A high school in Beaver, Pennsylvania, recently went into security lockdown over a rap lyric. Actually, rap here is a stretch. It was the theme song of a 20-year-old sitcom starring Will Smith.
A school official called a student's voicemail and heard the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song on the student's phone. She mistook "shooting some b-ball outside of the school" as "shooting some people outside of the school," and dialed 9-1-1.
In light of shootings linked to popular media, from The Matrix to The Dark Knight Rises, her fear is understandable. But there's a parable here too. Even in its most commercialized, bubblegum form, hip-hop scares middle-class America. The thumping rhythm and defiant lyrics can conjure up pictures of gang violence, even in songs solely about basketball or love or heartbreak. Smith was right: Parents just don't understand.
The violent edge of rap—"It's just so angry"—is most often what I hear behind American Christians' ambivalence about the new wave of Christian hip-hop. But not all of this ambivalence is reactionary, revealing white-bread taste. It's a real question: Can one authentically rap the Sermon on the Mount, with its Beatitudes, warnings against anger, and meekness? No doubt one can set Matthew 5–7 to rhyme and meter, but would it still be hip-hop? If not, does that rule hip-hop out as legitimate Christian art?
That was the question Ken Myers posed as we talked recently about Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae, Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and others (especially popular among the "young, restless, Reformed" wing of the church). Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio and one of the most respected Christian thinkers on pop culture, has long warned about the church's tendency to separate the message from the medium. He sees this as an almost gnostic attempt to disembody everything but truth propositions from art.
Music sounds "like feelings feel," said Myers. That's why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" conjures "feelings of melancholy, humility, tentativeness, or ennui." And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are "brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness."
By contrast, Myers said, "Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation." In other words, rap is anything but about "reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness."
"Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence," Myers said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or the form, any more than one could easily perform "Girlfriend in a Coma" set to Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal." To use "pious and humble" hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate "the musical vocabulary of hip-hop," since it is a style "more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit."
Myers' critique of Christian hip-hop wasn't a fundamentalist scold, wary of the Devil's music. Instead, he was concerned for the integrity of hip-hop as an art form—as well as for the integrity of the Bible and the Christian tradition. For him, Christian hip-hop seems to be the latest incarnation in the evangelical project to "engage culture" by separating form from message, and to bridge the divide between pop culture and the old, old story.
And he's right. So often our attempts to be relevant are just ham-handed attempts to market the gospel with popular cultural tropes. And no one can seriously argue that musical forms don't change "the message." Moreover, I agree with Myers that hip-hop generally taps into a certain set of human emotions and situations, and not others.
But that's where our agreement ends. I think Christian hip-hop is more than just the latest attempt to slap a Jesus fish on the bumper of a pop-culture fad. Hip-hop is reminding the church about the reality of sin and grace—and returning the hip-hop community to its prophetic roots.
How Doctrine Sounds
Listen to the new Christian hip-hop once, and you'll note just how theological it is. The first time I heard a song by artist Flame was also the first time I heard the heresy "modalistic monarchianism" denounced by name in any song. "That's not the Scriptures that's confusion, / and it takes stabs at the hypostatic union," raps the Louisville, Kentucky–based artist, before explaining the hypostatic union (the union of Jesus' divinity and humanity). Rap group 116 Clique, named after Romans 1:16, defends biblical inerrancy by using the term theopneustos (God-breathed)—also not the most common of lyrics, rap or otherwise.
The new hip-hop artists aren't simply adapting apologetic arguments into their lyrics. Instead, they are modeling a broadly Reformed system of Christian doctrine, which is characterized by an emphasis on humanity's depravity, God's sovereignty, and divine election. Many of the leading rappers are associated with prominent Reformed pastors: Shai Linne and Trip Lee have both interned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., led by popular pastor Mark Dever, and Lecrae and Tedashii regularly quote John Piper. Just as rapper will.i.am wove lines from President Barack Obama's speeches into his songs during the 2008 presidential campaign, the preaching of well-known Reformed speakers—many of them Southern and white—is interspersed through the new Christian hip-hop music.
At first blush, this seems absurd. After all, hip-hop is far more akin to Malcolm X than to Cotton Mather—and for good reason. Some of the reigning defenses of 19th-century slavery were offered through the prism of Reformed theology, especially in its Presbyterian and Baptist forms. The Southern Calvinist concept of the "spirituality of the church" called white Southerners to "simply preach the gospel" and "avoid politics" during the Jim Crow era—which meant propping up state-sponsored terrorism against African American citizens. Even in the culture-redeeming Kuyperian strain of Reformed teaching, the apartheid of 20th-century South Africa stands to remind us that even the best theology can be used to evil ends.
This history hasn't gone unnoticed in Christian hip-hop circles. Artist Propaganda prompted an Internet firestorm with his blistering song "Precious Puritans," which sought to remove the halos off the wigs of the dead white men revered by contemporary Reformed Christians:
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even if they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege, wouldn't you agree?
Even so, the broadly Reformed tenor of contemporary hip-hop isn't incidental, hopping aboard a faddish movement. Pop-culture expert Myers is right: form matters—and so does artistic tradition. We see this in the two largest attempts by Christians to appropriate existing pop-culture art forms in the last several decades: Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and Southern gospel.
Starting in the 1960s and early '70s, CCM 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 in heaven.
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 faggot; 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 life.
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 forever."
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 the Cross.
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.
Russell D. Moore is dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Crossway). He will start in June as the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president.