Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley

Summary: Exploration of how reading in the diverse Black Church Tradition works in several practical examples. 

About a year ago, I first heard of Esau McCaulley. I do not remember if I heard of his new appointment to Wheaton College New Testament faculty (my alma mater) or if I saw him at the Jude 3 Conference first. Regardless, I have paid close attention to him since. He has written many articles this past year for Christianity Today (including this month’s cover article on policing adapted from this book), the New York Times (where is he is contributing opinion writer), Washington Post, and others. And he had an interview podcast with ten episodes so far. I am also about halfway through a free podcasted seminary class, The Bible in Color, which has some overlapping content with the book. My point of noting all of this is that once you have read this book, there is more to follow up with. And that I was not entering the book brand new.

Reading in Black is not trying to survey the entirety of Black biblical tradition of biblical interpretation, but to give an introduction to the fact that there is a diverse tradition of biblical interpretation that matters. The book opens to tracing, somewhat autobiographically, why the Black biblical tradition matters. And the book ends with a ‘bonus track’ on some of the development of the academic Black biblical tradition. And he notes that the three general streams of the black church “revolutionary/nationalistic, reformist/transformist, and conformist” tend to only include academic expressions of the first and the last. McCaulley is more in the middle and wants to encourage more work in that reformist/transformist stream. Part of that first chapter that I have seen myself, is how important it is to be historically conversant in the actual words of the Black church, not just what has been said about those words.

Between that opening and closing are five chapters that illustrate what it means to interpret the bible as a Black man in the Black church tradition. The chapter that was developed into the article at Christianity Today, is an exploration of the New Testament and the theology of policing. It centers around Romans 13, the passage that is frequently trotted out as a basis of supporting the political status quo, and shows why social context matters, but also how social context is not the only thing that matters when reading scripture. (That last bonus chapter explores the limits of social context in biblical interpretation more.) The Black church tradition has emphasized that the bible is not a string of proof texts, but an overall narrative that centers the liberating work of Christ throughout history. This means that interpreting Romans 13, apart from the reality that the subjects of authority are still made in the image of God, impacts how we see justice. Abstracting authority from the imago dei allows us to support dehumanizing tactics by removing the humanity of the subject of the authority from the ethical discussion.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache #16)

Summary: As Gamache and his wife visit Paris to await the birth of their grandchild, crime continues to happen.

Louise Penny is one of my favorite fiction authors at this point. I can’t think of another author that has managed to keep my attention 16 books into a series. I am been reading far too few fiction books lately. There are many reasons for that, but I do believe that fiction is essential. It is how we understand parts of the world that are not our own as well, giving words to help us make sense of the elements of the world that are our own. I was thrilled that Netgalley has started offering audiobook to review. I was desperate for a change of pace, and while a crime thriller isn’t what I would call relaxing, it was the change of pace I needed. I finished the 14-hour audiobook in three days. I would not recommend jumping into the 16th book in the series; there are too many details that you will miss.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are visiting their two children and their families, both of whom now live in Paris. Armand inherited a small apartment from the woman that raised him after his parents died when he was 9. And his godfather, recently introduced in the past couple books, also has an apartment here. His godfather is now a mostly retired 95-year-old billionaire who was once an impoverished German teen who reportedly worked with the French underground during WWII. Through his excellent business sense and a sense of justice, Stephen Horowitz brought down companies and became wealthy.

Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Carolyn Weber

Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and LongingSummary: Follow up to the earlier memoir, Suprised by Oxford.

I do not remember why I originally picked up Suprised by Oxford. It was probably a book I chose to review. But in the decade since it came out, I have read it three times, I believe. I have given away several copies, and I have recommended it to many. I think I will read pretty much anything that Carolyn Weber writes. She is a writer of both skill and insight.

Sex and the City of God is a follow up to both the love story with God and TDH (Tall, Dark, and Hansome.) If you are reading this as a follow up to Surprised by Oxford, which I recommend, you know that they are going to get married eventually. That lack of suspense did not impact my reading or my enjoyment of the story.

