Reading While Black – Esau McCaulley

Reading While Black Esau McCaulley
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley
Also by this author: Josey Johnson's Hair and the Holy Spirit
Published by IVP Academic on September 1, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Theology, Racial Reconciliation
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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. He advocates for a model of interpretation that involves an ongoing conversation between the collective Black experience and the Bible, in which the particular questions coming out of Black communities are given pride of place and the Bible is given space to respond by affirming, challenging, and, at times, reshaping Black concerns. McCaulley demonstrates this model with studies on how Scripture speaks to topics often overlooked by white interpreters, such as ethnicity, political protest, policing, and slavery. Ultimately McCaulley calls the church to a dynamic theological engagement with Scripture, in which Christians of diverse backgrounds dialogue with their own social location as well as the cultures of others. Reading While Black moves the conversation forward.

Reading While Black had been on my radar for quite some time and it’s to my regret that I didn’t pick this one up earlier. While the book is hardly the first to mix exegetical, historical, and personal reflection of a Black author amidst the backdrop of a racialized culture, McCaulley’s might be the first to come from within the evangelical subculture that has a primary focus on theology. I can look to Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise or How to Fight Racism as examples from the historical/sociological perspective or Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here from a personal perspective of memoir, but theologically I can’t say that I’ve seen a title like this coming out of the Evangelical perspective.

I mean, you have Black theologians like James Cone or Cain Hope Felder, sociologists like Cornel West, and memoirists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, but those individuals usually aren’t seen as “safe” within the evangelical perspective. Even MLK gets his Black theology whitewashed to a point that he would hardly recognize it. Esau McCaulley might be the gateway drug to these more radical and robust perspectives, a better contextualized voice for his evangelical audience. I don’t know if McCaulley would agree completely with that, as he might feel that those individuals go too far in some of their thinking. In any case Reading While Black serves as thorough and thoughtful introduction to a more-conservative version of Black theology that has rightfully captured the minds of its evangelical audience.

In sum, McCaulley advocates for a model of biblical interpretation that involves ongoing reflection between the collective Black experience and Scripture. He invites readers to see the text as Black people and shows readers how our experiences and backgrounds affect what we take from Scripture. This isn’t some sort of pick-and-choose theology that makes it up based on what it likes, but a theology that reminds us that what we bring to the text often affects what we take away from it. Black theology has a focus on lament and exodus because the years of chattel slavery find a direct connection to slavery in Egypt. White theology, conversely, often lies in a theology of celebration and thus has a different perspective on the Exodus story. It’s not necessarily about a good interpretation or a bad interpretation, it’s about focus. McCaulley demonstrates this model by showing how Scripture speaks to topics often overlooked by white interpreters, such as ethnicity, political protest, policing, and slavery.

Having developed this concept of Black Ecclesial Interpretation, McCaulley then turns readers toward the practical outworking of that type of reading. He also highlights the damage done by blatant white misreading and misapplication of Scripture, particularly the “slave” passages of Paul. Reading While Black firmly makes the case that Christianity is not the white man’s religion—as it can be sometimes portrayed—but speaks to Black issues in a very clear and robust manner. (And let’s the honest, often more clearly and robustly than many white issues.)

Overall, McCaulley teaches readers to read Scripture as early African Americans did:

  • socially located, seeking to understand what it means to be Black and Christian
  • theological, using the Word of God to speak to pressing cultural issues
  • canonical, examining difficult texts in light of Scripture as a whole
  • patient, trusting that being faithful will reap blessing

Despite some of its academic overtures, I actually found Reading While Black to be very foundational and accessible. I had been expecting a bit more depth to the book, but I’m not sure I mean that as a criticism. Most white people haven’t ever really engaged with the ideas he’s laying out, so it’s necessary to start slow. And that slow start has reaped rewards as the book has won awards and been a major topic of conversation in the evangelical world even now four months after its release. Far be it from me to tell McCaulley what to do, but I’d love to see a follow-up book that does a deeper dive into some of these major issues and go beyond the cursory glance it gets here.

It’s a powerful book, a needed primer for white evangelical Christians to better understand their Black brothers and sisters. It’s a clarion call for Black Christians to stand against the whitewashing of the faith and stand firm in their cultural traditions even if they choose to not be part of a historically Black denomination. And I think there’s also a message for Black nonbelievers that Christianity as is often presented in America isn’t the only perspective and that one can reconcile Evangelicalism with Blackness.