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An Exercise In Hope For All

Review of 'Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope' by Esau McCaulley.

Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. He has served in a number of professional and cultural contexts throughout his academic and ministerial careers. Rev. McCaulley’s ecclesiastical experiences include being a pastor at All Souls Episcopal/Anglican Church in Okinawa, Japan, an assistant to the pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, and the assisting priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Andrews, Scotland. Furthermore, Dr. McCaulley completed his Ph.D. work in New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, under the guidance of N.T. Wright. Dr. McCaulley’s research and writing are primarily focused on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of justice. Dr. McCaulley has also been a prominent contributor in popular outlets, such as Christianity Today, The Washington Post, and The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. It is undoubtedly clear that Rev. Dr. McCaulley comes with rich experiences. His voice is well worth our attention and consideration.

The heart of Dr. McCaulley’s most recent publication, Reading While Black, lies in the conversations between the Bible and the pertinent concerns or issues surrounding the Black community in the USA. The question that the book repeatedly explores from various angles is: What does the Bible have to say about the Black experience, in its entirety, in the USA? Recent years have witnessed a significant rise in racial tensions with the African American community. Although this is not a new phenomenon, 2015-2016 saw an increase in the push-back against Black freedom. In light of the challenges that the Black community faced and continues to face even today, Reading While Black offers the compelling response of a Black Christian scholar. Dr. McCaulley’s contribution is timely, coming during a critical moment when a biblically shaped voice needed to speak loudly into the African American reality. In fact, this has always been a need that has often gone unmet.

Reading While Black, then, is Dr. McCaulley’s acknowledgement that biblical scholarship ought to be relevant to Black people. The book is a dynamic guide that brings together McCaulley’s robust biblical study, diverse personal experiences, and the real concerns of the African American community. Drawing upon biblical truths, the book provides a framework of profound hope to a community of people in a time of adversity. Dr. McCaulley’s desire is to remind the Black community, and by extension all his readers, that the Christian faith is a source of amazing unmatched hope. It affirms that African American people, and by extension all people, are bearers of God’s image. As such, they hold the privilege of being God’s children. Points made and themes explored are carefully steeped in the Bible. Every chapter of the book, while maintaining relevance to the contemporary African American community, carries deep resonance with Black history and pays close attention to key Black voices. Dr. McCaulley is fearless in welcoming his readers into an honest theological engagement throughout the book. With all its depth, the book remains simple and accessible. Though especially encouraging for the Black community, the book is an exceptional resource and a meaningful read for all.

FAITH OF OUR ANCESTORS

The seven chapters of the book are meticulous and sharp. Dr. McCaulley begins by establishing Black biblical interpretation as a trustworthy means of approaching and encountering Scripture. McCaulley affirms that “for Black Christians the very process of interpreting the Bible can function as an exercise in hope and connect us to the faith of our ancestors.” Dr. McCaulley then goes on to write six chapters that tackle the various facets of the Black experience: a theology of policing, the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, Black identity, Black anger, and Black freedom. Each chapter comes drenched in the New Testament. Dr. McCaulley’s approaches, analyses, and conclusions are vigorously and completely dependent on Scripture.

In addition to being biblically sound and hope-inspiring, the pages of the book are laced with raw questions directed at God. At no point does Dr. McCaulley shy away from boldly approaching God with the tough questions that permeate lives in the Black community. However, this is not done arrogantly or flippantly. Rather, the book’s audacity is courageous and humble. From page one, it is undeniably clear that the questioning is the result of fierce faith. The book presents the whole-hearted belief that the Bible does speak into the Black reality and the Bible’s words are ones of hope. It is the very same hope that embraced the Israelites in their time of oppression and bondage. It is this hope that the book seeks to inspire in its readers. Echoing the voices of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., James W. C. Pennington, and others, McCaulley bends the Black community towards hope. Dr. McCaulley even regards the critics of Black Christianity with the same ardent hope. In these ways and plenty more, the book is at the mercy of Scripture. It is entirely at the foot of the cross and that is where readers will end up too.

McCaulley’s sixth chapter on Black anger is the most captivating portion of the portion of the book, titled “What Shall We Do with This Rage?” For instance, Dr. McCaulley is unafraid to use the word “rage”, which is often followed by its own set of connotations when coming from a Black mouth. However, the question in the title is one that the book directs at God. Here, Dr. McCaulley breaks open Psalm 137. This is a Psalm that the Israelites in captivity conclude by praying the following: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” This is Israel’s prayer when in trauma. Similarly, reality for Black people is intertwined with such extensive trauma that even “Black children are taught strategies of survival that often come at the cost of their childhood or basic humanity.” Dr. McCaulley laments that “the history of Black people in this country is a litany of suffering.” However, Scripture passages like Psalm 137 allow for traumatized communities to tell God the truth about their feelings. God can handle these emotions, writes McCaulley. This genuine interaction with God births true forgiveness, restoration, and hope. This is true for African Americans who have been oppressed historically, and who are continually oppressed today.

It does not stop there. Biblical hope is for all. Reading While Black makes this extremely clear. In addition to the rich biblical and theological engagement presented by the book, or the thought-provoking questions that arise throughout, the hope that flows from the book makes Reading While Black an absolute must-read for all.

  • Sharon has just started a new role as the campus chaplain at the University of Northern British Columbia in July 2020.

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