Like Suprised by Oxford, there are plenty of references and allusions. As you might expect from the title, Augustine is a particular conversation partner. Weber balances the story of her relationship with her now-husband with the relationship with her creator. This is intentional throughout because she wants to parallel how marriage is like our relationship with God. I do like the spiritual exploration in real life metaphors. It is part of how I like to think about both religious life and how I want to ‘seek God in all things.’ Christianity Today had a positive review but had a few reservations because the reviewer thought that at times there was a tension between the story and seeking God in that story.

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude Jr

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own Summary: Exploration of why James Baldwin resonates so strongly.

Begin Again is the second of Eddie Glaude’s book that I have read. I appreciate Democracy in Black but thought when I read it that it may have been written a couple of years early because it was writing about how democracy still perpetuates racism during the Obama years. And reading it in the Trump years meant that I thought he was right, but not quite pointed enough.

Because there are few writers that I am fascinated by more than Baldwin (although he is not an easy read), I was interested in a trusted guide. That is what Eddie Glaude was seeking to do. He was both explicating Baldwin, but also placing him in context for a modern reader who is reading Baldwin years after his death and a half-century after he impacted the world.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin DuMez

Summary: American Christianity has slowly adopted a Jesus that looks and acts a lot like John Wayne, and that has distorted Christianity.

When I first heard about Jesus and John Wayne, I had it connected to books on Christian Nationalism, like Taking America Back for God, maybe because that is how Matthew Lee Anderson framed his review in Christianity Today. That isn’t entirely wrong, but I am not sure it gets the main point of the book any more than framing it as an Anti-Trump book as this review does. The book opens with a vignette about Trump’s 2016 statement “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Jesus and John Wayne isn’t so much about Trump, or John Wayne, as much as it is about how since the 1950s, Evangelicalism in particular, and Christianity more broadly, has culturally embraced a concept of militant masculine Christianity, a ‘bad-ass Jesus’, as a central image for its discipleship and evangelism strategy. The movement to save America (yes Christian Nationalism is a component of the book), has been a reactive one. Whether it is communism (they are atheists, so the US needs to add ‘Under God’ to the pledge), or feminists (so we need to emphasize complementary gender roles and patriarchal authority), or loose sexual morals (so we emphasize purity and ‘kiss dating goodbye’), the point is that the Christian church in the post World War II era has not created a positive message of Christianity so much as looked at culture and done the opposite. Except when it hasn’t.

The ‘when it hasn’t’ is also essential. Because culture has embraced the individual macho man, whether it is John Wayne as the soldier or cowboy or the behind the scenes savior like Jack Bauer or James Bond, or the father with a very particular set of skills that will pursue his daughter’s kidnappers in Taken, the individual who can save us is part of the American mystique.

Jesus and John Wayne is a history book. It is tracing the 75-year history of the development of Evangelical conceptions of gendered leadership, which has resulted in widespread support of a president who does not match Christian theological or virtue ideals but is “somebody who is able to fight back” or phrased differently, ‘the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump.’ The main focus of Jesus and John Wayne is the gendered conception of leadership and the way that the emphasis on exaggerated gender role divisions has distorted Christianity.

I am not going to trace the full history developed in the book. It traces the development of opposition of ERA and abortion, the embrace of Reagan (as an overt parallel to John Wayne) and his manly man soldier doing what needs to be done in Oliver North, the rejection of ‘softer’ parenting styles with James Dobson and the Pearls, Promise Keepers’ focus on men taking back leadership of the family, the later rejection of Promise Keepers as too tender and the embrace of ‘No more Christian nice guys’ and ‘spiritual badasses.’

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory GuideSummary: The how and why of intersectional theology.

There is lots of conversation right now about Critical Theory especially as it is related to the more recent development of Critical Race Theory.  I am far from a scholar about either, but I have done long form reading and a lot of short-form, podcast, and video learning, and to my untrained eye, Intersectionality is the most helpful and arguably the most misunderstood aspect of Critical Race Theory (CRT).

