Reading While Black grew out of Professor Esau McCaulley’s dissatisfaction with what seemed to be missing from theological conversations that centered on “mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and the Black progressive tradition”(p. 14). In his book, he tries to articulate a fourth voice, one that is “unapologetically canonical and theological” but which is also “socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans” (p. 21). While McCaulley’s conclusions are good and theologically conservative, I couldn’t shake a vague uneasiness with how he derived those conclusions. In particular, his basic hermeneutical approach (how he reads and interprets the Bible) lacks the guardrails needed to prevent his methods from being taken in very dangerous directions.
In introducing his book, McCaulley talks about how his early studies were shaped by a tension between the historic Christian faith of his mother and the theological liberalism of his professors whose “goal [was] deconstruction” (p. 7). In arguing that the Bible was errant, McCaulley recognized that mainline scholars were essentially arguing that the Bible was, indeed, the basis for a “white man’s religion”: “If the Bible needs to be rejected to free Black Christians, then such a view seems to entail that the fundamentalists had interpreted the Bible correctly. All the things that racists had done to us, then, had strong biblical warrant” (p. 9). Both sides of this debate were also dominated by white scholars. Consequently, he writes, “When I found African American theological voices in print, I was overjoyed to discover people who seemed to care about some of the same things I cared about” (p. 13).
McCaulley’s own personal struggle connects with larger apologetic concerns for Blacks who turn to secularism or to religious movements like the Nation of Islam or the Black Hebrew Israelites to answer their felt needs. The book’s chapters therefore address questions like “what does the Bible say about policing and the responsibilities of government?” (Chapter 2), “can the church advocate for political reform?” (Chapter 3), “does Christianity address Black concerns for justice?” (Chapter 4), “is there an African presence in the Bible?” (Chapter 5), “what do we do with Black rage?” (Chapter 6), and “does the Bible endorse slavery?” (Chapter 7) which are often particularly important to the Black community. Showing that Christianity is not the property of any one particular ethnic group and that Christianity is not a “tool of oppression” are important for removing intellectual obstacles between many Black Americans and the gospel.
Historic (evangelical) theology
A major positive aspect of the book was its solidly “evangelical” theology, a term I’ll only avoid because McCaulley seems to identify his own perspective as a dialogue partner of evangelicalism, rather than a voice within evangelicalism. When McCaulley discusses the gospel, or the resurrection, or human sin, or Christ’s redemption, or the necessity of conversion, or the proper use of power, or the responsibilities of government, he makes few statements that evangelicals would disagree with. Indeed, this agreement is occasionally confusing, since it’s unclear at whom his criticism is directed.
For example, he writes that within evangelicalism, he was often encouraged to “look to the golden age of theology, either at the early years of this country or during the postwar boom of American Protestantism” (p. 11). While I can imagine evangelicals placing a fair bit of weight on the Puritans (who died long before the country was actually founded), or on the leaders of the First and Second Great Awakenings, I’ve never heard an evangelical leader point to the 1950s as the high-water mark of orthodoxy. The Reformers, the English Baptists, and the early church are offered far more frequently as models, at least in my experience.
Similarly, in his discussion of Christian political engagement, he says “Many popular political theologies of the New Testament begin with Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4. Centering these texts leaves Christians with the following duties: (1) submit to the state, (2) pay your taxes, and (3) pray for those in leadership” (p. 50-51). He points out that Christians can fulfill these duties while also protesting injustice: “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive” (p. 53). This is true but puzzling. I often hear the complaint that evangelicals’ criticism is partisan and selective, but not that they refuse to criticize politicians on principle.
Even McCaulley’s claim that “On one level, we can look at the entirety of Jesus’ ministry as an act of political resistance” is immediately clarified by saying that the “placement [of Jesus’ birth in the context of the reigns of Augustus and Herod] raises the question of who is the true king of Israel and the world” (p. 54). When he talks about a political witness, he speaks far less about voting, marches, and demonstrations, and far more about the church bearing witness to Jesus’ lordship by how Christians treat one another, an application which not even the most conservative evangelicals should dispute.
In summary, McCaulley’s theological conclusions are typically consistent with historic orthodoxy and few if any evangelical readers would reject them.
