Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, By Esau McCaulley
Reading While Black
  • Length: 208 pages
  • Dimensions: 6 × 9 in
  • Published: September 01, 2020
  • Imprint: IVP Academic
  • Item Code: 5486
  • ISBN: 9780830854868

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Outreach Resources of the Year, Christianity Today Book Award, The Gospel Coalition Book Award

Biblical Interpretation from the Black Church Tradition

Growing up in the American South, Esau McCaulley knew firsthand the ongoing struggle between despair and hope that marks the lives of some in the African American context. A key element in the fight for hope, he discovered, has long been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation that comes out of traditional Black churches. This ecclesial tradition is often disregarded or viewed with suspicion by much of the wider church and academy, but it has something vital to say.

Reading While Black is a personal and scholarly testament to the power and hope of Black biblical interpretation. At a time in which some within the African American community are questioning the place of the Christian faith in the struggle for justice, New Testament scholar McCaulley argues that reading Scripture from the perspective of Black church tradition is invaluable for connecting with a rich faith history and addressing the urgent issues of our times. In Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley:

  • Advocates for a model of interpretation that involves an ongoing conversation between the collective Black experience and the Bible,
  • Gives pride of place to the particular questions coming out of Black communities,
  • Gives the Bible space to respond by affirming, challenging, and at times, reshaping Black concerns, and
  • Demonstrates this model with studies on how Scripture speaks to topics often overlooked by white interpreters, such as ethnicity, political protest, policing, and slavery.

Ultimately McCaulley calls the church to a dynamic theological engagement with Scripture, in which Christians of diverse backgrounds dialogue with their own social location as well as the cultures of others. Reading While Black moves the conversation forward.

"Although the African American Christian experience is not monolithic, we have generally sought to understand the Bible and live according to its teachings. Along the way, many of us have rejected white supremacist readings of the Bible while clinging to the God of the Bible. In Reading While Black, McCaulley does careful exegetical and historical analysis, explaining and illustrating how interpretations of Scripture by Black people can bolster faith in a liberating God. McCaulley gives us more than a theoretical methodology; he demonstrates how we can approach and apply texts—even ones that were previously used against us—without jettisoning our faith or succumbing to oppressive readings. Reading While Black is a welcome addition to the study of African American hermeneutics."

Dennis R. Edwards, associate professor of New Testament at North Park University

"I'm extremely grateful to have a voice in my time to speak with nuance, grace, and cultural awareness. Esau has given us a healthy marriage for understanding theology and blackness. This is a must-read!"

Lecrae, hip hop recording artist

"It is enlightening, moving, and galvanizing to overhear these notes of appreciation and reciprocated encouragement from a son of the Black church to the Black ecclesial interpreters who nurtured and continue to nourish him. From here on out, this book will be required reading in any course on biblical hermeneutics that I teach."

Wesley Hill, associate professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry

"When I was a student, I was explicitly and implicitly trained to focus exclusively on the ancient context of Scripture and read 'objectively.' Bible study could easily become a disembodied experience. McCaulley makes a compelling case, in this engagement with African American biblical interpretation, that not only is the reader's culture and experience not a hindrance to interpretation per se but can enrich it greatly. Reading While Black is a unique and successful blend of biblical hermeneutics, autobiography, black history and spirituality, incisive cultural commentary on race matters in America, and insightful exegesis of select New Testament texts."

Nijay K. Gupta, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary

"Throughout history the church, as it strives to be faithful in particular times and places, has had to bring the core cultural concerns of their neighbors to Scripture for answers. This is the work of loving our neighbors well. What does God have to say about the animating issues of our lives and communities? In Reading While Black, Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley puts in bold relief before us the historic and present concerns of the African American community. Does God have a word for us about policing? Is there any guidance from on high about Black identity, justice, righteous anger, slavery, and oppression? With sound exegetical method, deep cultural insight, and skillful application he brings us into the heart of God on these issues. Know, however, that this is not just a book for Black people. Far from it. Anyone who desires to engage these questions with gospel hope should take up and read."

