Nearly every book is a part of an ongoing conversation.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope steps into the dialogue around a question that has raged since enslaved Africans arrived on North American soil: to what degree is the Bible—and its message—really good news for black people in this life?
This question—and its various permutations (e.g., is Christianity the white man’s religion?)—is a constant topic of conversation in black American life. Given the devastating misuse of Scripture in support of race-based chattel slavery, Christians of any ethnicity shouldn’t dismiss this question. To have never asked this question is to be woefully ahistorical. Worse, still, is to suppress the inquiry out of fear for the answer.
Reading While Black eagerly examines hard questions at the intersection of being both black and also Christian—it examines how Scripture speaks to core concerns of black Christians, charting a fresh route on the old path of black interpretation that avoids the ditches of both progressivism and fundamentalism.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Growing up in the American South, Esau McCaulley knew firsthand the ongoing struggle between despair and hope that marks the lives of some in the African American context. A key element in the fight for hope, he discovered, has long been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation that comes out of traditional Black churches. This ecclesial tradition is often disregarded or viewed with suspicion by much of the wider church and academy, but it has something vital to say. Reading While Black is a personal and scholarly testament to the power and hope of Black biblical interpretation. At a time in which some within the African American community are questioning the place of the Christian faith in the struggle for justice, New Testament scholar McCaulley argues that reading Scripture from the perspective of Black church tradition is invaluable for connecting with a rich faith history and addressing the urgent issues of our times.
Reading While Black . . . examines how the Bible speaks to core concerns of black Christians, charting a fresh route on the old path of black interpretation that avoids the ditches of progressivism and fundamentalism.
McCaulley—assistant professor at Wheaton College, a New York Times columnist, and Anglican priest—argues that the “instincts and habits of Black biblical interpretation can help us use the Bible to address the issues of the day,” and “that for Black Christians the very process of interpreting the Bible can function as an exercise in hope and connect us to the Faith of our ancestors” (23).
With conviction and clarity, Reading While Black declares that the multifaceted black interpretive tradition offers a historic, embodied, and faithful approach to the Scriptures that show how God’s truth speaks powerfully to the experience of our people, both past and present.
Stepping into the Conversation
To appreciate what Reading While Black offers, one needs to catch the basic contours of this ongoing conversation about God’s eternal Word and black people’s earthly concerns. McCaulley satisfyingly situates the discourse both for those who’ve been, and also for those who’ve just started, listening.
Broadly speaking, when it comes to this conversation some progressives, black and otherwise, have offered a hermeneutic of revision, believing the Bible will be good news to the black experience insofar as we revise it to be so. On the other side of the conversation, some evangelicals have unwittingly—and ignorantly—offered us a hermeneutic of irrelevance, suggesting the Bible says next to nothing about the black experience by virtue of anemic application for justice. Recounting his own wandering through both sides of the conversation, McCaulley urges us to refuse this binary.
Instead he guides readers to the rich history of black Christians who have walked before us with a “hermeneutic of trust”—trust in the character of the triune God that asserts if we wrestle with the text as Jacob did with God, he will surely guide us in both body and soul.
Learning from Black Ecclesial Interpretation
Essentially, Reading While Black is the interpretive practice of this “hermeneutic of trust” applied to the hard questions—and historically dire circumstances—that black folks face in a racialized and fallen world (21).
To demonstrate his favored form of black interpretive tradition—the habit of “Black Ecclesial Interpretation”—McCaulley turns readers toward the interpretative practices of enslaved Africans in America. They rejected their slavemasters’ blatant misreadings of Paul by embracing the passages their masters prohibited, such as the exodus narrative. Their impulse suggests that the black hope—in body and soul, in life and death—isn’t found in revising the Bible, but in retrieving a particular method of “Black Ecclesial Interpretation.”
According to McCaulley, this interpretive impulse prompted early African Americans to read Scripture as:
- socially located (seeking to understand what it means to be both black and Christian),
- theological (using categories like the character of God or the imago Dei to refute “biblical” cases for slavery and discrimination),
- canonical (examining difficult texts in light of the whole Bible),
- patient (“trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing”). (21, 184)
The bulk of the book is McCaulley applying this interpretative method to the pressing questions of black experience: What does the New Testament say about political protest and the church’s witness? Does it contain anything applicable to policing in suffering communities? Does God save me from my blackness, or is it a display of God’s manifold glory? Is there a redemptive way to deal with the pain of black life in America?
