language” of the people in one’s surrounding culture. This should not be done in a vulgar way. For instance, Christians should not attempt to use profanity for the sake of reaching those who use profanity, nor should Christians speak of women in degrading ways to reach those who do. When done correctly, however, one can see speaking the culture’s language as analogous to Pentecost, when the early church proclaimed the Gospel in the tongues of the nations. In the same way, Christians should be able to use the concepts and mediums of the nations in appropriate ways in order to reveal the glory of God, just as Paul used the concept of the unknown God and quoted pagan philosophers in Acts 17:28 in order to reach the men of Athens. That said, musical mediums carry implicit messages in their sound. Thus, simply replicating the music of any given culture and throwing Jesus into it will not do, since it fails to intentionally reflect the nature and glory of God in its sound. One must not mistake the need for cultural relevance as a call to subjective beauty.
If Christians want to do music well, it must reflect God’s nature, since God is the one who ordered and shaped the world. God is by nature a God of beauty, thus Christians should make beautiful music. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Because God’s nature is beautiful, He is the standard of beauty, just as He is the standard of truth. Furthermore, Psalm 29:2 and Psalm 96:9 both speak of worshiping the Lord in the “beauty of holiness” (NKJV). Beauty is objective,and the ultimate standard of beauty is God’s glory. Thus, if Christians are to make music that reflects God, regardless of the form, it must be beautiful. So what is beauty?
Thomas Reid argues that beauty is objective, but that it also affects the one who hears, observes, or contemplates it with certain feelings. A piece of art must in itself express the qualities of beauty and move its observer to experience the thing it expresses. Jonathan Edwards gets at what the qualities of beauty are when he talks about mixturesof rays of light and that they are beautiful because they are complex, yet harmonious. For Edwards, beauty essentially begins with harmonizing complexity. One of the main evidences for this is that the nature of God is beautiful, and His nature is Trinitarian – three and yet one – complex and yet harmonious. Within this concept of harmonizing complexity in the context of music that has lyrics, the sound of the music must harmonize with the content of the lyrics. There is room for variety here, but the key element is fit-ness. It is not fitting to communicate the gentleness of God with screaming death metal, as the harshness of the music does not harmonize with the sweetness of the content. In the same way, it is not fitting to communicate the wrath of God with a feel-good pop song, as the content and sound are not harmonious. Since God is a God of order, this unfit-ness does not reflect His nature. Thus, if one can make music that brings harmony out of complexity and in which the sound and the message cohere (fit-ness), one can make beautiful music.
The form that hip-hop/rap music takes allows for a massive volume of words, typically put in some type of rhyme scheme. This can actually become quite complex and dense because of how many words flow through the song in such a short period of time. Lyrically, this allows Christians to inject some powerful concepts into rap that many other genres do not formally allow. One can speak about and explain deep theological concepts from election, regeneration, justification, and sanctification to amillenialism to the hypostatic union and the nature of the Trinity. In few other mediums could one drop the name of a heresy like “modalistic monarchianism” and make it flow well in a song, much less explain it alongside other heresies and defend the orthodox view all in a little over four minutes. This utility makes rap an effective teaching tool, even with a simple, generic beat, since it can be helpful for memorizing theological concepts and terms. One example of this is Shai Linne’s “Atonement Q&A,” in which Linne answers questions like, “Who is God?” “What’s the Bible about?” “What’s sin?” and “What’s the remedy [for sin]?” in a succinct, yet accurate and theologically weighty manner, while also taking biblical and theological terms such as repentance, justification, imputation, regeneration, reconciliation, expiation, etc. and defining them accurately. The beat and meter allow for easy memorization and a basic understanding of these weighty matters. Another example is Benjamin the Esquire’s album entitled Lyrical Catechism in which he takes questions from the Westminster Catechisms and explains the answer through the song’s course. Alongside these examples, the genre can be a good medium to discuss technical theology or even to carry a compelling exhortation, as Lecrae’s song “Don’t Waste Your Life,” based on John Piper’s book, demonstrates. There is no question that rap can lyrically glorify God in a way which someother genres simply do not have the capacity. For hip-hop to be an art form that glorifies God as a whole instead of simply a teaching or exhortative tool, however, the music must be fitting and beautiful.