Irwyn L. Ince Jr., director of the GraceDC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission and author of The Beautiful Community

"What does the Bible have to say to Black Christians seeking justice? By looking at well-known, overlooked, underinterpreted, and misinterpreted texts, Esau McCaulley tells us that a faithful reading of Scripture as the Word of God summons Black Christians (and others) to a cluster of practices. These include naming and protesting evil, expressing anger, and pursuing freedom and justice, but also promoting reconciliation, practicing forgiveness, and living in hope—all as aspects of proclaiming the gospel of the God revealed in Jesus. An important book."

Michael J. Gorman, Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, Baltimore

"In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley combines his training in New Testament scholarship with his love for the Black church tradition. The result of his labor is a fresh and accessible contribution to African American reception history of the Bible. Even when readers disagree with his arguments and conclusions, they will learn how some African Americans interpreted Scripture in diverse contexts. McCaulley argues in these pages that African American Christian ecclesial readings of Scripture were an exercise of hope."

Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

"How can the church today effectively address the racial tensions that plague our nation? Esau McCaulley has convinced me that the Black church tradition holds the key—maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures while fully engaging in the struggle for justice. This book is an excellent starting point for those who want to listen and learn a new way forward. Esau's prophetic voice is rooted in Scripture and full of hope. Highly recommended!"

Carmen Joy Imes, associate professor of Old Testament at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, and author of Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters

"Esau McCaulley's voice is one we urgently need to hear. This book is prophetic, biblical, measured, wise, friendly, and well-reasoned—and thus all the more hard-hitting. A powerful word for our times."

N. T. Wright, professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews, senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

"In Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley is unapologetically Black, Christian, and committed to reading the Bible as Scripture and as relevant to the experience of Black folks. McCaulley demonstrates how the intuition and habits of Black biblical interpretation and the Black ecclesial tradition can help all readers connect the Bible and theology with the pressing issues of the day. His book is a must-read for any pastor, undergraduate student, seminarian, or student of the Bible who is ready to reckon with and be awakened by McCaulley's fresh and constructive readings of Scripture. With interpretations that are rooted in the tradition of his ancestors, McCaulley is undeterred in calling out racist assumptions, engaged in dialogue with other interpretive traditions, and guided by a hermeneutic of trust. Those who grab hold of this book and wrestle with it will be blessed."

Janette H. Ok, associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary

"This is a must-read for pastors, college students, seminarians, and anyone interested in learning about how African American Bible interpretation can speak a word of hope to us in our day. It addresses questions Black Christians have been asking about issues such as policing, Black identity, political protest, and the pursuit of justice from a perspective that takes the Bible and its critics seriously."

Lisa Fields, founder and president of the Jude 3 Project

"Esau McCaulley is a tremendous New Testament scholar; he has the rare gift of taking the complex and making it accessible and practical without losing theological substance. Reading While Black will provide you with insights into the gospel that will transform your life, regardless of your ethnicity. The horizons of your spiritual formation will expand as a result of reading this book; you will read and return to it over and over."

Derwin L. Gray, lead pastor of Transformation Church in South Carolina, author of The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches About Finding True Happiness

"I don't know if I realized how much I needed this book until it landed in my hands. Reading While Black is scholarly yet reads clearly, communicating what many Black Christians have been saying for decades. Everyone would do well to listen up, lest they miss God in the process."

Jackie Hill-Perry, Bible teacher and poet, author of Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been

"In Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley has given the African American church a gift—how to read the Scriptures in a way that is faithful to those Scriptures. And the beauty of his book is that it rightfully insists that reading the Bible well does not mean abandoning one's ethnicity. Instead, one must read precisely from one's location while at the same time allowing the Bible to broaden our horizons. This is a book that African American pastors and scholars need to consider carefully. In fact, it is a book that church leaders from every race in North America need to ponder. I recommend this book heartily!"