McCaulley’s work is stimulating and edifying, a book in which believers will find fresh confidence in Scripture’s power to speak to both the body and soul of our experience. Commendably, the book is deep enough to occupy pastors, scholars, and seminarians without sacrificing its accessibility to a broader readership.
Biblical Work for This Moment
As our churches and our nation yet again reckon with our racial history and the devaluing of black lives, the importance of Reading While Black can barely be overstated. Weary black believers—myself included—need the fresh, invigorating, biblical, and socially conversant exploration McCaulley gives to questions like: “Is the Bible a friend or foe in the Black question for justice?” (Believers of all backgrounds trying to navigate these waters will no doubt be greatly helped as well.)
McCaulley’s work is stimulating and edifying, a book in which believers, black believers particularly, will find fresh confidence in the Scripture’s powers to speak to both the body and soul of our lived experience.
On the question of justice, McCaulley detects profound connections between the Scriptures and black experience. Luke’s Gospel opens with “the issue of injustice as a central concern” by placing the story of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, center stage (81). McCaulley notes how Zechariah, a priest, and Elizabeth, as part of a priest’s family, would have been “directly involved in making theological sense of Israel’s status as oppressed people under the thumb of the Roman Empire” (79). In fact, “[t]hey would have faced the same questions that black pastors have had to deal with for generations. Where is God? Why hasn’t he saved us? Does he care about our suffering?” (79–80).
McCaulley showcases how the biblical-historical plight of Elizabeth and Zechariah as “Israel writ small” carries deep significance to the black experience. Given their personal and corporate long-suffering, Elizabeth and Zechariah are “crucial for understanding black hope” as
the faithful elderly who persevered in the faith despite long-delayed hope; they are our Black grandparents who dragged us to church and prayed for us when we lacked the faith to pray for ourselves . . . [they] are the first generation of Black Christians coming to faith during slavery. (81)
Such redemptive metaphors, rooted in biblical insights and the intimate knowledge of black experience, remind readers that the more we attend to God’s story in Scripture and our history—in a dialogue that prioritizes the former without downplaying the latter—the more we’ll see that Scripture has been and is good news for African Americans.
Formative Work for the Church
On a formative level, Reading While Black is valuable as a faithful model of biblical engagement and interpretive practice. If what they say about lessons being “more caught than taught” is true, then there’s much good to catch from Reading While Black. When McCaulley explores the church’s political witness, wondering why many traditions home in on texts like 1 Timothy 2:1–2—while ignoring the Hebrew midwives’ protests (Ex. 1:15) and Christ’s rebuke of Herod (Luke 13:32)—readers learn the power of reading canonically, desiring to bring our lived experiences both to and under the full counsel of God’s Word. Basically I’m getting at the selective political reading and interpretation of the Bible that McCaulley questions. We can pray for our leaders and still engage in righteous protest.
At the core of McCaulley’s project stand two important realities: (1) unshakeable confidence in God and his Word and (2) unflinching conviction that reading Scripture from our social location is inescapable and invaluable. We all come to the text as enculturated selves, not as blank slates of neutrality. Nevertheless, McCaulley’s model prizes Scripture’s unrivaled authority—an authority that undercuts the postmodern impulse to crown our social location as the unchallenged rule of interpretation. In this sense, read rightly and carefully, Reading While Black is the sort of book that produces Bible readers who will be more patient, skillful, and faithful.
Conversation Catalyst, Welcome Outcast
Maybe the most commendable feature of Reading While Black is that it’s the best type of outcast: it doesn’t fit in the black progressive stream that subjects Scripture to prepackaged notions of liberation, nor in the fundamentalist stream that ignores the various concepts of justice in church history. Whereas previous books in this conversation have examined if the black church should give attention to America’s sin of slavery or humanity’s slavery to sin, Reading While Black enters the conversation and asks, “Doesn’t the Bible compel us to do both?”
Such an impulse is both historical and also biblical. Thankfully, the Scriptures contain God’s good news of salvation and wisdom for every trial and triumph facing all people—including those who are black in America.