From Henry to Hip Hop: Baptists and the Return to Culture

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The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 7 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Upheaval,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

In 410 A.D., a group of Visigoth barbarians sacked the golden city of Rome. Assuming that the gods sent this horde as a punishment, the Roman people lashed out at the only religious group that refused to swear allegiance to the pantheon: the Christians. A bishop in the African city of Hippo, Augustine, felt forced to defend Christianity from this outcry and the threat of destruction from the pagan populace. Although he probably did not set out to do so, Augustine provided the world with the first Christian theology of culture. Since Augustine, Christians have wrestled with how to relate to the world and to culture: What kind of music can Christians sing? Do we unite the races or is it better to segregate? Is it ever right to have an abortion?

Henry’s work not only provided a reevaluation of theology’s central pillars, but it also furnished evangelicals with the intellectual ammo to counter the prevalent secular worldview that had been growing since the enlightenment.

Baptists in the early 20th century usually had one answer to the question of culture: We don’t want to have anything to do with it. However, by the end of the century, Baptists were a political, artistic, and social force to be reckoned with. How did a group that was happy to remain separate from secular influences come to engage them on both an intellectual and cultural front? Although there have been many smaller influences that have pushed Baptists from their foxholes, the figure of Carl Henry stands tall as the primary influence on the current generation of Baptist leaders and activists, although often indirectly through his writings and associations with various Baptist organizations.

The year of 1947 was quite a marker in 20th century history. In the wake of “The War to End All Wars” 2.0, a new era of political and cultural upheaval was beginning to unfold. The Cold War unofficially opened with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, a foreign policy that aimed at reducing the impact of communism across the globe. The word “computer” was coined for the first time. Meet the Press debuted on NBC. A Streetcar Named Desire, with Marlon Brando in the lead role, opened on Broadway.

Carl F. H. Henry, a newly minted professor at the recently founded Fuller Theological Seminary, contributed to this period of upheaval with the publication of his work The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry chastised his fellow evangelicals for sounding the retreat from culture, allowing those who hold to anti-supernaturalistic worldviews to dictate the terms of the modern cultural and political landscape. Meeting with a group of pastors, Henry asked how many of them have preached a sermon intentionally against war, racism, or some other social evil. No one raised a hand.[1]

Although strange to parishioners and ministers who grew up during the age of MTV and the Moral Majority, many conservative Baptist churches during the early 20th century placed themselves into a self-imposed exile from culture, politics, and society. The raging battle between liberals seeking to modernize Christian doctrines and the fundamentalists who upheld their traditional interpretation caused a great separation. Fundamentalists left their old institutions and churches and founded new ones.

Billy Graham, a schoolmate of Henry’s at Wheaton College, agreed that Baptists couldn’t stay out of the world’s troubles. In the very same year that Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Graham conducted his first evangelistic crusade, an event marked by gospel singing, preaching, and the giving of an invitation to come and receive Christ. Although Graham had grown up in the same fundamentalist churches that opted for separation rather than helping to cure society’s ills, he recognized the growing disconnect between the lives of moderns and the life of the church. The crusades were meant to bridge that gap and bring the message of redemption out of the church building and into the world.

However, Graham’s greatest contribution to the burgeoning neo-evangelical movement was his vast array of political and cultural connections. Presidents invited him to prayer breakfasts to speak. Popular musicians such as Johnny Cash performed at his crusades. Woody Allen interviewed him for a televised event. He preached alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Graham’s crusades in the North. Billy Graham was the face of neo-evangelicalism, which wedded social action to solid theological commitments.

Billy Graham and Carl Henry, both realizing the need for a forum where conservative Christianity could have an intellectual voice, founded Christianity Today in 1956 as “a clear voice, to speak with conviction and love, and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis.”[2] Providing an outlet for a new generation of evangelicals influenced by this new social consciousness, Henry served as the first editor-in-chief until stepping down in 1968.