Because McCaulley’s central project is the development of an approach to “Black biblical interpretation,” a question that evangelicals will immediately ask is: does he believe that the biblical text has an objective meaning or does he think the actual meaning of the text depends upon who is reading it? Here, McCaulley seems to affirm that the biblical text has an objective meaning which is discovered, not created, by interpreters.
In explaining his motivation for describing an approach to Black biblical interpretation, he quotes Brian Blount as saying “‘Euro-American scholars, minister, and lay folk… have, over the centuries, used their economic, academic, religious, and political dominance to create the illusion that the Bible, read through their experience, is the Bible read correctly'” (p. 20). McCaulley continues: “Stated differently, everybody has been reading the Bible from their locations, but [Black Christians] are honest about it. What makes Black interpretation Black, then, are the collective experiences, custom, and habits of Black people in this country” (p. 20).
Yet after making such statements, McCaulley always circles back to insist that the text has the ultimate authority and has to reform our cultural assumptions: “If our experiences pose particular and unique questions to the Scriptures, then the Scriptures also pose unique questions to us…Although I believe we must engage in a dialogue with the text, I acknowledge that ultimately the Word of God speaks the final word” (p. 20). In particular, while our culture will influence which questions we ask the text, he seems to affirm that the historical-grammatical method is how we determine its meaning. Rather than insisting that we know what is good and forcing the Bible to confirm our preconceptions, instead “we adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will bring a blessing and not a curse. This means that we do the hard work of reading the text closely, attending to historical context, grammar, and structure” (p. 21).
So here, there seems to be an ambiguity. If McCaulley is merely suggesting that every culture should start (and unavoidably starts) from its own particular questions, but should revise those questions in light of interpreting the biblical text via a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, then potentially every culture could reach exactly the same theological conclusions. However, in that case, why call this approach “Black interpretation” at all? It’s not the interpretation that’s “Black” but only the initial questions.
If McCaulley’s approach is merely ambiguously named, it seems to be consistent with an evangelical approach to interpretation, provided he is careful to allow the text to inform both the answers to his questions and the questions themselves. This last point is very important, and I’ll return to it later.
How many cultures do we need?
McCaulley’s assertion that our culture or social location will influence the questions we ask is undeniably true. For example, if you Google “How should Christians think about voting?” you’ll find millions of results. Yet only a tiny fraction of Christians throughout history have ever asked this question because the vast majority did not live in democracies. Similarly, questions like “Is human cloning ethical?” or “How should I use social media?” would have never even crossed the minds of most Christians living just a few decades ago. An awareness of our cultural context is helpful and this awareness can certainly be fostered through interaction with other cultures who do not share our assumptions.
Yet the crucial question is whether a dialogue with other cultures is merely helpful or whether it is necessary. For instance, McCaulley writes: “What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures can turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ. That means in the providence of God, I need Ugandan biblical interpretation, because the experiences of Ugandans mean they are able to bring their unique insights to the conversation” (p. 22). Here, he’s clearly affirming that the text has an objective meaning which expresses the “mind of Christ.” But what happens if we affirm that we “need” Ugandan Christians or Spanish Christians or Tibetan Christians to discern this meaning?
First, we must begin to question whether most people can know much of anything about what the Bible teaches. The vast majority of Christians are not Bible scholars and have not read much theology from their own culture’s theologians, let alone Ugandan theologians and Spanish theologians and Tibetan theologians. So just how opaque is the Bible to the average believer, who simply reads it with a humble, open heart seeking to learn from it and obey its teachings?
Second, we have to wonder how much we can trust historic Christian creeds and confessions, which were written at a time when the vast majority of the world’s cultures had never heard the gospel. For example, Prof. McCaulley is an ordained ACNA priest whose communion receives the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571 as definitive of the Anglican faith. Yet can the 39 Articles really be affirmed as unchanging theological truths, given that they are so clearly situated in a white, male, Anglocentric context? Or should they be substantially revised in light of our increased cultural awareness over the last four centuries?
