I love music.
I love the way music influences me. I love rhythm. I love rhyme. I love percussion. And I love when all of those elements come together, to create a particular sound that essentially gives me permission to enter into a different world, even if only for a few minutes.
Music brings back memories I have long forgotten. In an instant, a song I haven’t heard in decades comes back to me with the fondness of seeing an old friend again. For some reason, music has an effect on me like very few things do. I suspect that many of us feel the same way.
As a believer, this goes a step further. Music can add to the hope I have in Christ. It reminds me of truths that can recalibrate my thinking and attitude. And when music is done well, I can even see God’s grace in giving skill to those who are truly gifted at making good music.
But herein lies the problem. Sometimes those who make the best music don’t believe in God – at least not from what we can tell. Their lyrics don’t seem to care about giving glory to God. As a believer, sometimes I decide not listen to music because of how not glorifying to God it is, no matter how good it sounds.
But then there are times when a musician uses lyrics or adds a certain blend to his music that gives it a “Christian” feel. In particular, some rap artists, have music with Christian undertones in it. These undertones have, on a few occasions, led many to wonder if they actually believed in Jesus.
In the late 90’s a street rapper named DMX, whose music was largely violent, had such Christian undertones in it that many argued that he was a genuine believer. This was despite all the evidence to the contrary of what was known of his life outside of the studio.
Today is no different. Despite a growing tangible opposition to the church and her commitment to Christ, some artists are finding a place of acceptance, making music that media is at least calling “gospel.” This presents a two fold challenge to the genuine believer of Christ.
One, we like the music.
And two, we want the person to be saved.
So then, how do we process good music with Christian undertones when we’re not sure if the person really is a Christian, especially when the music has themes or language that do not stem from faith? While many have written on this topic with thoughts and reasoning that are beyond the scope of this article, I would like to offer a few thoughts to consider.
Considerations From Jesus (Mark 9:38-41)
In Mark 9:38-41 we find this story:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
I know this story isn’t immediately related to the question at hand, but there is a principle here to consider: Jesus didn’t mind if people used his name for something positive, because it meant they couldn’t say something negative about him later.
The faith of the man is not clear, and is in fact called into question by John. We can gather that even if he wasn’t a genuine believer in Christ (“because he was not following us” John said), he had enough respect for Christ to use his name in a public way that brought attention to Christ. And Jesus saw that as a good thing.
Today our society has so denigrated itself with everything but Christ that there is almost no room for Christ. Yet, musicians, athletes, and celebrities from all over are “getting away with it”, saying their music, sport, or art is largely influenced by their faith in Christ.
So a guy like Chance the Rapper (I have no idea if he’s a genuine believer) can make a “gospel rap album” (not really but there are undertones of Christianity clearly there), have it accepted as such (even though there is profanity that would turn many Christians off), and have it bring attention to who Jesus is.
And all this could, surprisingly, bring some back to the faith because they are affected by the music. God could clearly use Chance the Rapper, or even Kanye West’s songs that speak of Jesus, in a way that is for him not against him.
As believers, we have to know that God can and God does work like this. It doesn’t mean we should listen to or accept every musician’s version of faith, but we can at least be glad that Jesus’ name is out there and even use it as an evangelistic springboard to share the real gospel. Even if the musician has ulterior motives for mentioning Jesus.
Considerations From Paul
Philippians 1:15-18 reads:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Paul is in prison and he hears that there are people who are preaching the gospel that he knows have bad motives for doing so. Yet he offers a perspective here we should adopt as our own.
Paul is less concerned with the genuineness of the person preaching and more concerned that the gospel is being spread.
Again, this isn’t a one-to-one analogy here, as it relates listening to music that is not overly Christian. In Paul’s case they were actually preaching the gospel as opposed to just making music that mentions Jesus. However, there is still a guiding principle that can come out of this, especially in light of the hostile times we find ourselves in.
We may need to be grateful that Jesus’ name is out there, even if we’re not sure about the person putting it out there.
Notice that Paul isn’t giving credibility to those people – he gives it to the message. He knew that some of the people weren’t genuine (“Some indeed peach Christ from rivalry and envy”). Yet, Christ is out there, which means the possibility that some may get saved.
In this day and age, many of us are becoming increasingly afraid to preach the gospel. Understandably so. But it must be preached. It will be preached. And if God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, he can surely use a person who may not genuinely believe in Christ to say things that express genuine truth about Christ.
We should use this for our benefit. Ask someone what they think of the artist or the album. What do they think of the artist’s “faith?” There is a lot that could be done here – we just have to seize the moment.
Having said all of this, I’m not saying every or any Christian should listen to music simply because it has some Christian undertones in it. A lot of that has to do with a person’s maturity, the other messages that the music is promoting, and so forth. As I said earlier, there’s some music I don’t listen to because of the message it promotes, no matter how good it sounds.
But I also think as believers we need to be in the world and not of it. We need to be wise as serpents. We need to infants in evil but mature in thinking. To these things, we’re going to have to engage the world on various fronts.
Music just happens to be one of them.