Getting a bad rap
Published: 6 November 2011 (GMT+10)
A recent interview in CMI’s Creation magazine (see here) emphasized the rap music group Destiny Lab’s biblical creationist views and their mission to spread the biblical Gospel using an unusual medium. We received a couple of comments from readers who were concerned that any association with rap is ungodly and cannot be justified. The editorial team for Creation magazine had asked our US CEO, Gary Bates, to conduct an interview with the group due in part to his geographical location, and also Gary’s interest in cultural phenomena. As with many scientists, individuals and other ministries that might be portrayed in Creation magazine, it does not automatically follow that we endorse every other aspect of the ministry of interviewees, or even any other theological views that they hold. The point is to show how others are using biblical creation to argue against evolution and for Christianity, and how others have realized the importance of this issue. Here’s Gary’s response to some issues raised.
It is all too easy to ‘demonize’ a music style because its major practitioners use it to promote ungodly lifestyles and practices. I am personally not a rap fan for probably many of the same reasons as others. Most of it has unwholesome lyrics, and promotes a distinctly hedonistic culture. In short, I dislike what it represents. So, it’s easy to judge a music style when it doesn’t go along with one’s own tastes. But it is important to judge biblically before reacting based on our own preferences.
Music styles can basically be differentiated based on the tempo and beat of the music and how the lyrics interact with the melody. Are some beats ‘ungodly’ while some are ‘godly’? For example, I’ve been in churches where some think that drums are an occult tool used to raise up demons (this came about primarily because in some third world cultures the banging of drums is used for this). However, does that mean that drums themselves are inherently evil? The Hebrew nation most certainly used drums for worship and praise, as in Exodus 15:20–21; the timbrel is a small hand-drum. This shows how subjective such individual judgments can be—see more later.
So, are some music styles more ungodly than others? Some argue that this is the case, but rarely, if ever, does one hear this approach from those who are musically informed or trained. I would argue that the music itself is amoral, neither good nor bad, and it depends on the lyrics (and the degree to which these can be understood by most hearers) and whether these glorify God or not.
Music styles have changed over and over again through history, including in the Church. The music that David danced to would have been very different from the music with which the early Church worshipped. And the Church’s preferred style of music has changed a lot over the years. Worship music styles also vary widely depending on where you are: when I was on a preaching tour in South Africa I enjoyed worship styles in indigenous (‘black’) churches that were reminiscent of what Paul Simon appropriated for his album Graceland. He adopted a style made popular by a group called Ladysmith Black Mambazo who perform in the vocal style of isicathamiya and mbube. The lead singer of that group, Joseph Shabalala, has since become a Christian and now uses his music style to promote the Gospel all over the world. God is using this music (that was not originally Christian in origin) in an incredible way now. It was ‘foreign’ music to most Westerners (who now love it, by the way).
It’s new, it’s part of popular culture … it must be bad, right?
Music styles are often demonized at some point because they are new. Many of the tunes we now regard as grand old hymns, for example some written by Charles Wesley, were in the popular music style of their day, and so severely criticized as ‘ungodly’ and ‘worldly’. In years to come I think we will look at rap as being tame; and in fact, it is already regarded as mainstream and being adopted by more middle-of-the-road artists with a much tamer message and lifestyle. I think that is a good thing and hope that it happens increasingly.
But what Destiny Lab (DL) is doing is not the same as becoming what the music projects or even is endorsing—it is subjugating the music style for Christ. In the same way, the pop (or popular) music style has given rise to some of the most beautiful and inspired contemporary Christian music ever heard that can move one to tears in adoration of the Creator and Saviour. The Apostles wrote the NT Gospels and letters using ‘secular’ rhetorical conventions and recognizable genres (the Gospels are bioi, and the epistles are the standard letter form that we see in secular writing of the period). So let’s change the identity of the culture by reaching them where they are at. Here are some more thoughts:
Rap music isn’t my own preference. However, when I listened to DL’s music, I suddenly ‘got it’—that is, I realized what they are trying to do. Most popular music has lyrics that are hard to understand anyway, but that is not the case with the strong lyrical content of rap, and in particular DL’s music. I found they tell it like it is, and the message is unmistakable. In fact, I wish more such clear messages of sin, repentance and judgment were preached in the pulpits. It might scare more people into the Kingdom. Now, whilst I might not agree with every theological point raised, should I throw the baby out with the bathwater?