Carl Henry’s role at Christianity Today provided him with a front row seat to the spiritual vacuum found in a culture that sought to inaugurate a new era of peace and brotherhood without understanding humanity’s fallen nature, God’s law, and Christ’s cross. Although society’s problems manifest in vast social evils, the world’s problems are first theological and then intellectual, biological, and so on. Commenting on the role of mass media in the breakdown of truth, Henry states:

“A culture that welcomes its own glaring inconsistencies as inescapable will inevitably suffocate for lack of spiritual oxygen and find human existence devoid of worth and meaning. It is man who dies, not God, when the truth of truth and the meaning of meaning evaporate.”[3]

Summarizing what he saw to be the tripartite breakdown in society of our ideas of God, of revelation as the vehicle of God’s making known of himself, and of the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation made manifest, Henry published his magnum opus, the six volume God, Revelation, and Authority in 1986. Central to the work are his 15 theses, axioms that Henry believed would refocus the primary concerns of theology thereby helping Christians engage society on better terms. Opposition to modern, anti-Christian modes of thought required a solid ground from which to stand (all other bits of ground being, of course, sinking sand). “The naturalistic modern mind now veers away from any and every recognition of the universe as a rational network of laws. Man is no longer viewed as nature’s final climax, nor reason as necessarily man’s highest faculty, nor ethical behavior as necessarily related to objective principle as opposed to situational decision.”[4] However, “The one compelling alternative is the Logos of God as ultimately explanatory, not indeed as the Logos is rationalistically prognosticated but rather as biblically attested.”[5] Henry’s work not only provided a reevaluation of theology’s central pillars, but it also furnished evangelicals with the intellectual ammo to counter the prevalent secular worldview that had been growing since the enlightenment.

Both Henry and Graham were trailblazers for the modern Baptist involvement with political and cultural transformation. Both men mutually “held the rope” for one another’s activities. Henry as the theorist and intellectual who provided a foundation for neo-evangelicalism, and Graham who connected with artists and politicians while providing the necessary backing for Henry’s activities. The next wave of cultural engagement by Baptists would owe their very existence to the pioneering efforts of these two men.

In the years since Henry and Graham’s pioneering efforts to encourage evangelicals to come out of their caves and participate in cultural renewal, Baptists have shown themselves capable of speaking to the needs of others through social action, artistic endeavors, and political engagement. From the 1980s onward, Baptist institutions were transformed and were often repurposed to focus efforts on evangelism and mission through cultural involvement.

1979 was another historic year for the 20th century, specifically for the Southern Baptist Convention. That year, Convention attendees elected Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, as president of the SBC. Over the next decade, this election would reverse liberalizing tendencies in the denomination and replace known moderates with more conservative heads. As a result of years of conservative influence, a young Baptist leader by the name of R. Albert Mohler, Jr. would replace Roy Honeycutt as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In the years since Henry and Graham’s pioneering efforts to encourage evangelicals to come out of their caves and participate in cultural renewal, Baptists have shown themselves capable of speaking to the needs of others through social action, artistic endeavors, and political engagement.

Mohler was a former student at the seminary years before returning to the institution as its leader. During his time as a student, he befriended Carl Henry. Henry’s influence would be felt during the seminary’s years of reconstruction after the Honeycutt presidency: The seminary hired many evangelical professors sympathetic with the type of intellectual engagement with secularism advocated by Henry. Many professors at the seminary are now affiliated with various institutions of cultural renewal both inside and outside official Baptist channels, such as The Gospel Coalition and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Churches in the surrounding area outside of the seminary have also implemented a vision for employing and transforming art and artists. Sojourn Community Church, formerly located on Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky (an artistic hub), has reached out to artists and theologians in order to cast a vision for how to reach artists and use their talents positively in the local church. Sojourn hosts art shows at their former worship center The 930 and have recently renovated a former Catholic cathedral to serve as their primary worship site.

Outside of Louisville, Baptist musicians have adopted musical styles once considered taboo in order to reach a generation of millennials with progressive listening habits. William Lee Barefield III, known by his stage name Trip Lee, has been nominated for four Dove awards for hip-hop, in recent memory a taboo genre for Christians. Speaking to Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service, Lee recognized that being a Christian who raps places him between two worlds: “Christians don’t know what to think of me sometimes since I’m a rapper. They can’t imagine God using someone in hip-hop culture.”[6] Desiring to heed the call to ministry, Lee took a brief hiatus in 2013 to serve on staff at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., where Carl Henry had attended until his death in 2003. Lee and other Christian rappers have served to bridge the gap between conservative theology and hip-hop culture, using their songs as avenues for proclamation of the gospel and condemnation of secular values.

