Shai Linne didn’t know the difference between a Presbyterian and a pescatarian when he stepped into historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It hurt his throat to sing the hymns. He’d been catechized by hip-hop to believe that Islam is a better and cooler choice than Christianity, that Christianity is the white man’s religion. But Shai had been transformed by the power of the gospel.
For Shai, the cultural differences in music and dress never seemed to matter compared to unity in the crucified and risen Christ. Shai became a key figure in the growing movement of Christian hip-hop, musically like Wu-Tang Clan but lyrically like Billy Graham. The style was appealing, but the crowds seemed more excited about Jesus than anything else. He’s convinced that we’ll look back one day on this era, between 2002 and 2012, as a revival much like the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
In 2012, ethnic differences began to re-emerge with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. As Shai writes in his new book, The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity (Moody), the subsequent high-profile shooting deaths of black men and women did not surprise many African Americans. His sense as a 16-year-old was that police beat up black people all the time. But Christian hip-hop began to decline when white and black Christians realized they did not see these incidents the same way. He writes:
White Christians were happy to have us as long as we just rapped about the gospel and kept quiet about the things we talk about among ourselves all the time that deeply affect us. But the moment we expressed the pain we felt about ‘racial injustice,’ many White Christians were quick to dismiss us, rebuke us, or silently ignore us.
Even so, Shai’s book points to hope for ethnic unity. It’s a book that cuts through the anger, sarcasm, unforgiveness, and mockery that characterize much Christian discourse today on this sensitive subject. He points us toward a better way of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. Apart from massive revival, we may not expect the world to overcome these divisions. But in the church, through the power of the gospel, we can strive for unity and be a clear and compelling witness to the world.
Shai Linne joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the importance of ethnic unity and how we might get there.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: Shai Linne didn’t know the difference between a Presbyterian and a pescatarian when he stepped into historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It hurt his throat to sing the hymns. He’d been catechized by hip hop to believe that Islam is a better and cooler choice than Christianity, that Christianity is the white man’s religion. But Shai had been transformed by the power of the gospel. None of these cultural differences in music and dress mattered compared to the unity in the crucified and risen Christ. And he became a key figure in the growing movement of Christian hip hop, musically like Wu Tang Clan, but lyrically like Billy Graham. The style was appealing. The crowd seemed more excited about Jesus than anything else. He’s convinced that we’ll look back one day on this era between 2002 and 2012 as a revival, much like the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
So what happened in 2012? Well, ethnic differences began to reemerge with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. As Shai writes in his new book, The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity published by Moody, the subsequent high-profile shooting deaths of black men and women did not surprise many African Americans. His sense as a 16-year-old, gathered from family and friends, was that police beat up black people all the time. But Christian hip hop began to decline when white and black Christians realized they did not see these incidents the same way. He writes this: “White Christians were happy to have us as long as we just rapped about the gospel and kept quiet about the things we talk about among ourselves all the time, that deeply affect us. But the moment we express the pain, we felt about racial injustice, many white Christians were quick to dismiss us, rebuke us, or silently ignore us.”
Even so, Shai’s book points to hope for ethnic unity. It’s a book that cuts through the anger, sarcasm, unforgiveness, and mockery that characterize much Christian discourse today on this sensitive subject. He points us toward a better way of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. Now, apart from massive revival, we don’t expect the world to overcome these divisions. But in the church, through the power of the gospel, we can strive for unity and a clear and compelling witness to the world. So thank you, Shai, for joining me on this episode of Gospelbound.
Shai Linne: Thanks for having me, Collin. Appreciate it.
Collin Hansen: Right off the bat, Shai, why do you think we need a new reformation?
Shai Linne: Well, when I speak of a new reformation, I’m not saying that the doctrine needs to change. So when we look back at the reformation, we see that it was of a recovery of essential truths. You think about the five solas. We’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, based on the Scripture alone. Those things are essential. Those are landmarks, ancient landmarks that should not be moved. When I speak of a new reformation, I’m talking more about the people who are included in the conversation concerning Reformed theology. And so, when I speak of a new reformation, I’m speaking about the diversity of God’s church included in our understanding and articulation of Reformed theology.
