Injustice to the text: A review of “Reading While Black”
by Dan Crabtree
Last week I wrote a post laying out ground rules for biblical engagement of the racial justice debate. In light of that post, today I want to apply those principles and engage with Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, and I want to focus specifically on how his book interacts with Scripture. This is a critical review, but I hope it is done with charity and clarity.
McCaulley, a Wheaton professor and Anglican theologian, has recently risen to ecumenical prominence for his work on race and justice in a variety of formats. McCaulley’s widely read, award-winning book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, deals at length with the text of Scripture, and so provides a valuable opportunity to engage directly with textual arguments about race and justice. Instead of more talking about talking about justice, we can get into the brass Bible tacks of definitions and exegetical conclusions. The goal of this review is to both understand and respond to McCaulley’s interpretation of Bible texts about ethnicity and justice.
But, as a pastor, I have another objective with this review: I want to clarify for the flock of God why the main arguments in Reading While Black are, in fact, unhelpful distortions of the biblical teaching on hermeneutics, ethnicity, and justice. I intend for this review to be read as a warning. Reading While Black is not a useful resource that can help Christians understand God’s Word better. On the contrary, McCaulley frequently plays fast and loose with the intent of the biblical authors and promotes arguments not found in the pages of Holy Scripture. McCaulley teaches a skewed hermeneutic to justify misreading the text in favor of his stated agenda. I say all of this not to be unkind, of course, but to be forthright and clear. As much respect as I have for Esau as a fellow image bearer and a fellow believer, and I truly do, I don’t want others to embrace his unbiblical approach to the Bible. And that approach is where the review needs to start.
Interpreting by Demand
McCaulley names his approach “Black ecclesial interpretation” (5). This hermeneutic, in many ways, is the central argument of the book. To develop his understanding of “Black ecclesial interpretation,” McCaulley takes readers on his journey toward this interpretive method and explains the need for it today. And he starts in Chapter 1 by outlining what this interpretive grid entails.
First, we need to hear how McCaulley himself defines “Black ecclesial interpretation.” McCaulley says that this interpretive paradigm is not his invention, but an old form of “dialogue, rooted in core theological principles, between the Black experience and the Bible…” (20). It depends on McCaulley’s definition of the “Black experience” to generate unique questions to ask of the text, questions like “What about the exploitation of my people?” and “What about our suffering, our struggle?” (12). Then, he asserts, “the Scriptures also pose unique questions to us” (20). Essentially, it’s a way of reading the Bible that intentionally focuses on the cultural and social concerns of African Americans according to Esau, and certainly many others as well.
McCaulley anticipates the obvious objections. He states that “everybody has been reading the Bible from their locations, but we [black people] are honest about it” (20). This approach, he says, is just a transparent accounting for the way “social location” and in particular the “Black experience” necessarily shapes Bible interpretation. McCaulley advocates, then, “asking questions of the text that grow out of the reality of being Black in America” (20). Hence the subtitle “African American Biblical Interpretation.”
The rest of the book shows how McCaulley applies “Black ecclesial interpretation” as a framework to understand specific Bible passages. Chapter 2 looks at Romans 13:1-7 from the perspective of policing. Chapter 3 looks at Jesus’ statement in Luke 13:32 as a justification for political resistance. Chapter 4 sees Luke as “the Gospel writer for Black Christians” because of his concern about hope amidst oppression. And so on. McCaulley asks questions of the Bible that have been asked throughout African American history and arrives at his exegetical conclusions based on those questions, the historical background, and the text.
So far, I’ve attempted to summarize McCaulley’s “Black ecclesial interpretation” in such a way that he himself would agree with the representation. Now, I want to point out the deadly errors of this hermeneutic.
The biggest problem with McCaulley’s interpretive approach is that it’s not, biblically speaking, interpretation. In Luke 24:27, Jesus “interpreted to [the two on the Emmaus Road] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The word “interpreted” means either to translate (not the case in Luke 24) or to explain, to make understandable (BDAG, 244). To interpret a written work, then, means to accurately discover and articulate the author’s intent. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia says it this way,
“A person has interpreted the thoughts of another when he has in his own mind a correct reproduction or photograph of the thought as it was conceived in the mind of the original writer or speaker. It is accordingly a purely reproductive process, involving no originality of thought on the part of the interpreter. If the latter adds anything of his own it is eisegesis and not exegesis.”
