Book Review: Reading While Black

“These are the stories of a God who fights for us and against the enemies of his people. These are the stories of a God who turns his compassionate eye toward those whom society forgets. […] But if our voices are silenced, Scripture will still speak.”

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Esau McCaulley is the kind of scholar I’d love to hang out with. He’s intelligent, attuned to current events, and highly engaged with his discipline of New Testament scholarship. But best of all…he’s fun! Following McCaulley on Twitter the last couple of years has been a joy. One moment McCaulley could be geeking out about a Bible commentary, and the next about music or sports or food or his kids. This man deeply believes that Lebron James is the #GOAT and he’s got the stats to back it up!! (I admit, he’s pretty convincing) AND he just announced he’s writing a children’s Bible! We really do love to see it, friends.

But what I admire perhaps the most about McCaulley is that he is unapologetically himself—he is unapologetically Black. McCaulley has spoken out on a number of issues in the New York Times, writing articles like “What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger,” a powerful essay on what the Psalms have to say about the rage of the oppressed. Time and time again, McCaulley has written articles and spoken out about topics that have brought him criticism, disrespect, and a fair number Twitter trolls. In January, I tweeted at him and another Anglican priest/author I like, Tish Harrison Warren:

I meant those words! It has been one of the greatest lessons of young adulthood to see disciples of Christ speaking the Truth publicly and in costly ways, knowing what awaits them. I am humbled and provoked, invigorated and inspired.

In Reading While Black, McCaulley continues to be himself, writing a book unlike anything I’ve ever read—a book that is intelligent and attuned to current events and high engaged with historical research, but also a book that feels deeply personal and because it is so, very affecting. This is a book about African American Biblical Interpretation as an act of hope, but it is also about McCaulley’s life and work and joy as an act of hope, too. It was moving to read McCaulley’s work and to witness his charitable nature on Twitter before, but reading his stories of what it really means to be Black in America and in the church as told in the book made me realize how much McCaulley really is filled with the hope of Christ. This is a man who refuses to let rightful anger fester into bitterness against the church, against white people, against the hope that the Bible promises believers. McCaulley’s joy is no longer just a trait that endears me to him, it is something that points directly to his hope in the Gospel.

I am admittedly one of those white readers out there who has had very little exposure to Biblical commentary and perspectives written by Black people. Some of this is my own laziness and failure to seek out diverse sources, but I also had to take a moment of pause when McCaulley pointed out some of the reasons the American church in particular has a lack of Black scholarship.

“Euro-American scholars, ministers, and lay folk . . . have, over the centuries, used their economic, academic, religious, and political dominance to create the illusion that the Bible, read through their experience, is the Bible read correctly. Stated differently, everybody has been reading the Bible from their locations, but [African Americans] are honest about it.”

Reading While Black is full of moments like this: moments where I realized how comfortable I got with ideas and systems that were ultimately ignoring a lot AND misrepresenting the power and grace of Gospel along the way. An excerpt summarizing the book says this better than I could:

“At a time in which some within the African American community are questioning the place of the Christian faith in the struggle for justice, New Testament scholar McCaulley argues that reading Scripture from the perspective of Black church tradition is invaluable for connecting with a rich faith history and addressing the urgent issues of our times. He advocates for a model of interpretation that involves an ongoing conversation between the collective Black experience and the Bible, in which the particular questions coming out of Black communities are given pride of place and the Bible is given space to respond by affirming, challenging, and, at times, reshaping Black concerns. McCaulley demonstrates this model with studies on how Scripture speaks to topics often overlooked by white interpreters, such as ethnicity, political protest, policing, and slavery. Ultimately McCaulley calls the church to a dynamic theological engagement with Scripture, in which Christians of diverse backgrounds dialogue with their own social location as well as the cultures of others. Reading While Black moves the conversation forward.”

The chapters in the book cover topics like the Bible and policing, the Bible and politics, the Bible and slavery, Black identity, and Black rage. What made the book so affecting was not only McCaulley’s extensive research and presentation of historical context to these different topics, but his commitment to constantly return to the Bible, to God’s voice, to the Gospel. I really like how Heather Strong Moore put it in her review of this book on Mockingbird:

“When we only want to read the Bible through one lens, we make God small by recreating him in our own image. This does not mean that the Bible should mean whatever any given reader wants it to mean. McCaulley is not espousing an absolute pluralism that urges us all to just “live our truth.” Nor does it mean that the Bible has only a mono-cultural application or that our culture has no bearing on how the Good News can resonate. Rather, we affirm the goodness and glory of God when we read scripture as a global community.”

Ultimately, I loved this book because it showed me, very clearly, that the God I call Father truly does care. He cares about justice, dignity, peace, community, truth, joy, and hope. He cares about the angry, the bitter, the oppressed, the cast off, the enslaved, and the lynched. He cares that we see the complexity of his creation, to see the intention of diversity as a manifestation of his creativity and power. As McCaulley reflects in the book:

“God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God.”

I would recommend Reading While Black to anyone. It is deeply moving, and best read with a pencil and notebook in hand. The discussion questions at the end would be great to use if studying this in a group, which would also be a highly valuable experience, I imagine! McCaulley has a number of articles out there on Christianity Today as well that can get you started if you’re not ready to commit to a book, or you can listen to his AMAZING podcast called The Disrupters. I really loved his second interview with Jasmine Holmes, but all of the episodes are really great.

This book is going to teach you a lot. Some of it is hard, and will make you feel embarrassed that you didn’t know, or just didn’t care to know. Do not turn away from this discomfort. Keep reading.

“Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness.”

I’ll close with a quote that I hope will stir something inside of you, as it did for me.

“When we finally meet our savior, we do not come to him as a faceless horde, but as transformed believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation. When the Black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home.” 

Thank you Esau, for helping us all along the way. It’s an honor to be part of this Kingdom project with you at the same time.

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