Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
In 2012, hip hop artist Lecrae made a distinct shift in his music. On his mixtape, Church Clothes, he went from rapping about overtly Christian topics and themes to penning lyrics about the everyday concerns of people in the streets. Two years later he has a Grammy and his latest release, Anomaly hit #1 on the Billboard 200.Both Lecrae and Andy Crouch display a savvy that other Christians who wish to impact broader culture may need to consider adopting.
Lecrae still raps from a biblical Christian perspective, but now his music is getting a hearing beyond the Christian clique. In the process he has gained both a hearing in the mainstream hip hop community and a vocal corner of critics. Why did Lecrae make this transition? Why would he risk alienating his original fan base? What accounted for the shift in his music?
Many have speculated, and there are undoubtedly several factors in his artistic movement, but a single line from a recently released song may help reveal his motivation.
Lecrae released the song “Non-Fiction” as a single to reward his fans for making, Anomaly such a success. The song describes Lecrae’s real-life journey from new convert to chart-topping rapper. According to one of the lines, “Andy Crouch wrote a book about culture-makin’, and after that I had to make a slight change.”
Andy Crouch is the Executive Editor of Christianity Today and the author of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. The premise of the book is simple: “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.”
Crouch says in his book, “If culture is to change, it will be because of some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world.” He proposes that instead of condemning, critiquing, copying, or uncritically consuming culture, something new has to displace the old. It appears Lecrae has been making new music in an attempt to do just that.
Lecrae has long made it known that he wishes to impact the hip hop world, a world that he loves but that is far from embracing a biblical worldview. He says as much in the last verse of “Non-Fiction”:
I got a mission that I’m fightin’ for, I’m writin’ songs tryin’ to give ya substance
Yea, I’m writin’ songs fightin’ for ya soul.
But Lecrae couldn’t fulfill his mission if his beats only banged in Christian ears, though not because Christians aren’t important to him. It was Christian fans who propelled him to popularity and still continue to support him. Nevertheless, having testified in Jerusalem, so to speak, Lecrae felt compelled to testify also in Rome (Acts 23:11).
In the next lines of “Non-Fiction,” Lecrae sings, “Ask the homies I ain’t do it for the money man / Nah, I made Church Clothes out of love.” The mixtape Church Clothes represented Lecrae’s first major attempt to create culture that mainstream audiences might accept. To do this he partnered with “secular” artists like DJ Don Cannon, Boi 1da, and No Malice (of the rap duo, Clipse).
Some Christians thought that Lecrae’s new methodology compromised his gospel impact. But both Lecrae and Andy Crouch display a savvy that other Christians who wish to impact broader culture may need to consider adopting.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The Lord utters these words as He is sending out the disciples for their first independent mission to declare, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Christians today are sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit with the same message and with the same command. We must be wise as serpents when it comes to navigating the culture, understanding the times; yet be innocent as doves, uncorrupted by the culture. We are to be in the world without holding the world’s values or ethics, God’s ambassadors in a foreign land.
Lecrae’s musical gambit seems to be working. Church Clothes, offered for free online, was downloaded 100,000 times in two days. It went on to reach #5 on the iTunes Hip Hop charts and was downloaded 250,000 times in less than a month. On the album, Lecrae entered into the experience of non-Christians who love hip hop. He spoke to their view that the church is full of hypocrites and expressed their frustration at what they perceive as judgmental criticism from many Christians.
But the uber-successful rapper hasn’t stopped yet. His subsequent releases—Church Clothes 2, Gravity, and, most recently, Anomaly have all followed this pattern of addressing topics in music that resonate with a broader audience. He has continued his attempts to shed the label of “Christian hip hop” and the negative connotations that cause many to ignore the music.
Perhaps in telling his story through the song “Non-Fiction,” and especially in revealing the role that Crouch’s book on culture-making played in his transition as an artist, Lecrae can help other Christians learn a lesson. Most believers want to see Christ honored in the wider culture. Evangelism, books, conferences, church planting, and innumerable other efforts are geared toward this end. Yet few can deny that Christianity as a belief system is increasingly marginalized in the United States, especially in the entertainment industry.
How will Christians remain faithful to their God and still have a voice in a culture that tries to muffle them in various ways? Lecrae, through his music, and Crouch, through his book, answer the same way: “Create more culture.” Christians may need to get more comfortable navigating secular settings in order to create new cultural artifacts that offer a different and biblical perspective.
But the men and women who commit themselves to the work of culture-creating must be brave. They will, as did Lecrae, face attacks from fellow believers. Many Christians think that in the act of creating culture, Christians are capitulating to it. That may, in fact, be the case with some. But Christians should remember that He who is in them is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4)
Maybe the way forward as Christians in America isn’t to retreat. Maybe there’s a way to engage non-believers and the culture they love without surrendering to it. Maybe Lecrae and Andy Crouch have a point about impacting culture by creating more of it.
Regardless of one’s particular stance, Lecrae’s disposition toward non-Christian culture is clear. As he said in an interview, “That’s my aim now: to let people know that we care about a lot of the same things. We read the same books, we listen to the same songs, I have a different outlook about me sometimes, but we’re more alike than you can imagine.”
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