“The Bible is not always right,” Rev. Dr. Brandon Thomas Crowley posted on Facebook. Crowley—a Harvard-educated pastor—continued, “We do not believe that our sacred text is written by God. It is not inerrant, humans wrote it. Sometimes the Bible is wrong and hermeneutics of suspicion are right!”
Sending Black Christians into a frenzy of defense and denunciation, Crowley’s post received 1,800 comments and was shared 449 times.
While the post received supportive sentiments, the very idea that the Bible is not the pure and perfect word of God was simply too much to bear for many. There was a clear divide between the seminary-educated and those who were not. For those who have gone through the rigors of graduate education, the Bible is sacred literature subject to criticism. The hermeneutics of suspicion is second nature in their biblical interpretation. There are a set of historical facts that guide one’s understanding.
First and foremost, the Bible is not a singular book—rather a library of 66 books, with different authors, and in many instances, we do not know who the authors are. There are at least two authors of the Book of Isaiah. Many of the letters in the New Testament that we attribute to Paul were probably written by his students. Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) are believed to be based on what scholars call the “Q”—the source. The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospel and is written to a very different audience and intent than say, John. The last few verses of Mark’s Gospel were added well after the original text was written. Contemporary Christianity imposes a univocality on the collected books—meaning we read a unified voice that tells a singular story about Jesus as the savior of the world. In most Black folks’ minds, the Old Testament points toward the cross and the New Testament looks back at the cross. This is an interpretive stance. It is not Biblical. It is theological—a set of beliefs that we impose on the Bible.
Moreover, the Bible as we know it has been through several translations and different iterations yielding different emphases in different Christian communities at different times. For instance, the notion of Jesus as a personal savior is a recent idea—barely a century old in a 2,000-year-old religion. Christianity’s emphasis and Biblical interpretation change over time and space. In a word, the Word has changed.
For many, the “Bible” must be clear, consistent and unchanged. Black commitment to Biblical inerrancy is as much existential as it is theological. For a Christian people whose entire existence in the hell of North America has been uneasy, certainty is necessary to keep from losing one’s mind. My grandfather—an elder in the grand old Church of God in Christ—believed that the Bible was “written with the very finger of God.” It was not simply a matter of literalist understanding. The Bible holds a potent power of Black imagination. In The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, Allen Callahan illustrates the deep connection between Black people and the holy text:
Slavery’s children entered history from below: from their straitened vantage they came to see in the holy scriptures that God grants victory to the unlikeliest people—people like themselves—and by the unlikeliest means. The Bible privileges those without privilege and honors those without honor. And so there is a special affinity between the Bible and the rankest of its readership’s rank and file. Its accounts of the exaltation of the humble and humbling of the high and mighty have appealed to people in the humblest of circumstances.
For many Black folks—historically—it was their first encounter with literature. The Bible was a source of aspirational literacy.
Callahan writes: “The Bible was the chief goal of literacy for African Americans, for whom religion was both opportunity and mandate to acquire letters.” When the enslaved saw preachers read from the Bible, they described it as the Talking Book. To this end, slave narratives are replete with the desire to learn to read the Bible. To “make the book talk” is the highest compliment in Black preaching. It is only uttered when the homilist is exquisitely rendering the interpretation of scripture that is poetic and life-giving.
The poetry of the King James version was not lost on them. They celebrated the eloquent recitation of Bible verses both a home and in sanctuary. In my family, we were required to say a verse before our meals. Saying your Easter piece often entailed memorizing and performing with great elocution the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The most celebrated preachers are those who “rightly divide the word”—the careful consideration of the meaning that the Bible bore on the quotidian of Black existence. That meaning should not be taken lightly.
Moreover, the Biblical narrative has served to empower and describe Black emancipation. Whether it be the quest to escape slavery, the struggle against Jim Crow, or the Great Migration, the story of Black people has taken up the Exodus story to communicate their divine right to be free. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman were called the “Moses” of our people. The Bible animates much of Black self-understanding.
In his recent book, Black is a Church: Christianity and the Contours of African American Life, Dr. Josef Sorett writes about the way Christianity—and the Bible by consequence—shapes the contours of Black life and literature: “To my mind, modern black literary and cultural expression, activism, organizing, and intellectual life—each of which is often presumed to be secular—reflect a peculiarly Afro-Protestant mode of inquiry, inheritance, and repertoire.” Sorett continues to illustrate the way that the Bible via Afro-Protestantism structures mean-making as “an ethical apparatus, institutional form, and aesthetic performance that animates (all) black subjectivity and social life, especially, but not solely, in the United States.”
To be sure the Bible was used to teach docility and command Black people to believe that their lot in life was ordained by God.
“Slaves be obedient to your masters” was a common admonishment given in sermons to the enslaved. Howard Turman—mystic and mentor to Dr. King—recalled that his formerly enslaved grandmother refused to read anything beyond the four Gospels because the Epistles were used to affirm her bondage. Thurman’s grandmother is deploying a hermeneutic of suspicion. Yet, the Bible also revealed the possibility that God was on their side. From the Stono Rebellions (1739) to Nat Turner to Fredrick Douglass to the Civil Rights Movement, the Bible was an inspiration to resistance to enslavement and white supremacy.
The centrality of the Bible in Black life cannot be overstated. So much so that he physical book takes on ontological significance. My family was recently gifted a large white Bible with gold lettering. I was reminded of the family Bible of my childhood. Written in the King James version, this Bible—cared for by my grandmother—housed the family’s history and artifacts. In addition to the family tree diagram on the first few pages, obituaries, birth certificates, semblances of a will and flower petals from deceased loved ones’ floral arrangements were neatly placed between the pages of the Holy Writ. The Bible kept our family genealogy—a shrine to our past, present and future. Every family I knew as a child had that Bible in their homes. In the United States, Black people’s encounter with the text is fraught with meaning. Our ancestors were beaten for reading this book. The Bible authorized our subjection and authenticated our experience. In short, Black folk and the Bible have a torrid love affair.
Noted organizer, musician, and theologian, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is a pastor of Valley and Mountain Fellowship United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington. Rev. Sekou is a Religious Studies Phd candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London.