Some Thoughts on Two Sincere Christian Rappers

9Marks has the audio of an interview with two Christian rappers, Shai Linne and Voice (Curtis Allen, also a pastor), which can be heard here.

This post is simply an attempt to respond to and evaluate some of the statements made in the interview.

By way of prefacing my remarks, let me state two things.

First, let me say all the obligatory things without which you are considered mean-spirited, narrow and not worth hearing. So here goes: I greatly respect Mark Dever, and consider much of his work a huge blessing to the church. I am thankful for 9Marks ministries. Shai Linne sounds like a dedicated, sincere believer who has an intelligent understanding of preaching, the authority of Scripture and a better-than-average theological understanding. Curtis Allen sounds likewise like a dedicated pastor, with a powerful story of conversion, and someone who is, in principle, committed to the Scriptures, and not to a rabidly pragmatic form of ministry. He is gracious in his approach to the subject.  Both seem to be dedicated to serving the body of Christ, which makes us at least brothers, if not full-blown allies.

Second, let me alert you to the kinds of intellectual moods which prejudice our judgement in this kind of thing.

* We seem to be less able to critically judge an argument than our forbearers were. They were able to separate the argument from the person, and rationally analyse the merits of an argument. We are prone to play the man and not the ball. That means, if we think the person is sincere and loves God, we decide generally in favour of his argument, regardless of its details. Alternatively, if we think the person is disobedient and worldly, we decide against his argument, regardless of the details.

* We are living in a time of aesthetic relativism within Western Christianity, where generally conservative people feel that the last remaining and defensible absolute is propositional truth, while the medium in which it is delivered is culturally flexible wrapping paper, forever lost to the modernists (thought they don’t often realise as much). With that attitude, any argument about contextualisation, contemporising the message or reaching a particular culture seems to bowl everyone over into acquiescing silence.

* We are also in a time of impatience with detailed and extended argument. Dever caricatured a fundamentalist’s approach to music as “believing that the rhythm is inherently sensual.”  The argument against rap as appropriate music for worship or the development of Christian affections does not necessarily (or merely) hold that a rhythm is inherently sensual, but that music can communicate meaning intrinsically, associatively, conventionally or ascriptively. Certainly things that are dissonant with Christianity at best, and sinful at worst, can be communicated. Who would disagree that communication can be sinful or harmful? However, it takes some time to articulate that argument, and not everyone wants to give the argument the time it needs to be heard.

* We are living in a time of pragmatism, where results or even intended results always trump means and methods. If results are seen in the form of conversions, or if there is any sign that God has used something to draw people to Himself, all opposing arguments are thrown to the wind, forgetting that God has used many, many things which He disapproves of (think: Balaam).

With that said, let me focus on a few remarks during the interview. At one point, Dever asks both men to respond to critics of Christian rap, who say that the music is ‘inherently sensual’ (an unclear question at best). If I construe their response correctly, they believe Christian rap is defensible for the following reasons:

No musical form is inherently sinful. There is no objective standard to judge musical form. Musical forms are cultural preferences, which ought not to be spiritualised, but accepted as part of the diversity of the body of Christ. Relativism is bad, but when it comes to the arts, our preferences are culturally formed, meaning (as I take it) that they are morally neutral. While rap has a negative association, all things in the world have such baggage, and God ultimately redeems things for His use, meaning He does the same with rap. The final standard to which all arguments must submit is the glory of God.

Some short responses:

  1. There is no objective standard to judge music by, if what you mean by objective standard is some kind of Ten Commandments of melody, harmony and rhythm. But then, there is no ‘objective standard’ for judging what God means by ‘Be angry and sin not’ or ‘let us worship Him acceptably with reverence and awe’ or ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. Where do I go to find out what kind of anger is pleasing to God? Where do I go to find out what constitutes ‘reverence and awe’? In other words, we have confused categories. We want propositional definitions for affective truth. Later on in the interview it is suggested that artistic forms don’t submit to the same kind of absolute judgements as other things do. And this is partially true, but the truth it omits turns the flavour of the argument towards something less than true. Affective, and therefore artistic truth, is not explained in the black-and-white forms of propositional truth. To expect it to be so would be to expect it to be something other than art. However, does that mean it has no standard in God’s universe to be judged by? Is there no such thing as the true, the good and the beautiful? Is it impossible to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:10)? Aesthetic judgement is not to be separated from moral judgement. God expects us to subsume them all in our thinking and judging (Phil 4:8, Heb 5:14).

