The first truly African-American musical form, the “Spirituals,” took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries within the generations of slaves born into the tough American experience. Music was a daily part of their survival and sustenance.
Spirituals were sung “a cappella,” that is, without instrumental accompaniment. Voices were blended over rhythms provided by clapping hands, stamping feet and makeshift percussion. The words and melodies were improvised, not written down and never sung the same way twice. The singers remained untrained in the formalities of music.
“Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water.”
These early songs, over a hundred or more years later, gave rise to 20th century gospel music as well as secular genres including blues and jazz, R&B (rhythm and blues) and doo-wop, a style of ‘50s vocal group pop.
These folk preachers blended homespun sermon and song to offer life lessons on how to survive in a world of inequality and virulent racism.
While the folk preachers may have perfected their preaching skills in Southern churches, they broadened their reach through phonographs records. From the mid-1920s well into the Depression, there were roughly 85 preachers whose hundreds of singing sermons were recorded and heard throughout the black community nationwide via 78-rpm records.
Their records were advertised in nationally distributed black newspapers, such as The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Their names were famous within the African-American community and some of the better sellers included Rev. J. C. Burnett, Rev. T.N.T. Burton, Rev. A.W. Nix, and Rev. Sundown Jesse. The most prolific of all was Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta, Georgia. His more than a hundred sermons were released on a variety of labels – Paramount, Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, and Victor – that specialized in records that catered to “race.”
The case of Rev. Gates
What gave Gates prominence, besides his stellar performances, were his sensational titles, many drawn from Biblical verse, others from African-American vernacular. The titles enticed people to buy the record to find out more.
“Dead Cat on the Line” was Rev. Gates taking on marriage infidelity. He opened the sermon by saying,
“If a child is no way like his father, there’s a dead cat on the line.”
His reference was to a time when a cat might get up on the power lines and die from electrocution, cutting off telegraph signals so no messages could get through. The phrase meant “we’re not communicating here.” But with the dead cat festering up there, Gates was also alluding to the problems of infidelity.
“Kinky Hair is No Disgrace” spoke to demoralization stemming from negative value placed on “negro” features.“ Gates preached,
“Skin and hair don’t make the inside of man or woman good…Remember that God looks on the inside and man looks on the outside…And a whole lot of this hair straightening is just strictly so men can see it…You needn’t worry about your hair…You straighten your heart or your brain…Get something straight on the inside. You know it!”
And his masterpiece was based on a line from the Gospel of Matthew, “Straining at a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel.” “Straining at a gnat,” implied getting worked up about small matters, and “swallowing a camel,” was a reminder to people about missing what was truly important right in front of them, in this case the incongruities of racism. He sang,
“You! You negro-haters. You that can’t sit with him on the street car. You that can’t eat at the same table with him. I’m talking about you who can’t sit in your own automobile with him. Aah, but I’ll tell you what you can do. You can eat what they cook. Sleep in their bed. You can let them drive your car while you sit in the rear and he handle your life in his hands. You’re straining at a gnat and swallowin’ a camel.”
The music of Rev. Gates and his fellow preachers provided the sonic moments for the religious seeds of the budding Civil Rights Movement.
The following story was published in 2009, but we here at UrbanFaith.com still believe it captures the essence of Gardner C. Taylor. Dr. Melvin Banks, founder of Urban Ministries, Inc., had the privilege of hearing Taylor preach to the masses and counsel other ministers, making him a minister’s minister. Of this, Dr. Banks shared:
“It was my privilege to have heard Dr Taylor speak on several occasions, not only as a preacher but also as a counselor to ministers. I fully agree with the assessment that he was “the prince of preachers.” Not only was he always sound in his exegesis of the text, relevant in applying Scripture to the current social situation and personal needs of people; he had a pulpit demeanor that showed that he had been with Jesus. I learned that he always began on Monday morning preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. He studied each day of the week through Friday. He would take no appointments on Saturday, choosing rather to pray and reflect all day in preparation for his delivery on Sunday. Would to God that every minister of the Gospel follow his model. The world has lost a great spokesperson for the Gospel.”
The Urban Ministries, Inc. and UrbanFaith.com extends our condolences to the Taylor family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and more. We have certainly lost a great in our community.
