Theology & Spirituality

Book Review: Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley, Reading while Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2020. 208 pp. Paperback $18.00.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Esau McCaulley’s new book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope offers timely contributions to the current discourse on several contemporary issues. Yet its greatest contribution lies in both articulating and modeling the hermeneutics of the Black Church.

McCaulley serves as a priest in the Anglican Church of North America and as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Churches of the Sake of Others, and is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. After an introductory chapter laying out his hermeneutical approach and the values that animate it, McCaulley addresses the topics of policing, the Church’s voice in politics, Black identity and Black anger.

The content of his chapter on policing may be familiar to readers of Conciliar Post, as a digested version of it was published in the September 2020 issue of Christianity Today. McCaulley’s exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 relies heavily upon the claim that Paul has Pharaoh in mind as an example of an unjust ruler—and of what God does to that unjust ruler. That Pharaoh is mentioned only in one verse (9:17) at significant distance from the text in view, and within an argument about God’s justice, place McCaulley’s reading in some doubt for this reviewer. Stronger are his straightforward contemporary application of John the Baptist’s (admittedly straightforward) counsel to Roman soldiers (Luke 3:14), and the ethical applications of his reading of Romans 13:1-7 not specifically involving unjust authorities. Especially clear and timely to voting citizens is McCaulley’s admonition that “if the power truly resides with the people…then the Christian’s first responsibility is to make sure that those who direct the sword in our culture direct that sword in ways in keeping with our values” (39, original emphasis).

McCaulley’s exegesis of 1 Tim. 2:1-4 in his chapter on political witness is a model of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Drawing upon the Gospels, Isaiah, Revelation and Paul’s other writings, McCaulley addresses the common error of reading “pray for kings” as “only pray for kings, don’t get political yourselves.” Prayer is good and necessary (and Paul does say to pray for all people, not just kings), but it can’t be used as a substitute for doing the necessary work of being salt and light in the places God has put his people. That work includes, as McCaulley rightly says, “bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression” (70).

The power of McCaulley’s prose is especially notable in his chapter on Black anger, in which he reads Psalm 137 through the lenses of his own experience as a Black man in America and that of African Americans generally. With pastoral sensitivity, he situates his reflections on Black anger in an eschatological frame by expounding on the idea that “[t]he final judgment is a source of terrifying comfort” (135). Less compelling is the chapter on Black identity, though it will be useful to those who are unaware of the presence of African characters in Scripture.

As someone serving in a mainline denomination, I found myself especially stirred by McCaulley’s enthusiastic portrayal of African American biblical interpretation as characterized by a hermeneutic of patient trust. Recounting his entry into the academic study of religion, McCaulley says that he “unknowingly entered the hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants,” a war in which he and his people are barely treated as pawns (8). However well-intentioned their efforts to demythologize the text, McCaulley notes, in doing so liberal scholars created something in their own image.

Finding a theologically congenial place among evangelicals, McCaulley nevertheless discovered there a disdain for the Black church and an uncomfortable level of comfort with aspects of American society and history that African Americans have found especially oppressive. Rejecting the efforts of evangelicals to press orthodox Black voices into service as weapons against progressive Black voices, McCaulley articulates an approach to Scripture that manifests Eugene Peterson’s famous description of exegesis as “an act of sustained humility” in a manner that emerges from and is suited to the experiences of African American Christians.

In his final chapter McCaulley runs a clinic on bringing this hermeneutical stance and process to bear on the difficult question of slavery, arguing that “the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable” (139). Likewise, in his middle chapter “Reading While Black: The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice” McCaulley offers a reading of Zechariah’s and Mary’s songs in Luke’s Gospel that is sure to enrich the devotion of his white readers who may have grown overly accustomed to these magnificent poems.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this book beyond its excellent content is its confident tone. McCaulley is a young scholar-priest who knows what he is doing, and knows he knows what he is doing, and is bringing forth from the storehouse of his mind and heart the good fruit of his study and ministry. Students of Scripture, faithful Christians, and especially Anglicans will not only devour this book but will eagerly look forward to engaging with his other work.

The Rev. Dr. Jason A. Poling serves as Priest-in-Charge of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Md., and as Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Maryland. He directs the Doctor of Ministry Program at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore. He tweets at @revjpoling.

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