So, what’s wrong with McCaulley’s “Black ecclesial interpretation?” The problem is that he’s asking the wrong questions. In fact, there’s only one right question in biblical interpretation: What did the author intend? That’s not a 21st century question, that’s a 1st century question. In interpretation, I don’t need the text to enter my world; I need to enter the world of the text. It’s not that we shouldn’t bring our circumstantial concerns to God and His Word. Of course we should! But that’s not part of interpretation. Maybe our honest questions are part of forming our systematic theology, certainly a part of application, or even developing a worldview. But if we let our personally pressing demands leak into the process of interpretation, then they will inevitably contaminate our exegetical conclusions. Put another way, when we come to the Bible requiring it to answer our “socially situated” concerns, we’re not looking for what God has said but what we want God to say.
Now, having heard Esau respond to these concerns in an interview, I’m aware of what he would say to my objection. McCaulley says, “That’s the reason why I talk about truth emerging in community. We need one another to balance out our inadequacies so that together we might discern the mind of Christ.” In the context of that conversation, those “inadequacies” arise from our “social situation.” So, to use McCaulley’s example, slave masters misread the Bible because they were going to it looking for a justification for slavery. Therefore, according to McCaulley, what they needed, as do we, are people who don’t have the same blind spots as us. Or, as McCaulley says it in the book, “I need Ugandan biblical interpretation, because the experiences of Ugandans mean they are able to bring their unique insights to the conversation” (22).
Here we can see the second huge problem with McCaulley’s interpretive approach: it functionally denies the clarity of Scripture. If Scripture is clear, able to be understood on its own merits, then it doesn’t require diverse ethnic perspectives to understand correctly. Biblical interpretation requires that we understand the original language and the original context, that’s it. Note that McCaulley equates “Ugandan biblical interpretation” with the enabling of “experiences” to bring “insights to a conversation.” In so doing, he has added a requirement to biblical interpretation that the Bible never does.
To use a farfetched example, where in the Bible do you see Paul relying on Ephesian questions to better understand Genesis 9 so he can rightly relate to the Roman government? Or for that matter, how could Christians be expected to rightly interpret Scripture for the first 1600 years, long before there were American colonies, European Americans, or African Americans? The Bible never presents interpretation as necessarily a group project because the Bible presents itself as fundamentally clear to every person. Here’s how Moses says it:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut 30:11-14)
If the Bible is clear, then we don’t need an international forum to understand it. You can read the Bible for yourself and interpret it rightly. Of course, we want to be humble and teachable, which means that we’ll seek out help from past illumination to arrive at the right exegetical conclusions. But what we’re looking for to aid our study of Scripture is not a cultural perspective but attention to textual details. Differing cultures don’t explain the text better to us, but faithful exegetes from any culture can. And ironically, the slave master eisegesis error that McCaulley cites is McCaulley’s own error: bringing a question from a cultural agenda to the biblical text rather than asking what the biblical authors intended. In interpretation, we don’t need more perspectives but more insights from whatever perspective.
If all this talk about hermeneutics sounds too confusing, let me simplify. The problem with McCaulley’s “Black ecclesial interpretation” is that it leads him to ask questions like this: “Put simply, is the Bible a friend or foe in the Black quest for justice?” Do you see the issue? The question is totally reversed from what is should be. We don’t assert ourselves over the Bible or even put ourselves beside the Bible. The question should be, “Is our quest for justice a friend or foe of the Bible?” Interpretation is not, as McCaulley asserts, a “dialogue” but a monologue. God is the only one speaking, and he’s the only one we want to hear.
Stretching the Text Until It Breaks
My second concern is the way that McCaulley uses his hermeneutical principles as a cover for unwarranted exegesis. Throughout the book, he undermines the meaning of multiple texts by drawing specious connections, by mistranslating words, and by asserting his conclusions without proof. These are the fruits of an arbitrary interpretive root.