The point of DL’s efforts is to sound a warning, and tell stories to awaken people to their fallen state, particularly to those who are drawn to rap music, which they and we agree is often performed, as a rule, by less than wholesome characters. They even use quotes from prominent new-agers to show the fallacious ideology of such beliefs using their own words. Such warnings include not to dabble or be drawn into the occult or New Age, or to be drawn into hedonistic lifestyles, and they also talk about design features in nature. Yes, it is a form of evangelism, but I would not call their style of music (and intent) worship, as in worship songs in church etc.
We can’t ignore the possible outreach effect Christian rap could have. Imagine someone who listens to Eminem purely for the style of music. Wouldn’t it be better for them to listen to DL, and get a dose of good doctrine instead of the trash that dominates the genre? And if someone got saved from it, would you then expect them to smash the ‘ungodly’ DL CDs? Surely God isn’t constrained by anyone’s musical preferences as to what He uses to bring people to Himself? And if God does not use music to advance the Gospel then the church has had it badly wrong for at least 2,000 years. In Genesis, God created masters of metallurgy and even music. See Music: Evidence of Creation. Music is most certainly a God-inspired medium and He encouraged its use in worship in the Old Testament—without specifying the style.
Using common threads to reach people
Paul looked for things in the pagan cultures that he could use as a way to inject the Gospel. I don’t see that what the guys in DL are doing is any different. In Acts 17 Paul used a pagan altar (the altar to the unknown god whom ‘they ignorantly worshipped’) and appropriated it to point to the true Creator. This is different to partaking in and accepting those elements of the culture that are antichristian.
If I were to preach the Gospel to a tribal aboriginal group in my home country of Australia, I would need to speak their language. It’s as simple as that. I have to go to their culture to reach them. I can’t do that from the US, for example. If hip hop is the language of a culture that has enslaved a portion of society then we need to speak their language to bring them out of it. They are most certainly not going to come to us. Why do creationists go to new age festivals with booths and displays? By doing so, are we endorsing new age practices?
One of my own pastors gently chided the older ones in the congregation (of which he was one!), for their lack of tolerance for contemporary songs in the church. He recognized (and I agree), that while many of those songs are not to our taste, the future of the church was the young ones coming up. He projected that within ten years something like 70% of the church would be under 30 years of age (or something like that). Should we force our children to sing in styles they don’t like and just give them more reasons to leave the church?
It’s possible to say, ’Well, music preference is a matter of environment,’ and to argue that the church’s environment should be different from that of the world. Yes—we should be different, but in the ways that really matter. Our beliefs and lifestyles should set us apart, and I don’t believe that the rap genre is particularly conducive for congregational worship—but DL isn’t suggesting that their songs be sung Sunday mornings in church. Rather, it’s shining a light in a dark culture.
There is a fear that this sort of music is just another instance of the Church becoming ‘just like the world.’ It’s the same fear that causes the Amish to reject electricity and cars. But look at what happened to the Amish. They’re about as literally cut off from the rest of the world as they could be. While some might applaud their separatist stance, is their approach making Christianity relevant, and is it seeing many people drawn to Christ?
We’ve also had the response that DL should stick to ‘street preaching’, which would be ‘good enough’. But, ironically, at its inception, street preaching was viewed as extreme and dangerous. If people wanted to hear the Gospel, they could come and hear it in church like a ‘civilized person’ (see our article Caged Lions). It was in bad taste for it to be shouted on the street corners and in the fields. And it’s not a matter of either/or, in any case. People are reached by street preaching, others are reached by youth camps, others by the creation message, etc. Praise God for all the ways He draws people to Himself!
It’s a wisdom issue, yet again
As with many areas it’s always a balance or wisdom issue on such things. We are indeed meant to be holy, and not have fellowship with unbelievers in their carnal ways (2 Corinthians 6:14–17). In that sense we are to be separate from the world, and are not to love the things of the world—1 John 2:16). But that is not the same as following Paul’s example of utilizing an aspect of a particular culture to bring glory to God, and see souls won for Him.
If we reject something every time the culture uses it in a way that is displeasing to God, we are left with a shrinking amount of things that are acceptable, until we’re completely cut off in our own little bubble with our Reformation-era hymns and our favourite Christian books. Some people would actually welcome that, and when I am out preaching every second Sunday I often see such Christians cozily tucked away in their ‘Christian church clubs’, which are shrinking every year as people get older and simply die. When we try to educate them about the erosional effects of evolution on young ones, they simply don’t get it. They are apathetic or just content with their own salvation and don’t see it as a threat to their personal wellbeing.