I am not going to fully explicate this book. I would need to read it again to do a better job at that. But I do have 50 highlights or notes that are public from the book.  One of the aspects of discussing Intersectionality that is difficult is that there is a lot of particular languages that have different uses depending on the section. The implication of that is that it is rare for there to be pithy quotes, not just because of the jargon or technical language, but because internally to many quotes, there has to be the nuanced explication of what is and is not being said at any point. I found myself often highlighting not just whole paragraphs, but often whole pages to make sure I had enough to make sense of the idea later when I want to look back.

A good example of this is the following quote that sets up the book:

For most of Christian history, written theology has been the purview of educated, heterosexual, white, Western men. Challenges to the homogeneity of Christian theology arose in the mid-twentieth century through theologies of liberation that gave historical and social context to those doing the theologizing. Latin American, feminist, minjung, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologies emerged to contest the assumed neutrality and objectivity of white, male theologies. Recognizing the importance of social location for how theology is done and its contents, these theologies centered the marginalized and articulated theologies from below. While the center shifted to diverse identities, these theologies still tended to be mono-focused, or what feminist scholar Vivian May calls “gender-first” or “race-first,” an approach that gives priority to one facet of identity as explanatory for experiences of oppression. And so, white feminists often wrote about gender as if it were a monolithic category, overlooking or minimizing the ways race and sexuality shape individuals’ experiences of gender. Latin American liberationists wrote within a context of struggle in Central and South America but did not address the role of gender in the ethnic and class struggles of Latin America…Rather than applying “single-axis” thinking, intersectional analysis relies on “both/and,” an analytical lens that allows for the complexities and contradictions of holding positions of dominance and subordination at the same time and having those concurrent locations mold and fashion experiences that are not race or gender or race plus gender but are rather the confluence of race and gender into something that is both and neither.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled TimesSummary: Commentary on Lamentations and a primer on the importance of lament.

I have joined a Be the Bridge group that is meeting via video call every other Saturday morning. Part of the method of BTB is to have each person present some historic event of racial injustice as part of creating a shared history which leads to real lament. I was asked to put together a summary of Prophetic Lament because I had already read the book. Because it had been a few years since I have read it, I wanted to re-read the book to prepare.

I did a lot more highlighting than I did on my first reading because I was trying to get quotes and ideas for the presentation. I am not going to write up a full new review, but I am going to link to my presentation and link to my highlights (42 of them).

I know it is not quite the same thing, but the American church often feels like the InsideOut movie, where Happy thinks initially that the best thing is for the girl to be happy all the time and for her to make sure Sadness is kept on the sidelines. Instead, by the end of the movie, Happy realizes that there is a real role for Sadness to play in the life of their girl and that repression of emotions other than happiness only backfires.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Sheila Wise Rowe

Summary: Trauma is real; some of that trauma is based on racism or white supremacy; the hard work of healing is essential, not just for individuals but also for communities and future generations. 

I have recently joined a Be The Bridge group. Part of the method of the group is to acknowledge history and lament that history. I was asked to do a short presentation on lament. Because I had meant to anyway, I started re-reading Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament. The opening of Prophetic Lament was helpful, but I was seeking out other resources and saw the chapter on Lament in Healing Racial Trauma. After I finished that chapter, a friend commented about how helpful she found the book as a whole and how she was leading a small group through the book. So I decided to move the book up on my list.

Part of being slow to pick up Healing Racial Trauma is my identification of racial trauma primarily with racial minorities. Most of the examples of this book are of racial minorities, but that does not mean that this book is not for those with less melanin. The strong theme throughout the book is that healing is not only for yourself (although it is that as well) but also for your community and future generations. Breaking cycles is tremendously hard, but if we want healthy communities, churches, institutions, and families, we have to do the work of breaking cycles. That means that we have to do the hard work of internal healing, which is related to communal healing.

