The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC) held a panel discussion some months ago, and one of the topics they “handled” was that of Reformed Rap Artists, i.e. those Christians who use rap music as means to artistically convey orthodox teachings to those who listen to such music. The tenor of the discussion was that of unity and uniformity among the speakers, each speaker giving the speaker before him an “Amen, bless you brother” before he “added” to the topic.
The consensus view, as evidenced by the “amen-bless-you-brothers,” was that of the third speaker, expressly:
[Reformed rap is] a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they’re serving God. And they’re not. They’re serving their own flesh. They’re caving into the world. They are disobedient cowards.
Did you get that? All so-called Reformed Rappers are inherently disobedient cowards. They are all dishonoring God and are all merely serving their flesh. Therefore, Shai Linne is a disobedient coward. Lecrae is a disobedient coward. Everyone who attempts to engage the culture with the art form known as rap is by necessity and God’s decree a disobedient coward.
Pretty strong words, huh? Strong words would presume a strong argument, so let’s look at the six speakers and their arguments:
Speaker 1: Words Aren’t Enough
The first speaker’s argument begins:
Words aren’t enough. God cares about how we deliver the message. And there’s two aspects of the delivery. The purpose of songs is to instruct. It’s also to praise God, it’s also to worship. But it’s to instruct and to admonish. We’re given the words because we’re a word-based religion, the emphasis needs to be on the words. And just having good words is not enough. The question is where is the emphasis. And I would argue with the rap [sic], with the heavy beat, with those things that the physical distraction is so much that the focus is no longer on the words.
I agree with the speaker to a point. Words are not enough, and God does care how we deliver the message. A preacher, no matter how eloquently and soundly he preaches a sermon, would not do it a honorably if he preached it stark-naked. Why? Because his lack of clothing and probable poor physique would detract from the message he’s preaching.
The speaker’s argument is akin to that, namely that rap is so noisy and distracting that the comprehension of the words being rapped is impossible. Does he give a valid argument as to why this is the case or if it’s even true? Not really. His only argument is that of “proper music’s” aid for our memory. He says:
[M]usic should be about helping us to remember concepts that we need to remember. And help us to carry forward. Music is a wonderful tool as a memory aid. Rap’s not that good for that.
Really? Rap’s not good for memorization? It’s funny how I still remember all of the lyrics from some old Cross Movement songs that I haven’t heard in at least five years. Yet his air-tight argument for its inability to be memorized doesn’t end there:
Rap’s not that good for [memorization] because of the other problem with rap. The problem with any other form of music is who’s the attention drawn to. And rap is about drawing attention to the rapper, drawing attention to how his skill is different than anybody else’s skill. To how he is a special person.
By his “argument,” the express reason for rap is to draw attention to the rapper, to demonstrate that he is a “special person.” Based on what? Nothing, except for maybe some Jay-Z videos that he might have watched before the panel. The problem with all music that involves putting people on a stage is that it has the potential to become about the singer and not about the Lord. Look at some Gaither Homecoming videos and you’ll see the point. It’s not a problem inherent in the art form, it’s a problem inherent in human nature. People loved to be made much of, and it doesn’t matter what genre they’re doing it in.
Speaker 2: Biblically Warranted Literary Forms
The second speaker takes the first speaker’s premise and jumps into valid literary forms. He says:
Music is a medium of communication, and God cares not just what we say but he cares how we say it. That’s the function of music. And if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, I believe the Scripture should govern not just what we say–in other words not just the content–because I’ll agree, I’ve read a lot of the lyrics of the reformed rap and some of them are much more doctrinally dense than some of our songs. That’s true. However if we truly believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, Scripture will govern not just what we say but it will also govern how we say it.
Basically, this speaker says that Scripture should not govern only what we say, but how we say it. Sure, I’ll bite. So what music genre does Scripture say is appropriate for glorifying him? The speaker answers:
Remember, Scripture is given to us in literary art forms: narrative, poetry, these sorts of things, parable, and those should govern our art forms as well.
Uh. Huh? So that says what about music? That it should be a story? I know some rapped stories, and even Shai Linne has an album entitled, “Storiez. Okay, it should be poetry then. Well, rap is the most prevalent form of poetry in our culture. Then, well, music should be these sorts of things. What does that even mean? Basically, the speaker is batting around “We believe in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture” and he doesn’t even give Scriptural warrant for what he says. Why? Because he can’t. He’s saying one thing, but he’s demonstrating another. He’s saying that he believes in the sufficiency of Scripture, but since Scripture doesn’t sufficiently espouse his opinion, he’s just going to say it a bunch of times so that people really believe his opinion is Scripturally-based.
As for those literary genres he so brilliantly listed, does he believe that the literary genres of the Bible are original to the Bible? And does he even know that literary genres and music genres are two different things? Anyways, it is hardly disputed that the authors of the Scriptures used extant literary genres (except for perhaps the Gospels) to convey their messages. The Song of Songs is obviously influenced by Egyptian love-poetry, and the covenants that God himself made were after the form (or remarkably similar) to those of ancient suzerain treaties of Mesopotamia. Paul used letters, Moses used narrative, etc. The use of extant genres does not discredit the Divine authorship of Scripture but merely demonstrates what Calvin said of God, namely that, “[He] is wont in measure to lisp in speaking to us” (Institutes I.xiii.1). In other words, God communicates in ways that we stupid humans can understand.