The nature of hip-hop music makes it ripe for the harmonization of complexity. When creating and producing a beat, an artist has the capacity to insert layers upon layers of sounds. With the amount of instrumentation one can put in these layers, an artist has the potential to be a master composer without the need for musicians. Most rap artists make beats with the use of a keyboard and other tools that can generate a plethora of sounds, from a classical violin to a snare drum. Shai Linne’s orchestral intro to his song “The Holiness of God” and Mr. Del’s use of gothic chant in “More Than a Conqueror” demonstrate the sheer range of sounds one can utilize. Furthermore, if one has the ability to play instruments or to record others, he can incorporate live instruments into the recording. A striking example of this is Beautiful Eulogy’s self-titled track. The group made a music video of themselves recording the vocals and live instruments over the beat with all the computer-generated sounds already finished, in which one of them even plucks the strings of a classical piano. Another example is the 1999 song “Street Symphony” by secular R&B/hip-hop artist Monica, which uses multiple classical stringed instruments. While it is rare for artists to put this much effort into a beat, the potential for harmonizing complexity is markedly present.
The second question of beauty is whether or not the sound of the medium fits the message. Because rap music is typically overbearing and driving, it seems an unlikely candidate to fit with the Christian message, but it can quite well. One must remember that beauty is not necessarily “nice” and serene. God, who is ultimate beauty, while gracious, merciful, and loving, is also holy, omnipotent, and wrathful. In light of this, rap lends itself to communicating some of the more difficult Christian doctrines, such as God’s absolute sovereignty, total depravity, the weightiness of sin, unconditional election, predestination, and even the indictment of heresy. Rap tends to have powerful and aggressive themes, and one writer has even likened the genre to “psalms of imprecation.” If these doctrines seem to be robustly Calvinistic, this is no mistake. In the same way that hip-hop culture is aggressive and overbearing, it is also deterministic in a hopeless, Psalm 88 sense. This allows Christians to introduce the hope of Psalm 89 while still utilizing the same themes as secular rap, as Moore elaborates:
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 . . . 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.
Various current Christian hip-hop artists demonstrate this reality. Lecrae’s best-selling album, Gravity, highlights depravity lyrically and the dark sound of songs like “Lord Have Mercy” and “Falling Down” push the theme forward. Tedashii’s “Make War” begins with a sample of John Piper talking about making war on (mortifying) sin and the aggressive beat sounds like an urban war cry. Shai Linne’s “Fal$e Teacher$” calls out the heresy of prosperity gospel teachers and the hard-hitting beat sounds like a crushing indictment. Propaganda’s controversial “Precious Puritans” uses a dissonant cello and harsh sounds to push its message of the dangers of putting men on a pedestal. While hip-hop lends itself to these things, it is in no way limited to the hard doctrines.
Christian hip-hop shows a great potential for diversity. Shai Linne’s album, The Attributes of God, has songs ranging from God’s holiness and justice to His faithfulness and love, and the music emphasizes these themes on any given track. Lecrae’s “Background” and Beautiful Eulogy’s “Anchor” are contemplative of our pride and our need to rely on Christ, and the music is calm and fitting. The potential for harmonizing complexity and fitting multiple facets of the Christian message is assuredly there and already breaking through. There is, however, one area of beauty that rap has potential for but Christians have not yet utilized:movement.
Movement in music like that of Beethoven and Mozart’s classical symphonies exhibits beauty. Some Christian hip-hop artists have expressed movement through full albums, as Flame demonstrates in his back-to-back albums Our World Fallen and Our World Redeemed. Movement in a particular song, however, is absent, as most rap music has a repeating eight or sixteen measures for its entirety. The potential is present though, especially since the speed and volume of words allow for an intense movement in a short three or four minutes. Rap has potential to express themes like creation, fall, and redemption, darkness to light, exile and return, and even sinful bliss to terrifying consequences musically, not just lyrically. This would necessarily take more time, work, and intentionality to accomplish than the repetitive beat, but it would be worthwhile to further express the beauty of God.
Hip-hop has the potential to be a God-honoring art form in its totality. The massive amount of strong lyrical content is the easy part. Harmonizing complexity and fit-ness is harder, but doable, and various Christian rap artists have tapped into this aspect of beauty. The final piece of the puzzle could be movement. Christian rappers need to continue to utilize this form of art to express the truths of Christianity and be intentional about making the music itself beautiful, because the music can do so.
Peter Kivy, “Reid’s Philosophy of Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, eds. Terence Cuneo and and René Van Woudenberg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 276-286.
Jonathan Edwards, “Beauty of the World,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, eds. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 14-15.
Within urban culture, “hip-hop” and “rap” can have different connotations and nuances. For the sake of space and clarity, the terms will be used interchangeably here, indicating simply the genre of music.
Beautiful Eulogy, “Beautiful Eulogy” (music video), posted July 2, 2012, accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gz09EF4obYQ
Russell Moore, “W.W. Jay-Z?” Christianity Today, May 10, 2013, accessed November 18, 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may/ww-jay-z.html