Why White Christians Should Read Easu McCaulley's "Reading While Black"


This morning I finished Esau McCaulley's rich and helpful book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an
Exercise in Hope
(InterVarsity Press). Dr. McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and his book was recently selected by Christianity Today as "The Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year" (for 2021).

The book not only deals with reading the Scripture from a Black historical perspective, but it uses that hermeneutical lens to tackle a number of critical contemporary questions. There are chapters devoted to each of the following questions:

  • Does the Bible have a word to say about the creation of a just society in which Black people can flourish free of oppression?
  • Does the Bible speak to the issue of policing - that constant source of fear in the Black community?
  • Does the Bible provide us with the warrant to protest injustice when we encounter it?
  • Does the Bible value our ethnic identity? Does God love our blackness?
  • What shall we do about the pain and rage that comes with being Black in this country?
  • What about slavery? Did the God of the Bible sanction what happened to us?

Each of these chapters are really well done. They are rich and thoughtful, yet they are written at a level accessible to most readers and they invite healthy, constructive conversations to come out of them.

There are lots of reasons why every person of faith would be edified by reading this text. However, let me just mention two reasons why many of my white sisters and brothers might want to wrestle with a book on African American readings of the Scriptures.

First, in paying attention to Black readings of the Bible, it not only helps all of us to hear the texts in a new way, but it makes those of us from majority cultures aware of our own lenses of interpretation. As McCaulley writes, "...everybody has been reading the Bible from their locations, but we are honest about it" (p. 20). What gives the African American reading of Scripture such power is that it reads the Scripture from the same social location of hostility, marginalization, and oppression from which the texts emerged and to which the voices of the Bible speak. Social location matters in our interpretation, and if we are not careful, our social location can cloud the Truth the gospel reveals. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, McCaulley writes,

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. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God. This is what we see in Satan's use of Scripture in the wilderness. The problem isn't that the Scriptures that Satan quoted were untrue, but when made to do the work that he wanted them to do, they distorted the biblical witness. This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited (p. 91).

It isn't that a Black reading of the Bible avoids having its own particular lens (nor is that reading monolithic). None of us can fully escape our lenses. However, the similarity of social locations between the African American community's history of enslavement and discrimination and the history of oppressed Israel offers a reading of Scripture - in particular an understanding of the liberating character of God - that resonates more truthfully to the transformative intent of God's Word than readings that are shaped from social locations of power (and the desire for that power to be retained).

Second, it helps us pay attention to the potentially transformative nature of the Bible both historically and in the present. One of the things that has happened, in part because the Bible has too often been used in the hands of authorities to fight for maintaining the status quo, is that the Scripture is often viewed in the culture as a continuing source of oppression. Tragically (and ironically), the same Bible that is and was the primary source leading to not only the abolition of slavery but the elevation of the dignity of all people, is also the source often used by others to justify slavery and it inhumane atrocities. That has led to a cultural moment where not only the Bible but Christianity is often viewed not as a source of life and liberation for people, but rather as part of the oppressive problem that needs to be overthrown.

As McCaulley acknowledges early in the book, this tension over the Bible itself often put him in an awkward and unfortunate position, as a young Black scholar, of having to choose between progressives working for justice while essentially setting aside the authority of the Bible, and those on the other side who held to the authority of the Bible but also used it as a way of maintaining forms of inequity. As he put it, "In my professor's attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christian of the rock on which they stood" (p. 8). What McCaulley and a Black hermeneutic rightly offers the church is a way of taking the authority of the Word (and the nature of the God we meet there) seriously, and allowing the Bible itself to be the source of the work of justice and liberation. This is a perspective the whole church desperately needs.


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Scott Daniels

I'm pastor of Nampa College Church of the Nazarene and Pastoral Scholar in Residence at Northwest Nazarene University. Debbie and I have been married for almost 30 years and we have four children Caleb, Noah, Jonah, and Sophie - and two daughters-in-law Melanie and Kerri.

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