Q&A: Rap 'n' Roll

Rap 'n' Roll

Question

I have heard some people talk against specific forms of Christian music (e.g., rap, rock) for various reasons, including "worldliness," "irregular beat," etc. Do you see any biblical principles or didactic teachings against any particular form of music?

Answer

When it comes to evaluating music, it is often helpful to distinguish between various aspects such as lyrics, tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, etc. But we ought not to allow ourselves to be distracted by hair-splitting, and thereby to avoid dealing with the more meaty issues. For instance, the charge of "worldliness" (a meaty issue) is sometimes valid, and there is scriptural warrant for avoiding worldliness. On the other hand, there is no Scriptural prohibition against "irregularity" (a vague notion that usually defies definition), nor is there even evidence in general revelation that irregularity is bad.

My own starting points in evaluating music are as follows:

(1) Data for evaluating music must come from both general and special revelation.

(2) Everything in life (including music) must glorify God.

(3) A person can be evil and can commit evil, but a song cannot be or commit evil. There are evil people whose music and songs tend to inspire evil in others, and there are other evil uses of songs and music.

(4) Most things in life (such as music) are neither entirely pure nor entirely impure. It takes wisdom to discern how any given thing (such as music) will impact us, and to know whether or not the benefit it provides is worth the risk or harm it entails.

Let's consider a couple examples critics have raised against modern music. On the one hand, some have said that certain time signatures and/or rhythms negatively affect the human body. First, I should say that I seriously doubt the science of this. But for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the assertion is true.

That a song negatively affects the human body does not imply that Christians should avoid that song. It might be one tiny point in the negative column, but by no means is it a trump card. After all, many things negatively affect the human body, but we encourage them because their benefits reasonably outweigh the harm they do. Can you imagine what the state of the church would be today if the Apostle Paul had ceased his missionary endeavors after having been stoned at Lystra (Acts 14)? Mission work was clearly harmful to his health, but he would have been wrong to stop. Or what about childbirth? Until only recently, many women died in childbirth, and even today it tends to entail a lot of pain and blood. How about surgery (cutting the flesh is a form of harm)? Or exercise (breaking down muscle tissue in order to rebuild it in a stronger form)? Or eating chocolate? Or slouching in a comfy chair?

Another unfounded criticism is the idea that only music that is "orderly" is in accord with general revelation. I actually heard this one taught by a respected teacher in my own denomination. The following argument was put forth: the Western 12-note octave accords with mathematical values. Math is a form of general revelation, therefore non-mathematical music is contrary to God's revealed character.

Now, math is part of general revelation, but so are snowflakes and fingerprints (no two are ever the same!). Moreover, all sound (including all music) can be defined in mathematical and orderly terms (in terms of sound waves, etc.). It is simply that some music requires more complex descriptions than others. And have you ever listened to nature? It's a cacophony of sounds. Using math as the standard for music is entirely arbitrary. There is no compelling natural or scriptural case for why math must be the standard by which music is measured, or for why simple mathematical formulae are superior to complex formulae.

Other criticisms, however, are more significant, such as the lyrical content of many modern songs, which commonly glorify sin. That doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't listen to them, but it does mean that we must not allow our exposure to sinful ideas to influence our perceptions of morality in an improper fashion. Hopefully, there are far better lyrics in Christian music, but we need to keep in mind that Christian musicians are not necessarily model believers. There is plenty of bad theology and there are plenty of wrong ideas and values even in Christian music.

John Frame offers a helpful distinction between "hearing" and "hearkening" that we can apply to lyrics and other aspects of music that influence us. Specifically, it is not wrong to listen to sinful ideas (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10), but it is wrong to adopt, follow or obey them (1 Cor. 15:33). If listening to the music tends to cause one to sin, then one ought not to listen to the music.

It is also worth noting that music tends to influence us in emotional ways that we cannot necessarily describe or analyze satisfactorily. Some music makes us angry, some arouses our libido, some makes us tired, some fills us with energy, etc. All of these influences can be used for good or for evil. But not everyone is moved in the same way by any given piece of music, and not everyone "hearkens" to what he "hears." Whatever the feelings we get from music, we must use those feelings for good and not for evil. If we cannot avoid using them for evil, then we ought not to listen to the music that inspires them.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.