Collin Hansen: Now, there are so many insights in this book. So many things that I think are going to be beneficial to people. And one of the most helpful, I’ve found, I do a lot of historical reading and study on this subject, but I hadn’t quite thought about it the way that you frame it here. I would like to hear more from you about this hypothesis. You write this: “Could it be that Christians on the low end, both in Europe and America, didn’t have the means, numbers, or resources to meaningfully engage and challenge the Christian elites on what it looks like to apply the gospel in the realm of oppression and justice toward the poor?” Could you expand on that for us?
Shai Linne: Well, one of the things that I point out in the book is how the Reformation was really aided by the invention of the printing press around the same time. And that’s what helped to spread the Reformation throughout Europe. And one thing we need to consider is that the literacy rates back then were extremely low. So many historians estimate that it was less than 10 percent of the entire European population that was literate. And so literacy was tied to class. And so at that time, it was wealth and education that were the primary determinants of literacy. And so because of that, if you were poor, you were generally not literate. And so, the theory that I mentioned in the book, I call it the low end theory, which is basically saying that the poor were at a disadvantage when it came to interacting with the Bible and the writings that were disseminated through the culture at the time.
And so the primary exchange of ideas at that time, it was happening amongst the literate. And so, later on, when we think about even in America, the descendants of the Reformation, we know that it was against the law for a slave to even be taught how to read. And so, for many, many years, the oppressed, the poor, the illiterate were uninvolved by and large. You have your exceptions, the John Bunyans the world. But by and large, the poor were kind of left out of the articulation of Reformed theology. And so, the low end theory … It’s really, it’s a series of questions asking if this has contributed to the problem of the … Historically in Reformed circles, the problem of addressing the concerns of the poor and the oppressed.
Collin Hansen: As a book I read a few years ago called a Factfulness by Hans Rosling. And one of the things he argues in that book is that more than one thing can be true at the same time. It can be the case that things are getting better. And yet, that there’s still a long way to go. So, one thing I’ve covered in this podcast before is how Protestantism fueled a dramatic increase in literacy. Which it did. And yet at the same time, literacy rates overall remained low compared to our own day—certainly in those early years, and especially among poor and marginalized and oppressed people. So those things can both be true at the same time. Now let’s put a little bit more of a kind of a point on this. Is there something about Reformed theology in particular that makes its adherence blind to the issue of racial injustice?
Shai Linne: I don’t believe so. Again, within the doctrine itself, I don’t think that there’s anything inherent in the doctrine that produces blind spots. I believe it’s more a function of who makes up the community at the time. And so, just as we have individuals have blind spots, communities have blind spots, as well. And so it really is a matter of believers from other backgrounds, whether it be socioeconomically or ethnically, that can come into a setting and point out, make observations that whatever the majority culture is at that particular time, we’re blind to.
And so this is an argument for the importance of diversity. And I think about in 1 Corinthians 12, that the discussion of the body and how there are many different parts and how the different body parts need each other. And so, if you have a community that generally speaking is made up of kind of a particular body part, it’s going to suffer without the other parts coming into play.
Collin Hansen: One reason, Shai, just resonated so much with this book is because you seem to ask a lot of the questions underneath the questions. Or should we be asking? I just loved the curiosity that you display. One thing I’ve observed writing and talking about Reformed theology over these years, including starting with you more than a decade ago now—15 years ago now, actually. One of the things that I just remember thinking is that this growing Reformed theology movement, it has a prerequisite of people who are interested in theology at some level. And are interested in that level of discourse. Well, that’s not a huge group of people in the grand scheme of things. And it doesn’t matter what ethnicity that is. So whatever trends that we’re looking at here are going to be over-represented among certain kinds of people. In terms of education level or access or physical location, urban versus rural. All kinds of different dynamics like that.
Not to mention the role that the internet played in being able to come at a particular time, much like the Reformation did with the printing press. And so, I just resonated so much with how you factor in a lot of these other things. And I also appreciate your perspective here through a lot of the controversies we’ve seen in the last number of years about precious Puritans and things like that. There’s a quote here from the book you say, “I’m not going to blame Reformation teaching for the sin of Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards any more than I would blame the teachings of the New Testament when I disobey God.”