Osvaldo Padilla, professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School

"Esau McCaulley is untying the Gordian knot that has kept Black Christians bound to theological ultimatums. This is a book for theologians who hope to play outside the trite sandboxes of their seminaries and for the practitioners who find themselves in need of a Black lexicon. His anecdotes, definitions, and propositions are timely for a society that is desperate to reclaim dignity in the 'colorless' constructs that European Christianity built."

Sho Baraka, artist, professor, and cofounder of the AND Campaign

"Esau McCaulley faces the urgent question, What does Christian hope mean when white feet seem always to be pressed on Black throats? Rather than a nihilist rejection of hope or a watered-down hope stemming from the European Enlightenment, McCaulley points to a hope forged through generations of Black Christians searching Scripture for a good God. As the church owns up to our call to end systemic racism, McCaulley addresses questions of police violence, Black anger, colorblindness, assimilation, and more. The book equips readers in a valuable mode of Scripture reading rooted in Black tradition that simultaneously acknowledges suffering and turns to Jesus as redeemer and hope."

Christine Jeske, professor of cultural anthropology at Wheaton College, author of The Laziness Myth

"Mark my words: Esau McCaulley is the brightest theological mind of this generation. Reading While Black is the oasis in the current Christian academic desert. As a professor, I can't wait to assign it, and as a pastor, I can't wait to employ it for discipleship. The Black student of the Bible instinctively knows the inherent risk of oversold lies and cultural mishaps at the intersection of our race and the reading of Scripture. In this work, we have a new light to walk the path straight."

Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church, Chicago

"Many have been thrown into a crisis of faith over the ways that the Scriptures have been used to oppress and denigrate others, especially Black Americans. How can this good news of Jesus actually be good news when it has been wielded as a weapon by much of the white American church? Reading While Black makes clear how the Scriptures, rightly read, are the source of Black justice and liberation, and how an orthodox belief in the authority of the Bible bolsters the dignity and flourishing of people of color in America. Theologically profound yet eminently accessible, Fr. Esau McCaulley masterfully weaves a dense and gorgeous tapestry of his personal narrative, insight into the Black church and American culture, and careful exegesis. This astounding book plumbs a range of urgent issues like just policing, the place of protest and anger, and slavery and white supremacy. I cannot think of a more relevant, pressing, helpful, and hopeful book for our contemporary moment."

Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

"In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley honors the beautifully rich triumvirate of doxology, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy, which has always had its home in the Black Christian tradition."

Ekemini Uwan, writer and cohost of Truth's Table podcast

Read an Excerpt


1. The South Got Somethin' to Say: Making Space for Black Ecclesial Interpretation
2. Freedom Is No Fear: The New Testament and a Theology of Policing
3. Tired Feet, Rested Souls: The New Testament and the Political Witness of the Church
4. Reading While Black: The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice
5. Black and Proud: The Bible and Black Identity
6. What Shall We Do With This Rage? The Bible and Black Anger
7. The Freedom of The Slaves: Pennington's Triumph
Conclusion: An Exercise in Hope
Bonus Track: Further Notes on the Development of Black Ecclesial Interpretation
Discussion Guide
Author Index
Scripture Index


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Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of many works including Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance and Reading While Black. He is a contributing opinion writer for the The New York Times, and his writing has also appeared in places such as The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

Biblical Interpretation from the Black Church Tradition
I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition-its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith - can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition.
Lisa Fields of the Jude 3 Project says Reading While Black is: For pastors, college students, seminarians, and anyone interested in learning about how African American Bible interpretation can speak a word of hope to us in our day.
LeCrae, hip hop recording artist says: A must-read!
N. T. Wright says: Esau McCaulley's voice is one we urgently need to hear. This books is prophetic, biblical, measured, wise, friendly, and well-reasoned - and thus all the more hard-hitting.