Here’s a development that is taking a lot of Christians by surprise. Reformed theology is being heavily promoted by prominent rappers such as Trip Lee, Lecrae, and Shai Linne. These men, orthodox in their theology, are using rap to affirm such teachings as the hypostatic union of Christ’s nature (fully divine/fully human), Biblical inerrancy and the mission of disciple-making.
Discussion about the Reformed rappers has again raised the question of whether judgments about musical style ought to be made at all. A potentially fruitful exchange has surfaced between Shai Linne and Scott Aniol, a graduate of Bob Jones University and currently assistant professor of worship and church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s rare to see the moral implications of music style treated seriously in a public forum, but that’s what is going on now. You can follow it here. Linne and Aniol are asking each other respectful and intelligent questions, and giving careful, thorough answers, not only about rap, but about the moral implications of music style.
This matters because evangelical and even many fundamentalist churches are retreating from teaching young people to make principled choices regarding musical style. An acquaintance once said to me, “You know, our children aren’t going to listen to the same kind of music that we do.” In many cases that is true, and not altogether bad, so long as we who are responsible for discipling them will really disciple them. It’s not a matter of controlling their choices, but rather believing that principled choices are possible and then teaching them discernment to make choices. The alternative is to leave them in a moral vacuum in which their habits are merely reactions to the pressures from popular culture.
Scripture speaks not only to the content but also the form of communication. One foundational statement is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”
Notice that the text does not say to meditate on what we think or feel is good, but what is good. That implies that things in human culture have objective qualities rooted in creation that allow us to recognize their goodness, and distinguish them from what is not good. Likewise, I Thessalonians 5:21 says, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” And I Timothy 3:16-17 puts every area of a Christian’s life under the governing care of Scripture.
It’s worth noting that typically the people who argue that music style is completely amoral are Christians who want to justify the use of rock music and its offshoots. Non-Christians come right out and say what they are doing with their music styles. Time magazine captured it well: “In a sense, all rock is revolutionary. By its very beat and sound it has always implicitly rejected restraints and has celebrated freedom and sexuality.”
Similar observations have been made many times by many other advocates. In light of that, consider the following questions:
Since how we communicate matters, what puts music style in a special category that shields it from moral discernment?
Given that certain music styles are well suited to expressing rebellion and other attitudes antithetical to the Bible, how is it that those styles can still be appropriate for Christians?
When Christians use such music styles to communicate truth, is the medium in harmony with the words, or is it fighting the words?
How do we make sense of Scriptures such as Philippians 4:8 and I Thessalonians 5:21 if music style choices are only personal preferences?
It is not essential that every Christian make exactly the same music choices in order to be faithful. Nor are such choices always clear or easy. They are not. They require humility and careful thinking because we are not infallible. But by replacing personal preferences with principled judgments from Scripture, we can give our children the preparation to make wise choices. How is that done? Feel free to add your comment and explore that question.