Thabiti Anyabwile, another former staff member at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, has used his blog at The Gospel Coalition Web site as a platform to speak to issues regarding race and racism in America. A former Muslim, Anyabwile converted to Christianity under the preaching ministry of a television evangelist and later joined the staff at CHBC as a teaching pastor. Anyabwile rose to prominence after the death of Michael Brown and the national meltdown that caused racial lines to be drawn when a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death. Writing a series of blog posts on evangelicals, race, and racial reconciliation, Anyabwile called sectors of the church to account for “gospel escapism”—running from social responsibility by calling issues of race a “social issue” rather than a “gospel issue.” Although some commentators were offended at this suggestion, The Gospel Coalition has stood by Anyabwile, promoting his opinion pieces on Ferguson and providing a forum at this year’s Gospel Coalition National Conference on the issue of race and the events in Ferguson. Anyabwile presents a clear voice for conservative evangelicals concerned with engaging social ills with gospel truths.

Less than a mile away from Capitol Hill Baptist sits the offices of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Corresponding with the political and religious reversal of the SBC, the ERLC began its life as the Christian Life Commission. Headed by Foy Valentine, the organization is infamous for its approval of government-funded abortions. During the Conservative Resurgence of the SBC, Richard Land replaced Valentine and immediately reversed the institution’s official views on abortion. Land would spend the next 25 years as the head of the ERLC, rubbing shoulders with politicians and lobbyist groups before stepping down in 2013. The dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Moore, replaced him as president. Both Land and Moore have praised Henry for acting as the forerunner of the current evangelical concern for human flourishing, with Moore claiming that, “Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is perhaps the most important evangelical book of the twentieth-century.”[7] The spirit of Carl Henry lives on in institutions like the ERLC.

Carl Henry’s legacy is not chiefly found in his prolific writing ministry. Nor was it found in the organizations that he headed or worked with. Rather, his ultimate endowment to posterity was awakening the burgeoning neo-evangelical movement to the needs of a fallen world for the social witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the later part of the 20th century, younger Baptists caught Henry’s vision of a socially involved church and began to find creative ways to speak truth to power by opposing evil through social engagement. As the 21st century unfolds with racism, poverty, and environmental issues at the fore, Henry’s vision of a culturally aware church is more poignant (and prophetic) than ever.

Living in an era where society accepts moral revolutions at a meteoric pace, Christians must train themselves to react thoughtfully to developing events and evolving worldviews. Social media, for better or worse, allows instantaneous access to news and an easy platform for voicing one’s opinions. Christians have an obligation to provide sober responses to pressing issues. However, knee-jerk reactions are the order of the day: We find them in comments sections, on Twitter, even in hastily written opinion pieces meant to satisfy the cravings of a news hungry public.

Living in an era where society accepts moral revolutions at a meteoric pace, Christians must train themselves to react thoughtfully to developing events and evolving worldviews.

“Speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) mandates that conviction, patience, and love characterize our witness in the midst of cultural tumult. The church has the ability and the duty to place itself in a position to speak the gospel in the midst of change. The Christian hip-hop artist and the Christian politician both testify to God’s grace in Christ not only by opposing the evil found within those systems, but also by offering an alternative that is based on the revelation found in Jesus. In other words, by “incarnating” themselves into their respective spheres of cultural and political influence, the artist and the politician are able to reject what is evil and embrace and proclaim what is good, without abandoning their vocations as such.

Henry understood the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on believers to be physically manifested in the Christian’s social testimony: “The Holy Spirit’s triumph over sin and temptation is seen in the extension of evangelical virtues throughout the world, the enlistment of divinely entrusted talents in constructive vocations that serve God and all mankind, and the penetration of the truth of revelation into every arena of life.”[8] For 21st century Baptists living in the shadow of Henry, no part of life, no aspect of culture, no field of society should be outside the bounds of Christian engagement.

[1] Henry, Uneasy Conscience, 18.

[2] Henry, Why Christianity Today.

[3] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, I.29

[4] Henry, GRA, I.39

[5] Henry, GRA, III.202

[6] http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2015/02/04/trip-lee-inside-mind-misfit-christian-rapper/

[7] http://www.russellmoore.com/2012/01/22/the-evangelical-uneasy-conscience-faces-the-future/

[8] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (vol. 3; Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 69.

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