Creative Theology: Introduction (Part 3)

creative theologyIt is possible, over time, to develop a sort of theological enclave. A group-think can form that quarantines itself from any outside perspectives, and guards itself against any internal criticisms. Theological enclavism is the death knell of Biblical reform. Communities that refuse to question themselves, listen to the voices of outsiders, and think outside the box become useless. This is not to suggest that progressivism for the sake of being progressive is preferred; it is rather to suggest that creativity has a role to play in keeping communities engaged with regular Biblical reform.

There are those who disagree. There are those who count all creativity, all questioning, all contextualization as an encroaching liberalism. There are those who maintain that nothing new can be learned about a doctrine, no new way to discuss it can be helpful, and nothing of worth can contradict the statements of old. I do not wish to get into identifying specific individuals, I will point to some works or articles that represent this trend, but the issue is, I believe far more systematic within Evangelicalism. It is not necessarily individuals who deride creativity, it is larger communities as a whole which perpetuate a form of tribalism that is unhealthy to the faith. Some examples may help to illustrate the point.

Two particular trends I am familiar with demonstrate this apprehension towards theological creativity. The first, is a form of historical romanticism. This has been notably seen in the “Precious Puritans” dust-up from 2012. “Precious Puritans” was the name of a track from Christian rap artist Propaganda’s 2012 album Excellent. In it he questions pastors about the value of celebrating the Puritans. He points out their obvious racism, noting that many of them owned slaves, and wondering aloud throughout the track if this is sympathetic to the plight and pain of black men and women in present day congregations. He says:

Hey 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 heartbreak, like “Not you too, Pastor” You know they were chaplains on slave ships, right? Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees? Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs, even if they theology was good? It just sings a blind privilege, wouldn’t you agree? Your precious Puritans

The song ends by reminding hearers that no one is perfect, none inerrant and infallible save God himself. He states plainly, “So, I guess it’s true that God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” His conclusion is meant more to probe his own heart and the hearts of critics than to directly rebuke the Puritans, though that is certainly still part of the picture. Fans of hip hop may like the song, but the reaction of a number of evangelical theologians makes this a worthwhile topic to highlight.

There were many within the Evangelical community who respond with outright frustration, disappointment, and even some hostility towards the artist and this song. They contended that he was throwing the Puritans under the bus. That he was going to discourage young Christians from reading these godly forebears. Some even suggest that the song is sinfully slanderous, that it lacks grace. Thabiti Anyabwile very helpfully responded to many critics when he pointed out that the “defense of the Puritans does, it seems to me, draw upon a fair amount of privilege.” That is to say, some of us don’t have to think about our race and about racial issues. But our black brothers and sisters aren’t afforded that luxury. Slavery may mean little to us, and we may be able to overlook the Puritans’ failures here, but it’s not so easy for others of our Christian family. Anyabwile points out too that the facts are there and worthy of our serious consideration. Slavery was a horrible reality. To the critics who called for more “nuanced” critique of the Puritans, Anyabwile responded:

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 [Propaganda’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.

It is confusing why so many were opposed to this song. Anyabwile was right, in his article, to include a paragraph on our inability to critique our heroes. Creative theology is needed to help us do just that sort of thing, but tribalism refuses to let it.

Propaganada offered a significant, worthwhile, and creative response to a major theological question. The question: how can we learn sound doctrine from sinful men, particularly men who owned slaves. His critique is important because it causes us to evaluate how we answer that question, how we examine the totality of the work of the Puritans. It causes us to think carefully about the historical narrative and ways in which we may have downplayed it or ignored it. In some ways Propaganda is doing what Nathan did to David. He is creatively exposing some of our own pride and sin. He includes himself in this expose as he reveals his own thoughts at the end of the song. The point I want to focus on here, however, is the form of tribalims that does not welcome such creativity. We see it elsewhere too.

John Frame, in his book Evangelical Reunion, highlights my second example: denominationalism. In his book Frame spoke plainly of a kind of “denominational chauvinism” which essentially boils the faithful down to one denomination. There are many such examples littered throughout the book, one in particular is worth noting. He writes:

But my prize for denominational chauvinism goes to the OPC General Assembly several years ago which determined that no home missions aid be given to any congregation that fails to use the name “Orthodox Presbyterian Church” in its church name. Many of our churches had not used that name, because it was not well understood in their communities and was “turning off” visitors. That particular General Assembly evidently put a higher value on denominational publicity than upon reaching communities with the gospel.

Tribalism abounds within Evangelicalism. Anything that smacks of being “new” or “creative” is lambasted as departing from the faith. Sometimes this criticism has been fair, as there are plenty of “creative theologians” who are more creative than they are Christian. Rob Bell’s infamous book on hell certainly won no ground with conservative theologians, and rightfully so. It was after all full of terrible scholarship and terrible theology. Yet, to leave no room for creativity is to consign the church to irrelevance and traditionalism.

Many other examples may be found. In the realm of ecclesiology there are critiques offered of some formulations of doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Yet, many Presbyterians are unwilling even to consider reformulation of this statement of faith. Many strike me as more committed to their history than to Biblical evaluations. One could look at the current conversation about so-called Biblical manhood and womanhood as another example. There are some within the conservative camp that propose something more akin to a return to 1950s cultural values than to Biblical characteristics of masculinity and femininity. The appeal to “rugged-manliness,” would not seemingly have been applied well to men in Scripture like Jeremiah or Solomon. Furthermore, female leaders abound in the Scriptures and so, characterizing “leadership” as a distinctly masculine feature does not seem to do justice to the text.

There are more examples, honestly, than I wish to enumerate here. The point is that a disinterest in creative theology is a pattern among evangelicalism. If liberal theology tends to downplay the importance of church history, tradition, and of universal principles, their counterparts do not escape criticism. Conservatives live in theological enclaves within larger theological enclaves. Such theological isolationism tends towards two very significant theological dangers: (1) blind acceptance, and (2) theological reductionism. We’ll look at these in detail next week.

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