Written and media by Ben Casey.
When making art of any medium, it’s very important for artists to express themselves honestly. Art as a medium has grown over the centuries to attempt to capture or comment on moments and feelings of the human condition. Artists ranging from Diego Velazquez to The Beatles have given a kind of personal touch to their art that has survived the test of time and given an emotive connection to the audience.
But what about Christian artists? Are Christian artists limited in their expression compared to secular ones? Should Christian artists have to censor themselves in order to more accurately represent Christ?
Theologian Dr. Dennis Haack criticized modern Christian art, warning that if artists are limited only to Christian messages, “it descends pretty quickly into propaganda” and that Christians “don’t have to paint a cross to get [their faith] across.” So it would seem that artists are not limited to creating only explicitly Christian-themed art. But does it give Christian artists permission to use coarse language or talk about their struggles with sin in an almost glorifying way?
Popular hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper is a good example of this question in action. Chance has recently declared his Christian faith publicly, trading in smoking for church and declaring, “all things are possible through Christ who strengthens me.” Chance’s new music also shows the change with his newest single Angels declaring “I just had a growth spurt, It done took so long, my tippy toes hurt. You can keep the nose ring, I don’t have to soul search. I’m still at my old church, only ever sold merch.” Chance’s declaration of faith is very encouraging, but it does have some problems. Can Chance, as a Christian, perform older songs from his catalogue which rather explicitly glorify drugs and premarital sex? Would Chance, in order to more accurately represent Christ, need to retire songs such as Lost or Juice?
Jesus himself said that “the mouth speaks from that which fills the heart.” While this doesn’t make swear words inherently off limits, it does mean that Christians should avoid using language that tears people down or needlessly offends others. However, Proverbs 12:17 declares that “he who speaks the truth tells what is right, but a false witness deceives.” So a Christian should be honest with themselves about their struggles and about their actions, good or evil.
So there is a line. A Christian should not talk about immoral things in a glorifying way, but they need to speak the truth. So perhaps in the case of Chance the Rapper, these songs which might glorify drugs can still be performed if he puts them in the context of his other songs such as Cocoa Butter Kisses which talk about the dangers and isolation illicit drug use can bring. Talking about struggles with sin is okay for the Christian artist if they can use it to point to Christ as a better alternative.
Popular rapper Kendrick Lamar is probably the best example of an artist who uses his struggles with sin to ultimately point to Christ. In his new album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick uses his experiences with death, sex and drugs in Compton to point to his rebirth in Christ. Throughout the album, he struggles with feelings of hypocrisy, self-hatred and lust for worldly pleasure, but ultimately is transformed by Jesus and the message of the Gospel. Despite his use of profanity and descriptions of drug use and premarital sex, Kendrick shows these things as what they are: pleasures of the world that ultimately do not satisfy.
Kendrick Lamar does not censor himself because he doesn’t have to. He gives a message of hope through all of the darkness. In the same way, Christian artists don’t need to censor themselves, but they do need to keep in mind that what they do as Christians will ultimately point to Christ. Art is a medium full of both entertainment and meaning. People are extremely influenced by art and for a Christian artist, it’s important to use that influence for the glory of God.