Does God Listen to Rap?
Christians and the World's Most Controversial Music
Foreword by Owen Strachan
“This small accessible book is a very sane and very good introduction to a much controverted subject….I thought this was a really valuable book, and I highly recommend it.”
– Douglas Wilson (author; Senior Fellow of theology at New St. Andrews College; and minister of Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho) in a review naming this his Book of the Month for March, 2014
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Description & Excerpts..SHARE..
Pastor, author, and Christian hip-hop artist Curtis Allen (Voice) presents a sociological history of the emergence and development of rap and unpacks relevant passages of Scripture to address the question of whether Christian rap and hip-hop have a place among Christians generally and within the local church in particular. This joint is sick.
SLIGHTLY LONGER VERSION:
A lot of people think that if there is one style of music in the world that God hates, it has got to be rap. Some have even gone so far as to call rap, “An unclean thing before the Lord,” and to insist that anyone who listens to rap (whether it’s made by Christians or not) risks spiritual harm.
Lots of other people love and accept rap as their preferred form of musical expression. Many of these who are Christians can’t imagine why God would have any issues with rap—at least, not with songs by believers that encourage and edify them in the faith.
Who’s right? And maybe more importantly, who cares? You should. And here’s why.
In the past 30 years, rap music has become a vital artistic and cultural force globally, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Like it or not, you are probably exposed to rap in one form or another on a fairly regular basis. If you’re interested in this book you may be a believer in Jesus who likes rap a lot, and as Christians, when we love something that is (if you hadn’t noticed) closely associated with sin and rebellion, our justification for being involved with it really does need to go beyond, “Dude, this is good stuff.”
But maybe you’re in a different category. Maybe you’re a Christian parent, concerned that rap music may have a negative impact on your child. Maybe you’re a youth pastor worried about having a rap concert at his church because of the potential pushback. Or maybe you’re just a rap fan who is curious to see if there’s even any biblical evidence for or against rap.
To put it simply, if you’ve made it this far, this book is probably for you. Does God Listen to Rap? covers two areas. First, it presents a sociological history of the emergence and development of rap. If you enjoy rap and hip hop culture, you’ll love this part of the book. Then the book explores the Scriptures to bring some biblical (not just personal or anecdotal) resolution to the question of God and rap. Ultimately, this involves a set of larger questions involving God and the arts. So while the immediate focus of the book is rap music, you’ll find here a set of tools for thinking biblically about all forms of human artistic endeavor.
So, does God listen to rap? Come find out.
About the Author
Curtis Allen is a pastor at Solid Rock Church in Riverdale, Maryland, and moonlights as a Christian rap artist called Voice He also raps under the name Curt Kennedy. He and his wife, Betsy, have three sons. Curt’s first book was Education or Imitation? Bible Interpretation for Dummies Like You and Me, soon to be re-released at From Me-ology to Theology: What Jesus Taught Us About Bible Interpretation. He can be found at CurtisAllen.net.
Read Chapter One
Read the Foreword
October 21, 2013
Ten years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I stood before a crowd of the whitest men you’ve ever seen, and I rapped. It was quite a day.
But that’s not the end of the story, pregnant as it already is. I wasn’t the only rapper in the room at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Curtis “Voice” Allen was there, too. And he, unlike me, was a serious rapper.
It was 2003. There I stood, ready to battle Curt. I could do no other. But it might have been better for me if I had. During this break from Mark Dever’s teaching on the Puritans at CLC, Curt ate my rhymes for lunch, and all before the watching crowd of Dever, C. J. Mahaney, Michael Lawrence, and Joshua Harris.
There are parts of Maryland I’ll never be able to enter again, because they’ll laugh if you say my name.
I met Curt that day, and saw his evident skill and ability. But more seriously, I saw something else: his deep love for the Lord. He was from the mean streets of DC, and I was from the mean country roads of Maine, but we instantly connected. Over the years, I listened to his albums, profited from his rich reflection on Scripture, and watched as the Lord used him and several other important artists to bring Christian hip-hop to the church.
That last sentence is important. Hip-hop had to come to church, sneaking in the back door. It wasn’t invited. This isn’t to say that all who were unfamiliar with it were hostile; not all were. But Christian rap had a tough time breaking in. As one who studies evangelical history, it’s rather poignant—and not a little bitter—to think about how, two centuries ago, African-Americans were an alien presence in many Christian congregations, and how, two centuries later, gospel rappers found themselves in the same place.