  2. It is of course true that our preferences are shaped by culture. We ‘don’t come out of the womb liking Handel’. But all that says is that our loves are shaped by our culture. What it fails to deal with is whether those loves are pleasing to God, or whether the culture in which they were shaped was pleasing to God. Some cultures have made a virtue of shrewd betrayal. If you grow up in this culture, you will no doubt love such a thing. This does not make such a preference morally acceptable.  What is being attempted here is to suggest that preferences do not have moral dimensions, and that if the preference is shaped by a culture, then only cultural imperialism or elitism would suggest that such a preference is morally dubious. Once again, we need an understanding of culture that goes beyond superficial notions of ethnicity and food preferences, and reckons with the moral imagination and religious worldview of a group of people.

  3. I was a little disappointed with the response to the question about the negative associations of rap music. The answer seemed to suggest that everything is worldly, and therefore everything is redeemable. That seems to be a confusion between the world of John 3:16 and the world of I John 2:15. Not everything in the world is worldly – I Timothy 4:4. It is fairly clear that while God can redeem many things, in some cases such redemption can only be accomplished when the thing itself has been utterly transformed. God can redeem pornographers, but we all understand the contradiction of Christian pornography. God could redeem a nudist colony, but not by turning it into a Christian nudist colony. Sometimes the depravity of something requires either its complete transformation or even its destruction to be made pleasing to God.

  4. Finally, I resonate with the idea that all things must be submitted to the glory of God. However, the danger is that we can use this as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card” for all our actions. If I’m doing this for the glory of God, then it trumps all other objections. This seems to me to be a  form of pragmatism. The end – the glory of God – always justifies the means.

There is more that can be said, and I don’t want to over-analyse remarks that were made in an interview, and not in a formal debate. There is much to commend in these men. But worship is not a trifle, and it is worth disagreeing over.

As one who grew up and spent many years in an inner-city ghetto, and lived on rap and hip-hop, I can tell you that what people need is not more of the same, but a transcendant alternative.

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15 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Two Sincere Christian Rappers”

  1. Robby Says:

    I appreciate your level of critique and Biblical thinking.

    I have, however, one question that is honest and sincere: How do we evaluate if a medium such as internet blogging is an acceptable platform for exhortation or doctrinal discussion? I ask because while categorically it is “literature” (just as categorically rap is “music”), by what means do we determine if internet blogging, even blogging with intent to communicate thoughts of Biblical critique, is something that God wants?

    What Biblical process or method do you prescribe in order to come to conclusions about what style of music is appropriate, what style of writing is appropriate, what medium of communication is appropriate, etc?

  2. Robby Says:

    My comments are specifically in regards to your quote below:

    “Finally, I resonate with the idea that all things must be submitted to the glory of God. However, the danger is that we can use this as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card” for all our actions. If I’m doing this for the glory of God, then it trumps all other objections. This seems to me to be a form of pragmatism. The end – the glory of God – always justifies the means.”

    Could it be said that blogging for the glory of God can be seen as a form of pragmatism? I have no doubts that you have the glory of God in mind with blogging, but where did you arrive at the conclusion that you should blog if not by your culture of accessibility to technology? Did you arrive at this understanding by some Biblical process, and if so, how can that be duplicated? On the same premise that objections to using rap as a submitted artform to the glory of God are made, objections can be made about blogging to the glory of God, because the one fundamental question that you call to be answered still remains unanswered: on what basis do we determine that blogging, or a music style is appropriate to be used in the context of worship?

    So was there a non-subjective means by which you arrived Biblically to the conclusion that blogging for the glory of God is not just your get out of jail card, pragmatically accomplishing the glory of God (or some simlitude of it), but rather defined by Scripture?

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  4. David Says:

