Review: Allen Callahan on Reading the Bible While Black

“Talking of reading critically,” warns clergyman, theologian, and biblical scholar Esau McCaulley, “is a slightly dangerous thing.” Indeed, in his new book of essays on biblical interpretation in our troubled and troubling times, Reading While Black, McCaulley writes of reading critically at a time when doing anything while Black can be dangerous.

McCaulley asserts that his “unapologetically Black and orthodox reading of the Bible can speak a relevant word to Black Christians today.” His method of reading Scripture, what he calls “Black ecclesial interpretation,” is informed by the “best instincts of the Black church tradition.” Historically, African Americans first encountered the Bible as strangers in a strange land of slavery: it was through the Great Awakening of the 1720s through 1740s that African Americans were converted in large numbers to Evangelical Christianity, but what Frederick Douglass would call “the color line” would split Evangelical religion into a conservative white mainstream and a critical, anti-racist Black counter-current, and the two profoundly different streams came to read differently the Bible that both revere to this day.

It is the Black Evangelical tradition to which McCaulley appeals. Or so it would appear. As a proud son of the Black Belt South, McCaulley’s cultural ties to the Black church tradition are unquestionable. Yet McCaulley himself is not ordained in any of the historic Black denominations that were founded by Black people and for Black people in a church as segregated as other American institutions; he does not teach in any of their seminaries, and does not serve in any of their congregations. His institutional ties—his mentors, his employers, his publishers—suggest that it is the conservative Evangelical mainstream that is the stronger current in his reading, with consequences for its implications.

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We see the pull of this stronger current in McCaulley’s essay on policing, in which he claims that the Apostle Paul’s call in Romans 13:1-7 to regard state violence as divinely ordained is “much maligned and misunderstood.” (I wrote about Romans 13 and its role in political repression for Book Post last July.) Criticism of Paul’s injunction that “slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters … as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5) is dismissed by McCaulley as misplaced emphasis: “Few would argue that Paul’s thoughts on slavery stand at the center of his theological world.” And yet throughout his letters Paul refers to himself and to his addressees as slaves, and even refers to Christ as a slave: slavery is important if not central in Paul’s worldview, and Paul’s infamous exhortation has given aid and comfort to Christian apologists for oppression from the Apostle’s day to our own. Much is at stake here, because racial violence in America from slavery to the present has been undergirded by Biblical and theological justifications. There is little in McCaulley’s approach to reading of the Bible that promises an alternative to that violent legacy. 

In his essay on Black rage, McCaulley asks, “What do Black Christians do with the rage that we rightly feel?” His answer: “We send it to the cross of Christ.” What, exactly, does it mean for Black Christians to send their rage “to the cross of Christ”? Across the country—in Portland, Oregon, in Washington, D.C., in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Lexington, Kentucky, and elsewhere—we have seen Black Christians (and others) send their rage not to the cross, but to the streets, in the insurgent spirit that animated both the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth. Yet McCaulley draws on neither of these venerable traditions of politically organized, biblically articulated moral outrage. Are these movements not informed by the “best instincts of the Black church tradition”? Might they not “speak a relevant word to Black Christians“ in the twenty-first century?

In his introductory essay, McCaulley says that he is not “proposing a new idea or method but attempting to articulate and apply a practice that already exists.” And that’s too bad. This moment warrants, among other things, that people who still read the Bible draw deeply from its hallowed wells of language and imagery for fresh draughts of truth. We could use something new like that right about now. 

Allen Callahan is the author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, among other books.

Book notes
Spectrum news in LA reported on a nonprofit mobile Santa Ana bookstore, LibroMobile, that is using Cares Act funds to hang on, sell online, and continue to give away books in Spanish to children and teens although the store is closed to foot traffic to protect its workers. LibroMobile operates out of a Santa Ana storefront and street carts designed to recall Santa Ana’s traditional paletero carts or fruit vendors, making bookselling and Spanish literary culture both visible and approachable on the streets of Santa Ana. In normal times, LibroMobile also sponsors “do-it-yourself/do-it-together” MFA and mentoring programs, using profits (when they have them) to employ youth and emerging artists and provide stipends to guest artists and visiting writers. Said employee Selena Pineda, the eldest daughter from an immigrant family, of life before she encountered LibroMobile, “I could see there were a lot of books, but not a lot of books about people like me.”  “People assume that people from underserved communities don’t read and that is so not true," founder Sarah Rafael Garcia told Spectrum. “I grew up reading and my parents didn’t have a high school education. Those stereotypes are just perpetuated, but nobody asks what the community actually wants.” Garcia credits the CARES Act funds with the store’s survival. We posted last year about the work being done by Spanish-language bookstores around the country to nourish reading and community life.

This week we lost a revered figure from the intersection of Spanish- and English-speaking American literature in Miguel Algarín, poet and founder in the 1970s of lower Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets’ Café, who died last week at seventy-nine. Fellow Cafe founder and poet Ed Morales recalled in The New York Times that Algarín popularized the term Nuyorican “to describe the bilingual, bicultural reboot of Puerto Rican-ness blossoming in the neighborhoods of New York.” Moving from Algarin’s apartment to an Irish bar, to a tenement-performance space of their own, the Nuyorican poets embraced a declamatory, demotic style and forms of live improvisation and competition (the “poetry slam”) that became a germ of hip hop and modern spoken-word theater. Morales described the sensibility Algarín forged as merging “the highbrow culture of his working-class parents with a Rabelaisian Everyman rebellion from below.” When Morales nervously shared his work with Algarín for the first time, he found that his mentor’s “first lesson was about breathing and performance, when I had expected a line-edit.” “His brash street edge,” wrote Morales, “is now at rest alongside his gentle love for his people.”

When I almost accidentally moved into the lower east side in the mid-eighties, the Nuyorican Poets Café, along with the literary magazine “Between C & D,” printed on computer paper and arriving in a ziploc bag, and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on the corner of Avenue A and 7th, were the coolest things, coming out of a neighborhood where the graffiti and the roof parties and street life were still the living edge of a literature in motion. How will literature remember our time of solitude, I wonder.

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