Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley — Book Review

by Patrice M. Wilson

For anyone wishing to celebrate Black History, during any month of the year, this book is essential and timely reading. McCaulley makes a sound argument for adding traditional African American discourse about the Bible, to the current conversations of Protestant progressives and evangelicals. We learn that he experienced the rift between white evangelicals and progressives as problematic, not only because of its divisive nature, but because it was irrelevant to his experience as a Black Christian who had been given a strongly biblical upbringing at home. He had intended to double major in religion and history, but dropped the former when he realized that this rift dominated the study of religion at the white college he attended, where Black biblical interpretations were ignored. The discourse of Black progressives, a fourth group, also failed to resonate with the author’s life as a Black Christian.

At the heart of the controversy between evangelicals and progressives, in McCaulley’s view, is the latter group’s tendency to water down the Bible in order for it to fit in with modern day issues. On the other hand, the mainstream evangelical side did not include the Church’s prophetic obligation to call out wrongdoing, which is derived directly from the Bible. In between is the Black tradition of standing strongly with the Bible on this point, and others regarding the Church’s role in the world. McCaulley does not recommend activism of the secular and possibly violent kind, but does encourage the Church to speak out in its pulpits against evil practices.

McCaulley’s seven chapters include a biblically based guide to more just practices of policing, treatments of the Church’s role in political witnessing and the pursuit of justice, Black identity and Black anger.

In that final chapter, we see how his Black Christian interpretations of the Bible enable him to be righteously angry at injustices, but also to will the good of the other in hoping for his conversion through the very fact that the injustice is spoken and brought to light. Both Old Testament and New Testament passages are illuminated by this writer’s interpretations of them, and the reader is exposed to a specifically Black and specifically Christian reading of the Bible.

I found the chapter on policing especially insightful, with a unique perspective on the Bible’s ability to offer realistic guidelines for policing in this day and age. The author was influenced when he was young by the Rodney King incident, which unfortunately has been repeated in a long series of policing violence, as in the more recently reported George Floyd case. It would be a great milestone in history if McCaulley’s suggestions in this chapter were realized.

As McCaulley says, the book is not meant to be innovative, but revelatory. Still, many of the observations seem to invite new ways of thinking and living as individuals, as a country, as a people. If you are a Christian of any kind, you will be edified by McCaulley’s clear, astute, and well-presented account of the Bible’s significance in African American lives in the past and in the present, with a hope for wider awareness of its significance to them, and with a hope for its more universal applications.

Born Catholic in Newark NJ, raised in Catholic schools, Patrice M. Wilson has a PhD in English from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, having earned her MA there and her BA at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was editor of the very fine Hawaii Pacific Review for 16 years while teaching at Hawaii Pacific University. She has three chapbooks of poetry with Finishing Line Press, and one full-length poetry collection with Christian publisher eLectio Publishing. Dr. Wilson recently spent five years in the cloistered Carmelite monastery in Kaneohe, HI. She is now a retired professor living in Mililani, Oahu, HI.

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