In both cases, an insistence that we “need” the input of other cultures will undermine the perspicuity of Scripture, that is, its ability to be read, understood, and interpreted by anyone on issues necessary for salvation. Instead, while we should “value” the input of other cultures, we should insist that 1) the central truths of the gospel are accessible to all people in all cultures and 2) the meaning of any passage of Scripture is not hidden from anyone due to their social location. These are important guardrails.
Additionally, it would be appropriate to say that we “need” the input of other cultures not to interpret the meaning of the Bible but to apply it effectively to that particular culture. At a minimum, knowledge of a culture’s language is a requirement for communicating the content of the Bible.
Again, this disagreement is over a single word (“need”) and it may be that McCaulley and I are in complete agreement here. But it is a point on which agreement is crucial.
Is it a dialogue?
While McCaulley insists that we should let Scripture correct and inform our questions, some of his exegesis suggests that he occasionally tries to pull particular answers out of particular texts in awkward ways. One example is his exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 in his chapter about policing. Even a cursory reading of Rom. 13:1-7 shows that it consists of a central command to Christians (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities”) followed by a series of explanations and justifications for this command. Yet McCaulley writes “I maintain, then, that we read Romans 13:1-2 as a statement about the sovereignty of God and the limits of human discernment” (p. 33).
He later writes:
in Romans 13:3-4, it is the state’s attitude, not the soldier/officer as a vocation that stands at the center of Paul’s concerns. Stated differently, Paul recognizes that the state has tremendous influence on how the soldier/officer treats its citizens. Thus, if there is to be reform it must be structural and not merely individualistic. This is grounds in a democracy for a structural advocacy on behalf of the powerless (p. 35)
Now, McCaulley’s theological statements are not wrong. Our human discernment is limited and the state ought to have a particular attitude towards good and evil. Yet neither of these concerns are the main point of the passage. Because McCaulley has started by asking a question about 21st century policing in the United States, he is trying to turn a minor concern of the passage into its central concern while minimizing its real central concern. He then goes on to adduce implications about “structural advocacy in a democracy” that are obviously miles away from anything Paul had in mind. Is that a problem? Yes.
Imagine that my 21st-century individualistic American culture made me very concerned with personal freedom. As a result, imagine I employed “American biblical interpretation” to argue that “we should read Romans 13:1-2 as a statement about how rulers have free will. In Rom. 13:3-4, it is the ruler’s individual choice of good or evil that stands at the center of Paul’s concerns. Thus, if there is to be reform it must start with the conversion of individual rulers, not with mere structural reform. This is grounds for an emphasis on evangelism.” This reading would suffer from the same problems that McCaulley’s reading does.
In both cases, neither of us have said anything necessarily false. But in both cases, our reasoning is far-removed from the main concern of the passage. Rather than revising our question in light of the text, we have forced the text to rather awkwardly answer a tangential question. I’m not saying that McCaulley is wrong to affirm the limits of human discernment or the influence of the state’s attitude on the soldier. I’m not even saying that these issues are totally irrelevant to the text. I’m only saying he’s wrong to try to make these issues the text’s central point.
I don’t think any of us is immune from the tendency to read our particular hobby horses into the text, whether it’s the ardent libertarian who insists on finding laissez-faire economic principles in Proverbs or the patriotic conservative who believes that 2 Chron. 7:14 is speaking about the United States. Yet these tendencies need to be resisted as a temptation not embraced as an interpretive method.
Is there a singular Black experience?
Another question that needs to be addressed is whether there is a singular “Black experience” on which we can base a “Black interpretive approach.” The questions McCaulley chooses about policing, justice, and Black rage are presumed to lie at the heart of the Black experience in America. For example, he writes:
“I am afraid still because I worry that my sons or daughters might experience the same terror that marked the life of their father and my ancestors before me. This fear might seem unwarranted to some. I am tempted to list statistics about Black folks and our treatment at the hands of police. But I am skeptical that statistics will convince those hostile to our cause. Furthermore, statistics are unnecessary for those who carry the experience of being Black in this country in their hearts.” (p. 41)
Yet despite stark differences between White and Black Americans, a recent Gallup poll indicated that 61% of Black Americans were either “very confident” or “somewhat confident” that an encounter with police would go well and 81% of Black Americans either wanted the police to spend “the same” or “more” time in their area.
