Christian rap – Music of the New Calvinists

When Christians employ music that originates from the world, and appeals to the flesh, they are promoting worldliness in their midst. The latest fad of the contemporary Christian worship scene is rap music that is being performed by a large number of ‘Christian rap artists’. Rap music is the musical dimension of hip-hop culture that has become an important element of New Calvinist conferences’. And to make rap music appear to be acceptable by the Church, the term holy hip-hop has been coined. In 2011 Christianity Today carried a story on the marriage between holy hip-hop (Christian rap) and Calvinism (Reformed Theology). According to the article, contemporary Reformed theologians such as John Piper and John MacArthur are having a major influence on holy hip-hop artists such as Lecrae and Flame.

 Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile

Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile of First Baptist Church Grand Cayman extols the virtues of holy hip-hop in a video produced by ‘Desiring God Ministries’ of John Piper:

 ‘The thing that excites me about holy hip-hop and folks like Curtis “The Voice” and Lecrae is that those brothers are doing it well. And yet are giving people in the message, in the music, in the lyrics, deep god honouring, culture piercing and worldview shaping information. I mean it’s preaching, it’s lyrical theology, as one of the brothers has coined the term, and it ministers to the soul in the opposite way and more profound way than does secular hip-hop minister to the flesh.

I love that the Lord has raised up a generation of hip-hop artists who love Him, are committed to Him, and are sowing to the Spirit for people who listen to that word… For an urban hip-hop generation, with the birth of robust Reformed theology, and the entrance of that theology into that community, I think the Lord seems pleased to accompany that revival of theological truth with a musical revival of sorts – I think its taken the form of holy hip-hop, the kind of lyrics and music that speak to that generation, and speaks to it powerfully from a gospel and Christ centred perspective.’

To make rap music more acceptable to Christians, the concept of holy hip-hop has been developed. Leading New Calvinists, such as John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and JC Mahaney, have formed a close association with the culture of hip-hop, and coined the term ‘holy hip-hop’.

 John Piper and Desiring God

John Piper, of the ‘Desiring God Ministries’, is in the forefront of the holy hip-hop scene. He is closely associated with the annual Passion Conference, a large gathering of young people who are given over to the contemporary music scene. To emphasise his commitment to holy hip-hop, Piper invited rap artist Lecrae to perform during a morning church service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN. Lecrae rapped ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’ and received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic congregation. Such is his commitment to the contemporary music scene that at a recent Passion Conference Piper, interviewed rap artist Lecrae and prayed for his ‘ministry’.

 Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary

Dr Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is one of the biggest names in the evangelical camp. He is a conservative theologian committed to the doctrines of Calvin. The Albert Mohler Radio Program has given prominent air time to two well known Christian rap artists, namely Marcus Gray, also known as Flame, and Lecrae. These radio programs, hosted by Dr Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology, openly promoted hip-hop culture and Christian rap music. Dr Moore spoke about how the church can dialogue with the hip-hop culture. He said: ‘There is something in hip-hop that we can learn from in all kinds of ways, in our evangelism, in our discipleship, in our preaching, especially in our preaching.’ He asserted that the lyrics of rap music are really very deeply doctrinal and theological. He also claimed that the church has much to learn from hip-hop culture about proper biblical contextualisation. He even invited Lecrae to recommend a list of Christian rap artists.  The effect of these programs, with the blessing of Southern Baptist Seminary, is to endorse rap and hip-hop culture among theological students and young Christians.

Dr Mohler has made worldly music acceptable to thousands upon thousands of young theological students, who are taking the messages of rap music and hip-hop culture into churches around the USA.

 Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle

Pastor Mark Driscoll, during an interview with Lecrae, said of Christian rap artists:

‘You guys are missionaries; you guys are 21st century missionaries. You doing the same stuff that Paul did, that Jonah did, that Daniel did, that Joseph did and that Jesus did.’ So the lie that rap music is a tool for evangelism is being propagated by some church leaders.

 Moody Bible Institute

A holy hip-hop concert held at the prestigious Moody Bible Institute in Chicago is described by Collin Hansen, the editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, a network of leading American evangelicals. Hansen writes:

‘The auditorium pulsated with youthful energy for nearly three hours… During the sold-out concert, they shouted out familiar lines and danced with abandon among friends and new acquaintances who shared a common affinity for the music… The concert—featuring rappers Lecrae, Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashi, Pro, and DJ Official—made Jesus Christ the star of the show.’

Here is clear evidence that rap music has penetrated to the very heart of evangelical Christianity. The embedded video, dear reader, will give you some idea of a Christian holy hip-hop concert. You will see examples of rap music if performed by Lecrae and friends.

Hip-hop culture, which is associated with violence, drugs, and rebellion, has come to dominate youth culture in theUSA, theUK and other parts of the world. The ungodly spirit of hip-hop culture is well documented and beyond dispute. It has generated a multi-billion dollar industry of music, clothes, jewellery, movies, and more. Hip-hop culture is a bastion of filth—it appeals to the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and is grounded in rebellion and lawlessness. Almost all hip-hop is delivered with an aggressive, arrogant, confrontational cadence. Rap music mirrors the brutality of rap lyrics in its harshness and repetition. It is not difficult for a true believer to discern that hip-hop is a worldly culture guided by the spirit who works in the sons of disobedience.

