Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As An Exercise In Hope, by Esau McCulley
This book is not written for a reader like me. Sometimes this can be a bad thing, but in this case the fact that the book is not written for a reader like me is a very good thing. What this author did that is rare in books I have read that deal with matters of racial politics and identity is avoid a false dilemma between the desire for justice and a belief in the truth of the Bible. The author comments that this false dilemma often comes from the cultural politics of the Bible in the white churches (although it is no less a false dilemma there–God is just and His word is reliable and relevant to our behavior), and the author wrestles with the demands of God on believers that are particularly hard to the black experience, including the need to forgive so that one be forgiven. While I do not share the perspective of the author in a wide variety of ways, I can find no fault in an author who seeks to avoid false dilemmas and who wrestles with what God’s laws and ways mean to their own life and their own experiences. I am not sure that my praise would mean all that much in such a case, but this book earned my respect because of its honest wrestling and its taking of both God and history seriously.
This book is a relatively short one at a bit less than 200 pages. The author begins with acknowledgements and then moves to discuss the need to make space for black ecclesial interpretation (1), where the author wrestles with the false dilemmas that often exist between conservative and progressive interpretations of the Bible. The author then discusses the sensitive issue of policing while looking at the New Testament’s comments about the role of the roman army, a thoughtful and perceptive perspective (2). The author then deals with the question of the political witness of the church as it is recorded in the New Testament (3). After that comes a look at the pursuit of justice insofar as it relates to the black experience (4) as well as the Bible. This is followed by a chapter that looks at black identity, showing how the author can feel proud because of the African experience among early believers recorded in the scriptures (5). This is followed by a chapter that looks at black anger and the issue of forgiveness (6). The book then looks at the issue of freedom from slavery (7), concluding with an exercise in hope, along with an appendix that gives some notes on the development of black ecclesial interpretation (i), a discussion guide, bibliography, and two indices.
What I found most interesting about reading this book is that I respected the author most because of how seriously he took the Bible while the people who saw me read this book while I was eating dinner wished to praise me for being a progressive in being interested in matters of racial justice. It seems that there is a great disconnect between what this author is saying and what his message and perspective mean to an outside, white audience. This is a book written by a black man about the black Christian experience and how the Bible is immensely relevant, if complicated, to the black experience. I don’t think the author is writing for white audiences or particularly cares if this book is appreciated by whites, and I think that is for the better. The basic similarities in the style of close reading and seriousness in interpretation between the author and myself are not something that would come across as well if the author were directly aiming for white (and most likely Progressive) readers. And I suspect that if other people who take justice and the Bible seriously (and I know such people) read this book, I think they will be pleasantly surprised and pleased by the honest wrestling of the author with what the Bible means for the contemporary black church. I just wish more authors would adopt some of the approaches that this author does that make this book a far better book than I had any reason to expect it to be.