The recipient of Christianity Today’s 2021 Book of the Year award, Reading While Black, enters the Social Justice/woke debates via hermeneutics. Esau McCaulley, a Black priest in the Anglican church and professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, contends that Black Christians often approach and interpret Scripture differently from others due to their lived experience. While the statements of faith found in Black denominations are largely orthodox in theology, nonetheless Black theologians often find themselves “thrust into the middle of a battle between white progressives and white evangelicals” and not fully at home in African American progressive circles (p. 5). McCaulley recognizes and promotes a fourth “thing” he calls, “Black ecclesial interpretation (BEI).” It is this fourth thing the author wants to explain and promote (p. 5).

While acknowledging that the Word of God gets the final word, the author writes, “What makes Black interpretations Black, then, are the collective experiences, customs, and habits of Black people in this country” (p. 20). What McCaulley is suggesting is multi-cultural interpretations of Scripture: “What I have in mind then is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (p. 22). According to him, we need the various cultural interpretations because the experiences of different cultural groups bring unique insights into the conversation, which is why African American exegesis is vital (p. 22). The goal of the book, then, is to demonstrate and embody the Black ecclesial interpretative model (p. 22). This thesis leads to both helpful insights and serious dangers. First, the insights.

McCaulley interacts with key biblical texts such as Romans 13:1-7 (pp. 28-41) from which he draws that God’s prohibition against resistance to governmental leaders is not absolute, that God uses human agents to take down corrupt governments (pp. 31-32), and that Paul is presenting in this text not a reality concerning human government but an ideal (p. 40). He insists, from this passage and others, that Christians can protest injustice – but not through violent revolution (p. 51). The author rightly confirms that Christianity is not a European construct (p. 97), that Blacks play important roles in the Old Testament as well as the New (pp. 101-112), and that ethnic identity is a good thing (p. 112). Addressing Black rage, he is too quick to place the bulk of the blame on whites (p. 120) but correctly states, “The beginning of the answer to Black anger is the knowledge that God hears and sees our pain” (p. 127), that Christ enters our suffering as a friend and redeemer (p. 130), that Christ’s act of mercy gives us resources to forgive, and that rage should be sent to the cross (p. 131).

McCaulley admits that the Bible does not legislate slavery out of existence but does makes it unimaginable (p. 139), and that God created a people who could demantle slavery: “The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation” (pp. 141-142). While Scripture does not call for the end of slavery the Old Testament made numerous provisions to limit its sinfulness and plant seeds for it to be abolished (pp. 144-155). Paul followed suit in his letter to Philemon and in his instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, and 1 Timothy 6:1-3 (pp.151-162).

While there is much of value mentioned above, all is not well. We can begin with unfounded and unproven accusations, and refusing to mention vast improvements regarding racism in America over the last 60 years. McCaulley accuses the government, without documentation, of crafting laws to disenfranchise Black people (p. 31), of police abuse based not on facts but experience (p. 41), and paints a picture of passive, innocent Blacks being preyed upon by government and police. However, he never addresses the violent crime, drug abuse, and family breakdown found in the Black community (pp. 42-46). He also vilifies the United States because of housing discrimination, unequal prison sentences, and abuse of Black women and, while presenting no evidence or examples, casts Blacks as victims (pp. 68-72). It is unfortunate at best that in presentations, Christian or otherwise, which discuss the very real concerns of Blacks, little is mentioned of Blacks’ responsibility. Nothing concerning how Blacks can take advantage of the vast opportunities afforded them and make significant improvements is identified. Instead, victimhood is stressed and whites are the oppressors. In this reviewer’s opinion, until some balance is found in this discussion, little progress will be made.

Turning next to the actual thesis of the book, that there exists a Black hermeneutical approach to Scripture, distinct from other ethnic groups, which stems from lived experience. What Black ecclesial interpretation looks like is best illustrated by the author’s suggested interpretation of various accounts and texts in Scripture. Where McCaulley’s Black ecclesial interpretation is used, literal/grammatical hermeneutics is replaced, or at least modified. Here is a sampling:

In addition to McCaulley’s exegesis shaped by BEI, there are several larger, errant themes laced throughout Reading While Black.

Reading While Black offers a moderate, well-reasoned, and useful understanding of the Black church and its hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Portions are insightful, but the work is riddled with flaws stemming from the concept that it is legitimate to interpret Scripture on the basis of experience, ethnic and historic background, or culture. To take this approach bypasses authorial intent and substitutes subjective exegesis, resulting in finding in the Bible what one wants to find. By doing so, the authority of Scripture is diluted and the authority of experience reigns supreme.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.

by Esau McCaulley (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2020) 198 pp., paper., $16.26

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