 Pastor Scott Aniol

Pastor Scott Aniol, who holds a bachelor’s degree in church music from Bob Jones University, a master’s degree in musicology from Northern Illinois University, and has studied theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, comments on the meaning of rap music in his article ‘Can Rap be Christian? Evaluating Hip Hop’:

 The rhythms, sonorities, timbres, and movements of rap all “feel” like (to one degree or another dependent upon the specific song) rage, violence, aggression, sex, agitation, and rebellion… So the kinds of messages the culture of rap is naturally associated with in our society is not due merely to convention, it is due to the sounds and rhythms of the music itself.

Let’s consider the performance styles as well. Of course, there is a certain range among performers, and Christian artists certainly would not perform the more explicit bodily expressions of sexuality or rebellion. But what do the bodily movements and vocal tones of most rap performers naturally communicate? If you were to watch a video of a rap artist (Christian or not) with the volume turned down, what would you naturally assume they were communicating? Once again, rage, self-assertion, rebellion, and aggression.

Add to all this the dress, mannerisms, graffiti, slang, speech styles, and attitudes of hip-hop culture, and we come to the unavoidable conclusions that this culture cannot and should not be combined with God’s holy truth.

The idea that this wicked culture can be brought into the Church, and turned into holy hip-hop, is against the teachings of Scripture. Because hip-hop music cannot be separated from its immoral associations it invariably corrupts God’s people, for they have disobeyed God’s command to separate from evil. ‘Therefore, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” ’(2 Corinthians 6.18).

 A biblical response

So how should Christian believers respond to the ‘holy’ hip-hop movement? As with all moral questions, we need to start with Scripture, not with the opinions of men. The issue of whether hip-hop culture and music is acceptable in the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be decided by rational arguments put forward by human wisdom. We cannot simply accept the wisdom of those who are involved in promoting the holy hip-hop industry.

Scripture commands believers to test everything, and to abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Believers are instructed to test, prove and examine everything; and everything includes doctrine and conduct. In the context of the holy hip-hop movement, it means testing the music, the dress, the lyrics, the fashion trends and ecstatic conduct associated with hip-hop concerts that come together to make up holy hip-hop culture.

 Spiritual discernment

To help Christian believers test all things, God has given to believers the spiritual gift of discernment. Mature Christian believers, who study and seek to live by the Scriptures, ‘have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil’ (Hebrews 5.15).

Spiritual matters are to be spiritually discerned. ‘But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2.14-16). A.W. Tozer writes:

‘Among the gifts of the Spirit scarcely one is of greater practical usefulness than the gift of discernment. This gift should be highly valued and frankly sought as being almost indispensable in these critical times. This gift will enable us to distinguish the chaff from the wheat and to divide the manifestations of the flesh from the operations of the Spirit.’

The apostle Paul prays for believers that their ‘love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’ (Philippians 1.9-11). Discernment means doing the necessary investigation to distinguish between right and wrong. To be faithful to God, and to live a godly life, all true believers must use spiritual discernment, for to do so enables them to approve excellent things, to avoid sin and to bear the fruits of righteousness (Philippians 1:11).

The gift of discernment allows believers to recognize the genuine from the fake, to understand what is of God, and what is of the flesh, the world and the devil. We are to embrace wholeheartedly what is inherently genuine and true, and we are to reject every appearance of evil. The Christian mind, transformed by the Holy Spirit, rejects the lusts and passions of the old sinful nature, for in Christ we have a new nature and all things all new. The way of the world, or worldliness, is an attitude of the heart and mind that desires the lusts and corrupt pleasures of the flesh. In Old Testament times God’s people were commanded to distinguish (discern) between the clean and unclean. ‘And they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the unholy, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean’ (Ezekiel 44. 23).

True believers, with spiritual insight, and a renewed mind, are able to discern what is of the world (worldliness) and therefore opposed to God. Here we must stress the importance of Christian young people using the spiritual gift of discernment when it comes to music. And church leaders have a grave responsibility of ensuring that the music used in the Church is pleasing to God.

 Discerning the spirit of holy hip-hop

The idea that this wicked culture can be brought into the Church, and turned into holy hip-hop, is to put no difference between the holy and the profane.

Scripture describes, in some detail, the Israelite rebellion at the foot ofMount Sinai. When Moses delayed coming down from the Mount, Aaron and the Israelites built a golden calf. Aaron then built an altar, and proclaimed a feast to the Lord. In effect, the rebellious Israelites were worshipping both the Lord and the golden calf. The people ‘rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’

As Moses approached the camp he heard shouting and singing, and he saw the golden calf and the dancing of the people. The scene was one of revelry—all moral restraint was gone as the people rose up to entertain themselves in wild dancing and carousing. Likewise, holy hip-hop concerts arouse the same rebellious spirit of gay abandonment with wild dancing, ecstatic arm waving and shouting. This is a spirit of wickedness and rebellion against God’s holy law.  Our spiritual gift of discernment tells us that what we are witnessing is not the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but the works of the flesh. Scripture says that the works of the flesh include ‘revelries, and the like’ (Galatians 5.21).

The warning of Scripture is that we must worship the true God with reverence and awe. We must not bring strange fire into the House of God. We must be very careful of the spirit behind contemporary worship, for it is a spirit that inevitably leads to more worldliness and will eventually destroy a local church.

Yet we should not be downhearted, for Christ is building His true church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. The call is for a reformation that preaches the authentic Gospel, the sinfulness of sin, the need for repentance; a reformation that emphasises holy living, and resists worldliness in the church. Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her, ‘that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish’ (Ephesians 5.25-27).

You can learn more about Pastor John Piper, Dr Tim Keller and Pastor Mark Driscoll in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from The Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop or from Amazon  More on John Piper and his Christian Hedonism at The Real John Piper website