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“Christ for You”: Flame Unpacks His New EP on the Lutheran Belief in the Real Presence

February 4, 2021


In March of 2020, Flame—a Grammy-nominated evangelical rapper well-known in Reformed Baptist circles—made waves when he announced that he was leaving behind Calvinism for the more historically rooted tradition of Lutheranism. An EP exploring the change, Extra Nos, gave voice to a rising wave of evangelical disenchantment with inward-looking expressions of the faith—and the longing for something more tangible. “Over time, pondering God’s sovereignty began to seem like fatalism,” Flame explains. “Not to mention the priority given toward much inward focus. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Lutheran thought that I discovered the treasure found in the liturgical and sacramental side of things.”

Now, almost a year later, the rapper is back with a second volume in his Extra Nos series: Christ for You. On all six of the tracks—raw, atmospheric trap beats punctuated with rattling hi-hats—Flame effortlessly glides from Scripture to theology to history, weaving together a dense, complex lyrical tapestry that catches the ear precisely to engage the mind. And the central focus of the entire EP is a subject with which Catholics will naturally resonate—namely, the Lutheran belief in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion. “Real presence,” Flame explains an echo of paragraph 1393 of the Catechism, “is a major component to God’s provision for poor sinners who constantly need his forgiveness.”

At the very top of the album, in the title track, he says: “Maybe the reason you feel so empty is because you’ve reduced Christianity down to just a contemplative spirituality.” It’s a struggle he feels personally because he has lived it from the inside. “Christianity in much of my evangelical experience became more about thinking deeper, pondering motives more forensically, fine-tuning your doctrine, and loving God more intensely,” Flame says. “Eventually, myself and many others felt severely overwhelmed by such a task and began to question it all. I’m hoping to provide my discovery of ancient truths that will comfort contemporary consciences. Truths that will bring people out of their heads and lift their heads from navel-gazing onto the sweet means of grace that God has provided outside of us.”

He then lays out the Lutheran vision of the real presence—of Christ “under, in, and with” the bread—against the backdrop of his past theology:

What you’re looking for yeah, it’s outside of us
They say how you keep the faith, I say He promised us
Immortality is ours, it’s applied to us
Every time we eat His flesh and drink His blood

In “Upper Room,” Flame steps back in time to the words of institution during the Last Supper, and in “3 genera,” comes rushing back to the present with the more developed Lutheran theological understanding of how communion fits into Christology. But throughout the EP, he repeatedly challenges the idea that the bread and wine were ever meant to be merely symbolic.

The track “That Long” challenges the idea from the perspective of Church history: “Do you know how long it had been without any significant disagreement that Christ was bodily present in the bread and the wine? You know how long it took for someone to start teaching ‘is’ means ‘represents’?” The chorus makes for a memorable answer: “one-five-zero-zero”—the first 1500 years of Christianity. In the second verse, Flame digs into specifics:

Really ain’t no way to debate this
Even dating back to Ignatius [of Antioch]
He was born in A.D. 35
And discipled by the apostle John
He taught the body in bread
And the African known as Augustine
Can’t forget about Irenaeus
And the Martyr known as Justin
From Cyril to Thomas Aquinas
The testimony of the ancient
Church is really universal
Until Zwingli decided to change it
And Calvin started placing his limits
On Jesus’ metaphysics

Flames notes that the contributions of Cyril and Augustine have been especially helpful to him, but that an exploration of the Church Fathers in general is helpful for Christian growth. “I believe it’s important to reach as far back as we can to those who were nearer to the New Testament times and to plumb the depths of their considerations. In this way, tradition serves us. Hopefully, the outcome is a maintenance of biblical truth.”

