HOLY HIP-HOP CONTROVERSY: Rapper Propaganda’s blistering critique of Puritanism’s racist history has some Reformed listeners crying foul.
Rapper Propaganda created a tornado of criticism with the recent release of “Precious Puritans” on his new album Excellent (available here). In the song, Propaganda reminds his audience to increase their cultural intelligence by caring about the black experience in America and to recognize the fact that, like the Puritans, we all have blind spots and need to have our minds constantly renewed (Rom. 12:2) by God’s word. The song also challenges those who uncritically treat the Puritans as a protected class that stands outside of the Bible’s command to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
For those who may be unfamiliar, Puritanism was a Christian reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. The movement spilled over into New England well into the 17th century and had a significant influence on the mores of America’s founding. Theologically speaking, the Puritans were committed to the doctrines of grace that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, with their particular emphasis on the intersection of sound doctrine and personal piety. In recent years, many young white Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have been looking for substantive, theologically driven, analytic approaches to personal piety rooted in a tradition they found lacking in their own backgrounds. Thirsting for depth and history, these “new-Calvinists,” with the help of well-known pastors like John Piper, have found spiritual enrichment by studying the Puritans.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
The song continues to highlight ways in which the black experience in the Puritan tradition is mishandled within white conservative evangelicalism. However, instead of leaving it simply at critique and dismissal, like we might find among some black liberation theologians, Propaganda ends the song by confessing that he is no less flawed than the Puritans, as his wife can attest, and offers praise to God because “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” That is, Propaganda is calling for humility in recognizing that, in the end the noetic effects of sin are present in the Puritans, in himself, and the rest of us. As such, what is to be praised is not any class of men but the providence and sovereignty of God that He fulfills his mission through messed up people. (Check out the video for “Precious Puritans” below.)
What’s been so odd to me is the tribalist attacks from those who fear that Propaganda is in some way throwing the Puritans under the bus to never be read again. A lamentable example of this is a blog post by Professor Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. In his post, Strachan suggests that the song might be dangerous because he wonders “if Propaganda isn’t inclining us to distrust the Puritans. He states his case against them so forcefully, and without any historical nuance, that I wonder if listeners will be inclined to dislike and even hate them.”
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.
The largest concern is the seemingly tribal nature of many of Propaganda’s Puritan-loving critics. Could this be an example of confirmation bias? As Jonathan Haidt explains in the book The Righteous Mind, confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (80). In general, according to Haidt, we are good at challenging statements made by other people but when it comes to one’s own presuppositions facing opposition the tendency is to protect it and keep it. Therefore, “if thinking is confirmatory rather than explanatory … what chances is there that people will think in an open-minded, explanatory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?” (81). In this sense, Propaganda broke a tribal code: never critique anyone within the tribe.
Strachan considers the Puritans “forefathers” and in a tribalist way, some would argue, seeks to protect their legacy. Had Propaganda dropped a track critiquing Roman Catholics, Jeremiah Wright, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or preachers of the prosperity gospel, he’d be called a hero. During my seminary years I was rebuked once for mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon because of his sins. Why? Because King, like the others, are outside the tribe and are fair game to be critiqued in any form. Since they are not “one of us” there is no expectation of extending grace. Grace is reserved for those with whom we agree.
RHYTHM AND POETRY: Propaganda’s latest album, ‘Excellent.’
I experienced this tribal protectionism when I challenged Doug Wilson’s poor historiography of the antebellum South. Theologians Carl Trueman and Scott Clark experienced this recently when stating that complementarianism is not a “gospel issue.” The bottom line is that the Bible provides a model for the importance of confessing the sins of our fathers (Neh. 9:2) and testing everything (1 Thess. 5:21). Why? Because if we do not hold those in the past accountable to God’s Word we will repeat their sins. “Precious Puritans” is the iron that sharpens us. It keeps us from making the Puritans a golden calf. Racism and white supremacy is the other Reformed tradition so we need regular reminders to hold God and his Word in high esteem over the works of mere men.
After reading Strachan’s post I was left wondering if he had ever read Joseph Washington’s books on Puritans and race (Puritan Race Virtue, Vice and Values, 1620-1820: Original Calvinist True Believers’ Enduring Faith and Ethics Race Claims, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500-1800, and Race and Religion in Early Nineteenth Century America, 1800-1850: Constitution, Conscience, and Calvinist Compromise). In light of Washington’s research, what Propaganda did in this song is minimal. Candidly, it is difficult for me to see why Propaganda’s song stands out in light of the thousands of pages of published writings of Puritan white supremacy that seems to have had no effect on people treating them as a protected class. In the new Calvinist world, there seems to be a growing trend that you can have “hard-hitting exhortation” as long as it is directed at those who are not beloved within the new-Calvinist tribe. The best critique of Strachan’s tribalism comes from Pastor Steve McCoy, so I will not repeat his excellent points here but McCoy concludes that Strachan completely misses the point of Propaganda’s song.
