Last week, hip-hop artist NF shocked the music world by shooting to the top of the Billboard Artist 100 charts thanks to the unexpected success of his latest album, “The Search.” As news of NF’s climb reverberated around the internet, numerous media outlets ran profiles on the 28-year-old Michigan native and Christian Nathan Feuerstein, who is better known as NF.
Those profiles compared NF to another white rapper from Michigan, Eminem. Indeed, in an interview several years ago, NF admitted no one has influenced his music more than the Detroit rap legend. As one critic recently noted, NF models himself after his predecessor in both substance and style, also drawing from his traumatic childhood and coming from “the technical school of rap, where the height of artistry is cramming as many syllables and as much internal rhyme into each bar as possible.”
A prime example of NF’s gut-wrenching subject matter is his previously released “How Could You Leave Us?” in which NF directs righteous anger at his mother who died of a drug overdose when the rapper was only 18: “I don’t get it mom, don’t you want to watch your babies grow?/ I guess that pills are more important, all you have to say is no/ But you won’t do it will you?/ You gon’ keep popping ’til those pills kill you/ I know you gone but I can still feel you.”
“The Search” has thus far been similarly praised for its authenticity and NF’s willingness to humbly admit his mental health struggles, especially his diagnosis with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the track “Leave Me Alone,” he raps: “Diagnosed with OCD, what does that mean? Well, gather ’round/ That means I obsessively obsess on things I think about/ That means I might take a normal thought and think it’s so profound (leave me alone)/ Ruminating, fill balloons up full of doubt/ Do the same things, if I don’t, I’m overwhelmed/ Thoughts are pacing, they go ’round and ’round and ’round/ It’s so draining, let’s move onto something else, fine.”
‘Are You a Christian Plumber?’
While NF isn’t a carbon copy of Eminem — the former doesn’t swear in his lyrics, whereas the latter hasn’t met a four-letter word he doesn’t like — his best line doesn’t come from his fast-flowing clean lyrics but from an interview in 2016 in which he was asked if he classified himself as a Christian rapper. NF responded:
Not at all. I mean, I’m a Christian, but I’m just an artist. I’m a musician. You know what I mean? To me, it’s like if you’re a Christian and you’re a plumber, are you a Christian plumber? That’s the easiest way for me to explain it. I just make music.
NF’s attempt to distance himself from the label of Christian rapper is reminiscent of Lecrae doing the same several years ago when admitting he wanted to “transcend the genre.” At first glance, both Lecrae and NF’s desire to shed the C-word from their personae seems like a calculated move to maintain a larger, more mainstream audience in the hopes of making more money — a renunciation of faith for riches.
But that assessment doesn’t give credit to NF’s wise and deep understanding of the gospel ethic of work, as evidenced by his reference to Christian plumbers. C.S. Lewis had a similarly captivating line about this very subject in his essay “Christian Apologetics.” “What we want is not more little books about Christianity,” wrote Lewis, “but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.”
NF grasps this principle well. He realizes that what our society wants and needs is not more little rap songs about Christianity, but more little rap songs by Christians — with their Christianity latent.
We Need More Latent Christianity
By laying down the mantel of Christian rapper and instead making music that is authentic, full of pain, yet performed with humility and with lyrics that don’t burn listeners’ ears, NF has become the living embodiment of Lewis’ words. It would be easy for NF to drape himself in the garb of American Christianity, proclaim himself a Christian rapper, and sing about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That is not meant to disrespect those who do so, but to show there is room for men and women to genuinely maintain their faith while not feeling obligated to commercialize it. NF understands he can serve others and glorify God by rapping with excellence and humility and by addressing the pain he has endured.
More recently, Timothy Keller, who some consider a modern-day Lewis, has written about this topic as well. In his 2012 book about the intersection of faith and work, “Every Good Endeavor,” the New York City pastor wrote:
Some people think of the gospel as something we are principally to ‘look at’ in our work. This would mean that Christian musicians should play Christian music, Christian writers should write stories about conversion, and Christian businessmen and -women should work for companies that make Christian-themed products and services for Christian customers. Yes, some Christians in those fields would sometimes do well to do those things, but it is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities. Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you ‘look’ at everything else in the world. … The Christian writer can constantly be showing the destructiveness of making something besides God into the central thing, even without mentioning God directly.
By appealing to the “Christian plumber,” NF shows a profound understanding of faith and work that we would all do well to learn from and imitate. To be sure, as Keller mentions, undoubtedly many men and women should be doing work in which they explicitly articulate their faith.
But NF’s words serve as a reminder that those who are not pastors, worship leaders, or Christian businessmen or businesswomen are not second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Christians have almost unlimited potential to live out their faith as plumbers, accountants, politicians, or any number of thing, as NF lives out his, with their Christianity latent.