*Editor’s Note: This was #6 on our Top Posts of 2012.
The talented Christian rapper Propaganda just released “Excellent,” a strong new album on the Humble Beast label (buy it here). Humble Beast is the home of Beautiful Eulogy, the group from Portland, Oregon that put out an excellent album this summer.
Propaganda is equal parts slam poet and rapper. He hits hard in his content and is one of the most provocative rappers around. I’ve listened to him since his Tunnel Rats days, and I’ve always enjoyed him. His skill is undeniable, and he loves the Lord. His new album, “Excellent,” includes a fiery song on the Puritans. Here’s a sample (complete lyrics here):
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 heart break.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slaves 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.
This song raises some very big issues for evangelicals. It confronts us with our past, one that is chock full of racism and racist oppression; it asks us to think hard about how Christians of different backgrounds perceive one another; it wonders out loud how much we should listen to past Christians who sinned publicly; it drives us to think about how edgy to be in our quest to influence and edify one another. I’m glad that Propaganda raised these kinds of questions. His honesty is needed in evangelicalism. Racism is real and awful, historically and now.
There is a danger here. Specifically, I wonder 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. He groups all the Puritans together, which is problematic. Not all of them were chaplains on slave ships, as he says later in the song. Many were not. But Propaganda blasts them so hard that, though he’s not ultimately dismissing them, it sounds as if he is. He qualifies his words on Joe Thorn’s blog–pretty strongly, in fact–but what about all the people who hear his song but won’t read that specific blog?
Some people will respond by saying, “Well, he’s an artist. He’s supposed to provoke. That’s like the Old Testament prophets.” It is true that artists can provoke reflection that might not otherwise come. I am a rapper myself. I love art. I love creative expression. I love hard-hitting exhortation. But the motive of edification does not justify any level of critique. Artists are not exempt from giving account to God for every word they speak (see Matthew 12:36-37). I don’t know when that idea got in the evangelical bloodstream, but it’s there, and it’s not helpful (this is not a veiled reference to Jefferson Bethke, whose controversial videos I liked). Let me say it again: artists will give account.
Let me be clear: If young men are failing today, strong critique and exhortation are needed. But as a Christian, there must be grace in the mix. I am not justified at being so edgy, so angry, so authentically steamed, that I take my fellow sinners off at the knees. I fear that, though Propaganda ultimately points the finger on himself in the last verse, he has been harsh against the Puritans, sinful as they were in being racist and not opposing racism in the power of the gospel.
Look–I’m for public criticism of evangelical “heroes” on this point. See the biography of Jonathan Edwards that Douglas Sweeney and I wrote for Moody. We strongly critiqued Edwards for owning slaves, as we should have. But that doesn’t mean that we should tear him down. He is a sinner like us. Furthermore, if being a sinner in even a deeply regrettable way disqualifies you from being referenced by modern evangelicals, we are going to have a very difficult time finding anyone to emulate. Luther was anti-Semitic; Calvin could be preening and cold; Edwards held slaves; and the list goes on.
Racism is awful. Horrible. Reprehensible. It must be called out and condemned. But one must do so carefully. To tear the Puritans down with very little nuance of the kind I’ve offered here is problematic. Propaganda wrote that he has learned a great deal from these forefathers despite their sins. I fear that people who don’t have his prior appreciation will not do the same. They will write them off. That would be a mistake. It would also seem to be counter to the general spirit of Galatians 6:1. This is not a passage about who to lionize, but there’s a principle that seems to apply here:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.
And we take note of this:
Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.