Lastly, it seems that as a rapper himself, Strachan would not expect much “nuance” in a genre that normally uses hyperbole as a rhetorical device. After all, it is a rap song. Since when does anyone expect “rhythm and poetry” (a.k.a. RAP) to have nuances and qualifications? I wonder why Strachan is not treating the song according to its genre.
Strachan’s defensiveness of his forefathers, who get it right, demonstrates exactly why Propaganda needed to produce this song. In fact, perhaps we need more rhythm and poetry to help us test and confess. If artists like Propaganda are not given freedom to call us to critique our theology and culture, we cannot achieve true racial solidarity in the kingdom. Songs like “Precious Puritans” keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
REFORMED MIX: Rapper Lecrae inspires both praise and debate with his blend of solid beats and Reformed theology.
With the release of his new album, Gravity, earlier this month, Lecrae is growing in popularity as a hip-hop artist among audiences Christian and non-Christian, black and white. The Associated Press, among others, praised the album, saying, “Lecrae delivers a strong piece of work. He’s not afraid to rap about his past mistakes, supplying inspirational rhymes filled with Christian values backed by well-produced secular hip-hop beats.”
Lecrae (his full name is Lecrae Moore) stands at the intersection of two contrasting cultures: the urban vibe of historically black hip-hop and the theological leanings of the historically white Reformed tradition with its roots in Calvinism.
It’s a cultural mix common in Holy Hip-Hop, says author and “hip-hop theologian” Efrem Smith. Holy Hip-Hop artists often appear in front of white evangelical audiences and receive support from white Reformed pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll (who have bothinterviewed Lecrae). But the artists themselves tend to be young black men from inner-city backgrounds who ironically struggle to find an audience among urban youth.
The reason for that, Smith argues, is because the African American church has too often rejected hip-hop culture and because urban youth sometimes dismiss Holy Hip-Hop as inferior to secular hip-hop music.
“Lecrae and Reach Records are the main reason why Holy Hip-Hop is growing in popularity in urban American and African American communities,” Smith said in an interview with UrbanFaith. “Put the Christian stuff aside for a minute; Lecrae is more gifted and talented than many artists being pushed by secular companies today.”
Lecrae’s Scripture-packed music hits a variety of urban issues, like fatherlessness, drug addiction, and violence. Lecrae himself was raised by his mother in the inner city of Houston and was involved in gang activity before his conversion at age 19. He went to a black church when he first became a Christian, but later visited a white Reformed congregation and was attracted to their take on the Bible.
But as Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition, “To drop Calvin’s name (in the black community) is to drop a curse word.” The Reformed tradition has historical links to racism in the U.S., going back to Calvinists who used their theology to justify slavery.
For that reason, Smith cautioned Holy Hip-Hop artists against depending solely on Reformation theology (which he wrote about in a blog post). Rather, he said, they need to draw upon other theologies that address the concerns of the oppressed, like liberation theology, reconciliation theology and missional pietism, to speak a prophetic message. Smith suggests that’s one area where Lecrae could grow musically, although he likened this constructive critique to criticizing LeBron James’s basketball skills.
“He does a great job of talking about individual sin and individual responsibility and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living by the Holy Spirit,” Smith told UrbanFaith. “What I’d like to see him do more is raise the systemic issues — the corporate issues of sin and injustice in our country and the world — and point to kingdom justice and mercy to deal with these corporate sins.”
For Lecrae, the Reformed tradition describes how he interprets the Bible, and his adoption of that theology is a way to bridge the racial divide.
“I don’t feel like I’m under theological imperialism or whatever,” Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition. “I feel like I’m in search of truth, and I’m going to get it wherever I can find it. And I feel like I am in some senses a contextual ambassador, a cultural ambassador, and I do want to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls.” Check out the video below.
What do you think of Lecrae’s music and Holy Hip-Hop?
A Discussion about Race and the Christian with Tim Keller, Anthony Bradley, and John Piper (Photo courtesy of Crossway Books)
The Rev. Dr. John Piper has, by his own count, written 30 books. His latest is Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, a book that is rooted in Reformed theology and Piper’s personal story of growing up as a Southern racist who was redeemed by Christ and later transformed by the adoption of his African American daughter, Talitha. Piper says he will retire as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in about a year, and will be replaced by another white pastor with a personal commitment to racial reconciliation. Piper is one of the first and the few white evangelical pastors to issue a public statement about the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. He says revelations that Martin may not have been as wholesome a boy as initially portrayed are irrelevant to the case and the outcome could have been different if Zimmerman had been constrained by the gospel.
