Christian hip hop and the glory of Christ: What’s the mission? Pt. 2
This is Part 2 of God’s Servant’s series of columns on Christian hip hop and the glory of Christ. Read Part 1 here.
It may be helpful to address at the outset who I am speaking to.
My critiques and challenges are not targeting people who simply say they’re doing music for a living. There’s nothing wrong with anybody just seeking to make good music.
This, however, is not the same thing as someone who makes music for ministry. This is not targeting people who do not wish to do music as ministry; you are free to make that decision (though I would appeal to most rappers to reconsider).
“Christian hip hop” is as amorphous a term as “urban”; it’s nearly impossible to define but generally obvious to discern. Anytime we’re using culture, there’s rarely going to be any agreement on how to condense it to any relevant generalizations. And while generalizations can make conversations challenging, they can also move the conversation forward. Even Paul used them at times (Titus 1:12–13).
So, as the old adage goes, if the shoe fits, wear it. However, I do think it would be helpful to specify the conversation partners I’m envisioning.
My challenges are targeting those who say they’re seeking to do music with the purpose of spreading the fame of Christ. I see this as including any artist(s) wanting to be considered in the Christian hip hop community, as well as those who aren’t wishing to have the label of Christian hip hop but seek the support of the church/Christian audience.
Resting at the heart of this whole debate is the classic question: What is the mission for us as Christians? More pointedly, is the mission the same for everybody? Does God perhaps call some of us to different things?
Well, quite obviously, the short answer is yes and no. No, in that we all have obvious differences in calling and gifting.
Paul is clear that there is a variety of gifts, services, and activities and to each is given “the manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12: 4–11). Paul is clear that we are all different parts of the one body (1 Cor. 12:12–30). Paul is also clear that there is diversity in how we use our freedoms to honor the Lord and we should not “despise” each other’s offerings knowing that the Lord will finally evaluate our labors (Rom. 14:1–12).
There seems to be little disagreement on whether or not there is room for diverse expressions of how we carry out the mission. However, we should be equally quick to note that these differences rest snugly within our one sameness. For while we all might operate in different ‘ministries’ in the church, those ministries are all only valid as they flow from and point to our shared ministry of reconciliation; “all this is from God” (2 Cor. 5:18).
So while there is obvious room for differences in the mission, there is much (dare I say most) of the mission that should not be different at all. So, while there is to be an acknowledged ‘no’ in reply to the question at hand, it seems there is a great deal of ‘yes’ to the question as well — that the mission is the same for everybody.
I would argue that it is actually only in the sameness of our mission that our differences are rightly expressed and appreciated and faithfully carried out. I believe this reality is uniquely relevant to the “Christian” rapper.
So let’s bring this idea to bear on Christian hip hop. Before we talk about methodology, we should first talk about mission. I think this has been a major clog in the drain of conversation.
People so quickly get to defending their methods or suggesting others before even identifying what their methods should accomplish! This does nothing and goes nowhere.
So here is my thesis for our conversation to help locate where I am with understanding our mission: the mission for every Christian is to make as much of Jesus’ fame as they can, proclaiming Him as He has been revealed in Scripture especially with His gospel. Or, as Peter worded it, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9–10).
Now, where I want to press this in is concerning my belief that this should apply to every Christian — artist or non-artist. That ever since we have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son we are called to be dominated with a new agenda. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor. 5:14–15)
This is an agenda that I would fundamentally understand to be a basic Christian agenda. And rather than having no bearing on the Christian artist, I actually think its implications are stunning. We are free to glorify God in more general and generic ways; however, we are called to glorify God in very specific and explicit ways especially.
Now the tricky question is, “How does this apply to the Christian hip-hop artist?” It seems that a lot of Christian hip-hop artists are now denying this agenda as being a normative agenda for the artist. I would simply like to challenge those claims.
Everything in creation seems to be busting at the seams with the praises of God. It is so in creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1); “all the earth worships you and sings praises to you” (Psalm 66:4). It is so by angels, seraphim and celestial beings: Isaiah 6:3, Rev. 5:9-14. It is especially intended to be so with man.
Consider the psalmist’s presentation in Psalm 145:1–3, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 150:6) But humanity’s great devastation, unique in all God’s earthly creations, is how we try to fight for glory with God. This is exactly how the serpent deceived Adam and Eve in the garden, by appealing to their sinful desire to have God’s glory: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). This desire lives in all of us in Adam — thus, and rightly so, in Adam all die.
But God sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. He died for our rebellion against God and our desire to steal glory from God. And through his resurrection He opened a way of newness of life to us — life restored to a right relationship with God as the crown of His creation rightly reflecting the image of God and bringing Him glory. Surely, the crown of creation should be the most eager to crown their Creator!
Unfortunately though, this is not so. It is lamentably not so on the broader cultural landscape and is increasingly becoming not so in Christian hip hop. I find it odd that creation sings of the glory of God and tells of His majesty yet many Christian artists seem to not want to. We ironically find people fighting for their rights to not make “another” song about Jesus, the gospel, and salvation.