    Robby,

    Let me try to answer your questions by assuming they all boil down to your last one: ” on what basis do we determine that blogging, or a music style is appropriate to be used in the context of worship?”
    There are two things we need to do. First, we gather the Scriptural principles on communication (since we are dealing with mediums of communication), Scriptures like Eph 4:29, Prov 12:18, Col 4:6 etc) and let them set the boundary of what we cannot do, and what we ought to do as Christian communicators. (I’ll leave aside searching for Scriptures on all that is appropriate for worship, because that would open up a whole ‘nother can of worms).
    Second, we gather all the information we can on the medium we wish to use, so as to parse it for its meaning. This meaning can be simply an assigned meaning; it can be a meaning given by common convention or usage; it can be a meaning by association or it can be an intrinsic meaning. To have this information means going outside the Bible. The BIble gives me information on how to treat my body; I must go elsewhere to find the meaning of crack cocaine. When I bring true information on crack cocaine back to truth from Scripture, I can know how to apply Scripture to crack cocaine. In the same way, we’ll turn to experts: musicologists, composers, musical historians and ask them what particular kinds of music tend to communicate, how they developed, what their associated, conventional and even intrinsic meaning might be. They might even be unbelievers (we’re not asking them to tell us what is acceptable to God, we’re asking them to tell us what a certain piece of music achieves). Once we have this information, we can compare it with the Scriptural principles on communication, and see if the medium is a wise choice.
    This would apply to blogging too, though I sense by this comparison you assume what you are required to prove: that rap music is as meaning-neutral as blogging software – simply a blank medium waiting for information to be poured into it.

  5. kayjay Says:

    Your last sentence pretty much says it all. Thanks.

  6. Robby Says:

    Thanks David for your time. You have provided a Biblical process correctly. Now I wish to challenge your thinking on how you’ve run hip-hop through that process. You said:

    “First, we gather the Scriptural principles on communication”

    In our Biblical process, we start first with Scripture. I think we can safely say that Scripture supports the idea of singing (Acts 16:25; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; etc.). So we can unilaterally agree that music is certainly usable (I venture to say CREATED) for worship.

    You said:

    “we gather all the information we can on the medium we wish to use, so as to parse it for its meaning.”

    My question would be who or where did you go to collect this information? Who is the authority on this information? Is there a recognized individual or individuals who speak as the authority on the subject of hip-hop?

    Finally you said:

    “…that rap music is as meaning-neutral as blogging software”

    Actually, rap MUSIC is as meaning-neutral as blogging SOFTWARE. But there is a difference in rap CULTURE and blogging CULTURE. You afforded yourself the liberty to declare blogging software as meaning-neutral (or more neutral than that of rap music) under the presupposition that software is just a tool/medium usable for good or evil. I have come across blogging culture that is horrendously rebellious to God, hostile towards the gospel, profane, and blasphemous. That is what I have seen in the blogging culture. But blogging software, rather, the ability to blog, is not in and within itself evil (a conclusion that you have obviously come to yourself). It is a tool of the blogging culture. You have found great use of it for the kingdom of God and have used it to the glory of God.

    Similarly, I have found many sinful atrocities promoted in rap culture. Godlessness, no honor or glory for Christ. Hostility towards the cross. Rap culture is not neutral any more than American culture isn’t neutral. But music within rap culture is neutral, rather, the ability to make music carries in and within itself no inclination of evil or good. It is a tool of the rap culture. And likewise many have found great use of it for the kingdom of God and have used it to the glory of God.

    You have grown up in America where I have known the blogging culture to be perverse, slanderous, blasphemous, and hostile to the gospel. You have peered inside this culture, grabbed one of it’s tools, and are yourself a participant in the blogging culture while separating yourself from wickedness.

    The rap culture is also perverse, slanderous, blasphemous, and hostile to the gospel. Some have peered inside the culture, grabbed one of it’s tools, and are a participant in the rap culture while separating themselves from wickedness.

    I assert that these men are using the exact same Biblical process as you are, and have rightly come to the same conclusions you have concerning your involvement in the blogosphere culture.

  7. Brent Marshall Says:

    Robby, I question your comparison of rap music and blogging software. Blogging software is used to write and publish blog posts. I am inclined to agree that blog-writing software (like WordPress) is meaning-neutral, at least largely so, much like music-writing software (like Finale and Sibelius). But that does not get you to rap music.

    If we want an analogy to rap music, then the proper point of comparison in the blogosphere seems to be blog posts. I does not seem that blog posts are meaning-neutral.

  8. Robby Says:

    Hey Brent,

    Thanks for the gracious response.

    Now you said:

    “I am inclined to agree that blog-writing software (like WordPress) is meaning-neutral, at least largely so, much like music-writing software (like Finale and Sibelius). But that does not get you to rap music.”

    What still see is what appears to be a misunderstanding of what “rap music” actually is, or a presupposed bias against it. So your statement ends up lopsided, where “rap” is the assumed wrong and “blog” is the assumed neutral. If it were “rap music-writing software”, would you still make the comparison and call them both meaning-neutral or would the music writing software lose it’s neutrality because it’s a rap music writing software? Does that not seem like bias? And if you say that it would not lose it’s neutrality, then on what basis would it be remotely pragmatic or contrary to scripture for someone to rap theological truths?

