You can imagine that when one of we happy, few Get Religionistas writes a snarky headline, there's more to follow.
Thus, I trust you won't be disappointed as we join the Washington Post on a voyage of discovery. The find? The shocking development here: Folks who run Christian bookstores respond quickly when customers complain about the content of a product they're selling.
(Your correspondent has direct, personal experience in this matter. I'll get to that in a moment.)
Here, now, the "news." Sho Baraka is an African-American hip-hop artist with a highly creative mind, and a love for Jesus. He's been popular in Christian circles after finding faith a few years back, and his latest album, "The Narrative" (promotional video above) hit the shelves at LifeWay Christian Bookstores, a chain owned by the Southern Baptist Conventions. Then, it appears, some folks listened to the songs, which then alarmed those hearers.
Take it away, Washington Post:
Popular hip-hop artist Sho Baraka has taken aim at Southern Baptist retailer LifeWay Christian Stores for dropping his album for including the word “penis,” a move that shows a growing tension between the black artist and his white evangelical fans.
A spokesman for LifeWay confirmed the retailer’s decision, saying in an email that customers complained about the language, but the representative declined to provide further details.
Christian bookstores don’t usually place rap albums by black activist artists front and center on their shelves. But in recent years, white evangelicals have embraced several black hip-hop artists such as chart-topping rappers Lecrae and Trip Lee, whose albums are sold on LifeWay’s website. Baraka, who was once part of Lecrae’s Reach Records label, said he upset LifeWay customers by including the anatomical reference in his album.
Here's a stunner, right? Some folks bought a presumably "Christian" album and heard a word "I never heard in the Bible," as Paul Simon sang in a different, long-ago context. They returned the product, and explained why. The retailer considered this and decided to cut its losses and remove the album.
The Post contributor who chronicled this notes that "a sex manual for Christians" titled "Sheet Music" has 45 uses of the p-word, which one might properly expect in a book about, you know, sex. The article also recalled a 2012 incident where LifeWay declined to stock a book by Rachel Held Evans because, she alleged, it contained the word "vagina" (as opposed to questionable moral theology).
Perhaps the most astounding leap is the way the contributor, and Baraka, frame the retailer's rejection of his product. The inclusion of "penis" in a song lyric isn't just something that LifeWay didn't approve, rather, it's the sign of a culture clash with racial overtones:
Frustrated with LifeWay’s choice, Baraka says the incident reflects a larger problem with American evangelicals, over three-quarters of whom are white. He believes his own culture, one shaped by a love for hip-hop and a pride in his ethnic heritage, is at odds with a Christianity dominated by white, political conservatives.
As for me, I'm not quite sure how one gets to that sweeping cultural judgement from having an album pulled off of a store's shelves. However, that is a crucial point of view and half of a debate that really matters.
The question is whether there are voices on the other side of that debate that might have something to say. If so, those voices are also part of the debate. Right? Yes, it didn't help that a LifeWay spokesman declined a detailed discussion of the matter. But there are other experts on these kinds of issues.
This story merely struck me as odd, until I recalled an incident from a little over 20 years ago. My second book, "God on the Internet," (IDG, 1996) had been published, and over the course of a few weeks, I wheedled the manager of the Family Bookstore outlet in Fairfax, Virginia, to carry a few copies. Within days, they were not displayed.
Did it sell out, I asked? Oh, no, someone returned the book because it had kind words about Mormons as well the Unification Church. These were not theological endorsements, mind you, just mild praise for some of the two group's accomplishments. (The book was a how-to for the still-young information superhighway, and it covered "all major religions." It said so, right on the cover.)
I was nonplussed, but such was (and perhaps still is) life. Family Bookstores, like LifeWay, was an evangelical-focused business. They want to sell products customers like. If a product sufficiently disappoints a customer, it might no longer be sold.
Far be it from me to compare my little book to the music of Sho Baraka, but I would submit the principle is the same, and it bears repeating: Retailers like to sell what customers want to buy. They also pay attention when regular customers get upset. No more, no less.
Once again, it didn't help that the LifeWay spokesman declined to discuss the topic in depth. Still, by framing this story almost exclusively from the point of view of the disappointed artist ignores both evangelical sensibilities -- wording in a book about marital relations might not work in a regular devotional -- and the way consumer markets work. Instead, Christians who were put off by a quasi-explicit lyric are painted as reactionary blue-hairs (or worse), instead of folks with, well, a set of values they wish to uphold.
Post editors could have done better, I believe, in making sure those Christians were fairly portrayed. Instead, we have another journalism failure in the guise of a shock discovery.