Yes, the title seems absurd at first glance, but stay with me. I promise this isn't as far-fetched as it may appear. It may be unfair to compare two rap artists to two of the greatest literary figures of our time, but while the scope, context, and framing of their content may be different, I believe their overall missions have a lot in common.
“The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” - J.R.R. Tolkien ("On Fairy-Stories")
This quote briefly explains why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their stories; they were trying to share the story of Jesus through their fiction. A study of Lewis and Tolkien will quickly show that they were more than just colleagues. In fact, the two were friends and often helped each other with the writings they were working on, which may explain why it is hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. Not to mention the fact that The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicle of Narnia are two of the best-selling fiction series of all time.
While Lewis and Tolkien shared a common goal in their writing, the way they shared the story of Jesus is drastically different. It is easy to look at their reason for writing and assume that they would produce similar types of story (as many might say LOTR and Narnia are), but the truth is they each had a unique approach to how they incorporated the Gospel in their writing.
On one hand, Tolkien used a more subtle approach when placing Biblical truths within mythological stories. Let's take a look at a scene from The Hobbit, the best-selling prequel to the LOTR series, for an example. In The Hobbit, there is a scene where Bilbo escapes from the mountain (spoiler alert), after being inside for three days, through a door that had been closed by having a stone rolled over it. When the passage is summarized succinctly, the comparison to the Biblical story of a stone being rolled away from the tomb after three days and Jesus rising from the tomb may seem obvious. However, readers of The Hobbit can easily miss this resemblance because of the way it is ingrained in the actual story. The scene focuses heavily on Bilbo's thoughts and fears inside a dark tunnel, and if readers aren't careful, they could read right over the Biblical imagery. However, when readers are able to see the "sudden glimpse of underlying truth," they are able to experience at least a part of the joy that comes with discovering Jesus. It is Tolkien’s ability to incorporate Biblical truth deep within a story that makes the discovery of the mystery of the Gospel for one’s self so powerful.
Now, on the other hand, Lewis was most praised for the way he took mundane life and flipped it on its head to show the underlying spirituality. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis takes a look at normal human life through the eyes of a demon. It is a twisted novel, yet it reveals some profound truths about human nature and spirituality. It is alarming how personal the story feels, and Lewis makes it easy for readers to relate to a conversation between two devils on how best to tempt and deceive their human "patients." What is most interesting though, is Lewis' perception of this particular novel.
"Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’ – I need no other’s – ‘showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly." - C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)
The reason the story is so relatable is because it comes straight from Lewis’ own heart. This novel is impactful to a multitude of readers because anyone can put themselves in the shoes of the human patient. Yes, the devils and their correspondence are fictitious, but their temptations and their methods are not. They are straight from Lewis’ experiences, and it is easy for readers to connect to him because many people experience the same struggles.
So what about Lecrae and Kendrick Lamar? How do they compare to these two literary giants?
Although it may not be common knowledge, Lecrae and Kendrick Lamar are not only contemporaries but friends as well. The two have yet to collaborate on a song, but they clearly have a relationship that goes beyond their music. In an interview, Lecrae talks about how he enjoys hearing Kendrick rap about his faith, but he cares more about how he is living that faith out. There is a sense of a common goal that is reflective of that same common goal shared by Lewis and Tolkien.
Regarding their individual work, let’s start with Kendrick Lamar, who I believe most resembles Tolkien. Not many people would consider Kendrick to be a rapper who is a Christian (let alone a Christian rapper), but his music portrays the Gospel more than one might think at first listen. Alan Noble writes an excellent analysis of Kendrick's lyrics and how they show his faith, but I will point out just one of his lyrics. His hit single "B****, Don't Kill My Vibe" starts with this line:
"I am a sinner who's probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me."
What is remarkable about Kendrick is despite the title of this song, Kendrick appears to be addressing his faith and at least acknowledging the existence of a God who forgives sins. While his faith may not be a secret, it's easy to listen to his music (which is full of its fair share of expletives) and not necessarily hear any sort of Biblical truth. Kendrick Lamar is making music in a way that covertly proclaims the Gospel amidst seemingly worldly lyrics, similar to the way Tolkien ingrained Biblical truths within his fictions. Both Tolkien and Kendrick Lamar allow readers/listeners to discover the meaning behind their works for themselves, and by doing so, they are letting people discover Jesus for themselves.
Another reason for Kendrick’s approach is to appeal to a mainly non-Christian audience. The music Kendrick Lamar writes is for people like him. People who grew up in tough neighborhoods, people who experienced serious crimes at an early age, and people who are desperately hoping there is something more. Amidst lyrics that seem to be similar to the mainstream rap of today, Kendrick is able to address deeply spiritual needs in a way that only he could, while also attracting an audience that may not have any understanding of who God is.
Lecrae's music contrasts Kendrick's, but its message is similar. Known as the face of Christian rap, Lecrae stands out from modern hip-hop with his overtly Christian lyrics and honest songs portraying his sins and struggles. His song "Indwelling Sin" is a musical version of The Screwtape Letters, and after analyzing the lyrics, the comparison to Lewis is all too natural. In this song, Lecrae portrays both himself and the voice of temptation that lives inside him. Here are the first lines:
“’Aye look what's good fam it's me again. The one you used to call your friend. I know you ain't forgot me?’
‘Oh yeah you always get me caught in sin.’
‘Here you go with that again. You act like we ain't cool or somethin. Let's go smoke a Kool or somethin. Talk and sip a brew or somethin.’
‘Naw man I ain't trusting you. Ain't nothing but lust in you…’”
What follows from there is a conversation between Lecrae and his inner demon depicting Lecrae’s personal battle and struggle against the voice inside him that is trying to lead him away from his faith. The lies of the devil inside him are remarkably relatable, and the song gives listeners insight into the temptations that Lecrae deals with every day. Much like Lewis, Lecrae writes straight from his own experiences, allowing his audience to connect on a more personal level.
At this point, I hope that you think the comparison of Lecrae and Kendrick to Lewis and Tolkien is not as outlandish as it first seemed, but even if you're not convinced, here is what I want you to take away. The ability of the Gospel to transcend books, music, and any art form only serves to show the power that the story of Jesus truly has. It is incredible how well Jesus can translate into the mouths of many different types of artists to be heard by the ears of many different types of audiences. The underlying truth in the writings of Lewis and Tolkien and the music of Lecrae and Kendrick is that no matter how one chooses to share the story of God with others, the strength of Jesus will shine through, and the power of His story will not be hindered.