Biblical Interpretation for Black and Brown Marginalized Contexts Part 2: The Importance of Reading Black and Brown Authors
As a black/brown professor of New Testament Interpretation at a predominately white seminary, I often ask my students whether they’ve ever read a non-white author. The amount who haven’t is staggering. Based on my travels throughout the country, and interaction with people who’ve studied at different institutions, I’ve learned many students can earn an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and even a Ph.D. in 2017 without being required to read a non-white author.
To some, this may not seem problematic. They’ll say, “Who cares what race the author is? It’s all about the scholarship.” In fact, a prolific New Testament scholar from a theological tradition different from mine once sharply criticized me for criticizing a scholarly essay on race published in a recognized monograph. The essay never referenced one non-white scholar. One of my criticisms was basically how can a person write an essay about the history of interpretation of race in an area of New Testament Studies, and not even reference a non-white author?
This scholar’s critical respon
se to me may sound pious and intellectually viable to some. Nevertheless, it fails to realize one reason few Christians read black and brown authors is in part precisely because of race. Consider, for example, the racist ideas advocated by European intellectuals at the dawn of modernity, and how those ideas shaped American Christianity.
And we can never forget Biblical scholarship (like other academic disciplines) was forbidden territory for some non-white groups for a long time. This is one reason why you can read a recent massive three-volume set on the history of New Testament scholarship, and can count on one hand (maybe two hands) the number of black or brown authors mentioned.
As a black/brown New Testament scholar, I believe it’s proble
matic that there are many institutions of higher learning that advance students without requiring them to read black and brown authors. Or if certain professors do require their students to read black and brown authors, it’s only to show their students (what these professors think is) an incorrect or bad example of bible interpretation, or bad t heology.
I give lectures on the importance of reading black and brown authors in my seminary courses. I require students to read black and brown authors when the scholarship of these authors relate to the course content. And, yes, I subject black and brown authors and white authors to rigorous critical analysis as my lectures affirm things that are helpful and sharply criticize the weaknesses of their arguments and conclusions.
Certain readers, however, of this post may be thinking: why should we read black and brown authors? In the rest of this piece, I want to offer one brief reason, although there are many.
Every Bible Reader Has Blind Spots
One of the ideological lies flowing out of white supremacy is that the social construct of whiteness (i.e. white cultures, values, privileges,
and ideas) is solely normal, good, and right for all people. Christians (from any race) who share this belief unknowingly can import it onto the biblical text, and onto non-white people. Too often, some white and privileged Christians who read texts in certain middle-class and privileged contexts offer interpretations that agree with or sustain their middle-class, white, or privileged way of life.
Examples of this abound: from racist readings of the bible that supported slavery to modern day readings that make working moms feel denigrated (interpretations that question the working mom’s love for Jesus and their families because they’re pursuing a career outside of the home). One’s context often determines one’s reading and application of a biblical text. And privileged majority readers often attempt to make their culturally informed readings normative for every community.
However, when privileged people read and listen to racially marginalized voices and (more importantly) study the bible in the same sacred church spaces as racially marginalized voices, then those whose privilege shapes their biblical reading will be more likely to see their privileged blind spots when they humbly submit to and listen to those who don’t share their racially and socially privileged status.
It must also be said marginalized people are shaped by their contexts too. Everyone has blind spots. Middle-class and privileged black and brown bible readers are informed by their black and brown privileged contexts, just as black and brown and white underprivileged bible readers are shaped by their contexts.
I am a marginalized, black/brown, and privileged male New Testament scholar who reads and studies the bible in a marginalized, middle-class, multi-ethnic home in a diverse and safe middle-class and working-class community in Louisville, Kentucky. But I also formally teach the bible in a privileged, middle-class,
white institution. And my multi-ethnic family and I have partnered with diverse, multi-ethnic sisters and brothers to plant a diverse, multi-ethnic church in my racially and economically diverse community in my city.
Our team consists of diverse, marginalized multi-ethnic sisters and brothers — some of whom have racial, social, financial, and educational privileges and others, disadva
ntages. Each of these intersecting identities shape and inform how I read the bible and how I apply it in the different contexts in which I study, teach, and live it out.
