“Black people are not dark-skinned White people.”
This was a mantra used over and over again by Tom Burrell, the first Black man to work in advertising in Chicago. He began his career in 1961 when all advertising was targeted at White consumers. As the field began to realize the potential market of appealing to Black consumers, initially the strategy was to make the exact same ads but with Black models/actors. The assumption was that the things that speak to and motivate White people are universal. But Burrell knew that Black culture was a unique expression, the ads that captured White consumers would not connect with Black consumers in the same way. He revolutionized his industry by tapping into his own experience and perspective and translating that into marketing products in a way that reflected his culture and his context.
The belief that the White experience is universal is not limited to advertising. This attitude has pervaded American society, and the Church has not been immune. In my own experience at least, the Bible is typically interpreted through the lens of White culture, nearly always by White men. These interpretations and emphases are perceived to simply be “normal” and universally applicable. Rather than acknowledging that we all bring the lens of our historical/cultural moment to scripture and that is a normal aspect of the human experience, we have assumed that what stands out to us and resonates with us is the only way to understand the Bible. This at best limits the impact of God’s Word to speak, and at worst leads to misinterpretations that have contributed to gross injustice throughout history. It has the potential to foster idolatry. To put ourselves at the center of the story and to believe that the world revolves around us is an idol that has tempted humanity from the beginning. This has played out all too often in our reading and application of scripture, to the exclusion of our brothers and sisters in our communities and around the world.
This is what makes Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, particularly timely. Dr. McCaulley is an ordained Anglican priest, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and an Opinion writer for The New York Times. He is well-qualified to write a book about Biblical exegesis but Reading While Black is much more than a scholarly endeavor. The book is motivated by a deep desire to let the Bible speak, and a deep belief that all of God’s children may see themselves reflected in God’s story.
Reading While Black begins with a portion of Dr. McCaulley’s own story. He grew up in a Black conservative tradition, and then was educated in institutions that pulled him in different directions. Like many Black Christians and theologians, he sensed a disconnect between his lived experience and the ways the Bible was presented. It often felt like he either needed to view the Bible as a story about only the salvation of souls, or reject it as a tool of destruction that could have no bearing on the pursuit of modern justice. He sensed that there must be more than these two stark choices. It is this hope and belief that drives the rest of the book.
Each chapter seeks to address the struggles and unique experiences of the Black community by honoring the Biblical text in its fullness. The chapters range from topics such as the Bible and policing, the Bible and politics, the Bible and slavery, Black identity, and Black rage. The chapters dive deep into scripture and historical context, not doing hermeneutical backflips to arrive at a desired interpretation, but genuinely seeking God’s voice. Dr. McCaulley effectively shows that where the Bible has failed to come alive for marginalized communities, it has been a failure of emphasis and not a failure of presence. The Bible is more than able to speak on its own in powerful and heartening ways when we allow it to do so. Reading While Black is a profound illustration of the truth that the Bible is indeed alive and active, able to transcend culture and time to connect with and guide all of God’s people.
For BIPOC readers, I believe you will find tremendous affirmation and love in these pages. Where you have struggled to believe that God’s love is equally extended to you, where you have read passages about slavery and been filled with anger and confusion, where you have wondered if Christianity really is a White man’s religion, this book may be a healing balm. It is not filled with easy platitudes or interpretive avoidance; it is filled with hard-won truth that will speak to your soul. I hope it will strengthen your faith and renew your heart in ways you may not have thought possible.
For White readers, parts of this book will feel strange and confusing. It will reveal to you the ways that we have been unknowingly conditioned to view ourselves as the heroes of the story. The ways where our teaching has assumed that Black and Brown people are just White people in different skin. Pay attention to what makes you feel uncomfortable or what makes you want to push back and question. There were junctures where I felt defensive or wanted to doubt the conclusions in the book. After self-reflection, I believe this was because I was not used to being a guest in the reading of scripture. So I hope you will come with an attitude of generosity and humility, ready to rejoice with your brothers and sisters in the way that the Gospel of Christ can resonate in ways you were not imagining.
When we only want to read the Bible through one lens, we make God small. This does not mean that the Bible should mean whatever any given reader wants it to mean. Dr. McCaulley is not urging us all to just live our truth. But nor does it mean that the Bible has only a monocultural 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 the scripture as a global community. We serve a Risen Lord who is able to embody timeless and universal truth that can also come alive in specific ways. Seeing the ways that the Bible applies to each of our lives enables us to better understand a vast Savior. Reading this book for me was a beautiful experience which prompted me to praise God more joyfully because He is the God Who Sees, Emmanuel who joins with all of His children more intimately than I could ever realize on my own. Please read this book. See yourself in God’s story. See your neighbor in God’s story. Be reminded that we serve a Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and in Whom all things hold together.
Reading While Black is available Sept 1, consider ordering from this terrific independent bookstore Hearts and Minds Bookstore