Sho Baraka’s Album Pulled by Lifeway, Double Standards Abound

The Great Penis Controversy of 2017

“Everything is straight when you have no moral compass

Everything is new when you thinkin' like Christopher Columbus

Is everything just a social construct?

Who's allowed to judge our moral conduct?

I was an insecure boy who just thought he was a genius

But always pissed off, that's because I thought with my penis

It's all strategic, I'm just asking us the reason

Share my faith on the track, I'm just exorcising demons” -Sho Baraka


LifeWay’s Unbiblical Censorship

Southern Baptist merchandiser LifeWay Christian Stores pulled Black Christian hip-hop artist Sho Baraka’s album, “The Narrative” off their shelves last month due to some customer complaints about the word “penis” being used in the final track “Piano Break, 33 A.D.” The phrase was a reference to Jesus Christ’s death upon a Roman cross. Per the Washington Post, “His album 'The Narrative' debuted in the top 10 on iTunes last fall and was once described with high praise on LifeWay’s product page as 'saturated in a Gospel worldview'." In looking at the responses to this news of “The Narrative” being pulled, many see an unbalanced and even unbiblical stance from LifeWay. In their stores, they sell sex manuals for Christian couples. That Washington Post article stated, “Baraka says that the retailer has a double standard when it comes to anatomical references in their books. Other books sold on their shelves use anatomical references. For instance, “Sheet Music,” a sex manual intended for Christian couples, contains 45 uses of the word “penis”, along with euphemisms like "Mr. Happy". Why not pull those books?

In the New Living Translation of Deuteronomy 23:1, Moses writes “If a man's testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” Is LifeWay and their customer base ready to be consistent and call for the removal of God’s Word from their stores? I highly doubt they will. It seems that Lifeway is not OK with products “saturated in a Gospel worldview” (that use an anatomically correct word for the male organ in a God honoring manner). This censorship, although outrageous, is not at all surprising to many minority Christians in America.

White Rage

In another Washington Post article we read, “In White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson compellingly…catalogues white Americans’ centuries-long efforts to derail African American progress. She cites…a litany of setbacks that have followed African American strides stretching back to the Civil War and emancipation.” One of the more recent examples of white rage was when former President Barack Obama was in office. For 8 years America saw top ranking government officials disrespect the President, his wife, and his daughters in ways never seen in this country. It was obvious that many of the attacks were racially motivated. One West Virginia County employee even went as far as calling former First Lady Michelle Obama an “ape in heels,” which is a clear racial slur that was lobbied against African-Americans in our nation's history. What does this have to do with the removal of “The Narrative” from LifeWay shelves? Everything.

When Black Americans and Black Christians start to succeed, there are pushbacks. When they speak out against systemic injustices and racism, as Sho Baraka does in his wonderfully creative album, many White Americans and White Christians seek to shut them up. In our nation this has even proved fatal at times. Sho Baraka represents both categories: a successful African-American Christian bringing issues to light that aren't often discussed in evangelical circles. The hot topics in predominantly white evangelical and Reformed churches are abortion and same sex marriage. And here comes this man, with his chocolate charm and ebony ingenuity, who talks about redlining certain neighborhoods, police brutality, gang violence, gentrification, corrupt government officials, among other “taboo” issues. The kicker here is that these aspects of American life are viewed and discussed from a holistic Jesus-centered worldview. Simply put, Sho Baraka is not a safe or tame Negro. He is a lovingly biblical Negro, however. It is because of these reasons, many believe, his album was pulled from LifeWay’s shelves. And since they can't say that they want to remove his album because of his political and religious views, they latch onto the only thing they can find: the usage of the word “penis.”

Weaker Brothers and Sisters

Some have said that the word penis in the “The Narrative” might cause others to stumble because they are the weaker brother or sister based upon principles drawn from New Testament passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Here’s the thing about that argument: NO ONE is forcing anyone to listen to this CD. It is up to their free will to listen or refrain. If one finds that word offensive, they can choose not to listen. To complain about it, however, and have it removed from their shelves, is wrong. This is unhealthy and unbiblical censorship at its finest. With this "soccer mom" type purity standard on the Christian industry, is it any wonder why the quality of Christian art is as poor as it is now? Is it any wonder why some artists throw off the label of “Christian rapper or artist” so that they are not limited to what they can talk about, what they can discuss, and how far their reach can go? Is it any wonder why American teenagers and young adults don’t turn to the church of the living God for answers to their sexual questions and needs? They don’t turn to us because we make sex and sexual issues a “taboo” issue so they turn to the world for answers...and it is waiting for them with open arms.

As Baraka said in his interview with the Washington Post, “... (the song) is about his past failures to live his life monogamously. It wasn’t profane in context, Baraka says, because it communicates how 'God has been good in my life,' while acknowledging 'how wretched and evil I am'." Lifeway, representing the Southern Baptist Convention specifically and Christianity in general, taking Sho Baraka’s “The Narrative” off their shelves shows the world that they cannot deal with a regenerated man being honest about his and the world’s past and present brokenness and the answer to that hurt, pain, and brokenness: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel impacts us and the world around us, including systems built upon injustice, inequality, discrimination, and racism. And if this is the case, then we are showing the watching world around us that we cannot and do not take the bloody, painfully beautiful Gospel of the glorified Middle Eastern Jew seriously. If that is the case, white evangelicals show that they STILL cannot hear the concerns of Black Americans and Christians without deflecting (penis) or pushing back or trying to shut the mouths of those speaking up as Proverbs 31:8-9 tells us to.

A Call to Action for LifeWay Christian Stores and Black Christians

LifeWay Christian Stores, we speak to you specifically. We ask that you place Sho Baraka’s “The Narrative” back onto your shelves. Allow your customer base to hear an album about real issues affecting real image bearers of God, both redeemed and unredeemed, from a distinctly Black and Christian perspective. Diversify your selection. Your customer base isn’t only white conservatives. No. They are Hispanic, Asian, Black, etc. We suspect that there is more to this story however. That there are deeper reasons for you removing this album from your shelves. Please, I ask as a fellow redeemed image bearer of God who has frequented your stores to purchase items that have blessed me in my walk with our Savior, not to prove us right in our suspicions by keeping “The Narrative” off your shelves. This album has truly changed my life, my outlook, and my walk with Jesus Christ. I know it has changed other Christian's lives as well. We truly hope and pray that this finds you receptive to us, and that you would you did another segment of your customer base when they wanted you to remove it.

Lastly, to my fellow Black Christians, money talks. It is that simple. They may try to shut us up and censor us. If they continue to do so by not putting our brother’s album back on their shelves, it may be time to take our loyalty, business, and money elsewhere. It may be time to open our own Christian bookstores where our voices can be heard and supported instead of shut down and censored. Even if Lifeway does listen, it is time for us to stop depending on white America and white validation and start doing for ourselves with the help of God and our community. To build up one another and become the strong African-American community, for the glory of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, that I know we can be. And as Sho Baraka says in “The Narrative”, I’m here for that.


Lamont English

Lamont English is the assistant director of Mission to the World’s West Coast Office. He is currently enrolled at Birmingham Theological Seminary and pursuing a Master of Arts in Public Theology. He has a heart for evangelism and apologetics as well as teaching others how to share and defend their faith. He and his wife live in Southern California with their three boys and are members at Christ Presbyterian Church in Temecula, CA.