Dr. Anthony B. Bradley is proving himself to be a frequent commentator on Christianity, theology, race and politics. In the last couple years, we’ve received three books from the keyboard of Dr. Bradley:
Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Crossway, 2010)–a review here.
Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (Wipf & Stock, 2011).
And in his newest edited volume, Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation, Bradley assembles a collection of African Americans to join the debate about the responsibilities and roles of African Americans and the Black Church in addressing the social ills of the community. It’s an important conversation generated, in this case, by controversial remarks made by Bill Cosby and the ensuing push-back offered by Michael Eric Dyson. Each of the contributors in some way interacts with these two voices on the African-American right and left. Though Keep Your Head Up comes to the party a bit late, it provides a much needed emphasis that neither Cosby nor Dyson provide: the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
After providing a brief introductory chapter, Bradley and team offer the following commentaries:
1. Vincent Bacote, “More Than Victims: The Benefits of a Theological Vision”
2. Bruce Fields, “The Black Family: The Hope of ‘True Religion'”
3. Howard Brown, “Sexuality in the Black Community”
4. Ralph C. Watkins, “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It: What’s Really Going On?”
5. Eric M. Mason, “Black Men and Masculinity”
6. Lance Lewis, “The Church and the Community”
7. Anthony B. Bradley, “Redeemed and Healed for Mission”
8. Anthony Carter, “The Black Church and Orthodoxy”
9. Ken Jones, “The Prosperity Gospel”
10. Craig Mitchell, “Rev. Michael Eric Dyson: An Analysis”
The chapters seem to flow from the more personal complex of issues involving identity and family outward toward church, community, and mission. The arrangement is effective and the reader flows readily from one level of analysis to the other.
Most of the writers attempt a summary of either Cosby and Pouissant’s book, Come On, People! as an introduction to their topic. That gives the book a somewhat repetitive feel. Perhaps the volume would have been helped with one general introduction, thus freeing the contributors to give more attention to their subjects. But having said that, the repetition does not hinder the volume’s effectiveness.
Another source of repetitiveness were the sections of most chapters that outlined the gospel. Who can complain about repetition of that message? I think there’s value in the restating of this most basic message. However, I found myself wondering if the volume as a whole might have been more effective if one early chapter defined and expanded the gospel for the entire book, leaving the chapter writers free to apply the gospel in specific pastoral ways to their subjects. That application appeared unevenly throughout the book.
While I enjoyed all the contributions, there were a couple that emerged as favorites for me. First, I appreciated Vincent Bacote’s wrestling with the question of Black identity. Bacote set for himself the goal of presenting “a theological path toward a more whole, positive, and responsible identity.” No small task, but Bacote gives the reader much to think about. I couldn’t help drifting back to my days in graduate school researching and writing about the psychological development of racial identity attitudes. Bacote’s chapter stirred that same curiosity and excitement–with one crucial difference: Bacote writes as an evangelical Christian and sets Black identity firmly within a biblical and gospel-centered framework. In fact, Bacote’s chapter directly challenges the assumptions underpinning my field of study and most conversations about Black identity. He asks:
“Is it enough to replace the lies [of white supremacy] with some version of another cultural history? How do we affirm our cultural uniqueness and our common humanity and resist the siren song that would exalt essential or ontological blackness as the answer to the norms of whiteness? Our cultural stories alone will not suffice. A theological vision can help us have a deeper sense of identity the incorporates the gifts of our culture without requiring us to go on an expedition for a mythical conception of blackness” (p. 32).
Amen. As true as that paragraph is, it won’t earn Bacote many friends in an African-American community that’s been on “an expedition for a mythical conception of blackness” so long that to question the expedition may get you exiled along the way. Bacote’s piece calls the correct questions and points the way forward from myth to Bible.
I also really enjoyed Bruce Fields’ meditation on the Black family. Fields takes an unusual approach, beginning his discussion with two quotes from Augustine. If you’re not accustomed to seeing Augustine cited in discussions of the Black family, you may be interested to read Fields’ justification and to see how Augustine’s conception of “true religion” informs Fields’ prescription for Black family renewal. Fields’ discussion was passionate, pastoral, appropriately personal, and the clearest meditation on the Lord’s cross and redemption in the volume. Most of the chapters make some reference to the gospel, but Fields brought the cross into sharp relief for the reader. As gospel-centered as Fields’ chapter was, I found it curious that he would end the essay with a quote from a Native American “holy woman.” A curious close to an otherwise stellar meditation on the Black family.
Lance Lewis offered what I considered the most eloquent and at points most forceful chapter. Lewis’ chapter on “The Church and the Community” began with a short history of the Civil Rights movement, calling attention to some unintended consequences. Then Lewis begins exhorting the church and the reader to “cultivate a desire for a satisfaction greater than the life of prosperity, comfort, and convenience…, be devoted to a mission more significant and permanent than lifting black folks… and determine to seek a place more beautiful, pristine, bountiful, and secure than the suburbs…” (p. 126). Consider Lewis in his own words:
Christ’s stated mission for His church is cultural transformation to the extent that whole people groups reorient their existence around obeying, worshiping, serving, loving, and delighting in the living God through a worshiping relationship with Jesus Christ. Embracing this mission will move us from the notion that maintaining the military, political, and economic dominance of the United States is somehow God’s will or must at least be a part of His plan. It also affirms the truth that it is not His express will to raise black folks into the middle income levels of American society so they can enjoy the ‘blessings of liberty.’ Finally, we must grasp the truth that we can no longer regard the black church as our black church simply on the basis that it arose from our shared history and struggle, so that we now shape its content, mission, and direction for the temporal fortunes of our people. Rather, the black church is black to the extent that it calls black people to drop the African-American idols, take up the cross of Jesus Christ, and become active followers of Jesus Christ (p. 128-129).