And that’s one thing that’s come up a lot for me is, when you consider how many of us fall short all the time of Jesus’s teaching. And yet it’s not Jesus’s fault. There is a difference between the belief itself and the application thereof. Now, here’s another point in the book that I completely agree with, but I guess I want to know from you why it’s not the case, why we’re struggling to do this as Christians. You write this: “If we are going to make any progress in these discussions, the Bible must have the first and final say on the topic.”
Shai Linne: Yeah. In our culture today, there are so many voices. It’s all about platform, and people have all kinds of things to say. And when we think about the importance of biblical exposition and biblical clarity, we know that that’s a Christian value. But that is not a value of our culture. So our culture values soundbites, particularly with social media. It values snark and sarcasm and say something as loud and as bold. We’re in the era of the hot take. And the Bible, it’s not a book filled with hot takes.
And so, it’s very important as, as Christians, as we engage this discussion that we engage it biblically. And I’m not particularly interested in discussions that are not informed by guided by the Bible. Because that, that is ultimately our standard. And that’s where we can … We believe in sola Scripture, the Scripture is the final authority on all issues of faith and practice. And so, as a Bible believing Christian, I have to believe that that God’s Word speaks to these issues and that as Christians, we must be guided by it.
Collin Hansen: I’ve got just another question before we dive into some of the more specific biblical supports for your argument in this book. Another observation here: you say that maybe more white theologians haven’t addressed racism because they’re removed from people most affected by it. That’s a continuation of the arguments that you’ve been making here already that I’ve been asking about. I’m wondering about this, it would actually seem that social media, which, as you point out is, we’re watching these videos next to ads for skin cream and Doritos, how disorienting that is. It would seem that social media has closed that experience gap of testimonies and videos, because now, so many of us can see what you and other brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced in various forms over the years. And yet, disagreement seems at some level, to actually be getting worse. Why might that be the case?
Shai Linne: So I think about what the internet and social media is good for. And what it’s good for is the dissemination of information. So I agree with you that in some ways, we’re more informed about particular events and things that happen around the world because of how ubiquitous cameras on phones are. And the internet. But while it’s good for information, it’s really bad when it comes to relationships. And so, I think that as we become, in some ways, more informed, at the same time, we become more relationally distant from each other. And I think the internet plays a big part in that. And so, information without the context of a relationship is going to produce some of the things, the bad fruit that we see in terms of a lack of charity, coldness, malice, those kinds of things.
Collin Hansen: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that’s just been one of the discouraging things since 2012, is that it’s hard to know what to make of the give and take, the good and the bad of social media and internet and those, and smartphones and whatnot. Because we know that perpetrators have been brought to justice. The dead have been properly … I mean, have been avenged. By the proper authorities. Even as you and I talk, that’s, that’s still happening.
That’s only the case because of some of these technological trends. And yet, I guess, that’s just typical of technology in general. It gives and it takes away. So it gives us more access to see the problem for ourselves, but at the same time, also traumatizes more. And somehow also stirs up that much more malice at the same time. Let’s take a step back and just get back to some first principles here. And I think, Shai, at this point, we can’t really take for granted this question. Why is ethnic diversity important?
Shai Linne: I think diversity is important because it is embedded into God’s plan of redemption. So one of the things that struck me as I was researching for the book was reading through Galatians. And coming across a passage in Galatians 3, where it speaks about God preaching the gospel or the scripture preaching the gospel to Abraham back in Genesis. So when God calls Abraham or Abram in the book of Genesis, one of the things that we see there is that he says that he’s going to make Abram a father of many nations. And according to the Galatians, that is Sscripture preaching the gospel to Abraham.
And so, ethnic diversity is important because the Lord Jesus died to redeem a people from every tribe, every language, every people, every nation. And we can’t be faithful to the message of the gospel without the message that God is not only saving Jews, but he’s saving Gentiles. He’s saving all kinds of people. All for the glory of Christ.
Collin Hansen: Let’s turn the flip side, which I also don’t think we can take for granted today. So if that’s why ethnic diversity is important, then why is ethnic unity important?
