What do you get when you cross John Piper with Eminem?
Although this question might at first glance invite cognitive dissonance, there is one clear answer: Lecrae Moore, a Christian rap artist whose recent albums have topped the Billboard charts, elicited the attention of evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition, and garnered an impressive number of evangelical listeners. In fact, Lecrae is simply the most visible and most successful of a cohort of Christian hip-hop artists who, by managing to combine expert musicianship with penetrating theological lyricism, are beginning to change the face of Christian music.
Raised by a single mother, Lecrae grew up in various cities across the United States, including San Diego, Denver, and Dallas. Although there was some religious influence in his home, most of his youth was spent in rebellion against the church. When he was 19, however, a friend convinced him to attend a Christian conference, where he was converted after listening to a sermon by speaker James White.
After attending the University of North Texas, Lecrae co-founded a recording label, Reach Records, and began to write hip-hop music. His breakout album, Rebel (2008), became the first Christian rap album to reach number one on Billboard’s Top Gospel Charts. Lecrae followed up this effort in 2010 with the Grammy-nominated Rehab, which became for a time the third most popular album on iTunes.
What is most surprising to those uninitiated into the world of Christian hip-hop is the theological content that drives the vision of Lecrae and his collaborators. Indeed, one is more likely to find references to figures from Protestant history in these songs than the “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiments so often criticized by opponents of contemporary Christian music. Undoubtedly, theologian John Piper is one of the main theological influences. Lecrae’s most famous song, “Don’t Waste Your Life,” is a thinly veiled reference to Piper’s book of the same title.
Sometimes Piper even makes it into the lyrics themselves. In “Fanatic,” for instance, Lecrae recommends the example of leaders “from Edwards to Piper, MacArthur to Spurgeon. . . .” Likewise, Trip Lee, a guest artist on Lecrae’s song “Fall Back,” raps, “We’re spitting, aiming at your heart like snipers / We’d like for you to desire God like Piper.”
Lecrae’s acknowledgment of Piper is not surprising, given that Rebel and Rehab are suffused with Piper’s theology of “Christian hedonism.” This idea—that the pleasures of knowing and loving Christ are superior to every other pleasure—recurs frequently throughout Lecrae’s music. The chorus of “God is enough,” for example, states, “Used to want a lot of things, all the stuff that’s on TV / Education, cars, and clothes, flashin’ lights and jewelry / Focused on the wrong stuff, now I’ve got my eyes on you / And now I know that God is enough.” Similarly, in “Identity,” Lecrae tells of a Christian who still looks to the world for affirmation. “If he looked in God,” Lecrae rhymes, “it may seem odd / but he be so satisfied he could leave it all.”
This affinity for Piper is not entirely coincidental; Lecrae and several other Christian rappers clearly evince a preference for Reformation theology and the Reformed tradition. For instance, Curtis Allen, known as “Voice,” has written rap songs about the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School theologian D. A. Carson is “featured” on the former track, while the latter was written at the request of Sovereign Grace Ministries leader C. J. Mahaney, and is based on Kevin DeYoung’s tribute to the catechism, The Good News We Almost Forgot (2010). Subtle references to divine predestination and eternal security—“[she’ll] never be rejected by God who’s elected her”—appear on several of Lecrae’s tracks as well. Although this is not a major theme of their writing, Christian hop-hop artists’ penchant for Calvinism was deemed interesting enough to become the subject of a short piece in Christianity Today.
But should we welcome the rise of Reformed rappers? Might this not be a dangerous compromise with worldly fashions? At first glance, the idea of Christians adapting the medium of hip-hop to further the gospel might sound surprising to many Bible-believing Christians accustomed to thinking of rap as the epitome of all that is wrong with modern culture. Yet what Lecrae, Voice, and Trip Lee are doing is not at all unique in the history of evangelicalism.
Indeed, as several historians have noted, evangelicals have nearly always sought to redeem “secular” culture. Historian Harry S. Stout, for example, has shown that the Great Awakening revivalist George Whitefield used the techniques of newspapermen and actors to promote and shape his unique brand of revivalism. Although the theatre itself was condemned by conservative Christian groups, Whitefield boldly used its tactics in his attempt to gain converts. Similarly, the flamboyant Presbyterian preacher Billy Sunday drew on his experiences in baseball (an activity not widely approved by 19th-century evangelicals) to attract audiences as an early twentieth century revivalist. Twentieth-century evangelicals—taking to heart Larry Norman’s query “Why should the devil have all the good music?”—have likewise proved themselves to be willing adapters of the controversial medium of rock music, as any Christian radio station can attest. In this sense, Lecrae and his cadre of Christian rappers are simply the modern-day heirs of Norman, Keith Green, David Meece, and other pioneers of Christian rock.
Parents looking for a culturally relevant way to encourage their teenagers in the Christian faith would do well to point them toward the music of Lecrae, Trip Lee, and Voice. Although the music might seem strange to their middle-aged ears, the message will be an entirely familiar one: that Christ alone offers genuine satisfaction in a world of emptiness.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a doctoral student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
Image courtesy of The Rock & Worship Roadshow.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.