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 he is a 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 in 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 the 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 by tracing, somewhat autobiographically, why the Black biblical tradition matters. The book ends with a ‘bonus track’ on some of the developments 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 only to 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 authority from the ethical discussion.

I do not have time to get into each chapter, but the other illustrating chapters discuss the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, Black identity, Black anger, and slavery. All of these subjects are worth reading, and the content is very accessible and treated in enough depth to get an introduction to the concept but not so deeply to go over the head of most lay readers.

One of the messages that came through clearly in the book was that because of a lack of familiarity with the Black church tradition, many institutions, which are predominately white Christian institutions, force students, staff, or participants in the Black church tradition to be conversant in white Christian biblical interpretation, and then rely on those students or staff to learn more about their own Black church tradition on their own. One story McCaulley related was about speaking to a group of COGIC pastors who lamented that they could either send their seminary students to Evangelical seminaries, which would teach them to ignore the historic practices and social integration of the Black church, or they could send them to more liberal mainline seminaries which would take more seriously the Black church social tradition, but teach them to discount the theology of the Black church. Further, internal Black church discussions of theology are often stripped of context by white listeners and used as a method of delegitimizing the Black church as a whole.

Reading While Black introduces the tradition of Black biblical interpretation to not only Black Christians but all Christians. And it was an excellent introduction. The chapters are short, and I think it would make for a great small group discussion (there is a discussion guide at the back of the book.) And there is a strong hint at follow-up book(s) that explore other areas and more of the historically Black church tradition. There is a significant discussion right now about what justice means in the church. And too much of that discussion is lacking in historical and theological context. Reading While Black is a helpful addition to that discussion, and I encourage you to follow not only Esau McCaulley but many other Black church advocates (like Isaiah Robertson) who are rightly pointing out that the part of what is needed in a divided white evangelical church is a more robust understanding of what it means to be the church and the Black church tradition can help speak into that context.

I hadn’t at all talked about the subtitle, “An Exercise in Hope.” Hope is a significant Black church theme and one that I am personally ambivalent about. Hope is about eschatology. And eschatology is important for Christians. At the same time, hope is sometimes used, especially by White Christians, as a way to deny the lived reality of Black and other minority Christians. There is a problem with only being hopeful in the midst of pain. The chapter that deals with Black rage mostly interacts with Psalm 137 avoids the denial of reality type of escatology. But still, I am a bit ambivalent about the emphasis on hope in the title. I think the hope of the Black church in the midst of pain is part of what the white Church needs to learn. But that feels to me to be a lesson that might be several steps down the road, and so I am a bit more comfortable embracing lament than hope at this point. All of that ambivalence is about my perception of white readers reading, not about the actual words on the book page. More than anyone except maybe NT Wright, McCaulley has been pushing me toward a greater emphasis on eschatological hope as a means to be in the present and work toward justice, but not life as if God were personally dependent upon me to save the world. God allows me to work toward justice and join in that historical corporate movement that is rooted in God making all things new. It is here that hope can be found.

Update: I think that his recent memoir also captures why hope is part of his outlook when engaging the Black church tradition and why he thinks the predominately white church needs to engage in the Black church tradition.

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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