Vincent Wimbush provides a history of African American interaction with the Bible in his book The Bible and African Americans. The Bible has often been held in high esteem by Black Americans and thus it is interesting to look at how this came to be. Wimbush has updated his article that originally appeared in Stony the Road we Trod.
In the Bible and African American’s Wimush uses a metaphor of a circle to discuss the various kinds of “readings” of the Bible text that have existed in America throughout the history of the United States.
The first reading is one where African sensibilities cause Africans to look at the Bible with ambivalence. There was interest in the book that was held in such esteem by their oppressors, but there was also distrust of a “Word of God ” that could be held in a “book” in that the Africans who were brought to American in shackles believed that God’s word could not be contained in a book. In addition Africans were from an oral culture in contrast to the European culture.
The second reading incorporates the period of the Negro Spirituals in slavery and emphasizes how Africans took on the Bible as a world to live in that allowed Africans in America to communicate with one another when all of their language and world was removed from them.
When Africans were brought to American attempted to take from them their language and their culture. We know that some of the African culture, language, and religion survived, but at least in public the African ways were suppressed. What Africans in America found in the Bible was a way to speak and communicate with one another. So Africans in America could sing “steal away to Jesus” or “Swing Low sweet chariot” to notify of the coming of the Underground Railroad. They also could express the deepest longing in their hearts for home in “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child, a Long Way From Home.”
The Bible was a comfort. The Bible was a place to meet one another. The Bible was a certainty that ultimately God would deliver for “Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel.” This reading was largely from the rural southern slave.
The third reading is called by Wimbush “establishing the circle.” Here is the period of activism against slavery where the African American readers used the scripture to find liberation as God’s purpose. This is the reading of the establishment of the churches like Black Baptists and Black Methodists.
The historic African American churches saw in the Bible an ally against slavery. The Bible spoke of God’s liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor. The Bible describes a God on the side of the weak and not the strong. This reading was largely from the northern free African American.
The fourth reading is called by Wimbush “reshaping the circle” which is taking the circumstances of urban African American life and using it to interpret the Bible. In this “reading” we see such diverse groups as Father Divine’s, the Nation of Islam, and even the Pentecostal movement.
This reading is a very diverse one. It still interprets the Bible in the light of the experience of Black people, but this experience is very different now. We have urban and rural Black people in America. We have Pentecostals speaking of the Holy Ghost coming down in a powerful way. We have the nation of Islam and Black people of other religions who still feel the need to interact with the Bible. And we have the fringe groups like Father Divine. There is really no unity here, but a fracturing of some of the Unity we have seen in the past.
The fifth reading is a Fundamentalist reading called “stepping outside the circle.” In this reading some African Americans buy into the interpretive framework of hermeneutics independent of race. In this it is a distinct break from all the other readings that took African American life as its point of departure and actively sought to read the Bible to see what it has to say to Black people “with their backs against the wall.” The Bible is seen as racially neutral and universal and thus has little to say to the plight of Black people. The modern evangelical movement is taking part somewhat in this reading.
However all evangelicals are not in agreement with this assessment. There are some Black evangelicals who still feel the need to hold on to the 2nd and 3rd readings of the Bible while at that same time trying to stay in the evangelical movement. It is too early to tell what will happen here, but it is my hope that God will retain a remnant in that movement who will hold on to the God that liberates not just from spiritual but also physical bondage.
The sixth reading is an addition of the womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reading and thus “makes the circle true.” Here we add women’s voices to the different readings. A more accurate setup would probably recognize women’s voices all the way through, but in that this was simply a minor edit of the original paper, I think that it was very valuable to at least acknowledge our debt to our sisters.
This book is very valuable in providing a scheme for looking at how the Bible is operating in an African American sermon. More effort and work would have been appreciated in looking at such movements as the Pentecostal movement. I also would like to see more possible work at how some churches are attempting to navigate the call of African American Christianity as well as Evangelical Christianity. In any case, the book is a very valuable, and inexpensive, addition to the African American Preacher’s bookshelf.
We all know that the disciples had seen Jesus Crucified and now they have him resurrected. Certainly this is the time when everything will be fulfilled. They must have throught that now was the time for the Kingdom to be fully realized in this world. If at any time it would be then. And yet Jesus left again.
What an emotional rollercoaster ride they were on and it is no wonder that they just stood there gazing into the sky. Some might have been dumbstruck. Others have deja-vu. Some might have thought, “I knew it was too good to be true.” And others may have just been mad. Why did Jesus come back just to leave again?
The answer to their pain and shock was, “why are you gazing, the same Jesus will come back.” I am sure many of us know exactly how those desciples felt. We have seen God work in our own lives and then it seems that God leaves. And the only thing we have is that the same God who touched our lives will one day touch it again. The same God who was here will be here again. The same God who left us will come back again.
As we stand Gazing looking at the last place God has touched us the angel comes down and reminds us, “God will meet you again! Take Heart! God will meet you again.”
Happy are those who stand with God. The wicked are not so happy. In this Psalm the wicked are giving faulty advice. They scoff at God and truth. In contrast the righteous meditate on God’s word and law. So they stand in the Judgement.
What do I do? Do I stand with the righteous or the wicked? Do I delight in the law of the Lord or do I scoff at it? Do I make fun of those who stand for truth come what may? Becasue if I am not on the side of the righteous then the Lord who watches over the righteous will execute Judgment on me.
Oh Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart. Save me from my own desires that are not in line with Thee.
Genesis 2 gives us the second creation story. In this complementary story God goes through great pains to make all of the inhabitants of earth to live in community. The birds were made to be in community, the other animals as well had their community. And the final thing that God made was the man.
And yet there was not a helper of the man. There was no community. Adam is told to name all the animals. This naming of all the animals causes Adam to realize Adam’s need for a helper or a community. The song says, “I need you, You Need Me, We are a part of God’s body.” Adam realized from the naming exercise how much he needed another human being, he needed to be in community.
Today we must never get past the realization that God made all inhabitants of earth, human and animal, to be in community. Let us praise God for giving us not just our husbands or wives, but our friends, churchmembers, acquantances, and even our enemies. We would not be who we are were it not for that community that God created and gave to humanity in the beginning.
Genesis 1 paints the picture of a God that brings order out of the disorder. The earth was “without form and void” and after God speaks the earth becomes a paradise. As I think about this I come face to face with the reality of the disorder that we still find in the world.
Today we have disorder in the world and we have disorder in our lives. There are families that are rocked by disorder. Today there are lives that look like formless voids. It is here that our scripture speaks to us. For in the beginning God spoke order into disorder which speaks to God’s ability to do the same thing again today.
God speaks and order jumps out of disorder. Today we can praise God that God still speaks and God’s word still does the same thing.