From hymns to hip-hop

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, March 23, 2011, at 7:11 pm

If you are looking for theologically saturated Christian music that has the greatest potential for widespread appeal, your best option may be Christian hip-hop. Because of its form-a high volume of words with little repetition-hip-hop may provide one of the best modes of music to convey propositional truths and doctrinal content that at the same time connects to a younger generation. Contrast that with Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), which is often criticized for being shallow, theologically light, and generally lacking content that inspires the mind and the heart.

It is important to keep in mind that Christian hip-hop, unlike other contemporary genres, generally is not intended for use during corporate worship, so rejecting its appropriateness for the liturgy is not relevant.

But even with the deep theological content found in much of Christian hip-hop, many evangelicals view it as an inappropriate medium for Christian music. This objection reveals some level of ignorance about the historical development of Christian music.

Dr. David Koyzis, in his book Political Visions and Illusions, highlights this ignorance by noting, "Many conservatives dislike 'pop' or 'rock' music and prefer, say, the baroque pieces of Bach or Telemann. . . . The very label 'baroque' was used in a derogatory fashion by conservatives of that day to describe what they felt to be ugly music." Today many hail the "ugly" church music set to baroque as the height of Christian music and a form that should be normative today.

What we consider to be "ugly" forms of music often depend on personal preferences and social location. For example, in Christian traditions that sing only the Psalms without instrumental accompaniment, the worst thing for them would be to sing praise to God using lyrics not directly from the Bible and to pollute music offered to God with instruments like a pipe organ. Could Christian hip-hop simply be the "ugly" music of our era?

Let's take a look at the lyrics from the song "Triune Praise" by hip-hop artist Shai Linne and note the theological depth that is not generally found in CCM music:

Praise God the Father, the Immortal Creator

For Your glory you made us, You're the Sovereign Orchestrator

All that You decree will most surely come to happen

You're awesome as can be and Your glory none can fathom

Nothing could ever stain You, the heavens can't contain You

We thank You for sending Your Son to explain You

Otherwise we would have remained in the dark

but You sent Your Holy Spirit to spark a change in our hearts

According to Your eternal purpose and will

You determined to reveal Yourself to those who deserve to be killed

Those of us whom You foreknew adore You

We praise You that You predestined us to be conformed to

The image of Your Son who's the radiance of Your glory

When I meditate on it, the weightiness of it floors me

So Father, we'll praise you over and over again

Because You sent Your only Son to atone for our sins

Boyce College student and rapper/producer Alex Medina even finds similarities between a Christian rapper and a beloved hymn writer in their lives and the content of their music: "[John] Newton's care for his local church in Olney and the development of 'Amazing Grace' reminded me [of] Sho Baraka." And you'll see these commonalities with rappers associated with labels like Reach, Cross Movement, and Lamp Mode, to name a few.

Given the international popularity of "ugly" hip-hop in general, and the weak content of much CCM music, Christian rap may emerge as the last bastion of producing theologically driven Christian music for generations to come.

(For more on Christian hip-hop, see "Holy hip-hop," by Mark Bergin, WORLD, Feb. 3, 2007.)

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

Read more from this writer