Here’s a survey of just a few of the exegetical stretches in Reading While Black:
- In chapter 2, McCaulley acknowledges that Paul doesn’t address evil rulers in Romans 13:1-7, so he says, “that in the absence of that explanation of Romans 13:1-7, we are free to use Paul’s reference to Egypt and the wider biblical account to fill in the gap.” What does he mean by “fill in the gap?” According to McCaulley, “Paul’s focus on structure” implies that “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” (30-41). That is, the passage that reads, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1) is about demanding that governing authorities apply Christian ethics. Of course it’s true that Romans 13 tells us what governments are there for, but the application of the text is clearly submission to that government. To redefine submission as protest is to undermine Paul’s exhortation in this text.
- In chapter 3, McCaulley contends that the church must have a robust “political witness” and cites the Beatitudes as support. He quotes the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with the following: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled” (Mt 5:4, 6, my translation; p.65). Apparently, McCaulley doesn’t find the usual translation of “righteousness” adequate, so he supplies his own translation, “justice.” You can imagine where this is going. “Hungering and thirsting for justice… is a vision of the just society established by God that does not waver in the face of evidence to the contrary” (66). He follows this up by redefining “Blessed are the peacemakers” to “calling injustice by its name,” including “an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people” (68). These are simply incorrect definitions for these Greek words, which reference not the desire for political reform in America but the desire for personal righteousness and peace like that of the preacher, Jesus.
- In chapter 4, McCaulley sees in Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) a call to participate in political change. Specifically, he contends that Mary’s phrase “strength with his arm” is a reference to Isaiah 51:9-10, which is about the second exodus (a common theme in Reading While Black). Then connects the second exodus to the end of slavery, which “touches on that historic link between African Americans and the God of the Bible.” He concludes, “The testimony of Mary is that even in the shadow of the empire there is a space for hope and that sometimes in that space, God calls us from the shadows to join him in his great work of salvation and liberation” (88-89). That is a stunning leap in exegetical logic. He assumes that the virgin birth is intended as a paradigm for future salvation, but also assumes that Mary’s part in bringing the Christ to earth is a kind of “joining” in the purposes of God that meaningfully parallels political protests. The Magnificat is not about Mary’s participation but about God’s sovereign salvation.
The list of exegetical gymnastics could go on. These are not responsible hermeneutics, but warped principles of interpretation that undo the intelligibility of the Bible. We simply can’t reshape the text to fit our questions and agendas in this way. Instead, our goal in Bible interpretation must first and always be to know what the author meant by what he said. Any secondary objective smuggled into the interpretive process will eviscerate the text of meaning and make it a canvas for our purposes, not God’s.
So, what are you supposed to do with this book review? Well, first, be warned that McCaulley’s Reading While Black distorts Scripture at the most fundamental level – the clarity and intelligibility of the Bible. While McCaulley tows the line of theological orthodoxy at points, his hermeneutical approach does serious violence to sound biblical interpretation. If you’re hoping to find help in thinking through interpretative issues, this isn’t your book.
Second, know that Reading While Black does not speak for all African American Christians. McCaulley paints with a broad, monolithic brush about the concerns and perspectives of African Americans and does so without a consensus. For other African American Christian perspectives on hermeneutics, justice, and ethnicity, see here, here, here, and here.
Third, be prepared to defend a biblical hermeneutic. Reading While Black has received almost unanimous acclaim in the evangelical world, and McCaulley is not the only evangelical espousing these views. If you haven’t come across a similar challenge to biblical hermeneutics, my guess is that you soon will. So, be prepared to stand on the clear, authoritative, sufficient Word of God to explain how to rightly read the Word of God.
Finally, a note: My point in this review is not to be unkind towards McCaulley or anyone who agrees with him, but rather to point out the error in interpreting God’s Word according to our demands. This kind of Scripture-twisting does not honor God, it does not unite the church, and it does not give the kind of hope that McCaulley says it gives. Instead, it teaches Christians to use the Bible to confirm their biases and assumptions, rather than to be instructed and corrected by God’s Word. My prayer is that whatever your ethnic and cultural background, your aim would be to honor God by rightly interpreting to his Word and proclaiming his gospel for the sake of his eternal purpose, to glorify his Son, Jesus Christ. That would do justice to the text.