In one sense I’ve been writing this book my whole life,” said Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley of his book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope during the Reading While Black and Reformed event. Redeemer’s assistant professor of religion and theology, Dr. Jessica Joustra, facilitated the virtual discussion on Jan. 27, 2021.
“As someone who grew up in a racialized South as an African American, I had to make sense of what it meant to be Black and Christian. What did it mean to believe and follow Jesus when there are other people who claim faith in Jesus who historically have treated African Americans poorly?” McCaulley said. So began an engaging discussion around reading the Bible while Black and Reformed.
When asked how he reconciles reading a text that was weaponized against his ancestors and his own generation, Dr. Vince Bacote says it is important to recognize the difference between the interpreter and the text. “The people that were reading the Bible so that it supported slavery had interests in interpreting the Bible so that it supported slavery.” He says bad interpreters will be found in every tradition, so it is important to ask if the interpreter is being faithful.
McCaulley remembers watching political unrest, the deaths of innocent African Americans and militarized police entering Black and Brown communities in the lead-up to the 2016 election. “I had this real growing passion to communicate to another generation the relevance of the Christian message to the issues of the day.” He began to list all the things that he felt as a Black Christian needed to be answered from a biblical perspective. This is how Reading While Black was born.
“I just want to publicly celebrate the work that he’s doing,” Bacote says of McCaulley’s book. He praised McCaulley for using his “intellectual chops,” while also using his “creative and imaginative chops,” something that Bacote says is affirmed by the Neo Calvinist tradition. “It can fire your imagination and fine-tune your intellect.”
I had this real growing passion to communicate to another generation the relevance of the Christian message to the issues of the day.
Joustra fielded questions from the audience, the first of which sought to understand the idea of how bringing one’s perspective and cultural context to Bible reading made a difference.
“What I tried to put into print was the particular experiences of the African American community that cause us to experience the Bible in a certain way as an aid to meaning,” explains McCaulley. He emphasized that no one culture asks all the questions. “Different cultures have different experiences that they bring to the text.” Bringing your own experiences to the text might help others see things in the text that their experiences might screen out. These different perspectives should not have us despair, nor think that the meaning of the text changes depending on who you are, but instead should compel us to invite others to the table of interpretation.
At only one hour, the discussion was passionate, illuminating and all too brief. Faculty and staff plan to continue discussing McCaulley’s book this term and look forward to the time when McCaulley, Lord willing, can come to campus this fall to receive the award and engage the whole Redeemer community.