This doesn’t seem to be a shared concern with creation or in glory. In fact, a lot of the songs being loudly sung in glory have some of the exact same lyrics in them! If we were to let Christian hip hop weigh in, even the anthems of Zion would be called corny by today’s standards of “good” music.
Perhaps we have digressed into a worldly appraisal system. We evaluate what is good based on what the carnal appetites of the world will delight in. We mock those who spend their lives proclaiming Him, even in their music. We no longer make that wack “Christ-centered” music; our songs are more “transparent” and “real.”
But could it be that what we really mean is our songs are more earthly? Perhaps our songs are more sympathetic to the joys of the creature and not the glory of the Creator? And if that is the case, why makes songs about earth that pagans can sing when you know the language of glory? Why fill your anthems with temporary good, when you can fill your lyrics with the eternally good mysteries and treasures hidden in Christ?
Recently, and by recently I mean within the past few years, artists have been becoming more and more vocal about distancing themselves from the “Christian” label. With that distancing, I believe I have noticed an unapologetic shift from the glory of God as the chief concern in Christian hip-hop music.
Some have suggested it is because they have grown and matured in their thinking. Some artists, whom the Lord has seemed to raise up as leaders in the Christian hip-hop sphere, are calling for more tact and carefulness in how we engage with the world in hopes that we might win more of them.
However, as sincere as these brothers’ hearts are to winning more for Christ (and I believe they are), I also think they are perilously wrong in their methods. Their seeming confusion about how men are regenerated is leading our culture to talk less about Christ. They purport falsely that the world is kept from us because our music is “corny” rather than because of the fact that our Jesus is demanding; that our failure with the world is primarily due to poor artistry as opposed to us sharing in the rejection of Christ.
Friends, this is simply not true.
Beyond being erroneous, these assumptions are also dangerous. They, through their example and the methodology, are championing and oddly suggesting that the way to advance the cause of Christ in hip hop is by proclaiming less of Christ. That the more excellent way forward is to lessen the heralding of Christ as the God to be believed in, and rather accruing more attention to our art in hopes of opening doors on the backend. They rely heavily on the concept that God is as glorified in their art being good as He would be in their art clearly proclaiming the lordship of Christ, the fallenness of man, the call to faith in Jesus, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This current methodology in effect flattens the glory of God by suggesting that God’s glory is equally emitted by all good things. And while God’s glory is emitted from all good things, it is not equally so.
There are some things with more glory. For instance, a sunset indeed glorifies God as well as do poems that exult in a sunset’s intrinsic beauty.
However, a sermon can more glorify God as it exults in the surpassing glory found in seeing the light of the gospel. While both are good, one is better. So it is with general and special revelation.
General revelation (such as what can be perceived in the things that have been made) can show God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20). Surely that is glorious indeed! However, as glorious as it is, it’s not as glorious as the gospel — in which the righteousness of God is revealed. In the former there is glory enough to condemn and vindicate His justice leaving all “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20); the latter contains the surpassing glory of “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes”! (Rom 1:16)
While both are good, one is better. Not all news is equally good news. And if you’re claiming to do what you do for the sake of His name, you must go chained to His message.
You’re not free to edit it, selectively adjust it, or simply not share it. He is worthy of the audience of men, and He demands that all men everywhere turn from their sins and place their faith in Him. This leads me to conclude, if you’re not seeking to broadly share this news and testify of this God, and warn men of hell — then lose the label “missionary” and be distanced from mission-like phrase. It’s incorrect and confusing.
There’s a difference between mentioning Jesus and proclaiming Christ. When Christ is the substance of your presentation, He becomes your wisdom, He becomes your identity, your righteousness, your very sanctification (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).
The missionary’s mission is the same for all. Selling albums means absolutely nothing for the fame of Christ’s name. He has given us the message that presents Him to the world!
Consider Paul, what was his mission? Paul understood he was sent “To open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ].’” (Act 26:18)
This is the Christian mission, whether you’re a rapper or an accountant, a teacher or an athlete. We’re to do whatever we do while proclaiming Him; proclaiming His excellencies, proclaiming His glory; proclaiming His gospel. We’re here to decrease that Christ might increase.
Such commitment will always commend us to some, and repel us from others. It’s always the aroma of life to some and the stench of death to others, the very power of God to some and a stumbling block to others.
The gospel is the necessary presentation of Jesus. In the gospel, we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus. He is presented as Lord and Savior, Lion and Lamb, King and Priest, Prophet and Brother, Ruler and Servant, Son of God and Son of Man.
Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom; let not the strong man boast in His strength; and let not the dope artist boast in his dope skills — but let him who boasts, boast in the Lord! Without the call to share His Word, you are simply just a rapper — yet even then, your Lord demands your lips. But why settle for being just a rapper when you can herald the eternal treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ?
No matter where you currently stand in the Christian hip-hop spectrum, above you being a rapper, you are a Christian. So, whether you’re a Christian rapper or a rapper who’s a Christian, Christ has claim on your art, and He should be proclaimed with it where possible. Before art is your expression, like all things, it is first His servant.
In the next few days I will release the final blog post. In that I will seek to engage with vocation and mission, as well as present my appeal. Thanks for reading, even if you disagree.
I love you all.
Soli Deo Gloria,
a.k.a. God’s servant