Diverse, underprivileged postures can too shape how diverse underprivileged bible readers read the bible. So, if black and brown people only read black and brown authors who share their views, they too are likely not to see their blind spots. But for most minority Christians in America who identify with a branch of evangelical Christianity, they often study the bible in middle-class and privileged white spaces
and learn it from privileged white people (especially when pursuing formal theological education at evangelical colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries). And minority bible readers have not historically in America had the privilege of normalizing their readings of texts for majority white communities. Often black and brown people only read white authors from middle-class and privileged contexts, because their professors don’t assign black and brown scholars.
To be clear, one’s class or race does not necessarily equal bad scholarship or wrong ideas, nor does it mean that one will inevitably read her or his ideas into the biblical text. The scholar who has influenced my reading of the New Testament more than anyone on the planet, and with whom I agree on most points of New Testament Theology and New Testament exegesis, is white. The person who has influenced my understanding of preaching more than anyone on the planet is white. My favorite Reformer (John Calvin) was white.
The point I’m stressing is that one’s posture (social, gender, racial, ethnic, generational, and educational postures) will inform one’s reading and application of the biblical text. This is true for me, and that’s true for every other bible reader with or without privilege—black, brown, or white. Our postures do NOT determine the biblical author’s original intent. But our postures might help us to see or hinder us from seeing the author’s intended application.
Black and brown people who only read white, middle-class, and privileged authors may begin to think (as certain white brothers and sisters think), as a result, that white, middle-class, and privileged American cultural expressions of Christianity are alone biblical. Black and brown people will especially think this if they are unaware of black and brown voices who also have sound doctrine and a high view of scripture, but who interpret and contextualize certain biblical texts in marginalized black and brown (or multi-ethnic) contexts in different ways.
As a result, black and brown bible readers may think that certain biblical and theological truths will be worked out exactly the same way in black, brown, or multi-ethnic contexts as in majority white cultural contexts. Or they might be tempted to think that every white reading of a text is a right reading of a text and non-white readings of texts are wrong or suspicious readings of texts, until receiving a stamp of approval from someone from the white majority interpretive community. Reading black and brown authors who love the bible and labor rigorously to understand it in its original context will help white and black and brown Christians to be sensitive to, and aware of, their blind spots. Every bible interpreter has them and brings them to the text.
1. Pray for hermeneutical humility when you read the bible.2. Ask the Holy Spirit to show your blind spots when your read the text.3. Study the bible in healthy multi-ethnic church
contexts if possible.4. Listen to faithful ethnically and racially diverse expositors of the bible.5. Attend sound black and brown conferences about the bible and theology.6. Increase your library to include black and brown voices from different social postures and with different specializations. You can start by checking out the authors listed on RAAN, and on the Front Porch bookstore.7. Intentionally search for black and brown authors, because you will likely not be exposed to them.8. Read globally. There is much we can learn from our sisters and brothers who write about the bible and theology in other countries. American culture shapes how Americans do theology and read the bible. We need our brothers and sisters from other countries to show us our American, privileged blind spots and to help us to understand how to be better Christians and bible readers. Remember Jesus, the greatest teacher, was NOT an American, but a Jewish man from Nazareth!9. Live multi-ethnic lives.10. Critically read, evaluate, and discern every author you read regardless of the race of the author.
12 thoughts on “Biblical Interpretation for Black and Brown Marginalized Contexts Part 2: The Importance of Reading Black and Brown Authors”
Is there any chance you have this list still available, the link is broken
IMO I think the authors in my list are considered inferior in most Reformed circles, except for Conrad Mbewe. His book featured on my list was recommended by 9Marks, Themelios and TGC. But their biblical scholarship speaks for itself. They’re solid.
I discovered my library didn’t have people of color and came up with the same wall you’re facing: no organization had recommendations for such resources. I searched on Amazon for books by African theologians and bought books printed under Zondervan’s Hippo Books imprint.