So, what makes a “proper” musical genre by his argument? Obviously the only proper one is the use of the Psalms, and that in Hebrew with the use of lyres, flutes, and harps.
Speaker 3: Be Ye Transformed
The third speaker’s method of “argument” is force by harsh language. After he gives a hearty “Amen” to the previous speaker’s insightful look at biblically-sanctioned genres, he says:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And what concerns me about this this so-called “art form” [is that] it’s a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think they’re serving God. And they’re not. They’re serving their own flesh. They’re caving into the world. They are there disobedient cowards.
Them’s fighting words. No, really. How can you, a professing Christian who is called to love the church, use such words without any biblical warrant for using them? Paul wished that the Judaizers would emasculate themselves, but that’s only because they were distorting the Gospel and “bewitching” the church (cf. Gal. 3, 5:12). I don’t think anyone of these speakers would say that these Reformed Rappers are distorting the Gospel. Even the previous speaker admitted that their music was more “doctrinally dense” than a lot of their “acceptable” forms of music.
His basic argument is this: “They’re not really willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged … [they] follow the world instead of changing it and confronting it.” Really? Tell me, Speaker 3, when’s the last time that you went into the slum of the inner city and confronted the people in it with the Gospel? When have you become “all things to all people, so that by all means [you] might win some”? (1Cor. 9:22). My guess is that he hasn’t, and his vision of changing the culture is grouping everyone into white suburbia, home-schooling them, and sending them to seminary with a pressed shirt and tie on.
I praise God that he has raised up people from a culture that us “white folk” would have a hard time relating to so that he might win some for Christ. That is how culture is changed, not by sitting behind a desk on a panel complaining about the way people are doing something you should be doing but don’t have the courage to do it. You, Speaker 3, are the real coward.
Speaker 4: I’d Use the Same Great Arguments with My Children
So with that, Speaker 4:
I don’t have much I add, I agree with everything that’s been said. Just maybe add one thought. If my children, with their upbringing were to start to embrace this–I would use all these arguments, with intensity that they’ve been spoken.
What arguments? There hasn’t been a valid, biblical argument yet. I bet you would use the same intensity. The only way to press someone into your opinion is by shouting at them until they relent. Moving on:
Speaker 5: Toby Mac
His argument: Toby Mac looks really bad with wrinkles wearing a backwards baseball cap.
Speaker 6: Music is a Sensitive Thing
Finally, we come to Speaker 6 who has the best argument of any of the speakers to this point, which doesn’t take much. His basic argument is this, namely that certain types of music have particular connotations and those connotations can detract from the God-honoring lyrics of the music when used in public worship. I cannot say that I disagree with him on that point, however, I don’t think anyone is proposing that rap be used in worship services. It is mostly listened to in cars, homes, or with headphones and is a matter personal preference and, dare I say, personal worship.
He also argues, “The music by which we sing must fit the majesty of the words.” Fair point, but who is the arbiter of its majesty? Is it this panel, or is it God? And does it not fit this majesty because, as you say, that “some forms of music cannot be separated from the culture out of which they come”? Why not? Country music is culturally identified with the South (which has connotations of slavery), but you profess to like that. Classical music had some scandalous figures (e.g. Mozart), but Bach redeemed it for God’s glory. Every form of music in some way or another was derived from a culture that did not honor God and was redeemed for honoring him. Why is rap different? It is different for this panel because (to summarize the total strength of their arguments into a quote from O, Brother Where Art Thou): “That ain’t [their] culture and heritage.”
This post is a bit harsh to those men of the panel, and I think it is justifiably so. To allege that a man who is ministering to his culture by using art forms that his culture understands and relates to is inherently a “coward, “is serving [his] own flesh,” and is “not serving God” are strong accusations when there is no biblical argument behind them. What’s worse for this “esteemed panelists” is that if this movement of Reformed Rap is a movement of the Spirit of God to reach a people that white Christians have been generally terrified to reach, then such words are damnable (cf. Matt. 12:31). These men need to go back to the “sufficient and authoritative Scripture” that they profess to esteem and address this matter by that Scripture, not by lumping together incoherent arguments and saying fancy words that will get “Amens” from the choir.
The apostle Paul wrote, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (1Cor. 10:23). So the real biblical question that this panel should have addressed is not whether or not it is lawful (it is), but whether or not it is profitable. Is there any profit in doctrinally-sound music penetrating a part of culture that is either Christless or entrenched in the prosperity gospel? Is there any profit in allowing sound, orthodox, and passionate Christians to go back to the culture in which they were raised to preach the clear Gospel to those who might have never heard it through a medium they would be willing to listen to? I believe there is, and I praise God for the brave men that he has raised up to do it.