    In your example, you equated BLOG to MUSIC (BLOG writing vs MUSIC writing). However, “BLOG” itself describe a TYPE of writing category, which has yet been proven to be neutral. BLOG is not another word for “term paper”, “letter”, or “book”. It is a specific genre of writing style that has it’s own unique sets of rules and culture.

    “Blog” is to the writing world what “Rap” is to the music world. Blog describes the type of writing. Rap describes the type of music.

    So again, on what basis is the writing type “Blog” meaning neutral while the music style “rap” isn’t? How does that Biblical process exonerate “blog” the writing type as usable by God while at the same time denying “rap” the music type as unusable by God?

  9. David Says:

    Robby,
    Nothing is ultimately meaning-neutral, once moral agents use it. Blogging is not morally neutral. It has time implications, cost implications. We’ll give an account for every idle word spoken (or blogged). It can certainly be used (and is used) for evil. On this much we are agreed.
    If I understand your argument correctly, you are saying that my use of blogging software to speak to the glory of God is done in the middle of an evil blogging culture, which is analagous to what a Christian rapper does within an evil rap culture.
    I think you’re begging the question: you’re assuming your conclusion before you have proved it. You have assumed blogging software and rap music are analagous. I think you’d have to do more work to prove that. Spot the odd one out: 1)Blank pieces of paper, 2)web storage space, 3) an angry tone of voice. Two of them await communicative meaning, the third has it intrinsically, whatever words you add to it. I think that’s what you’ve got to prove for your argument to be valid – that rap does not have an intrinsic emotive or moral leaning even before you add the information.

    As to the question of where the experts in hip-hop culture are, I’m sure you don’t mean to say that no such experts exist. There are many men and women who have given themselves to the study of the meaning, development and decline of Western culture. I’d suggest you read Ken Myers for a Christian example, or Jacques Barzun for a secular one. We’re not without people who can give us the history, context and development of hip-hop culture and its music. We’re bombarded with self-appointed experts who believe that their love for the particular culture in question qualifies them to speak clearly and objectively as to its meaning. I’d say that’s a bit like interrupting two necking teenagers and asking them to speak clearly about the positive or negative implications of their actions. I’d say they’re a bit too committed to speak clearly on the matter.
    BTW, that’s not a slur on you or anyone else in this conversation (I have no such information to render such a judgement, and it would be prejudiced to so so). I’m simply pointing out the habit of our culture to despise expert testimony and venerate the layman’s personal experience. There are certainly culture-watchers to learn from, if we do not presuppose the moral neutrality of our culture and its phenomena.

  10. Robby Says:

    Thanks for the response David.

    As to the issue of who is the authority on hip-hop culture, I didn’t mean to sound like a relativist questioning if truth can or cannot be known, but rather it was more of a question to get from you who you might assume to be the authorities on the matter. I think that any number of people who grew up in NYC during the 70’s could give you their perspective on the arrival of the culture.

    We can certainly look at the history of rap music, but I’m still not certain that the Bible tells us to “look at the history of a thing”. Have you looked at the history of your computer? The history of your TV? The history of your cell phone? The history of our public schools?

    I am of the persuasion that it is the sovereign Lord who has created both rap music and blogs and it’s on that basis that I compare them.

    The history of a thing has implications but does not disqualify it for use for the glory of God. I’m sure you have a history and your parents could give me a fairly concise autobiography of your past that would be less than flattering- thank God for His redeeming grace!

    Until we can prove from a Biblical standpoint what makes “rap” style music unusable, then we are only left to build our argument on it’s history and to you it is a meat offered to idols which you have ascribed questionable meaning towards. But to others who know it as a style of music and a preference of music, they are not condemned in that they are obeying the Scriptures to sing songs and spiritual hymns. What sounds like one thing to you (because of your cultural conditioning) sounds like something else to them (because of their cultural conditioning).

    I have appreciated the dialogue, as it has been civil and edifying. I am content to make this my last entry and will read your reply to this post.

