“Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19, NIV)
“Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love for the ethnicities of the world.” (Reading While Black, p106)
For all the emphasis often placed on the Great Commission, the underlying message of “God’s love for the ethnicities of the world” has been repeatedly obscured throughout American church history as elements of the church have abetted or excused slavery, remained silent in the face of racism, and failed to take seriously the concerns and contributions of African Americans. How do we understand this history, and more importantly what do we need to understand to move forward? In Reading While Black (IVPress, 2020) Dr Esau McCaulley interweaves Biblical scholarship, theology, and his own story to demonstrate a Black ecclesial interpretation that speaks powerfully to all in today’s church. Dr McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and he uses his training in Biblical studies, his passion for history, and his own personal story to articulate a “Black ecclesial theology” that advocates both orthodoxy and justice.
By turns autobiographical, historical, and exegetical, this book makes for a compelling read. McCaulley tackles head-on the tension felt by African Americans who find the approaches of White evangelical, White progressive, and Black progressive Christians all ultimately inadequate. He also addresses the failings (and indeed hypocrisy) of evangelicalism which, in his words, have added to Bebbington’s four pillars of evangelicalism (conversionism, activism, Biblicism, crucicentrism) (p10) two more “unspoken fifth and sixth pillars” of “a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (p11).
For a White reader, the personal narrative is a compelling introduction into growing up Black. McCaulley tells of his first encounter with police racism during a gas stop while out on a Friday night with friends. Through passive compliance, the encounter ended well, but he “couldn’t help but reflect on how close I came to losing it all: the football scholarship, the path out of poverty, the chance to help my family . . . I had been briefly terrorized” (p28). For those who question the connection between systemic racism and personal responsibility, his first-person description of the rage that develops over a lifetime of accumulating racial slights, stereotypes, innuendos, and frustrations demonstrates clearly that the big-picture problems arise in no small part out of the accumulated traumas of daily racial discrimination.
As a Biblical scholar, McCaulley is also able to shed fascinating light on both the place of Africans in the Biblical story, and on an exegetical and interpretive approach to Scripture that accounts for the perspectives and concerns of African Americans. Observing that “Some still do not appreciate the African presence in the Bible…It remains a fact hiding in plain sight” (p176), he points to the work of scholars such as Charles Copher and Cain Felder who have argued that “from slaves to rulers, from court officials to authors who wrote parts of the Old Testament itself, from lawgivers to prophets, Black peoples and their lands and individual Black persons appear numerous times” (p176). In other words, he calls both skeptics across the board to see that the Gospel story is not something White have to give to others, rather it is a story that has been multi-ethnic (and specifically, inclusive of Africans) from the beginning. He also calls for a more holistic exegesis, using Jesus’ interpretive method (p141), seeking to understand Scripture not in terms of what is allowed, but fundamentally in terms of what God intended: “Jesus… suggests that the norms for Christian ethics are not the passages that are allowances for human sin, such as Moses’ divorce laws. What matters is what we were made to be. Jesus shows that not every passage of the Torah presents the ideal for human interactions. Instead some passages accept the world as broken and attempt to limit the damage that we do to one another.” (p141).
Those who would emphasize the importance of expositional preaching often argue that preaching is only expositional if it emphasizes word by word analysis of a text, and application from that. McCaulley’s book provides an excellent, if not directly stated, reminder that interpretation and preaching must rely on exposition that pays attention to the entire story. Word by word analysis can take passages out of context, with application based more on the situation at hand than on the overall Gospel story. McCaulley reminds us that exegesis cannot be simply a matter of a-historical exploration of individual texts, or even reading of individual passages in historical social context, rather exegesis must place each Old or New Testament story in appropriate context within the entire story-arc of the Bible, and must (seek to) understand the ways Scripture was interpreted by others within Scripture.
Perhaps one of the most powerful statements in the entire book is a small sentence buried in the middle. It is common for Christians to dismiss concerns, opinions, or approaches with which they disagree as being insufficiently Biblical, or perhaps not from a “Biblical worldview.” To that argument, Dr McCaulley replies, “The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible… The question is which does justice to as much of the Biblical witness as possible” (p91).
Reading While Black is not, in the end, just about Black Christianity, Black church history, or Black Biblical theology. Rather, it is a significant contribution to the larger Christian conversation over what it means to be the multi-ethnic body of Christ. All readers will profit from the personal stories, the history, and the Biblical insights in this book, and hopefully this book will contribute meaningfully to the larger witness of the Body of Christ:
“What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ.” (p22)