Reading While Black

Reviewing Esau McCaulley on African American biblical interpretation.

David Emmanuel Goatley
David Emmanuel Goatley is the Director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School and a Research Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies.

Black people often do not fit easily into popular Western European or North American paradigms. Widely accepted patterns of thought and being have for too long now been conceived and constructed by those who presume their particular worldviews to be normative for all. These worldviews, poisoned as they are by deeply sown assumptions of the inferiority, inability, and inadequacy of all those who do not conform neatly to the historically dominant culture’s expectations or aspirations, have a powerful influence on accepted modes of interpretation and application, biblical scholarship being no exception.

Black life and thought is polyrhythmic (using multiple rhythms simultaneously) and polyphonic (producing more than one tone at a time). Black people do not necessarily adhere to White melodies and metres, though they can if they so choose. Black people live in multiple worlds, contend with multiple realities, and negotiate multiple identities to thrive, or just survive.

Unfortunately, the majority of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and everyday laypeople formed by the dominant modes of biblical interpretation in North America don’t know how to interpret this agile symphony, if they hear it at all. Like fish unaware of the water in which they swim, a tremendous number of White leaders and authors remain ignorant of the lenses they wear, lenses colored by an assumption of privilege accrued from the implicit and explicit racist ideology implanted centuries ago and festering still. This obliviousness invariably leads to misunderstanding when Black people do not acquiesce to White definitions and descriptions. It is a misunderstanding that can quickly give birth to contempt and dismissal, denial and even death.

According to Esau D. McCaulley, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, “If Black biblical interpretation is to be free to chart its own path, it is also free to reject the thoroughgoing skepticism that stands as one legacy of the European dominance of biblical studies.” His new book, Reading While Black, articulates a Black ecclesial biblical interpretation that has something to say and can speak for itself.

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