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.