In the process, I came along John Stott’s Langham Partnership – an organization devoted to helping people of color make their own theological resources. The theologians on my list are solid – I don’t agree with some of what they teach. But they have stretched me and helped me study better.
Wonderful list, brother! Seriously, I can’t wait to buy and read some of these.
I have a question for you. I did a Google site search here at RAAN and at The Front Porch for every single name from your top 25 list. None of the authors you listed appeared in even one article from either RAAN or TFP (2 are named in comments by you). Why is this?
Also, do you (or anyone reading) know of ANY books I’m overlooking that were written on the North American continent by African American believers (since this is RAAN)? For some reason, when I’ve been encouraged/admonished by African American brothers to stop overlooking black contributions to theology, I didn’t assume that they had in mind a list of names exclusively from the African continent. Make sense?
I can’t wait to read, brother. What a great service you’ve provided!
The books you’re looking for are there. I have been compiling a list of such books for a while now. You can find theology books on ethics, commentaries, study Bibles, systematic theology, you name it. All by African authors. If you’re interested in these books here’s a list I compiled:
25+ Christian Theology Books By Africans
I have scoured the internet for a systematic theology written by a black person. Besides one or two works, where are all these theological and biblical resources by black authors that I’m supposedly ignoring? This is very frustrating because I’m trying and barely finding anything. Almost all of the works that are in the RAAN bookstore or Front Porch bookstore are by blacks writing strictly about the black experience or diversity. That’s great, but that certainly isn’t the only thing a black person is qualified to write. Where is a commentary written by a black person on Romans or any book (thank you Dr. Williams for Galatians)? I will buy it! Where is the defense of paedobaptism or credobaptism by a black person? I will buy it! Where is the hermeneutics book written by a regenerate black scholar or pastor? I will buy it!
Or church history? Or biblical theology? Or treatise on theodicy? Or pastoral theology? I’m ready to read and learn and point others to them!
And don’t tell me “read Augustine” or “read Athanasius” because that would satisfy precisely zero who admonish and urge us to read black and brown people.
I must say, this might be the most frustrating admonishment to receive. Perhaps you could start encouraging young black students to aspire to write these books, rather than writing more books about “The Black Perspective On ____________.” I don’t mind those books. I read them, in fact. But they aren’t helping the problem that this blog post surfaces.
Thanks for reading.
Respectfully I would suggest you look at the works of Saint Augustine. He was a man from North Africa….
We have to have an understanding of how all people think in spreading the Gospel Of Jesus the Christ….
God does not see color but the world sure does…………….
Hi Edmond. I don’t think Dr. Williams is talking about necessity here. What I mean by my question is, is he increasingly supporting an egalitarian view of scripture in the family and church as to the role of women? I have read him here for many years, and unless I missed it earlier, this new perspective sure seems a newer development in his thinking. I support his main points of racial reconciliation in the church but I think there is more to it now than that. By the way, my wife works. We both wish she had time and resources to serve the church and our neighbors with out working. But that is not our circumstance now. I do not consider myself the judge of anyone else in there circumstance ether. But Dr. Williams is a technical teacher of scripture. He will be held accountable for what he teaches us about what the Bible means by what it says. He is not just another blogger or commenter like you and me. He is teaching pastors what to teach. Much more serous than what you and I think.
I would love some suggestions of some evangelical, theological books written by black and brown authors. Are there some solid/good titles you would share?
I think that some people do not think that Black/Brown people have anything to say and this is not true. The world is basically made-up of Brown and Black people, so lets hope and pray that things change.
My wife worked while I was in grad school and we had two kids. According to my culture, a man is supposed to be the breadwinner. I could have refused her to work and twist Scripture to support my cultural inclination. But that doesn’t mean the authors of the Scriptures I use to support my position intended to say that. I guess that’s what Jarvis mean.
“(interpretations that question the working mom’s love for Jesus and their families because they’re pursuing a career outside of the home).” Are you saying that the Bible teaches that it is wise for some women to leave their children to pursue a carrier? Or are you saying that the Bible teaches that it is some times necessary, therefore wise to leave her children in order to care for them?