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America by Khyati Joshi

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in AmericaSummary: Discussion of the cultural and real privilege of being a White Christian (or at least conversant in Christianity) in America.

I recently read Taking America Back for God, a book about Christian Nationalism, and when I was writing up my review, one of the books recommended was White Christian Privilege. I did not know anything about the book or author, but it seemed to fit in my recent reading, and I picked it up.

The author is a second-generation immigrant from Southeast Asia. She grew up in Atlanta and now is a professor specializing in race and religion. The premise of the book is explained by the title well; religious liberty is illusionary in the US because it primarily is rooted in the freedom to be Christian. White (Protestant) Christians are the default state, and others tend to be religious in relation to Christianity. (Robert Jones’ book The End of White Christian America tells the opposite side of this story.)

White Christian Privilege is not going to be received well by many that believe that Christianity is under attack or persecuted. And there is some small sense that demographic change is impacting the dominance of White Christians to some extent (the demographic trends are the primary focus of Jones’ book). But demographics do not show the privilege that Christianity has baked into the United States culture and history.

There are legitimate arguments about whether the US was founded as a ‘Christian country,’ but culturally, Christianity was normative (the default cultural expression.) While there have been Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims from very early in US history, Christianity has been dominant. So Christian assumptions about how religion works have also been normative. Christian holidays are national holidays (and Hindu holidays are not, and often not even known). A Hundi woman that wants to celebrate Diwali will have to request time off from work, but Christmas is a national holiday, and the workweek is oriented around the Christian calendar. These assumptions are not consciously chosen or intentionally discriminatory, but they do have an impact. (Similar to the way that crash test dummies were modeled initially after adult males and only later have changes been made to include women and children when it became clear that the single choice of crash test dummies negatively impacted women and children).

The narration of religious liberty cases from the Supreme Court was particularly striking because I heard several people recently talk about how the Supreme Court has ruled so clearly for religious liberty recently. But the choice of which cases to include as religious liberty cases in those recent articles has been biased toward Christian cases, and religious liberty cases for others were not counted as losses.

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself by Marlena Graves

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself Summary: An exploration of Kenosis, voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s.

Kenosis has a long history. Biblically it is rooted in Philippians 2 with Jesus ‘giving up’ his divine being and ‘adopting’ a human form. The language has always been challenging because it is inadequate to represent what is going on fully. Jesus did not cease to be divine when he became human. And the adoption metaphor has weaknesses because there is history with its use as a means of denying that Jesus was entirely God, or that he was created not eternal.  But despite the inadequacy of the language around Kenosis,  the concepts underneath it, are important. Jesus’ prayer, ‘not my will, but yours be done’ was not a denial of his divinity but the fulfillment of it. If Jesus could empty himself of his will in a biblically appropriate way, then we, as fully created, should also think about how we appropriately give up our own will.

Part of the problem of discussing Kenosis isn’t just the inadequacy of the language, but the history of abuse. Kenosis has been used to justify abuse and oppression throughout Christian history. It has been used to tell slaves to submit to masters, or to perpetuate economic or cultural inequity. It has been used to support gnostic leaning beliefs around the sinfulness of the body or patriarchal attitudes toward women. It has been used to deny people the rights of justice in regard to sexual and other forms of abuse inside the church.

It is in part because of this misuse of the concept that I am reluctant to read white males talk about Kenosis, and why despite a bit of reluctance to initially pick up The Way Up Is Down, it is important that this book is written by a Puerto Rican woman. As I have said frequently, I am midway through my training to become a Spiritual Director. The literature of spiritual direction and spiritual formation is overwhelmingly from a White male perspective. Most of my non-assigned reading has been an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my assigned reading. Marlena Graves is a pastor and professor of spiritual formation. She is not a spiritual director as far as I am aware (it is not explicitly mentioned in the book that I remember), but the type of spiritual wisdom that is throughout the book is in that vein.