I was raised in a Christian context that, in the name of vigilance against the dangers of revisionist history, actively taught it. I grew up believing that the Puritans were the pinnacle of American Christian orthodoxy and that Martin Luther King Jr. was little more than an adulterous heretic. I was taught that majority black churches were corrupted by the prosperity gospel, irreverent worship, and too many women in leadership.
Which is why, this week, as we’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, I’m celebrating the irony of God’s mercy in using two African American hip-hop artists I’ve never met to expose my inherited ignorance, and lead me into what will be a lifelong process of repentance and relearning.
I don’t remember when or how I first heard of Shai Linne, only how it felt the first time I heard his music. Like a lot of young, restless, and Reformed Bible college grad types, I had long ago set aside the childish things of CCM radio and fed my soul a steady diet of the Gettys and Sovereign Grace music. But what Shai Linne had created seemed to defy categorization.
Before the album “The Atonement,” all I knew of rap and hip-hop was the glorification of violence and misogyny. Shai Linne’s music was different. His lyrics were theologically solid and rich as the Westminster Catechism. But it was the lyrical approach – the discipline of the syntax, the creativity, the turns of phrases so tight that the only other artists I could compare it to were dead white men like Shakespeare and Donne – that gripped my soul. It was poetic, prophetic gospel preaching, creatively wrapped in the rhythms of rap. I remember the day I listened to “Mission Accomplished” as I folded laundry, and felt all the questions I’d ever had about limited / particular atonement finally fall into place. One three-and-a-half minute song settled what four years of Bible college had not. I was hooked.
Not long after, I learned about another artist named Propaganda. I read that he wrote in the spirit of Shai Linne, so I downloaded his album “Excellent” the day it released. As the kids say, I wasn’t ready.
“Excellent” was broader in scope than “The Atonement,” but every bit as gripping. This time, I was chopping vegetables for dinner as I listened. Suddenly, the lyrics of one track gutted my Reformed Baptist American sensibilities with such surgical precision that I had to set down my vegetable knife and click “rewind,” just to make sure I understood what I was hearing.
“How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them
In the Valley of Vision
Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door
And say “you can’t own people!”
Your precious Puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth
As if abolitionists were not racists and just pro-union
As if God only spoke to white boys with epic beards
You know Jesus didn’t really look like them paintings
That was just Michaelangelo’s boyfriend
Your precious Puritans
Oh they got it but they don’t get it
There’s not one generation of believers
That has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action
Don’t pedestal these people.
Your precious Puritans’ partners purchased people.
Why would you quote them?”
The forcefulness and eloquence with which Propaganda called out the heroes of my faith sent me on a hunt for answers the minute the dinner dishes were dry. I combed the stacks of the church history section of the combined library of my Multnomah Bible College-graduate husband and my Master’s University-graduate self. My search yielded few and incomplete answers. So I took to the Internet. There I found various Reformed theologians and bloggers, equally gripped by “Precious Puritans,” discussing the historical veracity of Propaganda’s claims, and arguing charitably over the different ways they could be viewed.
None of Propaganda’s detractors denied the substance of his argument – that many of the Puritans and later Reformed theologians I had been taught to revere had been slave owners, and/or slavery and segregation apologists. The allegations were, in truth, facts – facts I had never been taught.
But as shocking as these facts were to learn, what gutted me was that the main line of defense was not denial, but compartmentalization. Sure, the argument went, the Puritans had owned slaves and propped up the institution of chattel slavery, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the good things they did.
Propaganda had marched uninvited into the institutional halls of Reformed evangelicalism and ripped the closet door off its hinges, causing the rotting corpse that had been hidden inside it for centuries to come tumbling out onto the floor. And the strongest response his detractors could muster, as they shoved the corpse back into the closet and forced the door closed, was to keep waving their hands at all the pretty art on the walls.
The abruptness with which I learned these inconvenient facts about the Puritans didn’t shake my faith in their, and my, God. But it forever shattered my belief that the Puritans had a lock on what practical faithfulness to Him looks like. Not only that, it moved me to consider whether, and how, the Reformed Baptist tradition which held them in such unqualified high esteem might suffer from the same moral blindness. Most importantly, and most painfully, it made it necessary to consider how much of the same unchecked blindness – that sin, had found its way into my own soul.
It didn’t take long to see it in my first thoughts about artists like Shai Linne and Propaganda.
One of the tenets of Reformed Baptist identity I had been taught to embrace was the importance of exercising discernment about our spiritual influencers – the pastors or theologians we listened to and learned from, the books we read, etc. (This was doubly emphasized to Reformed Baptist women, what with us being the gender of the more easily deceived and all.)
Of paramount importance was the depth and purity of someone’s theological orthodoxy – their Five Solas bona fides. But of nearly equal importance was how that theology was packaged. With what denomination was someone affiliated, and how theologically orthodox was their church? How closely did they follow the regulative principle of worship? What kind of clothes did they wear? What kind of tone did they employ, in their writing, their speaking, even their singing? With which contemporary cultural issues did their theology rightly intersect (e.g. marriage, abortion, taxes), and from which ones was it kept rightly separate (e.g. poverty, race relations, the environment)?
In other words, while the content of someone’s message was paramount, if the packaging wasn’t wrapped in the right way, or didn’t have the right pattern, the contents were necessarily suspect. And if the right packaging only came in certain colors, well, packaging in any colors other than those was necessarily suspect as well. Conversely, if the packaging was the right pattern and color, that automatically signaled that the contents were right – no need to look inside too closely to check.
Thus, what I saw modeled and was taught to believe, was that my default posture towards any white Reformed Christian teachers (and their Puritan forebears) should be unquestioning trust. But my default posture towards even self-professing Reformed Christians of any other ethnicity should be skepticism, until and unless they conformed to all the prescriptive cultural norms and biases of my tradition.
I could be challenged and convicted by white Reformed Christian leaders because they were inside the permissible circle of trust. But because my default posture toward non-white Reformed Christian leaders was skepticism or uncertainty, it was easy to dismiss anything they said that was challenging or convicting as proof that they weren’t sufficiently worthy of trust or attention.
When I first listened to Shai Linne, I did so from a default position of skepticism and mistrust. How could someone who sounded like him, who looked like him, pass the orthodoxy test? But the words he spoke, and the skill with which he wielded them, schooled my ignorance and exposed my prejudice for the sin that it was.
And the sting of this rebuke prepared me for the next one, courtesy of the pen and the voice of Propaganda, an African American brother in Christ who would have been viewed with suspicion at any church I’d ever attended up to that point, just because of how he looked, let alone because of what he had to say.
And from that day to this, I’ve been repentantly listening and learning from him, and many other godly African American family like him.
This week, the fruit of that repentance has looked like listening to the speakers at the MLK50 Conference. As I’ve listened, one part of me has been thinking about the future – about what God has yet to teach me about how He wants me to think, and especially do, differently in my own church context. Another part of me has been thinking about the past – how the old me would have responded to what I was hearing, and how the people I was taught to view with such mistrust and Pharisaical disdain, are the people who I count as valuable teachers, as family, today.
I saw a lot of stiffnecked disdain and self-righteousness circulating on social media yesterday – an experience that produced a simultaneous mix of sorrow and thankfulness in my heart. The old me would probably have been an enthusiastic contributor to it. But because of God’s work in my heart through the faithful witness of two gifted African American brothers, I wasn’t. And I’m grieved over those who were.
I can, and do, pray for God to do the same kind of work in my white family He did in me, however He chooses to do it – whether through the words of faithful black brothers like Shai Linne and Propaganda, or the less eloquent words of their grateful white sister, Rachael.