In the face of bewilderment and opposition, brothers like Curt persevered and the Lord blessed their way. Now, in 2013, Christian rap is mainstream evangelical music. Believing rappers land—and stay—on the Billboard charts. A growing number of them make their living from rap. There’s basically no area of evangelical life today not touched by gospel hip-hop: major conferences, Forewords to books by leading authors, John Piper’s Twitter account. Christian rap is large, it’s Christ-driven, and it’s glorious.
I say this as one who came to rap in the 1990s. Like many basketball-playing white boys, rap attached itself to me and never let go. Unlike many basketball-playing white boys, I cut a rap CD. I couldn’t help it. Rap spoke my language. It connected to my romantic side, with its larger-than-life stories, its tragedy, its beauty, its raw, tough breed of manhood, and its relentless, driving poetry. As I matured spiritually, I saw what Curt argues for so succinctly and potently in Does God Listen to Rap?, namely, that the Lord delights in the use of our gifts for his glory. He loves to redeem fallen things and make them his own. He’s that big; he wants it all. He’s that glorious; he deserves it all.
If he doesn’t redeem fallenness, after all, we’re in trouble. Right? If engaging or using a sin-tainted practice or cultural form that sinners pioneered is problematic, then we probably a) shouldn’t speak any language, because sinful Adam and Eve spoke first, b) shouldn’t eat food (the whole forbidden fruit thing) and c) should avoid architecture altogether (working off of Curt’s discussion of the Tower of Babel). Alongside Curt’s case, these are just three examples of many we could cite.
In sum, I think the Bible’s call to dominion and comprehensive glorification is a better one than our restrictive evangelical jeremiads (see Genesis 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 10:31). Let’s give praise to our Savior Jesus Christ by any means available to us, not limit ourselves in ways that compromise our God-given freedom to do so (Galatians 5:1).
This extends, I think, to the very manner in which Christian rappers approach their craft. Back in the early 2000s, before gospel hip-hop hit the tipping point and went global, the movement was largely underground—or rather online. I frequented message boards like Sphere of Hip Hop, where fans and artists like myself debated ad infinitum over whether there was just one way to honor the Lord through rap. Should you only “preach rap” or could you do “accessible rap”? Then and now I savor artists who fit into both camps. We surely give glory to God when we rap the gospel message. That should be our lodestar as believers irregardless of our daily vocation.
But we honor our creator and Lord, I think, when we write a song—or nod our head to a song—that captures the beauty and the struggle of work, or faith, or marriage. I agree completely with Curt’s discussion of our often-polarized movement. So long as we live Christ-honoring lives, speak of Christ to the lost, recognize the world-defying power of gospel witness in any form, and make music that does not compromise biblical teaching, we’re free—joyfully, exuberantly free—to rap as we see fit.
This book makes the case better than I can. You should dig into it. You’ll learn much historically, you’ll be blessed by Curt’s scriptural and theological reflections, and you’ll have fun doing it. Almost as much fun, in fact, as I did way back when, on that fateful day when my battling career ended (at 0-1, for those scoring at home). Almost as much fun as I’m having watching the Lord use my brother as he speaks a prophetic word and blesses God’s church through the use of his artistic and literary gifts.
Owen Strachan (aka Crosswords) is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, and teaches for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves as Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and is most recently the author of Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson, 2013)
endorsements & reviews..SHARE..
“Read this book, and ponder through its implications for your life and the Christian community as a whole.”
The popularity of rap music in the Christian culture has seen a massive explosion of almost epic proportions in the past ten years. Guys like Lecrae, Trip Lee, Propaganda, etc., have taken rap music and infused it with such deep theological truths that even older caucasian pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever not only have music from these rappers on their iPods, but even actively promote their music by having these guys come and rap at their churches. I don’t think many people would deny that the theological beliefs of most Christian rappers is deeply biblical, but there continues to be a push-back from some in the community of faith that can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that God is honored with rap music. Are their reservations with Christian rap based on God’s Word, or does it speak to a level of bias in these individuals that has no foundation in the Bible whatsoever but can be traced back to the fact that these people just don’t like something “different” than what they are used to? A new book, Does God Listen to Rap?: Christians and the World’s Most Controversial Music, by Curtis “Voice” Allen seeks to address these important questions related to rap.