Rev. Gardner C. Taylor
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” summed up his philosophy of preaching this way: “Above all, [the preacher] must put heart work into his preaching. He must feel what he preaches. It must never be with him an easy thing to deliver a sermon. He must feel as if he could preach his very life away before the sermon is done.” Gardner C. Taylor knows something about this kind of preaching. For more than 50 years he has “preached his life away.” In 1979, Time named him “the dean of the nation’s black preachers,” and in a recent issue of the Christian Century, he was dubbed the “poet laureate of American Protestantism.”
“Gardner Taylor is a consummate communicator,” says William Pannell, professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, concurs: “More than anybody else I have heard in my life, Gardner Taylor combines eloquence and passion in the endeavor of preaching.”
As pastor of the 14,000-member Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Taylor, 77, labored as shepherd and prophet in Brooklyn’s rugged Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for 42 years until his retirement in 1990. Today, as Concord’s pastor emeritus, Taylor is called upon to fill pulpits, give lectures, and provide keynote addresses at churches and educational institutions throughout the country. Though the legend of Gardner Taylor is great, those who know him readily admit the actual man is even greater.
Taylor is a grand, stately figure, so it is odd to see him behind the wheel of his late-model Ford rather than perched behind a pulpit. As he drives by Concord Baptist Church, I call out the street name on the corner sign: “Rev. Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard.”
“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he chimes in. “But I come from Louisiana, where they named the state law school for former governor Richard Leche. His name was placed high up on the building, engraved in stone. However, when he was sent to the penitentiary, they took it down.”
Such wry, self-deprecating humor is customary with Taylor, who regularly uses anecdotes and personal remembrances to deflect attention away from himself and toward the business of preaching the gospel.
Baptist Genes and a Defining Moment
Born on June 18, 1918, to the Reverend Washington and Selina Taylor, Gardner Calvin Taylor inherited “Baptist genes” that many assumed would lead him to pastoral ministry. But he recalls, “I recoiled from the thought of being a preacher. I wanted to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer. My boyhood friends in Louisiana tried to discourage me from that idea, though; at that time, no black person had ever been admitted to the Louisiana bar.”
Taylor, nevertheless, continued his plans and gained admission to the University of Michigan Law School. But in 1937, prior to leaving for Michigan, Taylor was involved in a tragic car accident. As he drove one night in rural Louisiana, a Model T Ford suddenly cut across his path. “I tried to avoid them, but I couldn’t,” he recalls. Both of the passengers in the other car died. And, though Taylor survived, he was left “shaken at my roots.” Not only were two men dead, but they were two white men. And the only witnesses to the accident were a white farmer and a white oil refinery worker.
“In that day, for a white person to tell the truth about a black person in that situation was incredible; but those men told the truth. I would not be here today if they had not.”
Through that jarring event, Taylor received his call to the ministry. “I was surprised by God’s grace. I had been brooding about my future for a long time, but that was the defining moment.”
Taylor went on to three “bright years” at the Oberlin School of Theology, where he developed a scholarly appreciation for a wide range of subjects. While at Oberlin, Taylor met his wife and pastored a church in Elyria, Ohio. Following Oberlin, he served pastorates in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finally at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church. Taylor was only 30 years old when he arrived on the scene at Concord, which in 1948 was already a flourishing congregation of over 5,000.
Taylor deepened Concord’s now 148-year tradition as a prestigious and vital presence in the heart of New York’s inner city. He not only filled pews on Sunday morning, but he took faith out onto the streets. “One must get out of life and into the Bible,” he says. “But there are also times when one must get out of the Bible and into people’s lives.”
In Spite of the Preacher
Taylor’s holistic grasp of the gospel has resulted in a church that serves as a model for urban congregations across the nation with its commitment to community outreach and development. With Taylor at the helm, Concord established a senior citizens’ home, a fully accredited Christian grade school, a professionally staffed nursing home, and an economic-development program that draws on a $1 million endowment to provide grants to various social projects in the Brooklyn area.
But despite his tireless work in the roles of pastor and community activist, the wider world will always see his oratorical gifts as his defining quality. And understandably so.