Shai Linne: Ethnic unity is important because Jesus died to purchase our unity in him. And when we look at John 17, we see what was on the Lord Jesus’s his mind as he faced the cross. And the thing that he prays in his high priestly prayer. One of the things that he prays is that the church would be one in order that the world might believe that the father sent the Son. And so our unity as a church speaks directly to the character of our God. And so what we don’t want to do is communicate in any way by the way that we interact with one another, that our God is divided. Because he’s not. God is one. And so Jesus’s death purchased that unity for us. And now it’s up to us to walk in what he purchased for us at the cross.
Collin Hansen: And we’re really building toward the climax of your argument. I felt as though, with the book, you’ve set it up with a lot of your experience. And then you kind of take it back to biblical and theological truth. And then it becomes sort of your call for the church. And one of the hinge points of the book is why the doctrine of justification by faith alone, going back to the Reformation here, is the key to addressing ethnic disunity in the church. Go ahead and tell us why you think that’s the case.
Shai Linne: Yeah, so I’m pointing people back to the Reformation, the recovery of the doctrine of justification. Justification, which says that we are declared righteous by God, through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any of our works. And that truth is massive. And the implications of it, that’s something that I believe we’re going to continue to learn about what that means throughout all eternity. Because there’s so much depth to it. But the more we understand what God has done for us in Christ through justification, what it should do is begin to affect how we see both ourselves and how we see others.
So with justification, I recognize that … One of the things I learned from justification is that I am a great sinner. And that there is not much that I am incapable of from a sin standpoint, which should produce humility. It should keep me from defensiveness. So even when things like so-called racism come up, my understanding of indwelling sin should make me quick to recognize that I’m capable of anything. And I need the Lord. And so I should also be able to apply justification when it comes to my brothers and sisters in Christ. So it should make us quick to forgive. It should make us quick to reconcile and quick to repent. And so, one of the things that you got to do in the book is just go over just particular areas where with justification can help us as we seek to pursue ethnic unity.
Collin Hansen: The feeling I had, Shai, when I was reading the book was simultaneously that I was challenged. I mourned. It’s hard to read in some respects. And yet I ended hopeful. Shai, the experience that I had reading the book was, it’s painful at many points. Just understanding what you and others have been through. Just thinking about the bad fruit of history, of disobedience from so many in the church on these things. And then in the end, I felt hopeful because I could sense the power of God prevailing through his word and through the blood of the cross and the triumph of the resurrection.
And it seems like it doesn’t necessarily matter which side of this debate right now. It just seems like that’s not playing a major role. And I see your book as being able to help us get back to the gospel so that we can move forward together, the church. And you just go ahead and apply that here. I think we can apply this to a lot of different issues, but go ahead and apply this to voting, and what it would mean for us to apply the doctrine of justification by faith alone to how we vote politically in the church.
Shai Linne: You just bringing out the big guns, huh?
Collin Hansen: Well, I’m not going to put you out on a limb here. I mean, you say it in the book, but I’ll just say, it seems as though we keep adding to salvation by saying, “Yeah, you can be a Christian if you believe that Jesus died for your sins and is raised on the third day. And if you vote this way. And if you share my view of justice. And if you share this over here.” And it just seems to me like we keep adding to the law and therefore to condemnation. But you put it in your words. I don’t want to speak for you.
Shai Linne: Yeah. One of the things that I point out in the book is that it’s a known fact that historically in America, generally speaking, black Christians and white Christians have voted differently in presidential elections, right? And so, we’ve heard Christian leaders say things like, “If you’re a true Christian, you’ll vote for fill in the blank.” And what I mentioned is that the problem with this is that whatever political party or candidate you endorse, you basically, you’re going to be saying that an entire community of believers who vote differently isn’t actually saved. And not only is that kind of thinking, it’s not only reductionistic, it’s not only uncharitable, but it is a distortion of the gospel of justification by faith alone.
So that true Christianity is not determined by whether or not a person votes Democratic or Republican. It’s determined by whether or not a person has placed their trust in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. And so we must not add to the gospel in this way. And this is a … Keep the main thing, the main thing.