In Chapter One, Curtis “Voice” Allen provides his readers with the reason behind the writing of this book. I always like reading what motivates authors to write the books that they write, since it lets me know if the book was borne out of controversy, trials/temptations, or out of a desire to make sure that the beliefs the author has subscribed to earlier in their Christian walk were unbiblical and in need of correction. For Curtis Allen, the whole reason this book was written was because he wanted to deal with the question of can/does Christian rap honor God. As a Christian rapper who had been faithfully rapping the truths of the Bible to a wide-ranging audience for years, Curtis freely admits that he had a somewhat biblically superficial response to all of the questions that were raised against Christian rap over the years. He seemingly had all of the answers, but those answers were borne out of a desire to defend something that he felt was right, but not something he had spent time studying from Genesis to Revelation to discern God’s thoughts about. Now, the first question that most people will think of is the fact that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about rap music, and that would be a correct statement. Therefore, Curtis didn’t begin his studies to try and find the word “rap” in the Bible, or a word similar to rap in order to prove his point, but he began his studies with the origins of music as whole. This book is the fruit of those labors.
Kicker, from a 5-star review on Amazon. See the full review.
”Do you want to think through this rap thing more biblically? Does God Listen to Rap? is the book for you.”
Curtis Allen’s Does God Listen to Rap release is providential. NCFIC (National Center for Family-Integrated Churches) Panel recently waded into waters way over their heads. They slandered Christian rappers (in some of the comments) and were ungenerous in others (most). My quick take is the general tenor of the panel came across as elitist and culturally superior and void of good and necessary consequence from Scripture.
Ironically, Curtis starts by retelling a story about a controversy that erupted when he released his first album and then performed at John Piper’s church (pp. 10-14). I recall the scuffle he mentions because it occurred in a Christian forum I frequented at the time. Even more ironically one of the NCFIC panelist was an outspoken critic of Christians rapping in that forum. Side note, Shai Linne also was involved and generously offered his CD for free to anyone who wanted to judge his music after actually listening to it.
Enter Does God Listen to Rap? which released almost a month prior to the NCFIC Panel. Curtis addresses some of very arguments made in the panel, and he does a better job of applying Scripture holistically to the topic. He’s also extremely humble about the conversation.
Obviously, I relate to those who are passionate about rap in a positive way. At the same time, I can understand the anti-rap perspective. I appreciate how this view can seem morally right and biblically faithful. I get how those who take this position believe they are defending God’s church against the further encroachment of a worldliness that can only bring harm to the faithful. As a husband, father, and pastor, I am 100 percent in favor of defending God’s people against sin and worldliness!
For anyone who listened to the panel and thought, “I know that’s off but I can’t put my finger on it.” Or “I just want to think through this rap thing more biblically” Does God Listen to Rap? is the book for you.
Curtis examines the roots of rap. He provides insights important for understanding hip hop culture and a background for the current discussion. What I appreciated most was his honesty. He doesn’t try to paint over hip hop’s missteps. He frankly discusses its short coming. A common objection to rap is that because of its rough history it’s beyond redemption. It is always morally sinful. Curtis points out that music itself is first created by the “wicked line of Cain” (p. 50). He says,
[T]he father of music and musicians was an idolater from a long line of idolaters, and that his music was therefore intended to glorify man, not God. Nevertheless, I am certain that the ability for Jubal to do these things came from God. That is, God blessed Jubal with special musical abilities, knowing that he would use them for sinful purposes. The Bible appears to be telling us that music as a form of human expression has wicked and sinful roots. . . . [E]valuating any form of music by its earthly beginnings looks like a higher standard than the one God uses. (p. 51)
He does an excellent job of concisely stating his case using Scripture. In the end, I think Curtis’s thesis wins the day. Christians can rap and glorify God. He boils things down so well on the closing pages of the book. I want to share a final selection:
Therefore, the question of whether to rap or not to rap, or whether to listen to rap or not listen to rap, is actually not about rap at all. It’s about the content and the intent of particular artists and songs, not the origin of the art form or the fact that it is still associated with some sinful practices. The question is not, _Has rap often been used to glorify man?_ Not a single human activity can pass that test. The real question is, _Can rap be used to glorify God?_ Yes. _Should it be?_ Absolutely. _Is that happening now?_ Yes, a lot. Conversion is the acquittal from every indictment based on sinful origins. Coming to Christ rarely means that we need to make a clean and permanent break from whatever professional, educational, or artistic pursuits we were involved in prior to our salvation. What matters is whether we are able to continue pursuing these things in a way that honors and glorifies God. (p. 77)
As evangelicals seek unity in diversity, we must also be willing to set aside our prejudices and just listen. We must hear our brothers and sisters from other cultures. We must generously seek to understand their culture. This cannot be done when making sweeping generalizations or hurling accusations from across the way. Mutual edification happens in the context of relationships. Does God Listen to Rap? is a great place to start.
Mathew Sims, Grace for Sinners
“Not a simplistic apologetic for a particular music style, but a robust framework for thinking biblically about all music”
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.
Aaron Armstrong, Blogging Theologically