“Often, in spite of the preacher, the people are ministered to,” he says. “The Word of God breaks through the preacher by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Taylor recounts a story from his days as a fledgling minister in Baton Rouge. In that Depression-ravaged era, he was in the midst of a sermon one Sunday evening when suddenly the electricity in his small church building flickered out. Encased in darkness, the young Taylor stood motionless, not knowing what to do. Finally, an elder deacon yelled out from the congregation, “Preach on, preacher, we can still see Jesus in the dark.” And that’s what the preacher has been doing ever since: proclaiming the Word into and amid the darkness.
Listening to Gardner Taylor preach is like “hearing the voice of God,” a colleague of Taylor’s has said. As quoted in Time, Richard John Neuhaus, now editor-in-chief of First Things, expressed amazement at Taylor’s ability to “[play] with a single word. … He whispers it, and then he shouts it; he pats, pinches and probes it.”
Listening to Taylor speak over an informal meal, like our lunchtime meeting, or under any circumstance is akin to hearing him on a Sunday morning. Even his common language is colored with rich poetic rhythm and imagery. He is not a preacher by profession but by nature; it’s who he is.
Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at the Duke Divinity School, says Taylor can draw applause from his listeners by simply reading a text. In his book The Preacher King, Lischer writes, “On one occasion as [Taylor] read some of the proper names in Luke 3 (Tiberius, Ituraiea, Trachonitis), members of the congregation began responding, ‘My Lord, My Lord!’ ”
Noted preaching scholar James Earl Massey believes Taylor has “one of the best working vocabularies of any minister alive.” Massey, who recently retired as dean of the Anderson (Ind.) School of Theology, has been a friend of Taylor’s for more than 20 years. He says Taylor’s command lies in his breadth of cultural knowledge. “He has a firm understanding of the best of both African-American and Anglo-Saxon culture,” he explains. “The best preaching is that which can go beyond one’s self and one’s own culture to touch others who are from different backgrounds — and that’s what Dr. Taylor does.”
“Dr. Taylor is a person who is able to move effortlessly across denominational and social boundaries to touch people’s lives,” adds Timothy George, who was introduced to Taylor as a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early seventies when the school flew Taylor in once a week to teach a homiletics course. But George remembers it being more of a course on life. “He has such great wisdom and tremendous theological depth and insight.”
Indeed, “wisdom,” “depth,” and “insight” are woven through all of Taylor’s preaching. The force of his sermons exercise both mind and soul. Like many traditional African-American pulpiteers, Taylor applies a meandering introduction that is as much a mental warm-up for the preacher as it is a preface for the sermon topic. But once Taylor launches into the body of the message, the congregation is transfixed by his skillful handling of the scriptural text. Both sound and content combine to propel the sermon to its roaring climax.
One is immediately gripped by Taylor’s flair for cunning exposition. He is at once storyteller and theologian. Thus the apostle Paul is presented as “a deformed wanderer with the label of Tarsus on his baggage.” And familiar passages are reenvisioned with profound implication: “Paul was filled with competence and commitment, on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem. … But on that road where he was, Somebody else was on that road. Because Somebody else is on every road. I don’t know what road you’re traveling today — it may be a road of great joy, it may be a road of sorrow — but Somebody else is on it.”
Taylor himself is less certain about the mechanics of his preaching. “Black preachers used to have a formula for delivering a sermon,” he told Leadership journal in 1981. “Start low, go slow, get high, strike fire, retire. But I can’t offer a formula for how I deliver a sermon; it depends on the sermon, on the mood of the preacher, on the mood of the congregation.”
Taylor insists that, whatever a sermon does, it must bring humanity in touch with its Creator. “There’s no excuse for the preacher if he or she is not speaking to people for God,” he says. “Preaching that does not bring in the vertical aspect of the sermon — the impact of God upon human life — cannot be called a sermon.”
Preaching in the Real World
Preaching “the impact of God upon human life” is an admirable aim. But often the human life becomes so complex, so messy that pat theological answers seem inadequate for speaking to a congregation’s concerns.
