'FLAME' proclaims Gospel via rap
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--What do English Puritan John Owen, pastor John Piper and theologian Wayne Grudem have in common with rap music?
This trio of theological heavyweights inspired Marcus Williams Gray to write and record a Grammy-nominated album of hip-hop tunes that communicate Gospel truths.
Gray, also known as Christian rapper "FLAME," is a student at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He has broken into the world of rap music with a style that is as potent as it is unusual within the genre: sound biblical doctrine.
On the surface, the two seem a discordant mix -- the violence and sex-saturated ethos of hip-hop music and the otherworldly ethos of biblical Christianity -- but FLAME has wed the two in a way that is proclaiming the Gospel on a bold new frontier.
"A lot of people say, 'That music is of the devil,'" Gray said of rap. "Well, I agree. The message can definitely be demonic or anti-Christ. But the power in rap music in and of itself is massive. So when you take the Gospel message and you marry it to rap music, it's a dynamic that can't be duplicated."
Gray's latest album, "Our World Redeemed," translates the Reformed theology of Owen, Piper and Grudem into a musical study of redemption. The album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album category and has many people listening to the Gospel who wouldn't otherwise be interested.
"When people, especially those who love rap music, when they hear Christian rap, it's just an automatic respect if the quality is good," Gray, a biblical counseling major, said. "... People stop in their tracks, and they lend you an ear. It's almost like Mars Hill, the Areopagus. It's just this marketplace where people want to hear your ideas."
Though he is careful not to equate rap with preaching, Gray said the Holy Spirit has used rap to convert sinners to faith in Christ.
"When they hear relevant metaphors and similes that are from the culture but are affiliated with God's Word and the Bible, it's just a wonderful tool in the hands of God," he said. "And I've seen so many people, I've just seen their jaws drop and I've seen the Holy Spirit dig inside of their heart and start to remove that stony heart. And they hear the Gospel through rap music."
Gray believes rap music may be a more effective tool for communicating the Gospel than pop music. A rap song has three verses of 16 bars each, he said; thus, the tempo and non-repetitive nature of a rap song allows those verses to be packed with biblical content.
"You can't do that normally in just a regular pop song or singing-style song," he said. "But in this form and in this medium, you can pack so much information in one song. And people just become liberated because they heard God's heart and His Word articulated in such a way where it makes sense and it's relevant."
Growing up in the inner city of St. Louis, Gray was influenced by hip-hop culture from a young age. He started rapping in fifth grade, addressing positive and benign topics. But as he aged, Gray turned darker both in his music and his lifestyle. Gangs, drugs and a party atmosphere -- the more standard elements commonly associated with the hip-hop lifestyle -- became fixtures of his life.
At age 16 God got his attention: A car accident involving an 18-wheeler nearly took Gray's life. When he asked his grandmother why God let the incident happen, she told him God was trying to catch his attention. A week and a half later his grandmother died, and Gray felt broken.
When a friend invited him to church, the Gospel captivated him.
"When I heard the Gospel, I just wept because [I realized] the purpose for which God created me, to worship Him. Hearing the Gospel and His love for sinners and the call to repent -- all of that just kind of gripped my heart," he said.
"It was through that experience I remember just shedding tears, man, and asking the Lord to forgive me for all the things I had done in my past and at that point in my present. And He saved me."
Immediately God began removing vices from Gray's life. He recognized that "the Lord was changing me and cleaning me up."
As part of his devotional life, Gray wrote raps to God and sang to Him during quiet times. Though he had no plans to become a recording artist, Gray began to listen to other Christian rappers and realized the potential power of the medium for ministry. So through a series of providential encounters, he began producing albums.
Among the topics his music has addressed are the Trinity, hermeneutics, the fall of man and the false teaching of the prosperity gospel.
Though he gained the name FLAME before becoming a Christian, Gray says it now describes the "fire in his bones" to spread God's Word.
"People can get a full and a broad perspective of the whole counsel of God in one album," he said. "You take 74 minutes, and you can flesh out the whole counsel of God and people can get a short synopsis of the entire Bible in 74 minutes. So it's a powerful platform."
David Roach is a writer for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.