Engaging with scripture is an important part of all Christian living. In Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Esau McCaulley introduces readers to the interpretive movement of black churches. Though obviously not monolithic, McCaulley draws from numerous strands of the tradition to put together, as the title states, a hopeful exercise of interpreting the Bible.
After an introductory chapter that talks about “making space for Black ecclesial interpretation,” each chapter focuses on a question or stance that Black interpreters have asked or taken regarding the text. That first chapter is worth reflecting upon, though. In a modern American church in which a loud, visible number of white male pastors are decrying any recognition of race and attempting to totally abolish it as a concept for questions in the church, is there actual space for Black ecclesial interpretation? Some have argued that Galatians 3:28 means that talking about race is prohibited in church, but of course many of those same people who try to abolish discussions of race based upon that passage are happy to affirm hierarchal relationships regarding men and women. Galatians 3:28 seems to be much more about breaking down barriers society has erected–not about abolishing any recognition that people can be different. Turning to what McCaulley himself writes, he notes that Progressives often go to the opposite extreme, with a set goal going towards the text of deconstruction (7). Evangelicals and mainline Protestants have essentially dominated the theological landscape of the United States, and McCaulley calls upon Progressives to make space for Black reconstruction of the text (8-9) while also noting the subtle and even unsubtle disdain for Black culture and comments about Black churches being unsound theologically (10-12). McCaulley, in other words, calls out the whole spectrum of white churches in America for downplaying or even discrediting Black voices.
The second chapter turns to the New Testament and Black interpretations that apply it to theology of policing. I have to frankly admit I was a bit skeptical going in, but McCaulley draws out how the passages and stories in the New Testament can be applied to questions of policing today. In other words, McCaulley quickly taught me that I haven’t been open enough to thinking more broadly about learning from the text and applying it to our lives. McCaulley’s careful reading of the text notes that we have to see the analogies and disanalogies between Rome, soldiers, and police before we go applying passages like Romans 13 directly to our everyday lives (34-38).
The book just ramps up from there, showing how the New Testament can apply to the political witness of the church–how have moderates and others actually slowed the movement of the Spirit in the Kingdom? The pursuit of justice is a clearly powerful theme throughout the entirety of Scripture, and modern opposition to anything related to speaking of justice in the church is about as unbiblical as one can get. McCaulley warns of several problems with writing of Black interpretations. He writes, “Some… suggest that the starting point for African American biblical exegesis is a predetermined definition that serves as a filter through which we examine biblical texts to see if they meet our standard. The problem with this approach is that it assumes the inspiration and in effect infallibility of our current sociopolitical consensus and the inability of the biblical text to correct us” (73, emphasis his). Making us the arbiters of God’s Word is clearly mistaken, and McCaulley notes that “The Black Christian” [instead] “brings his or her questions to the text and the text poses its own questions to us” (ibid). The important takeaway is that “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have a message of salvation, liberation, and reconciliation that itself shapes the African American Christian’s vision of the present and the future” (ibid) but this is immediately followed by: “But things are not so simple… We are not blank slates upon which the Scriptures can write anything” (ibid). The rest of the chapter provides numerous examples of seeing justice present in the Bible (eg. in the Magnificat) and how that resonates with Black theological hope.
Multiethnicity and black identity find resonance in Scripture. Anger is a theme found in scripture as well, and Black suffering can find both an outlet and a way to reconcile experience with reality. Israel’s own “personal and corporate rage” about exile and Babylon find resonance in Black experience. McCaulley walks readers through a detailed look at Paul’s words related to Onesimus and Philemon, noting that the cultural conventions of the time were being subverted, so application must be careful related to today’s challenges (see, for example 154-155).
Even this survey of some of the contents of this pithy book cannot capture the immense range and scope of McCaulley’s work here. It will challenge readers at essentially any part of the political or theological spectrum. Endorsed by readers as diverse as Lecrae and N.T. Wright, Reading While Black is a fascinating read that will challenge and inform readers at many levels. Highly recommended.
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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