Taylor remembers countless instances when he was called upon to minister against the backdrop of both personal and national crises, such as World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil-rights revolution. “As I preached during those difficult days, I wanted people to know that God is still on the throne,” he says. “I couldn’t predict the future; I could only give them the assertion made by my old theology dean, Thomas Graham: ‘Faith is reason gone courageous.’ ”
Taylor’s own darkest night came earlier this year when his wife of 52 years, Laura Scott Taylor, an accomplished intellectual and community leader in her own right, was tragically killed by a city vehicle while crossing a Brooklyn street.
Laura Taylor was the founder of the Concord Baptist Elementary School, where she served as principal for 32 years without pay. “She was a very fine scholar and intellectual herself,” says William Pannell. “She was the one who exposed him to the theater and a much broader cultural and artistic pallet.”
“She was a very sharp and classy woman,” Taylor says of his wife. “At one point, I had gotten too involved in Brooklyn politics because of the size of the church. After a while, my wife said to me, ‘Your preaching is getting very thin.’ It was one of the most scathing things I’ve ever heard. I soon got out of preaching too much about politics.”
Taylor has now lived through the pain and grief about which he has consoled so many others. “They told me, ‘You have to listen to what you told us now, Pastor,’ ” he says. “The assurances that I passed out to people before — I thought I was sincere, and I thought I understood what they were going through. But I did not.”
In a recent address to his former parishioners at Concord, Taylor’s sorrow was visibly evident. “We are grateful to you [for your kindness during our loss],” he prefaced his message. “But I must not dwell on that now, because sometimes the heart is so sore — incurably so — that it cannot stand the touch of memory. So I will go forward.”
Through his forward journey, Taylor has gained an even greater appreciation of his faith. “When you come to personal crises in your life, as I have, I don’t know what people do without faith,” he observes. “I don’t always have a calm assurance about it, but I believe in all my heart that God will not do us evil. And when I understand what he is doing, I will appreciate it.”
Lately, Taylor speaks often of “the illusion of permanence.” He says, “I don’t think the young could live very well without that illusion. But as one gets older, this life begins to show its true quality of impermanence and unreliability. I believe God has ordained it so that as we must leave this world, it becomes less attractive.”
Besides being recognized as the senior statesman of African-American preachers, Taylor was a close friend and ally of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he supported during a particularly tense period in black Baptist circles. During that chaotic time 35 years ago, Taylor, King, and other ministers were involved in a controversial split from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBC, currently the largest black denomination in the U.S.) after a fierce debate over King’s civil-rights agenda. Some within the NBC felt it was too politically liberal. As a result, Taylor and others, led by the important work of Cincinnati pastor L. Venchael Booth, went on to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which today has a membership of 2.5 million.
Taylor is one of the few surviving Baptists who were involved in that ugly dispute. “Younger Baptists don’t talk about it much anymore,” he says, “but it was a very difficult time in my life. I lost many friends.”
A Classical Evangelical
Despite being so intimately tied to modern African-American history and despite his stature as a gifted orator, Taylor remains largely unknown within the evangelical community today. “It’s just another sign,” says Timothy George, “of the ghettoization of the church.”
Perhaps Taylor’s ability to move in and out of diverse Protestant circles — both mainline and conservative — has contributed to his lack of recognition among evangelicals. But, as Lischer notes, while Taylor “infuses his sermons with principles drawn from the liberal view of human nature and history,” he “holds to an explicitly evangelical doctrine of salvation centered in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”
But does Taylor consider himself an evangelical? Only in “the European sense,” he says. “European evangelicalism had a commitment to the gospel in its outreach toward human beings and the sufficient work of Jesus Christ,” Taylor explains. “But it was not a rigid kind of doctrinaire position, as it has been among many evangelicals in America.”
He adds, “I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society. If Christianity is not that, forget about it.”
Still, Taylor is encouraged by the hopeful signs of racial reconciliation that are emerging in the church today. Although he regrets that Concord Baptist Church never achieved a greater level of racial diversity during his tenure there, he appreciates the new sensitivity among Christians to the issue. “It is impossible, I think, to estimate the enormous impact that the whole evangelical community could have on this nation if it would free itself of its bias of race.”