Such attitudes of disengaging from the culture severely limit our ability to reach into the culture and see people changed. At the end of the day, culture change comes when hearts and minds are won. We have to engage people where they are at. I think evolution, as is apparent from the fruit that stems from it, is an evil anti-God philosophy. Should I stay away from it, then? No, our website speaks the language of those immersed in evolutionary teaching. We are trying to speak their language to point them to the Creator, which makes the point about Christians not giving up certain elements of the culture just because some people misuse it.
In the early 20th century, conservative Christians often became anti-science and anti-scholarship because many scientists and scholars were anti-Christian. But this did not make the Church healthier. Instead, it only added to the perception that no true scholar or scientist could be a Christian—a perception which we’re still fighting against today. The church retreated from science, which is why ministries like ours are trying to help the church engage this area once again. I wonder what our teaching environments and colleges, indeed, what the world might be like today, if creation was being taught instead of evolution.
In any age, wholesale rejection of the then-modern culture can also cause many young people to perceive that the Church is out of touch with the culture and irrelevant.
Does it automatically follow that if Christians use rap that they will inevitably be identified with the rap culture? Not if it is performed by Christians who don’t buy into the package. I believe it is our duty to get the culture to surrender for Christ, That is, “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). After all, the culture has done that to so many Christian icons. Look what’s happened to Christmas as a simple example. In many countries one cannot even put up a nativity scene anymore. Currently our message is ‘foolishness to the Greeks’. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that. That’s why he preached a message the Greeks could identify with (Acts 17).
Most of the culture is anti-God anyway
If we followed the thought (that ‘rap’ is evil) to its logical conclusion then we should disengage from virtually every aspect of the culture because it does not agree with us. The world is antichristian … period! Jesus Himself said the devil is the ruler of this world, meaning the evil one controls pretty much everything in it that is not surrendered to God. Pagan third world cultures are anti-God, so why send missionaries there then? If I sang a worship song to an animistic jungle hill tribe in Thailand, in their language style and genre, would that be sending mixed messages, or would I be communicating in a language they understand? (Something I have done by the way). Rap is a culture that needs to be penetrated and subjected to Christ.
As another example, I am regarded as an expert on UFO phenomena etc. I personally find the subject matter distasteful. Most Christians, including some of my own colleagues, really have no idea of the kind of weirdness, new age, and spiritual unholiness that dwells in its ranks, and which I have to confront. But I know that I have been called to communicate with them, and learn what they believe. I wrote a book in an effort to reach them speaking their language (it’s been read by more non-believers than believers BTW). When I am trying to communicate to the UFO culture I make a judgment call on how to reach them depending on their beliefs and their experiences. Sometimes it is a loving approach, sometimes it’s more robust. Most Christians would not have the faintest clue, because they ignore it and disregard it viewing it as irrelevant or simply occultic. As a result, I’ve had confused hurt people tell me they have been rejected by the church because the church did not want anything to do with them. What would Jesus think indeed!
To suggest that DL are doing what they do in order to be able to have a foot in both camps, which has been suggested, is unfortunate in my opinion. At the end of the day, I know their heart is to reach others. We may even disagree about the methodology, but I’ve had people accuse me in the same way because I wrote a book on UFOs and aliens, which we, as Christians ‘should have nothing to do with.’ I am thankful that God has used it to bring people to Christ and also to train other Christians on how to do the same.
Jesus’ motives were misunderstood too
Incidentally, DL are not the first Christian rap band to do this. One of the most successful was a group called DC Talk (which, interestingly stood for ‘decent Christian talk’—the exact opposite of what rap is known for). We know that they reached many millions and were one of the most popular Christian groups of all time. As is often stated, Jesus was criticized for mixing with tax collectors. I see the efforts of these young men as commendable by shining a light in the darkness and by getting young people to think about their fallen state. The point being that those who listen to ungodly rap music also need to hear the message of God’s love, and that by God’s grace, through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for their sin, they can come to Him and be forgiven. It is unlikely that such types will ever enter a church, so it is in that vein that I think the boys’ efforts are commendable, that is, to go where the people are and to tell them the truth. This is much like CMI does, because unsaved people do not generally go out of their way to seek us out. Therefore we travel to many different places, following Jesus’ example of reaching out to mankind, ensuring that local Christians are also equipped to evangelize their fellows more effectively.
I pray that many reading this will not just emotionally knee-jerk respond due to the nature of the music genre, but give some considered thought to the some of the reasoning above. I’ve certainly appreciated the opportunity to provide some more thinking on this and hope it helps. I also appreciated the opportunity to do the interview so I could understand yet another aspect of a part of our culture that needs to be reached for Christ.