Today continues with the series, “I once was raised… but now I’ve found…” where some of my favorite authors, bloggers, scholars, and theologians explain the transitions they have encountered along their own faith journey. As the series continues, you’ll find me interviewing the guest bloggers below, as they answer questions I’ve posed about their experiences.
My interview with Drew proved to be too intense and too important to try and cram into one long blog post, so I’ll be posting part II in the near future. I hope you enjoy it, and learn from them as much as I have.
Tyler- Evangelical is a word thrown around a lot in the media and in Christian circles. One rarely hears the phrase “African American Evangelical”–can you share what makes African American Evangelicalism and what its like being raised in that environment?
Great question, although in reality, I think people are probably a lot more familiar with what I call ‘African American Evangelicalism’ than they realize. However, I will start with a definition before I go there. As I see it, African American Evangelicalism is the by-product of Evangelical theology and African American experience blending together. So, in this sense, African American Evangelicalism would not be an exact duplicate of most dominant cultural expressions of evangelicalism. And yet still, they are closely related. Most African Americans share a lot in common theologically with evangelicals already, which is no surprise given that Black faith at the core is significantly shaped by the reinterpretation of white southern Baptist and southern Methodist traditions, in which Africans converted to in mass in the midst of slavery.
The language of ‘personal faith in Jesus’, ‘personal savior’, ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’, and other personal pietistic phrases unveil some of the commonalities shared in both communities. It has also inherited doctrines like substitutionary atonement, some hymns, and at times even a few worship songs. Along with those things, they both have a similar “canon within the canon” of Scripture that shapes their theology and biblical interpretation. For example, for most evangelicals in dominant culture, the Gospel of John is preferred over the Synoptics, and likewise Paul’s letters are preferred over the other Gospel accounts when seeking to understand who Jesus is (along with the creeds). Of course, if you suggested this to many AAEs, they would be repulsed and deny it, but this is nonetheless the operative methodology in most of these communities.
African American Evangelicals are likely to learn things like the Romans Road, as well as to think of the gospel as a sales pitch for heaven rather than being the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom. While they often believe in social “outreach” as important, they also tend to see those things as separate and distinct realities than evangelism and “saving souls”. (Please excuse my over-generalizations, because certainly many of these points would be fiercely challenged by some African American Evangelicals, but I think it is a fair depiction of the core tradition for the past few decades).
However, African American Evangelicals also interpret evangelical theology through the grid of the African American experience (although many wouldn’t own up to it verbally, because most also believe we are supposed to be objective and speak the universal truth of the Bible void of cultural influence and one’s own experience). But you ultimately cannot step outside of the cultural and historical situated place and time that you find yourself in. One’s experience of racial discrimination and marginalization will inevitably shape your faith and religion. Nonetheless, the orally ‘gifted’ reality that is common in many African Americans has created a tradition that has carried a surplus of wisdom within African American Evangelical communities. Contemporary gospel music, spirituals, and traditional African American hymns are important in the worship life of AAE churches. This binds them (at least in part) in the Black Church tradition in America. Sometimes watered down, but call and response, and a degree of charismatic worship are common in AAE churches. I’ve always thought that AAE churches are very similar to Black Baptist churches and often those are the churches that AAE churches fellowship with most. Many that have grown up in Black Baptist churches transition into AAE churches effortlessly. In essence, AAE churches usually have one foot in the Black Church tradition while another being influenced by the larger evangelical theological frameworks, categories, trends, and because of this, there are often relationships across the racial divide that exist.
I could go on and on about what makes an AAE tradition both similar and distinct to the larger evangelical world. But, as stated earlier, most white evangelicals are primarily familiar with African American Evangelical Christians (more than they realize) rather than with those that have been raised in more historic African American traditions like AME, COGIC, or Black Baptist communities. Most African Americans who are AAE do not associate under the label ‘evangelical’ in the same way as many white evangelicals often have. But they are around. Consider popular Christian leaders like Tony Evans, who probably is the epitome of African American Evangelicalism, and certainly is a prominent leader. Now the last couple of paragraphs might seem solely negative, but I do not intend to be. There have been lots of great prophetic voices that have come out of the AAE church. Just take John Perkins, Lisa Sharon-Harper, Brenda Salter-McNeil, or the late Tom Skinner. Each of these people are African American Evangelicals. Even Tony Evans has a few books that are specifically on the topic of race and racism. The best African American Evangelicals to tackle these issues, like Tom Skinner for example, have embraced their African American heritage and experience, seeing it as a strength, and have made evangelical theology do things it was never intended to do. And it is these prophetic African American Evangelicals that have continued to deeply shape my faith.
Tyler- Post-home life seems to be a major opportunity for growth in the life of the one who is leaving home. I know its true for my college experience, and it seems to be for yours as well. What was it like leaving home and growing out of your comfort zone while you were at Messiah College?
I will only share briefly on this, but a much fuller detailing of my time at Messiah is going to be featured at Christena Cleveland’s blog in the near future (www.christenacleveland.com). But in short, Messiah College was a significant time for me to get out on my own, to wrestle and struggle over what I believed, and to begin to find my own voice. Living on a Christian campus as a young black male was not easy. It was a huge culture shock for me, while I was also coming to terms with the racial marginalization that was going on there. In short, I experienced more racial prejudice from white Christian students on campus than I had ever previously with white non-Christians. However, at the same time that I was wrestling over the meaning of the unexpected, subtle, yet ever present racial hostility that I encountered from many (not all) students,
I was also being challenged in my faith. I was a Biblical Studies major, and I was having my paradigm completely shattered. In fact, it was here at Messiah College, which developed historically out of the Brethren in Christ Church, that I first learned about Anabaptists (though I had not adopted such terms for myself while I was there). I was forced to a place where I had to wrestle with scripture and how so many had interpreted it in so many different ways. It was during my junior year, when I believe the Spirit helped me ‘see’. It was at that point that I began quickly jotting down notes and scriptural references, working out a theology of scriptural interpretation through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings. This, coupled with my program’s emphasis on historical contextualization of scripture, helped me see how reconciliation, justice, and peace, were integral theological categories that ought to form the present faithfulness of the Church and its eschatological vision for the future. I like to think that the seeds of Anabaptism took root at this time.
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Drew GI Hart, where he discusses how his journey towards the historic Black prophetic movement came crashing into his new discovery of Anabaptist theology and experience. Here he deals with the synthesis of two seemingly separate, but closer than imagined histories of oppression and why they need each other.
Drew is a theologian, blogger, PhD student, urban church planter, and self-styled Anablacktivist. If you wanna check in on Drew’s musings, visit him over at Drew GI Hart
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