    Grace and peace

  11. David Says:

    Robby,

    Thank you for your interaction, and I too, have appreciated the rational and gracious tone. Also, I don’t accuse you of relativism, only of being a bit inconsistent in your approach.
    For example, you do not demand that the evil of crack cocaine be proven from a biblical standpoint. You know Scriptures like I Cor 6:19-20; 6:12 and Gal 5:20. But do those Scriptures mention crack? No. So how do you know they apply? You found out from others that crack is addictive, that crack is destructive to the body, and that crack may even bring in the altered states of consciousness that the Bible calls ‘sorcery’. But you did not get this info from the Bible. Yet you will no doubt condemn the taking of crack cocaine as wrong.
    In other words, what I’m calling for when it comes to rap you already practise when it comes to other issues . You get biblical principles and combine them with extra-biblical information. Such information includes history (“how has crack been used in the past”). The history of the thing under question is not determinative; merely informative and part of the whole package.

    In other words, subject rap to the same scrutiny you do with other things. Find out what it means, not merely what sincere Christian rappers want it to mean. Armed with that information, (preferably gained from non-rappers), seek to apply the Scriptures.

    And may the God of wisdom guide us both to worship Him ordinately.

  12. Robby Says:

    Thanks for those words David.

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  14. Ben'nLiz Parsons Says:

    Hi! I have been seeking truth on the issue of music in the church and also as used personally by Christians. Thanks for this post. I am still confused, unfortunately. I see it as comparable to the “meat offered unto idols” passage in 1 Corinthians. But honestly I would not think that an entire genre, like rap, would fall into that biblical ‘analogy’ (if it is meant to be taken analogously in the first place.) I would see a particular song created for evil, such as (to give an extreme example of a song sure to raise and Christian’s hackles) “Barbie Girl” of 1990’s fame– I would consider this song to be a particular set of notes and rhythm which were offered up to the idol of Sensuality (or whatever you might want to name the idol there) by adding terrible words to the medium of the music. I could add Christian words to the tune of Barbie Girl, or even something secular like alphabet learning lyrics to that same tune, and the song would not technically be evil, but we would not want to use that set of notes and rhythm as Christians to put our lyrics to simply because we want to have peace with our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters and they would listen to the song and be reminded of the idol and therefore offended. Does that mean we have to avoid the entire genre of music that Barbie Girl would be classified under? Paul does go to the extreme of saying that he will never eat meat again if it causes his brother to stumble. But is the meat the genre? Or is it the specific song and could there be other songs within the genre that are okay? In a slightly different vein, could it be that in 30 or 40 years the kids who have never been influenced by Barbie Girl could rewrite the lyrics to it to create a Christian tune and make it into something capable for the human heart to worship God with simply because they do not associate it in any way with the evil lyrics? For instance, the song Amazing Grace is a rewritten Bar song… was it sinful and/ or offensive for some people at the time to listen to it even though now it is a sacred tune and offensive to no one?

  15. David Says:

    Ben’nLiz,

    Thanks for the comment and question.
    There are aspects of the music question that are similar to meat offered to idols, and aspects that are different. The similarities are that both music and food are part of God’s natural order, and some of the meaning (and therefore the morality) of their use has to do with conventional use and cultural associations. Once moral agents eat food, or produce or hear music, their acts are moral. This is Paul’s point in those chapters.
    On the other hand, there are also differences. For one, food enters the belly, while music enters the heart. Food is not capable of communicating feeling, emotion and therefore affective meaning the way music is. With food, the act of eating becomes either moral or immoral based entirely on use and purpose. This is not so with music, which is a lot more like intensified speech, tone of voice, or emotional language.
    To use your example, the music that was created for Barbie Girl was not merely one of many equally suitable choices to carry those lyrics. No one would employ Mozart’s Requiem or Barber’s Adagio to carry the ideas in those lyrics. It is not merely a question of neutral music shaped by the lyrics. It is a matter of the shoe fits – the musical language – melody, harmony, rhythm, temp, timbre, tone colour, were structured to effectively carry that message. Remove the lyrics, and we still have an emotion or feeling consonant with the general idea of Barbie Girl – frivolous, revelling, maybe even sensual. No, I admit that those emotional ideas are never as concrete as the lyrics themselves. But that’s the nature of art. And no one would deny that there is correspondence between the lyrics of Barbie Girl and its music.
    The question then becomes, could we use Barbie Girl for purposes of worship? Answer: could you use a frivolous tone of voice for worship? No matter which words you put to that frivolous tone of voice, they will come out frivolous. The words don’t make the tone frivolous, the tone very much determines the frivolity of the words spoken. And the holier the intended meaning of the words, the more profane it is to put those words to that tone of voice.

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