Coming Back Empty
When Taylor volunteers his ideas on what makes a “great preacher,” the discussion turns to his list of personal heroes — a multiracial aggregate of pulpiteers. He speaks fondly of what he considers a golden age of preaching in New York during his early days in Brooklyn, when preachers like George Buttrick, Robert McCracken, Sandy Ray, Paul Sherer, and Adam Clayton Powell filled local pulpits.
That great tradition of preaching, fostered by Taylor and others, reverberates from today’s pulpits in one form or another. The call-and-response liturgy, rhythmic pacing and intonations, and holistic scriptural exposition are very much in evidence within contemporary black churches. Younger ministers such as James A. Forbes Jr., of the Riverside Church of New York and Gary V. Simpson, who succeeded Taylor as pastor of Concord Baptist, carry on the tradition of passionate black preaching. Yet some fear that there may be more flash than substance among many preachers in the younger set.
Taylor has no worries about the future of African-American preaching but does offer one cautionary note: “There is not too much emotion in the African-American church, but there is too much emotionalism. If what one is dealing with is so great, so gripping that it defies expression, then, yes, I can understand the emotional praise and preaching; but when it is done as a device, I think it’s reprehensible.”
He admits that he, too, had an obsession with emotion and calculated eloquence in his younger days. “At one point, I wanted to take elocution to train my voice,” he told Leadership. “My wife discouraged me from it, so I never did it. Her reasoning was that preaching never ought to be a finished thing, a polished performance. She was right.”
In these, his twilight years, Taylor speaks openly about the reality of old age: “You have only to look on my countenance to know that my years have faded into the light of the common day,” he said in a recent address. “But I can say this to you: Every time I have felt at the end of my tether, the old promise has come true. There has been restoration; there has been renewal; there has been revival.”
What makes a great preacher? “In the Book of Ruth, Naomi says, ‘I went out full, and I’ve come back empty,’ ” Taylor says. “That’s the story of life. It’s also the story of preaching; we must keep ourselves full so we can empty ourselves in the pulpit.”
At the end of Taylor’s sermon “A Promise for Life’s Long Pull,” he offers a word on his life’s ministry, drawing from his favorite black spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”:
” ‘Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain’ … But then, just at the end of my tether; but then, when all of my strength seems spent and gone; then, when I come almost to the borders of despair; then, when I feel frustrated and confused and out of it; ‘Then … the Holy Spirit’ comes and ‘revives my soul again.’ ”
ALL THE KING’S MEN: (From left) Israel Houghton, Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, and Marvin Sapp.
Earlier this week, audience members of The View were given a taste of Sunday mornin’ on the ABC talk show, as urban gospel heavyweights Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin, and Israel Houghton blew the roof off in a Gospel Brunch-inspired segment. The multiplatinum Grammy, Dove, and Stellar Award-winning crew showcased their talents and their love for the Lord Tuesday, as they spoke candidly about their ministries, their struggles, and their recently announced tour, cleverly titled “The Kings Men.”
Franklin, who partnered with mega-concert promoter Live Nation to bring the tour together, said, “This is their (Live Nation) first time in history doing a tour like this, and so we’re calling it inspirational entertainment. So I had to go get my bros that I knew could really fill the vision, and I’m very humbled and honored that they said yes.”
View co-host Sherri Shepherd asked the quartet to weigh in regarding the tragedy and pain surrounding the shootings in Colorado.
Sapp, still grieving the recent deaths of both his father and beloved wife, said, “My position has always been in these types of situations the only thing that can really get us through is prayer. The Bible is right where it says, ‘If my people, which are called by my name would humble themselves and pray, turn from their wicked ways, seek my face, then I will hear from heaven.’ He’ll forgive our sin and heal our land.
“If we’re going to be healed, it’s going to take a corporate group of individuals that really have a clear understanding of prayer and really seeking God for direction and focus.”
Jamie Grace, a new up and coming Grammy nominated Christian Artist also performed her smash hit, “Hold Me,” and also shared her testimony as a youth on fire for Christ. The 20-year-old spoke about growing up as a preacher’s kid and singing at church, and the very real struggles she faced early on in life.
Diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at age 11, Grace said that when she’s performing everything seems to settle. “When I was growing up it was difficult for me, but finding music was the best thing ever.”
