Free at Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience by Carl F. Ellis, Jr. is an exploration of African Americans’ interactions with Christianity in the united states with an emphasis on evaluating it by means of the Gospel. The hugeness of the project Ellis, Jr. puts forward and my own unfamiliarity with anything but the broadest strokes of the same means that my evaluation will largely be based upon its content rather than my own confirmation of its analysis.
Ellis, Jr. interweaves the book with historical narrative and analysis of how racism and other negative outcomes occur in our society. African American experience in the United States started almost entirely with being enslaved. Ellis Jr. notes how this Christianity of the land of the United States became rejected by black thinkers like Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote of a distinction between the Christianity of Christ and that of the land (of the US) in that the latter was based upon enslavement and cruelty while the former is “pure, peaceable, and impartial” (20). Ellis Jr. notes how perspective is incredibly important in understanding the experience of others.
The question of the truth of Christianity and the Gospel are central to Free at Last? Ellis, Jr. notes that “Scripture describes at least two types of unrighteousness: ungodliness and oppression…” The distinction is important because one can lead into another, even unconsciously: “For example, if a person has a racist attitude, he or she is guilty of ungodliness. If, however, that person imposes his racism on others, forcing he to live in substandard conditions, then he is guilty of oppression” (28). Grace can serve as a solution to these sinful attitudes, actions, and dispositions.
A majority of the rest of the book traces African American experience from the earliest times of the United States into the 1990s, with a particular focus on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. However, these are also interspersed with broader historical insights, analysis of streams of thought, and more. A fascinating section has Ellis, Jr. arguing that the movement towards Islam in African American experience cannot provide the same universality that Christianity does. In part, this is because orthodox Muslim teaching is that the Qur’an “is in Arabic only” (152). More importantly, the attempted de-Christianization of black culture through Islam can only either turn black culture into Muslim/Arabic culture or result in unorthodox Islam (121ff). Christianity, argues Ellis, Jr., provides a way forward for black Americans to experience universal hope (158ff).
This does not mean that Christianity has no pitfalls, however, for African Americans and indeed for people generally. Ellis, Jr. notes several “Anti-God Christianity-isms” that corrupt Christianity’s message but are all too common. These include Christianity that is anti-intellectual, Christianity that attempts to make God obligated to humans, Christianity that makes God into a kind of religious tyrant, and Christianity that puts God in a box (167-168). The last chapter of the book offers Ellis, Jr.’s vision for a renewal of Christianity and black experience.
Free at Last? is a compelling account of African American experience in regards to Christianity. Originally published in the late 1990s, this updated version offers a strong challenge to the modern cries out against allegedly anti-Christian ideas and philosophies from within the church while also arguing strongly for a robust Christian vision going forward. It’s a fascinating read, and I recommend it.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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