I’m not a fan of rap music. I’ve never had a particular moral objection to it; it’s just that, outside of a song here and there, it really doesn’t appeal to me all that much. So it’s been fascinating for me to learn some Christian folks have got their britches in a bunch over whether or not rap is inherently immoral. Honestly, I’d never given it much thought beyond “I don’t really dig it.” Maybe you’re the same way.
I’m glad, though, not everyone’s like me when it comes to thinking carefully about rap music. Curtis Allen, a pastor at Solid Rock Church, Prince Georges County, Maryland (who also raps under the monikers of Voice and Curt Kennedy), wants us to think deeply about rap music—to think about it theologically and philosophically. He shows us how in his new book from Cruciform Press, Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music.
Personal stakes and submission to the Lord
To say Allen’s got skin in the game is an understatement. Not only is he a rapper, but he’s the first one to have been invited to rap at Bethlehem Baptist Church in 2006—an event that revealed to him how serious a debate was raging over Christian rap. His performance was immediately picked apart online, his lyrics dissected, and his salvation questioned. And although he spent a great deal of time defending rap in song, online and in the media, he eventually found his own answers were shallow.
I realized I needed something a little deeper to hold onto. I could relate to what the critics were saying. I understood how you could take the position that rap can’t glorify God.… I understood where rap came from and why so much secular rap is what it is. I knew all about rap’s entanglements with sin and rebellion. I’m from that. I get it. But I really wanted to know how rap—or any music, for that matter—can glorify God. Realizing my position was actually biblificial (biblically superficial), I decided to start from scratch.… Rap’s critics make a strong case that most of its cultural origins and connections are far from godly, and I needed to see what those criticisms really mean for this art form I love so much.
Allen shows a great deal of humility in his desire to “start from scratch” when addressing rap, something I suspect few of us would have. As I wrote above, I’d never gone past thinking about preference. Developing a biblical view on something like rap music—or music in general—that takes guts. It takes courage to put your convictions on the table and say, “If the Bible genuinely says this is wrong—either in precept or principle—then I must obey.”
So what did his examination find? How much guidance does the Bible offer when addressing a subject like rap music? A great deal more than you’d expect.
Learning to think biblically about music
To show readers what Scripture says, Allen takes us through a number of what he calls theomethodosophical exercises. “This is a method that starts with and remains grounded in good theology but throws in some basic logic and philosophy where needed,” he writes. “It’s not too different from what somebody else might call common-sense speculation.”
Allen’s approach is critical to our understanding of how to think biblically about rap music. We’re not going to get anywhere in the debate unless we can point to something definitive, something beyond our preferences and personal opinions.
So he asks us to consider the origins of music. Who was the first musician? Jubal, the far-off grandson of Cain, the first murderer and the progenitor of the ungodly. “He was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Gen. 4:21). Given his family background, is it likely his music was intended for the worship of the Lord? Hardly. In fact, Allen argues that although the Scriptures say very little about Jubal himself, it’s logical to assume (given his family heritage) that his music was intended to glorify man, not God. If that’s the case, should we say music itself is inherently evil?
What about multiculturalism? The results of the sinful attempt of Noah’s descendants to make a name for themselves at the Tower of Babel. Although He could have used any number of means to stop their efforts, He confused their languages. “God committed the first act of multiculturalism,” Allen writes. “God must have wanted a multicultural world.” There is something about diversity that is pleasing and acceptable to God—for from multiculturalism comes a diversity of musical styles.
Driving deeper into musical styles, he jumps ahead to ask: What did the song of the Israelites after the Red Sea crossing sound like? While, clearly, we don’t know exactly, Allen suggests it probably sounded a lot like music from the only culture the Israelites had known—that of Egypt. And if that’s the case, “the first worship song recorded in Scripture—a song that truly glorified Yahweh—was in the musical style of a pagan, polytheistic culture.”
But the sound of music? As Allen points out, God is curiously silent on this point.
Our meticulous, detail-oriented God—the one who devoted many thousands of words to telling the Israelites precisely how to worship him in non-musical ways—apparently said next to nothing about how to worship him through music. In fact, the Bible never even suggests that God is offended by a particular kind of music on the basis of its style. I think that means he leaves the matter of style up to us.
Judging with right judgment
What Allen points us to is God’s consistent, unrelenting redeeming of art forms created by sinful people for sinful purposes. We see this in Scripture (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) and we’ve seen it throughout church history. The theologically rich hymns many love? Sung to the tune of drinking songs. The Keith and Kristyn Getty tune you sung your heart out to at the last Christian conference you attended? Celtic folk music. The power ballad you sung on Sunday but aren’t sure if it’s about Jesus or a girl? Okay, bad example.
This is important for us to realize, particularly since we tend to speak out of both sides of our mouths on the issue of music. These days it’s rare to hear anyone criticize using drums and guitars. No one questions the use of the piano. On and on I could go. But we should be very careful not to be more firm on something than the Lord. To do so imports an alien point of view into the Scriptures, one you can’t find clearly in its pages. The bigger issue, it seems, is the heart and the content of the music.
And in this I believe many of the ant-Christian rap advocates may need to do some careful soul searching (as well as content examination). Who are we to determine if a man is genuinely converted, as many did with Allen himself, because he performs (or even appreciates) rap music? Who are we to determine one style of music is better than another? We are called to judge all things—notably ourselves—with right judgment. This means if we’re going to praise condemn a particular form of music, it needs to be first and foremost on its content, not its style.
What Curtis Allen gives us in Does God Listen to Rap? is not a simplistic apologetic for a particular music style, but a robust framework for thinking biblically about all music. This is something few of us have adequately considered, but many of us desperately need. Whether your preferences surrounding rap music change or not is irrelevant—what I trust will change is you’ll see your preferences for what they are.
Title: Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music
Author: Curtis “Voice” Allen
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2013)