She added: “Everyday when I wake up, whether I’m writing a song or whether I’m hanging out with my friends, or whether I’m doing a concert, I just pray that everything that I do glorifies God.”
Grace, along with Sapp, Franklin, McClurkin, and Houghton, turned The View set into a sanctuary of praise — and proved that although gospel music comes in many shapes and sizes, the message remains the same.
PARADIGM SHIFT: Jason Nelson and company during the live recording of 'Shifting the Atmosphere.'
In an endless sea of new music, sometimes it’s easy to put your ears on autopilot and just allow one song to blend into another, one artist into the next. That would be a mistake with the music of pastor and worship leader Jason Nelson. Nelson’s new CD, Shifting the Atmosphere, recorded live in Baltimore, Maryland, is a 12-track gift of praise and worship that you don’t want to consign to that “generic music” category.
A Baltimore native, Nelson understands his music ministry as a “complement to his pastoral assignment” at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Randallstown, Maryland. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that he participates within the worship moment he facilitates for others. At unpredictable moments, he slips into an intimate interval of thanksgiving or a vulnerable profession of love for God. The earnestness of such moments gives credibility to Nelson’s project. Witnessing his “shift” from the posture of worship leader to worshiper invites the listener to undergo a similar internal transition.
The new album has a taut feel — there are no throwaway tracks. Nelson comments on this dynamic, stating that he “worked hard to put together a CD with no fillers.” Each song advances the theme of shifting the atmosphere. “Don’t Count Me Out” is a hopeful affirmation, rooting positive expectation in the conviction that because God doesn’t count us out, neither should we count ourselves out. “No Words” merits special mention. The song elegantly captures an enduring paradox of faith: no concepts adequately describe God’s grandeur, yet we must speak to give voice to the hope of glory that lies within us. “Dominion” is another standout. It acknowledges that external conditions impact our lives, but denies that such circumstances exhaustively determine our lives. Finally, I must note that midway through the project, the listener is treated to a resplendent rendition of the hymn “Love Lifted Me.”
Months ago, I heard Mr. Nelson perform “Jubilee,” one of the album’s opening songs, at Allen Cathedral. He introduced the song by explaining the biblical tradition of Jubilee. Nelson mentioned that Jubilee represents a communal announcement of liberation: forgiving debts, returning land to its original holders, and setting the captives free. Next, he transitioned into a personal — and soul-stirring — appropriation of that tradition with a song of empowerment in the midst of impediments to fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives.
Calling his family his “greatest accomplishment,” Nelson speaks proudly of his wife Tonya and their children, Jaelyn and Jason Christopher. A skilled singer-songwriter, he composed the majority of the songs on Shifting the Atmosphere. Shifting is an engaging, well-executed, and uplifting album. The Verity Records project was released earlier this week. I wholeheartedly recommend the album to music lovers everywhere, particularly those who appreciate contemporary gospel music.
Check out a recent interview with Pastor Nelson below:
Reformed theologian and pastor John Piper’s latest book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, can be viewed one of two ways depending on one’s perception. Some might write it off as another paternalistic White Christian trying to sanitize issues of race and justice for the church, give them a White spin that engenders a false sense of Christian unity. On the other hand, some might approach it as a sincere message from a White leader who cares about the church in all its diversity and wants to challenge it to embrace a biblical understanding of racial reconciliation. In the spirit of reconciliation, I’m willing to go with the latter option and give Piper the benefit of the doubt. In fact, while I don’t sign on to everything he says, I believe his book is significant enough to be required reading for laypeople and church leaders alike.
Bloodlines is a combination of biblical exegesis, cultural analysis, and historical retrospective. In it, Piper methodically builds a case for a set of basic premises with revolutionary implications — that (I’m paraphrasing here) what God has done through Christ on the cross should supersede racial divisions in America, and the fact we’re not united is evidence that Christians in America have yet to fully embrace the gospel in its fullness.
He does so by taking a broad look at American history (including his own racist upbringing), by citing various pundits and intellectuals in the pursuit of societal solutions, and most importantly, walking through the Scriptures in order to demonstrate how the person and work of Christ has the power to unite us all into a singular, holy bloodline.