Collin Hansen: And I would even add, Shai, that it’s not just that white Christians and black Christians have historically voted differently. I would go so far as to argue that the fundamental political divide in American history is between white Christians and black Christians. That’s the most salient fact of American politics that never changes. But generally speaking, especially white Christians in the South, because it’s a more diverse situation in the North. But especially white Christians in the South and black Christians don’t vote the same way. And until we have the eyes to see what, as you pointed out, is a plain historical fact, a plain fact on which all of our political science is based in terms of campaign strategy, I don’t see how we’re going to make a lot of progress toward unity and toward understanding from multiple perspectives. I certainly think the burden falls especially with white Christians because of the history and because of some of the ongoing implications there. But there just has to be that careful exploration into the history.
Now, I’m just going to go ahead and, for the listeners, share a couple of quotes from you in here. It’s just so beautifully written. And the reason I want to share it, I don’t normally do this. And I’ll have three rapid-fire questions for you here in the end. But I just think there’s no way for me to really otherwise capture this. But these quotes, I don’t think, Shai, they could do a better job of explaining my heart, this podcast perspective, even if I might say so, on behalf of The Gospel Coalition. You write this: “It’s far easier to dismiss someone as a racist than it is to love them enough to consider their genuine concerns. It takes far less effort to write someone off as a Marxist than it does to pray from the heart that God would comfort them in their grief, even if we can’t understand. May we, as the church be so filled with the spirit, that onlookers would be able to discern the mutual affection we have for each other, even when we disagree.”
Just imagine, for everybody listening here, if that’s what the world saw in the church. How different that would be and how compelling that would be. And last quote here from you, Shai. “The new reformation is preaching and speaking out about a biblical view of marriage, a biblical view of ethnic injustice, a biblical view of justice for the unborn, and a biblical view of caring for the poor and marginalized, without regard to how the surrounding secular society categorizes those particular particular concerns politically.” Again, just grateful for the book. It’s the book we need in this moment. And I’m glad you’ve got the guts to write it.
Shai Linne: Thank you, brother.
Collin Hansen: So, final three questions for you, Shai. Shai, where do you find calm in the storm?
Shai Linne: Yeah. It’s ultimately in prayer. And going before the Lord, casting all of my cares before him. Knowing that he cares for me. The current environment that we find ourselves in is increasingly volatile. It’s hostile. One of the things that I’ve wrestled with recently is being misunderstood. And in some ways, having to be OK with that. Not trying to fight for my reputation or how people see me or view me. And so, in many ways, I find calm in my local church and my wife, my family, with people that know me and love me and accept me in spite of all of my mess. And ultimately that points back to the Lord who has fully accepted me and knows me better than anybody. And yet, amazingly, he loves me more than anybody at the same time.
Collin Hansen: Fully loved and fully known.
Shai Linne: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: What we all long for ultimately in God, and then others. Shai, where do you find good news today?
Shai Linne: So, because of my general melancholy, pessimistic tendencies, when I look outside of the Bible, it’s really hard for me to find it. And so it’s keeping my eyes on God’s Word and in the hope that we have there. And just knowing that the story has been written and that time is coming when God is going to take us all to be with him and in his presence where there’s fullness of joy. And pleasures at his right hand forevermore. That’s the best news imaginable. And that’s where I find it.
Collin Hansen: Amen. Last question, Shai. What’s the last great book you’ve read?
Shai Linne: The last great book that I’ve read. I’m actually reading it now.
Collin Hansen: Oh, okay.
Shai Linne: And I’m really thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it. Which is Gentle and Lowly by Dane Orland.
Collin Hansen: Yeah.
Shai Linne: Yeah. Yeah. It’s been a balm to my soul in a really … Me and my wife, we’re both enjoying it.
Collin Hansen: Very good. Again, my guest has been my friend, Shai Linne, author of the new book, The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity, published by Moody. And just so grateful. Grateful for this book. And there’s a lot being published on these topics right now. Some of it better than others. And this is the best one I’ve read so far. Thanks, Shai.
Shai Linne: Thank you, Collin. Appreciate it, brother.