Sho Baraka and Modern Gnosticism
With the recent debacle surrounding Sho Baraka’s album The Narrative, we should take a moment to think about God’s creation. In 2016, Christian rapper Sho Baraka released an album with Humble Beast Records entitled The Narrative which is an especially poignant work for our current cultural environment. The album deals with racial tension, Christian living, and the ever important topic of redemption. In one song entitled Piano Break, 33 A.D., Baraka reminisces on how he was when he was a younger man.
“I was an insecure boy who just thought he was a genius. But always pissed off, that’s because I thought with my penis.”
— Sho Baraka
While this profound statement is a testament to the great redemption in the Lord Jesus Christ, in 2017, Lifeway Christian Resources, a connected entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled the album from their shelves in response to some customers’ objection to the genital reference.
While there were some who applauded the decision, others have frowned upon the publishing house. Sho Baraka and others have even claimed that the racial activism content in the album was a part of the frustration for white evangelicals. While I am willing to accept those alleged reasons, the removal of Baraka’s album is interesting for an entirely different reason.
Physical vs. Spiritual
Over the course of church history, there have been a number of explicit and implicit denials of God’s claim that creation is good (Genesis 1). In the early church, the heretical Gnostic movement made a sharp, unbiblical distinction between the physical and the spiritual realms. For the Gnostics, the spiritual realm was inherently good while the physical realm was inherently bad. The Gnostics were were being influenced by the surrounding Greek philosophers who propagated metaphysical dualism. This fundamental misunderstanding led them to believe that the Lord Jesus did not actually take on human flesh. Rather, he only appeared to be human. According the Gnostics, he was an exclusively spiritual being who made himself to look like a human. This heretical teaching was based on the assumption that the physical is inherently bad.
Skipping forward to the medieval church, we find an implicit assumption that the physical is bad as well. The medieval Roman Catholic Church prohibited its priests from marriage (and still does), and consequently sexual relations. Sex and physical intimacy were thought of to be of lesser verity and importance than the spiritual aspects of life. In fact, the church even banned its members from engaging in sexual relations with their spouses on stated ‘holy days’. Carl Trueman has said that the lay-people were barred from the marriage bed for more than half of the entire year.
Today, it seems that many evangelicals have fallen into this trap as well. I have heard many pastors jokingly remark, “mosquitos were created after the fall.” If not mosquitos, the thing created after the fall is generally something that bothered that pastor the week prior. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with saying something like that, the phrase is so commonplace now that I am beginning to expect that some might actually believe it.
Unfortunately, that phrase doesn’t stand alone as evidence that many evangelicals regard some things as inherently bad. Another proof is the large evangelical opposition to medical marijuana. Some will argue that there is potential for abuse if medical marijuana is legalized. Ironically, I hear very few evangelicals opposing the use of hydrocodone or even ibuprofen. If marijuana could potentially help patients with epilepsy and Parkinson’s Disease, why should evangelicals oppose it? I am willing to say that some evangelicals consider marijuana to be inherently bad even if not explicitly stated.
In our current situation, I see a hint of the unbiblical division between physical and spiritual of the Gnostics. Thankfully, no one is saying that all physical elements are inherently bad.
However, some modern evangelicals pick and choose what is good and bad. Alcohol, certain drugs, and all sexual references outside of marriage books, sermons, or the Bible are bad. Guns, Welch’s grape juice, and grandma’s apple pie are good.
The distinction that many are failing to make is that humans, not all creation, are moral agents. All creation is inherently good for God declared it to be such (Genesis 1). What people do with God’s creation, on the other hand, has moral implications.
This does not, of course, negate the fact that all of creation has come under the curse of sin. That is the distinction: creation is under the curse of sin, not sin itself.
What does this have to do with Sho Baraka? Since male genitalia is not inherently sinful, Baraka’s reference is what it is: a creative, meaningful expression of his past ways of thinking.
This predicament has been interesting to watch unfold. I am certainly confused why a publishing house would pull an excellent album from its shelves simply because some people didn’t like it. Maybe, with all the recent threats to withhold Cooperative Fund monies in the SBC, Lifeway decided to err on the side of caution to safeguard its validity as an SBC entity. Whatever the case, “The Narrative” by Sho Baraka is intellectually and emotionally thrilling music. Though not inherently good because of the human moral agency involved, the album is a piece of art and a gift to the church.