In “Passover Lamb,” Flame again nods toward the Fathers:

If he’s holding bread and wine and use the word is
In that sentence please show me where is the metaphor
The only move you got is to re-define
What is means, to say it symbolizes
Now you’re changing words, changing definitions
I thought you were Sola Scriptura, ain’t that your position

Oh, that’s right, you’re modern man
You reject the Fathers and the rules of grammar then

The Church Fathers—especially figures like Chrysostom—were also, unlike many modern evangelicals, very focused on social questions of equality and justice. Flame, too, now finds himself confronting these questions, but in the context of twenty-first-century America, a theme suggested in the first verse of the title track but that he explores in more detail in the recent single “Set My Sails.” And there is, he notes, a real connection between the themes of social justice, Christian unity, and the real presence. “At the Lord’s Table not only does He provide forgiveness and bind us together with Christ but He also makes us one with each other,” he says. “Perhaps as we watch the evident expression of this alternative version of Christianity, namely ‘Christian Nationalism,’ the Lord’s Supper would be at the center of calling it out and calling God’s true church to unite. . . . A true vision of humanity includes equality.”

Catholics will find much to admire in Flame’s emphasis on the real presence, Church history, the Fathers, and social justice, and many will wonder how the Catholic Church factored into his recent transformation, if at all. “It was Lutheranism that softened my heart towards Catholics,” he admits. “My professors maintained a soft and welcoming tone when discussing the Catholic Church. We read books from Catholic authors. I was taught to see the good while also studying critically. In my experience, in the evangelical world, I did not have such open minded training, unfortunately. I would imagine, on some level, such tenderness is also being shared towards Lutherans in the Catholic space. Hence our connectivity.” As for how to build on that connectivity despite our disagreements, he suggests creating “a space to regularly connect with the intention of seeing one another as friends but also intentionally discussing shared teachings and areas we differ.” Normalizing this, he acknowledges, “would be a win.”

As to the question of whether he himself could consider becoming Catholic, he admits: “I must confess, I am enjoying my newly found respect for the Catholic Church, thanks to Lutheranism. However, I can’t imagine a Christian experience without justification by faith alone.”

There remains a significant distance between Catholics and Lutherans—real theological disagreements, including on the subject of communion itself, and real hurdles to full communion between them. But the fault lines of American Christianity are not so clear as they once were; especially in light of recent ecumenical efforts between Catholics and Lutherans, including the joint declaration on justification, the future looks promising. Strangely enough, the distance between his newfound discovery of a sacramental and historical Christian faith and his evangelical past—as with all of those on the same journey—is perhaps greater still.

But Flame doesn’t simply want to shake off the dust and move forward; rather, in an admirable striving toward unity, he wants to invite his evangelical friends and fans into the same transformation. “I decided to create this project for all those who have been following and supporting me over the years,” he says. “I too want them to experience the joy and freedom that I’ve found in the sacraments. Hence the title, Christ For You. This term emphasizes Jesus’ own words as He instituted the Lord’s Supper. Luke 22:19-20, Jesus says in reference to the bread and the wine, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. . . . This cup that is poured out for you.’ This sweet mystery not only has a corporate reality but also a deeply personal one.”

The final track, “Sounds Crazy,” is a kind of plea to those who would dismiss the idea of the real presence as simply being too “weird.” In response, he reminds them of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming—playfully concluding, “But you draw the line / That we can find Him in bread and the wine.” Again and again in the EP, he emphasizes that the idea of the real presence is not a call away from Christ or Scripture, but a call to move more radically and deeply into them:

A man who can walk on the water
Told Peter come walk on the water
Plus He made wine out of water
Baptized us in the water
And He healed Jarius’ daughter
Now all of a sudden we doubt the author

As to how his evangelical friends will react, he suspects it will be, as with the first EP, “shock followed by curiosity.” “Some will resist but the majority will prove to have an open mind. My prayer is that the ‘spookiness’ of these biblical and ancient truths would be removed. That many who truly love God and want to obey Him would find greater and deeper measures of peace and joy in the multiplicity of ways God has sought to provide comfort to troubled consciences.”