In the middle of a chaotic childhood, Marcus Gray found comfort in the care of his grandmother. Gray, known as the Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist FLAME, remembers her with love. “She’s the one who made Christianity attractive,” Gray recalls. “She was always telling me about personal testimonies or walking me through Bible stories. If someone asked me when I was a kid if I was a Christian, I would’ve said yes, but at the same time, I was influenced by hip hop culture, the drug culture, gang culture. I was torn as to where I fit in this world.
“What brought me to a point of decision on my faith was when I was 16 years old, and some guys came to my high school with guns, looking for me. It was over a girl. It was scary. I got kicked out of school for that reason,” Gray says. As a result, he transferred to a trade school in a different part of St. Louis. While he was on his way to orientation, he and his friend were struck by an 18-wheeler.
He remembers praying, “Lord, save me,” while the car was spinning around like an amusement park ride. The rig struck the sedan a second time, flipping the car on its roof. The accident left a 12-car pileup on the highway and Gray with major injuries to his left side — and even bigger questions about his faith.
In the aftermath of the accident, he asked his grandmother, “Why would God let this happen?” “Maybe God is trying to get your attention,” he remembers her saying in response. “Turn to Him. Turn away from your lukewarm lifestyle and commit to Jesus.”
Less than two weeks after that discussion, his beloved grandmother was dead from a heart attack. Filled with shock and grief, Gray began his search for greater meaning in life. “I was invited to church,” he says. “Eventually I went, and that’s when I heard the Gospel. I was like, this sounds like the stuff my grandmother used to tell me.”
Gray grew in his faith and in his music. In his early 20s, he toured with a Christian rap group, The Cross Movement. The group members took him under their wing and helped him navigate the music industry. “They were staunch Calvinists,” he says. “They asked me, are you a Calvinist or an Armenian? And I was like, ‘I just follow Jesus.’”
“He’s speaking to the culture. And he is eating up Lutheran teaching because it’s true and it’s right — and it applies to life. It’s about as relevant as it gets.”
- Dr. Joel Biermann
At the end of the tour, he felt he needed to decide: Was he a Calvinist or an Armenian? Was that the only choice? he asked himself. He had never heard about Lutheranism. But that was all about to change.
“A friend of mine was like, ‘Hey, I’m coming back to the city. One of my Baptist professors recommended Concordia Seminary. If you want to continue your graduate work, you should go there. They have a strong church history program.’”
Gray decided he wanted to see for himself. During a visit to campus, he met Dr. Gerhard Bode, associate professor of Historical Theology and dean of Advanced Studies at the time. “During the entire visit, I talked about how much I loved John Calvin. I had no idea that Luther and Calvin had some differences. Dr. Bode said little things to put me back on track as to what the Seminary was all about … I didn’t know where all that was coming from in terms of Reformation history, but it made me want to submit an application.”
In preparation for the Seminary’s entrance exam, Gray read a series of Lutheran systematic theology books. He was intrigued by the Lutheran understanding of the Sacraments and the doctrine of justification. After being accepted into the Seminary’s Graduate School, he began the work to earn a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Systematic Theology.
Dr. Joel Biermann, the Seminary’s Waldemar A. and June Schuette Professor of Systematic Theology, was particularly instrumental in Gray’s theological journey. “Biermann was very bold about his Lutheran convictions,” Gray says. “I had never seen such clear distinctions.”
Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. also was influential. “Sánchez made sure that I really understood the distinction between how Calvin viewed Christology versus the Lutheran understanding,” Gray says. “He really tightened up my Christology,” which is the branch of Christian theology that studies the nature, person and work of Jesus.
After graduating with his M.A. in 2018, Gray took a year to work through his Seminary class notes. He compared Lutheranism and Calvinism, and talked with Lutheran pastors and Calvinistic pastors, all the while praying and seeking counsel from God. “That’s when I began to see Lutheranism as a more faithful expression of the New Testament,” Gray says.
In January 2020, Gray tweeted out his 10th record release, “Extra Nos,” which means “outside of ourselves.” This was his way of sharing his theological flight from Calvinism to Lutheranism, captured in his lyrics:
That bread and wine were elements that represent
I don’t think like that
This is my body and blood
He said what He meant
I used to, I used to, I used to, think
Jesus’ death wasn’t for all
It was sufficient for all”
— “Used to Think”
Gray even included a shout-out to Biermann, who says he feels honored to be mentioned on Gray’s EP and applauds how the hip hop artist and Seminary alum is using his craft to share the Gospel and Lutheran beliefs.
“To me, this is the master application,” Biermann says. “Truth is always relevant. He’s speaking to the culture. And he is eating up Lutheran teaching because it’s true and it’s right — and it applies to life. It’s about as relevant as it gets.”
While Gray is open to whatever the Lord has in store for him, whether it’s a ministerial call or more education, he likes the space that being an artist affords.
“I am in the gap so I can bridge worlds and cultures,” he says. “People are looking for meaning and purpose outside of themselves. So, I want to come in and say, Christianity has something to say there, or God does something for us, in us, that we can’t do for ourselves.
“We really do have this Good News that breaks into our troubled consciousness. And it brings relief, forgiveness, joy and assurance in a way that is not having you lean on your own performance within the last week or the last month for assurance. It is in God’s Word — His promises — united with external elements, the Sacraments, that provide grace and comfort. You tangibly eat the bread and drink the wine, and it’s just this awareness of the physicality of creation that God worked into our Christian experience. So, when I don’t feel worthy of acceptance, I realize I just took the Lord’s Supper and Someone outside of me, Christ Himself, applies forgiveness afresh and reminds me of my Baptism. And I can draw on that, His real bodily presence, in real time for the comfort and assurance that I long for.”
Sarah Maney is a communications specialist at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.