I picked up my copy of Reading While Black from the Pepperdine University bookstore when I was attending Harbor 2023 in May. Esau McCaulley was one of the lecturers and I was able to hear one of his presentations and have him sign my copy of his book (see picture)! I just recently finished it and I have wanted to get back into book reviews on my site for a while now. So Juneteenth felt like a good day to review this book and hit two birds with one stone (even if I ended up publishing it the day after!). Enjoy!
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As An Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. 167 pages. $22.00.
This book covers a lot of ground in a short amount of space. There are seven chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix “bonus track” chapter. The first chapter, “The South Got Somethin’ to Say: Making Space for Black Ecclesial Interpretation,” gives an overview of the space that McCaulley seeks to write from. He laments the attempts of both progressives and evangelicals to address the ways that race plays into Biblical exegesis and sets a path for a more middle ground. Fundamentally he claims that Black biblical interpretation has been and should still be all of the following (pg 21):
- Unapologetically canonical and theological
- Socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans
- willing to listen to the ways in which the scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns
- Willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing
- willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text
The remaining chapters effectively put into practice various instances of the black biblical interpretation outlined in the first chapter, focusing on various topics of interest to the author. The second chapter, for example, “Freedom is No Fear: The New Testament and a Theology of Policing,” explores a Biblical and Black response to the problem of fear of police officers among African American citizens. McCaulley illustrates why this matters to him personally by sharing a personal story about being unnecessarily being stopped and searched for drugs when he was 16. Drawing a parallel between ancient shoulders in Rome and modern police officers from Romans 13:1-2, he builds a case for a culture of policing that should enable people to live without fear.
Chapter three, “Tired Feed, Rested Souls: The New Testament and the Political Witness of the Church,” critiques the ways the usual discussion of the Church and politics center only two texts (1 Timothy 2:1-4 and Romans 13:1-7) and largely neglect or ignore all the others that might be relevant. He looks to Jesus and a broader selection of Pauline texts to argue for a political engagement that encourages believers to hope and work for a better world in the power of the God of Israel by modeling a better way of ordering societies.
Chapter four, “Reading While Black: The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice,” raises more sustained and nuanced critique of the right and the left. The right is critiqued for focusing on the salvation of the soul to the neglect of the body. The left is critiqued for saying that the Bible does not clearly address the needs of Black and Brown persons. McCaulley claims that to the contrary of both the Bible outlines basic principles and critiques of power that would equip Black Christians for flourishing in the United States.
Chapter five, “Black and Proud: The Bible and Black Identity,” argues that black identity is rooted in the Biblical witness. This chapter is mainly in response to groups that claim that Christianity is a white religion.
Chapter six, “What Shall We Do With This Rage?: The Bible and Black Anger,” addresses the issues of Black anger because of the gross injustices of the past. While some choose to deny religion all together because of the ways religions and scripture in particular have been used to oppress Black souls and bodies, McCaulley argues that the broad center of the great Christian tradition is not at fault, but a great resource to be used in the ongoing reconciliation efforts.
Chapter seven, “The Freedom of the Slaves: Pennington’s Triumph,” takes its cue from James Pennington’s question about whether the God he served supported slavery. The answer that McCaulley ultimately ends up with is “no!” He bases his answer on the model of Jesus who points back to God’s original creational purposes for the universe in contrast to his allowances for various realities because of human sin. The scriptural witness is viewed then as a resource for dismantling slavery.
This book is a wonderful resource in a world of rising tensions and caricatured portraits of the opposing side. McCaulley argues for and demonstrates the hard, nuanced work of Biblical exegesis from one’s social location. A few things are abundantly clear about McCaulley himself when reading this book: 1) he loves God, 2) he loves the church, 3) he loves the scriptures. Knowing that about McCaulley should hopefully excite one to read his work even as he addressed some complex and emotionally-charged hot-topics of our broader culture and how they relate to our exegesis of the Biblical text. This book is a superb example of encountering the texture of the text of God’s word. It is a book about the text and a particular context in which it is read. I highly recommend it to all.
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