A 'RIGHT NOW' MESSAGE: John Piper's biblical exegesis and cultural analysis of race in the church is filled with urgency.
Like most solid biblical teaching, these ideas are not new, nor did many, if any, originate within Piper himself. Indeed, one of Piper’s smartest moves happens toward the end of the book, where he included the text of a previous speech that amply quotes, and subsequently comments on, the writing of African American theologian Carl Ellis in his seminal work, Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience.
Though systematic in tone and delivery, Piper’s writing in Bloodlines has a sense of urgency, not as someone who wishes to address this matter once and for all, but as someone trying to lovingly prod and shake the uninvolved and ignorant off the fence and out of their stupor. Which is to say that, for the most part, Bloodlines is written for White people.
Not that only White people should read it, of course. Like most of Piper’s work, it’s aimed at as wide an audience as possible. But I suspect that plenty of Blacks and other people of color might find it less than satisfactory, for a variety of reasons.
Pastor and theologian Efrem Smith, for example, offered plenty of respect in his blog to the ministry of Dr. Piper, as they both have a history of cross-cultural ministry in the Twin Cities. But Smith took Piper to task for relying exclusively on a reformed, Calvinist theological framework, saying its Eurocentric bias undercuts his premise of racial reconciliation. He also criticized Dr. Piper for espousing only politically conservative solutions to the problems of entrenched racialized inequity that he tries to address.
Criticisms like these, while certainly valid, on some level miss the point.
As far as I can tell, Bloodlines is not designed to be a definitive guide for how to most effectively address and eradicate several centuries’ worth of racialized societal inequity in America. I’m not sure such a book could possibly be written at all (much less by a White person) without looking hopelessly naive, blatantly arrogant, or some combination of both. As such, the exploration of proposed societal remedies, particularly in the discussion of addressing individual prejudice versus institutional racism (highlighted by the dichotomy of approach by Dr. William H. Cosby and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson) is less of a showdown of competing ideas and more of a demonstration that there are diverse schools of thought regarding solutions. In other words, regarding solutions, Bloodlines is more of an overview, less a conclusion.
And as such an overview, it’s guilty of bias, as is any such work. A person can only speak from his or her perspective, and Dr. Piper doesn’t apologize for his, theological, philosophical, or otherwise. Nevertheless, he accomplishes several important things in Bloodlines, and they’re significant enough to be mandatory reading for ministers of all stripes.
1. He breaks down Scripture.
First and foremost, Bloodlines is a biblical apologetic that explains how the Gospel of Jesus Christ bears ultimate relevancy in the way we understand and approach racial issues as Christians. And this presupposes that Christians are, in fact, supposed to engage in racial issues — an idea that many evangelicals resist (more on that later).
But Piper does this by going systematically through various biblical passages that deal with racial discord and disunity, to show that he’s not engaging in proof-texting (manipulating Scripture in order to get it to line up with his point of view) but rather to show that choosing and promoting racial reconciliation is, and should be, a reasonable, logical response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he starts with what’s most important — the message and life of Jesus as recorded and revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
This sounds really basic, but in an age of biblical illiteracy, this is huge. Televangelists, pundits, and politicians regularly get away with saying, “the Bible says [such & such]” without actually showing where in the Bible these things are being said. It’s a way to assume the appearance of a Christian worldview without actually demonstrating it. In Bloodlines, Dr. Piper appeals to the Bereans among us, those who, like the believers in Acts 17, don’t just take preaching and teaching for face value, but diligently search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught lines up to the truth of God’s Word.
2. He provides a biblical basis for diversity and racial reconciliation in the church.
Using Scriptures like Luke 4:16-30, Matthew 8:9-15, and many, many more, Piper demonstrates the heart of God for the ethnic outsider, and traces the evolution of God’s favor as residing as a result of faith in Jesus, as opposed to Jewish ethnic identity.
Having a biblical foundation for diversity and racial reconciliation is critical, especially for church leaders, because it’s easy for these issues to be framed as purely sociopolitical, demographic, or pragmatic issues. Especially since diversity continues to be a huge buzzword in corporate and academic circles, a lot of the conversation surrounding diversity in the church is about how churches can grow and adapt in diverse settings, as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the church must incorporate all of the latest models to survive.