Similarly, McCaulley writes:
“We harm each other and set ridiculous standards of respect. We violently demand the respect of our Black friends and neighbors because we are hounded by disrespect in white spaces…I grew up around Black men who hit Black women and I was helpless to stop it. The rage grew. I was mad at white people. I was mad at my own people.” (p. 120)
To be clear, McCaulley foreswears violence and points people to the “cross of Christ” to deal with the “rage that we [Blacks] rightly feel” (p. 131). Yet I have to wonder how widespread his experience is. While certainly there are some (perhaps many) Black Americans who would resonate with such descriptions and therefore would ask the same questions as McCaulley, there are presumably others who would not.
As Thabiti Anyabwile warns us, the assumption of a singular, monolithic Black experience will not make our preaching more relevant but less relevant:
Any monolithic understanding of black experience crumbled long ago under the shifting weight of African-American progress and hard-earned victories…Yet most books published on black preaching continue to argue that the black preacher should assume a context of social and political marginalization similar to that of the 1800s and early 1900s as the starting point for the preaching task. Little wonder that black preaching might be seen as entirely irrelevant to black life today. – Anyabwile, Reviving the Black Church, p. 39-40
The same could be said not only of preaching, but of biblical interpretation.
How central is Black identity?
The centrality of Black identity is important given how McCaulley addresses the question “Is Christianity a white man’s religion?” One of the ways in which McCaulley responds is by pointing out the presence of Africans in the Bible. Because Egypt is in Africa, Joseph’s Egyptian wife was African, his sons Ephraim and Manasseh were half-African, and the nation of Israel was intertwined with African ancestry. Likewise, a “mixed [multiethnic] crowd” accompanied Israel out of Egypt (p. 102), and Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian eunuch were African (p. 107-112). McCaulley concludes: “there was never a biologically ‘pure’ Israel. Israel was always multiethnic and multinational. As a Black man, when I look to the biblical story, I do not see a story of someone else in which I find my place only by some feat of imagination. Instead God’s purposes include me as an irreplaceable feature along with my African ancestors” (p. 102). And: “When the Black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home” (p. 117).
To be sure, McCaulley does also point to God’s promise to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham (p. 99) and to Jesus’ role as the Davidic king of all nations (p. 103) as a basis for seeing Blackness in the Bible. Yet one has to wonder why these latter points were not the main ones. By McCaulley’s reasoning, there are many people groups (East Asians, South Asians, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, Pacific Islanders, Scandinavians, etc…) who would have to find their place in the Bible “only by some feat of imagination.” God forbid! Instead, it is the very fact that the Bible is a universal story that is addressed to all people in all cultures at all times which allows us to find our place in it.
This emphasis on the universality of the Bible is necessarily in tension with McCaulley’s emphasis on particularity. He is entirely correct when he affirms that Christian conversion does not entail the erasure of our ethnic identity, culture, or nationality. But we should be mindful of the other extreme in which our culture, race, or ethnicity takes center stage.
As I said at the beginning, my main concern is not for McCaulley’s theological conclusions, but for how his methodology would function in the absence of confessional anchors. It often puts the emphasis in the wrong place, centering the particular over the universal, or the application over the meaning, or our cultural assumptions over the text’s perspicuity. Note that there is a place for all of these concerns, but the order is important. As we give more and more weight to a person’s social location, it will become harder and harder to determine whose interpretation is accurate. Perhaps they’re merely asking questions to which our culture is insensitive? Perhaps they’re finding answers that elude us due to our social location?
My humble suggestion would be to shift the focus from interpretation to application. There is no question that cultural experience can be an invaluable resource and most of McCaulley’s discussions could remain unchanged. Nearly all of his principle concerns can be addressed from within a traditional evangelical hermeneutical framework while also placing a high premium on the importance of our social location for effectively engaging our culture. Yet it is the universality of the text’s meaning which makes it applicable to the particular cultures in which each of us is located. The gospel doesn’t speak to us because of our differences, but because of our commonalities as children of Adam in need of a Savior.
- Should We “De-colonize our Theology”?
- A Short Review of Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology
- A Short Review of Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology