It’s All Dogmatics

Theologian John Webster and His Unbelievable Collaboration with Mos Def and Lil Nas X

Ian Olson / 4.1.21

The approach of the fifth anniversary of John Webster’s death is a strange and sad time for many of us who still can’t quite believe he was taken from us so recently and so unexpectedly. I remember the scene: The sun had returned after a long Minneapolis winter, but the shock of checking a notification on my phone seemed to sink it once more beneath the horizon. I wasn’t able to compute the simple announcement — I thought there must be a horrible mistake getting circulated internet-wide. I sat down on the ground (proof positive, I think, of my shock, as that is something I with my obsessive-compulsive disorder was not prone to do), unable to think much beyond “it can’t be.”

John Webster (1955–2016) : SETS

2016 was a year most of us would like to forget, but one of the most poignant losses which seemed to act as a harbinger for the rest of the suck-fest to follow was the loss of Webster. I and many, many others were captivated by the rich devotional character of his theological work. Theology for Webster wasn’t some sarcophagal encapsulation of dead data, cut off from the life and practice of the church. It was an intellectual activity consisting in the organization of the church’s knowledge of God, not as an end in itself, but towards the goal of praise and deeper fellowship with the living God. “The matter of Christian faith,” he insists (for, like Abel, he still speaks), is “the fellowship between God and creatures … a fellowship which stretches from the formation of creatures from the dust to the New Jerusalem, and which has its temporal center in the history of the incarnate Son of God.” 

Webster’s work bubbled with the ebullience and the awe of one intoxicated with the God who from before all time has elected to be who he is by sojourning in created history with such disappointing creatures as ourselves. But this was always more than just theology nerd grandstanding: he emphasized how the brainsweat that goes into dogmatics must inform and enliven the church’s teaching ministry and the life of the disciple, since both demand focused thought in order to discern what is and isn’t consonant with the gospel that has claimed them. Webster insisted that theology is necessary if we, corporately and individually, are to wisely inhabit God’s drama of redemption scripted by the Spirit and directed by the crucified Christ. Right action follows right belief, but as DZ has recently written, it also follows right disposition, so we must labor to pray and praise and evangelize on the basis of who this God discloses himself to be and how.

But for all the disciplined focus and ready-to-hand Latin phraseology Webster brought to dogmatics, he was also a charming and affable chap. My face still scrunches up with glee whenever I hear a recording of him saying the word, “says,” which from his mouth rhymes with “rays.” I also love Steve Holmes’s remembrance of how, to a colleague remarking that a plenary speaker’s assertion of the “pastoral need” to “forgive God” was a difficult concept, Webster responded, “It’s not difficult at all; it’s blasphemy. Come on, we’re going for a pint.”

But within this atmosphere of loss and grateful reflection, a quickening ray of good news diffuses itself! Because the theological world and hip-hop heads alike — surely an apocalyptic conjuncture, that — are brimming with excitement at the news that Mos Def’s ultra-obscure collaboration with Webster has resurfaced and been remastered for release as a single. As if that weren’t enough, Lil Nas X — Mr. Satan Shoes himself — makes an insane cameo appearance. Believe me, I was blown away too. I knew the Kantzer Lectures awaited publication, as well as an Ephesians commentary, and a hotly anticipated systematic theology, but never did I imagine Webster logged studio time with the 14th Greatest Rapper of All Time! Proof positive, like the platypus, that the good Lord has a sense of humor.

Long thought lost, this prescient bootleg intrudes upon an American church in exile. It confronts voters who want to pretend the recently departed resident of the White House is really a Josiah. It confronts the Southern Baptist leaders who want to denounce Critical Race Theory. And it confronts deniers of mainline decline. We’re all in for it, because we’ve been more focused on our own inane dogmatisms rather than that OG dogma. And good grief, this man spittin’! The final verse has got to be my favorite:

This is business: no faces, just signatures and statistics
On your phone, Gallup polls, sinking denominational digits
Evangelicals break man, woman, and child into figures:
Two columns for who is and who ain’t with us
Doctrines is hard and real and they never have feelings
But you push too hard, even doctrines got limits
Why did one straw break the SBC’s back?
Here’s the secret:
The million other straws underneath it
It’s all dogmatics

Needless to say, John MacArthur probably hates it, but that doesn’t really matter, right? Neither does devilish footwear, either, when you get down to it. What does matter is taking Webster’s lyrics to heart and shedding the encumbrances which make God-With-Us seem trivial to us. That, and getting so down to the hoppin’ beats framing Webster’s ????.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

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