Lewis concludes with some preliminary steps forward. Overall, his essay was insightful and full of sermonic force.
Anthony Carter provides a cogent call to orthodox theology in the Black church. He reminds us, “There are infinite ways to lose your soul. There is only one way to save it” (p. 161). Though winsome as always, Carter is not naive about the dividing and clarifying nature of orthodoxy. “Orthodoxy by definition is opinionated,” he tells us. Stalwart theological opinion is indeed lacking in too much African-American Christian life and practice. Carter gives us the bottom line:
Today, some are calling for a new theology, while others are proclaiming that God is doing a “new thing.” On the contrary, we do not need a new theology; we need to recover the orthodoxy that has already been delivered to the church by the Spirit of God. The test of orthodoxy is to place it in differing contexts and not have it change, but rather watch as it changes people. It will produce voices unique to its time, decrying the evils of its day, yet never denouncing or denying the source from which it springs–namely, the Bible, the inspired, all-sufficient Word of God–or the message and mission of that source–namely, Jesus Christ and eternal life through Him. The world is waiting (pp. 174-175).
Finally, Ken Jones turns in an effective survey of the prosperity gospel and some of its main proponents. These were among my favorite contributions in the volume.
A Friendly Critique
Chapters 3-5 needed more clarity to be effective, in my opinion. For example, Harold Brown’s contribution on Black sexuality–a very important topic–had very helpful things to say in support of marriage but also contended that marriage in itself was not the answer to sexual brokenness and that feeling ashamed over such brokenness is what actually drives people to sexual dysfunction. A clearer statement at these points along with a clearer articulation of the gospel would have helped this chapter.
Likewise, Watkins’ chapter on gangster rap made only a cursory allusion to the gospel at the end of the chapter and failed to interact as critic of the genre. Watkins took the church to task for not engaging hip hop and the hip hop generation. It’s a charge we often hear and it has some force. But I found his almost heroic treatment of Ice Cube puzzling. Cube was my man back in the day, but I think it’s a significant stretch to recast Cube as social commentator and critic of the church. The music is more crass than that. Watkins would have done well to give at least a few paragraphs critiquing the genre just as he critiqued the church. I also found myself hoping Watkins would have put gangsta rap as one sub-genre of rap in conversation with some of the holy hip hop offerings available. The brothers in holy hip hop have provided a viable alternative to secular and gangsta rap, and indeed the holy hip hop crowd represents one wing of the Black church that is in conversation with and critique of the misogyny, materialism, violence, and twisted views of manhood and womanhood in gangsta rap.
Finally, Eric Mason’s chapter provided some insightful commentary on black masculinity. Mason opens by questioning the appropriateness of some white evangelical material on manhood, then continues with his own summary and categorization of African-American history of manhood. The final sections include some pragmatic considerations for cultivating manhood and masculinity. Mason writes, “For the most part, the Bible does not define what a man is, but it does give vivid portraits of manhood and characteristics of masculinity” (p. 108). I’m not sure I’d agree that the Bible lacks a definition of manhood. For example, Titus 2 provides a definition that stresses the characteristics of both mature manhood and younger men. The chapter might have been helped by commenting on that passage and others like it that describe mature manhood/masculinity (1 Tim. 3, for another example).
One other critique to mention: some of the writers seem to sometimes equate the Black Church with the Black community. It’s difficult to sometimes identify whether the critiques and descriptions apply to Christians or to non-Christians in the community. The assumption that the church’s concern as well as its membership is co-terminous with the community makes for some problematic conclusions.
Keep Your Head Up joins an important discussion already well underway between the conservative Cosby types who argue that African Americans need to accept and exercise more personal responsbility in addressing social problems and the liberal-progressive Dyson types who do not deny the need for personal responsibility but argue Cosby and his ilk overlook the more pervasive and debilitating effects of structural racism. Both Cosby and Dyson would criticize the Black Church for failing to play an effective role in resolving these social ills.
Keep Your Head Up speaks up to the church and for the church. The book really doesn’t break new ground, depending largely on the data and analysis already provided by Cosby and Dyson. The book’s main contribution is the insertion of the gospel in these discussions about African-American progress. If it did nothing else but repeatedly make known the Good News that the Lord Jesus Christ redeems sinners from their sin and brokennes, making them new, removing their guilt, and giving eternal life and everlasting hope through His death, burial, and resurrection, then it would have done a lot.
Perhaps it’s best to think of Keep Your Head Up as an early comment from evangelical Black Christians. There’s more that needs and certainly will be said. We can look forward to that. Read Keep Your Head Up for a start.