"Reading While Black" by Esau McCaulley. A Review
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5486-8; September 2020; $20.00
On occasion I have had the pleasure of overhearing my adult children talking to others without their knowing I was around. It’s quite a humbling experience, and many times, encouraging to hear them owning the faith for themselves. Their interactions with the other person were not meant for my ears necessarily, which is what makes it even more meaningful. That’s very much the case with a new 208-page softback, “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope”. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, priest in the Anglican Church in North America, contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and host of The Disrupters podcast, is writing for a black audience that may be skeptical of Christianity and doubtful of the Bible: “This book then is not an apologetic attempting to explain away all the problematic parts of church history nor is it a defense of the entire Black Christian tradition. Instead it is an attempt to show that the instincts and habits of Black biblical interpretation can help us use the Bible to address the issues of the day” (23). To say that I was blessed to be allowed to overhear this conversation would be an understatement.
McCaulley gives readers seven thoughtful chapters that address his own personal struggles and that of many black Christians. The struggle “between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in the fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church, what I am calling Black ecclesial interpretation” (3). Therefore, the author is not floating some new idea, but simply articulating a practice that already exists (5). An approach that can be a remedy to the cynicism of those who doubt that the Bible has anything to say, and an approach that contends for hope (6). And hope is the melody playing through the entire volume.
To move readers along his stream of thought, McCaulley addresses several subjects that may resonate with African Americans, and especially black Christians. He launches out tackling the tricky subject of policing. The author draws from Scripture, challenges a few preconceptions, and builds a beautiful case for a healthy perspective for policing that creates “an atmosphere in which people are able to live without fear” (45). With all of the calls and demands for defunding or disbanding the police in the present, I found this chapter well thought out and helpful.
Then the topics of the political witness of the church and our pursuit of justice are brought forth. McCaulley is clear about the limits of political witness, and gives a solid caution several times: “This does not mean that a Christian cannot protest injustice, it means that we cannot claim God’s justification for violent revolution” (51). He also sees clearly how our politicians often play on our desires for God’s justice to prevail in the here-and-now “by convincing us that utopia is possible here and they alone can provide it” (65). He further reminds readers that though we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we cannot be deluded into thinking that we can establish God’s kingdom on earth. Instead “we see society for what it is: less than the kingdom.” Therefore, our public witness lets the world know “that we see the cracks in the façade” (68).
And yet, we do hunger and thirst for righteousness, recognizing that God values the undervalued. We hear Jesus reading Isaiah 61:1 in the synagogue (Luke 4) and come to affirm that Jesus tells “Black Christians that neither slavery nor Jim Crow nor housing discrimination, nor loan discrimination nor any other weapon influences God’s love for them. In fact, it is just the opposite. God displays his glory precisely in rejecting the value systems posed by the world.” This means that the impoverished are still given the value of being moral agents by Jesus whom he calls to repent since the poor are capable of sin and repentance, and poverty doesn’t remove their agency (93).
Next, McCaulley attractively displays the presence of Africans in the New Testament, and earlier Christianity, showing how it is not a White Man’s religion, but Africans were in on the ground floor. More, he addresses Black Rage from the Scriptures pointing out the value of the Psalms in giving voice and wording for the prayers of the oppressed, but also how the resurrection gives us hope because it “requires us to believe that nothing is impossible” (134). And finally, he lands on that “peculiar institution” – slavery. Without giving away this all-important chapter, I will say the author handles Scripture well, makes vital observations, and ends in a place that led me to say “Amen!”
There were numerous themes running through the book that I found corrective and beneficial. Hope, of course, is the number one tune. But another that was richly encouraged, was how ethnicity is not a hinderance to God’s world rescue operation, but an integral part of it. Therefore, one “might be tempted to say that the place of all ethnicities in the kingdom of God is a bright red line running right down the middle of the New Testament” (77). The truth of this assertion displays the magnitude of the book, and why it matters, and why it should matter to us.
“Reading While Black” is a conversation between the author and African American readers, but is open for others to listen in. I was apprehensive when I picked up the book, unsure of what was coming and where he would go, but I’m glad I got to eavesdrop because it was a wholesome presentation. I applaud the author and his work and encourage anyone serious about justice, race, and our Christian faith to snag a copy and snoop around the corner to overhear what he is saying. I highly recommend the book.
I’m pleased that IVP Academic responded to my request for a copy to review and sent it. They made no demands or dictates other than that I be honest in my assessment. And so, honestly, this is all my analysis freely made and freely given.