The Puritans Are Not That Precious
Spats in the blogosphere have become commonplace. Many times we lament these exchanges, particularly when the participants seem to lose Christian perspective, preferring to demean rather than edify. But sometimes the rapid-fire exchanges become more creative than truly combative, more illuminating than isolating, like battle rap for blog geeks.
Debating “Precious Puritans”
With the release of Propaganda’s new album, “Excellent,” something of an evangelical battle rap-styled blog row has broken out. Joe Thorn offered the first bars with a two-part series reflecting on the track “Precious Puritans.” Joe called in an academic heavy gun in part one to discuss Puritan participation in slavery and in part two shared his own appreciation of the song following a brief interview with Prop.
Owen Strachan rebutted with a post that charges Propoganda with being sinfully unfair to the Puritans and possibly turning people away from reading them. Tony Reinke backs up Owen in a comment on Owen’s original post.
Steve McCoy at Reformissionary offered an analysis of the song and attempted to address those who “missed the point” of the song, responding to some of the concerns Owen raised in his post. Owen shows up with a reply in comment #35 of McCoy’s post.
So it’s on and poppin’ as each “side” squares off in debate. I should be old enough to know better than to wade into this almost ‘east coast-west coast’ styled theo-battle. Should be. But as I’ve read the comments and exchanges, many of them quite useful, I couldn’t help but react in various ways. That’s what follows–some random reactions.
Some Random Reflections
First, I really like the song. In fact, I absolutely loved the entire album. Hands down it’s musically and lyrically one of the most creative albums I’ve heard in a long, long while. One thing that’s easily lost in all the ruckus over the Puritans is that the entire album is just as hard-hitting as this one track! He hits himself in track 1, “Don’t Listen to Me,” a track that disavows his own expertise and human claims to explanatory wisdom. Track 8, “Forgive Me for Asking,” exposes our tendency to lie in various self-protecting ways. The cd ends with track 12, “Be Present,” the rapper’s report of his own failure to be attentive to his wife and warning from his Vietnam veteran father whose on his fourth marriage. In one sense, “Precious Puritans” simply nestles into the middle of an album which in various ways “got in our face” about some aspect of life or another. It’s curious to me that some were offended at “Precious Puritans,” a group that disappeared some 300 years ago, when I was wrecked on the tracks that personally challenged my contemporary parenting, honesty and integrity, and inattentive presence with the wife. Just saying… there’s much more to be offended by than the reputation of people who have already gone to their reward. This isn’t an album for the easily offended.
Second, I find defenses of the Puritan’s reputation a bit curious, especially when the charge involves race-based slavery. My dear friend and once fellow church member Owen calls for some nuance. Okay. But how do we renounce slavery with “nuance”? It wasn’t a nuanced practice. It was bestial and it reduced human beings to beasts of burden. There’s nothing nuanced about kidnapping, the middle passage, hangings, whippings, rapes, children sold off–and that’s the sanitized listing of atrocities. If anything, the story has been so often told or so often willfully ignored that the sharp edges of truth have been sanded off. I tend to think that all the prickly points of Prop’s song were necessary for those of us whose consciences might be a little dull and imaginations unimaginative when it comes to entering human suffering or the blindness that produces it. There’s something that feels right to me about the “in your face”-ness of the song. We’re left no holes to crawl into, no escape routes, no intellectual deflections. We’re left naked before the gaze of the righteously indignant. Uncomfortable and searching. Uncomfortable because it’s searching. It’s in our–face.
Fifth, good theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that.
Sixth, we’re terrible at critiquing our heroes. That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting. As I read the comments about “Precious Puritans,” it seemed to me that some people had a picture of Jesus on their grandmother’s living room wall–only the picture had Reagan and a puritan on the left and right. We’re not good at critiquing or receiving criticism of our heroes. Perhaps we need to grow up a bit in this regard?
Seventh, are there many people who actually read the Puritans anyway? I’m guessing that most Christians, if they’ve heard of the Puritans, probably haven’t read them in any detail. I’m grateful for the Puritan Paperback series of Banner, which has made a lot of the Puritans accessible. But I can’t say many read their works. Are they really that “precious” beyond the pastors and authors who read and quote them? I don’t think Prop hurts the cause. I don’t think the Puritans are as celebrated as some think. I’ll give them this: the Puritans have a great name and recently some pretty good PR folks. But they’re a long way from being household names. For that reason, I don’t think Prop hurts the cause. Moreover, do we really think that reading the Puritans–as beneficial as that can be–outweighs growth in cross-ethnic understanding or more effectively preaching to diverse congregations? I’d far rather people who learn to live just lives even if they’ve never read the Puritans and only heard Prop’s song, than a bunch of folks who read the Puritans religiously and act as if Prop’s angst and racial oppression were not real.
Eight, it’s very easy to slip from disagreement to opposition. But not every disagreement is opposition. I’m glad the brothers involved in this disagreement recognize they’re on the same “side”–Christ’s. They don’t oppose each other as though they’re enemies. That’s good in a day when we can interpret every disagreement as opposition and vilify the “other.” At a couple points, a comment or two seemed to toe the line. I found the insinuation that Prop is “angry” much too reminiscent of “the angry black man” stereotype. Much. But I also found the notion that Owen was motivated by racial privilege and ignorant of the cultural genre much too stereotypical as well. White brothers and sisters might have to ask themselves, “Can I withstand an African American man speaking the truth in strong terms without resorting to fear-based stereotypes, and if not, why not?” African American brothers and sisters might have to ask themselves, “Can I withstand a White man disagreeing about something as poignant as slavery without resorting to accusations of racism, and, if not, why not?” The whole episode reminds me that when I find myself disagreeing with someone, especially a Christian brother or sister, I need to slow down to recognize they’re not opponents and I shouldn’t malign their motives. I’ve blundered that way many times. So, it was good to see brothers working to avoid that trap while they expressed disagreement. It’s not been done perfectly, but there seemed to be a good irenic spirit.
Finally, there needs to be more conversation about our respective historical narratives and interpretations. We need to learn how others weight certain aspects of our shared history and how that shapes our interpretations of the present. We hear the word “Puritan” and one man thinks “hero” while another thinks “slave owner.” Both interpretations are in some sense true, but only partially true. We know that a partial truth masquerading as the whole truth is a complete untruth. Partial truths asserting themselves upon others is an act of oppression. Our postmodern friends aren’t completely wrong when they tell us that there’s a power struggle whenever one narrative gets foisted upon all people. African Americans and many other minority groups know what it’s like to fight to see yourself included in the overarching narrative.
It’s not that there isn’t a meta-narrative. There is. It’s just that the meta-narrative can’t be reduced to one people’s history. The meta-narrative must be God’s, for He is the only One who comprehends all in himself. God is no postmodernist. He’s the Creator and Ruler of all things in eternity and history. That’s why He alone is able to hit a straight lick with a crooked stick. That’s why Prop’s song ends on the perfect ironic note.
The Puritans are not so precious that they’re beyond criticism. We ought not be reduced to Gollums, defending our “precious” at any cost. Instead, we ought to observe how our “precious” actually emaciates our souls and our understanding. And we ought to see that we become what we worship. In the final analysis, just as in the final verse of the song, we’re not that different from the Puritans. It’s no small thing that we’re just as crooked. We’re just as full of contradiction and partial sight. And God uses us for His glory even when we can’t see all that we should. Praise His name!