In contrast, Piper calls believers toward doing the right thing for the right reason. We don’t pursue diversity just because it’s popular or expedient, he’s saying, we do it because it’s central to the heart of God, and because Christ’s love compels us.
That compulsion leads to a third, even more important thing Dr. Piper does in this work:
3. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
One of the many truths of White privilege is the idea that White people have a choice about how and when they choose to deal with race issues, because most of the societal institutions that people lean on for support or authority have, historically speaking, been dominated and controlled by White people. And if this is true for American society, it’s especially true of the American church.
There have been many factions of the American church, particularly among conservative evangelicals and their counterparts in the political establishment, who have consistently sought to minimize, distort, or even deny outright the culpability that White people bear for centuries of racism in America. These folks may contribute to hilarious segments on The Colbert Report, but the egregiousness of their claims often overshadow a bigger problem — the inertia that their half-truths create.
To be fair, the same faction of the religious left helped create the problem by aligning themselves with people who are all about social justice but don’t take God or the Bible very seriously. (These are some of the same people who eschew religion and instead embrace Jesus-flavored spirituality.)
But no matter how it happened, eventually a false dichotomy emerged, whereby the (mostly Black) Christians who kept bringing up the racial issues were viewed by (mostly White) defenders of the status quo as secularized radical troublemakers. According to their ilk, real Christians would never associate with such extremism. And so we have a whole generation of predominantly White churches and church leaders, content to attend an annual MLK community event, recite a few well-worn Black History Month facts or poems once in awhile, and call it enough.
It is into this thick cloud of inertia that John Piper forcefully asserts the truth — no, it is not enough.
He doesn’t use incendiary language, but in terms of clarity, Piper’s reformed tautology is as about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail. All of us are guilty, all of us need forgiveness, and we’re mistaken if we think we can use the excuses of others to get ourselves off the hook.
Consider this final plea from his concluding chapter:
No lesson in the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony has been more forceful than the lesson that it is easy to get so wounded and so tired that you decide to quit. This is true of every race and every ethnicity in whatever struggle they face. The most hopeless temptation is to give up—to say that there are other important things to work on (which is true), and I will let someone else worry about racial issues.
The main reason for the temptation to quit pursuing is that whatever strategy you try, you will be criticized by somebody. You didn’t say the right thing, or you didn’t say it in the right way, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you shouldn’t say anything but get off your backside and do something, or, or, or. Just when you think you have made your best effort to do something healing, someone will point out the flaw in it. And when you try to talk about doing better, there are few things more maddening than to be told, “You just don’t get it.” Oh, how our back gets up, and we feel the power of self-pity rising in our hearts and want to say, “Okay, I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. See you later.” And there ends our foray into racial harmony.
My plea is: never quit. Change. Step back. Get another strategy. Start over. But never quit.
Here Dr. Piper is clearly and unmistakably talking, with gravitas and candor, to White people. And yet, by appropriating so much of Carl Ellis’ Free At Last at the end, he doesn’t let Black people off the hook either:
Black is truly beautiful, but it is not beautiful as a god. As a god it is too small. Afrocentrism is truly magnificent, but it is not magnificent as an absolute. As an absolute, it will infect us with the kind of bigotry we’ve struggled against in others for centuries. . . . Whenever we seek to understand our situation without [the] transcendent reference point [of the Word of God] we fail to find the answer to our crisis.
No, Bloodlines is not a perfect book. It’s understandable, though a bit regrettable, that so much if it is devoted only to the Black/White dynamic, when we know that America is much more complex, racially and culturally. Dr. Piper does acknowledge this, and explains his reasoning.
But the good news is that the main point of the book is something that people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities can embrace. More than simple political compromise (an oxymoron for sure), Christians are called to a deep, gut-level commitment to live out the gospel by tenaciously pursuing cross-cultural relationships and initiatives. That is what the church and the world need so desperately.
I don’t always live up to this idea, but no doubt … I get it.
And now it’s fair to say that when it comes to the race problem in America, John Piper gets it too.