On Wednesday, March 28, Piper, Redeemer Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and The King’s College theologian Dr. Anthony Bradley participated in a vibrant discussion about Race and the Christian at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. UrbanFaith talked to Piper Thursday morning about the discussion, the book that inspired it, and his own journey toward racial harmony. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: What are your initial reflections about Wednesday night’s discussion about Race and the Christian?
John Piper: I come away from all events revolving around race with ambivalence. I’m never confident that I have said anything helpful. I generally come away from those things feeling like I learned another blind spot. I work with such an awareness of how little I see, so when Tim, in particular, was talking, I thought: I never thought of that. My next thought was: Okay, don’t be paralyzed by that. Don’t run away. Take that in. Learn. Build on that. Stand there. Take another step. Try to grow. In my younger day, I felt like quitting so many times after conversations. Now I put my feet on God and say, “Move forward.”
You communicate a lot of humility about your own failures and struggles in the area of racial reconciliation. Why have you been able to resist the temptation to give up?
One short answer would be that I adopted Talitha. That’s a real inadequate answer, but it’s a true answer, meaning that when we made the decision to adopt an eight-week old African American baby when I was 50 years old, I thought: Oh man, when she is 15, I’m going to be 65. What is it like for a 15-year-old girl to have a 65-year-old dad? What is it like for an African American girl to have a white 65-year-old dad? All those questions were tumbling around inside of me 16 years ago. My wife and I just looked at each other and said, “This is the right thing to do. This locks us in to the issue forever.” That’s why I can’t walk away. I signed on with blood. You can sign with ink or pencil and erase that, but when you sign with blood, you don’t erase that. And so, we’re in. There is a deeper reason. Biblically, socially, historically, my history, globally, it’s just too big to walk away from.
There are only two paragraphs in Bloodlines about your daughter. Can you tell us more about your experience of raising her?
We began to take race seriously 20 years ago maybe, where I’d preach on it every Martin Luther King weekend. Into that, we were heavy into the pro-life [cause]. I was getting arrested. I spent a night in jail. That’s how serious it was. The guy next to me in the cell, Rod Elofson, leaned over and said, “There’s probably a better way to do this.” His next step was to adopt two black kids who might have been aborted. So the two issues conjoined for me and they’ve been conjoined for 20 years with a pro-life sermon and a race sermon every February.
[Rod] lives across the street from me and he named a fund the MICAH Fund after his kids. [It’s an acronym for] Minority Infant Child Adoption Help, which means it raises money to help people pay for adoptions. This began to spread through our church and Phoebe Dawson (a black social worker from Georgia, who’s kind of the Underground Railroad to us) was bringing these kids up and my wife got to know her. My wife [Noël Piper] was 48 and I was 50. She got a phone call from Phoebe one day, and Phoebe said, “I have a little girl here. I think she’s yours.” You don’t say that to a 48-year-old woman that has four sons and no daughter, who always wanted a daughter. The dynamics here are just explosive emotionally.
We took long walks at the arboretum and talked and talked about the implications for our lives. We were done having kids. These kids were on their way out and we were going to have a chapter of freedom after the kids. We locked ourselves in for another 16- 20 years. (Of course, now we’ve got adult kids and we know you never stop parenting.) At eight weeks old, she came to us in her beautiful little white dress and there she’s been ever since.
There’s a distinction between [adopting an infant] and becoming acclimated to a person who is culturally black. Talitha is not. We’ve labored hard to make her aware, to have all the history, to connect her with friends, so there would be some link with African American culture. But, by-and-large, she is white inside. Everybody knows that. She talks white. She thinks white. She relates white. What that will mean long term for her, I don’t know. That’s just one of the huge issues. We have black folks in our church who think I’m stupid. One of my elders thinks trans-racial adoption is not a good idea. He’s tolerant, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, because he thinks it just deculturates [adopted children].
How do you deal with that criticism?
I say, “This girl had a mom who came to the clinic to get rid of her.” Phoebe is in the business of persuading women that that’s not a good idea, that there are better alternatives. We were the better alternative, and so I said to Talitha, “Culture and ethnicity has some value. Being in the image of God has infinitely more value. So, on balance, that she’s a human being and that she comes to know Jesus Christ and lives forever in the family of God is like a billion and that’s she’s black is 10.