Problematic Poetry about Precious Puritans
“Forgive these wild & wandering cries Confusions of a wasted youth Forgive me where I fail in truth And in Thy Wisdom make me wise”
The great Alfred ‘Lord’ Tennyson had the good sense to preface his triumphant work In Memoriam with a humble caution. Tennyson must’ve known that words, especially when written about the weakness of man, will just rub some people the wrong way. And often, the more poignant the words, the crazier the reactions tend to be.
For example, Propaganda’s ‘Precious Puritans ‘. A track on the very talented rapper, Propaganda’s 2012 album Excellent. The point of ‘Precious Puritans’ was that God uses awful sinners like Puritans and rappers to do great things. However, when the album dropped, there was some discussion in the blog world on the merits of pointing out the flaws of the much loved puritans. And today, Reformation21.org re-opened up the debate (that I honestly thought had passed) with a several thousand word poem in defense of the Puritans. It actually turned out to be more of a diss of Propaganda, completely missing the point of the song (for a clarification of the song, if needed, I recommend this blog by Joe Thorn). But the poem failed to advance dialogue and had some critical errors worth mentioning.
“Our men were of a different sphere, these men that we still hold so dear:I hope that we can all agree that they preached truest liberty – Knew what it was to be enslaved, and then by Christ redeemed and saved.”
Essentially he is saying, “the culture was different back then, and they did good things too!” And in so doing, excuses their sins in light of the societal norms of the time and instead highlights the fact that they preached the gospel. Romans 3 paints a slightly different picture of mankind.
“Resisted fallen man’s invention, clung to heavenly intention, Who pressed for thorough church reform,would not accept the uniform Demands of an oppressive state, but took their stand and faced their fate.”
However, they were still truly culturally transcendent… despite that whole human bondage thing. What?
“Though they are quaint, don’t call them weird; a few may have that “epic beard” But this apart, here we discuss some sinners saved by grace – like us. And though we might not all agree on all of their theology, I would suggest we owe them this, unless our target we would miss: To understand just who they were, not carelessly their names to slur –“
It seems that the poet has misunderstood the art of dialogue. Propaganda didn’t ‘slur’ anybody. Propaganda simply pointed out the flaws of a group of hyper-esteemed individuals, while also acknowledging that God used them. Thus, inviting the listener to open their mind to the reality of fallibility and the supremacy of Christ.
In the words of Spike Lee, “We need to wake up, yo!” As Christians, we have to learn how to dialogue and be confronted with the imperfection of our own movements and heroes. I am concerned that, myself included (just ask my editor), Christians are prone to attack opposing viewpoints and blogs while hiding behind presupposed ideas. This lack of dialogue inhibits growth, sharpening and friendship. If we refuse to acknowledge the truths of white privilege, race, and cultural disparity how will we ever obey God by working to change these problems?
Carl Trueman had an interesting comment on the subject at the end of a blog responding to Trevin Wax’s recent whack at the Puritans:
“…perhaps I live in a very different church world to the rest of American Calvinistic evangelicalism — that would not surprise me at all — but in the last few months we have had the Puritans whacked for slavery (and I still cannot name a single Westminster Divine who owned a slave – though I can name a few who, in 1662, lost everything through their stand for the truth) and now for introspection. Yet is it really the case that uncritical appropriation of the Puritans is the, or even a, pressing problem for the church today? Is legalistic introspection really crippling the church? Are there no other, more threatening problems? Not weakness on Trinitarianism? Not books advocating sodomy in marriage? Not the new antinomianism? Not even new Calvinists who are happy to wear sneakers and buy computers made by slave labour in the Majority World? The last twelve months seem to have thrown up a few more likely candidates for pressing ecclesiastical problems than John Owen, John Bunyan, and Uncle Tom Goodwin and all.”
This is a late comment, sure, but I think that the way that American churches have celebrated American values and historical figures, like the Puritans, has created a significant dissonance between American blacks and whites in terms of how we worship and serve God. While the black church has a rich history, many, many blacks have been turned off to Christianity because of its ties to slavery, oppression, and imperialism. So respectfully, yes, it is a significant issue … and as blessed a country as America is, many Christians fail to separate their “patriotism” from their faith, and too often extol, or gloss over, America’s sordid history in doing so.
I think Propaganda’s song is quite a noteworthy piece, and its words should be considered by its listeners, and not merely put aside because someone personally believes that it’s not an immediate issue of the church.
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