The Black Church in the New Republic, the New York Times, and NPR

Paul Harvey

In a recent posting on
The New Republic's online The Book, Christine Stansell reviews a book that we've noted on the blog before: Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, a hefty 695 pp. work published by Knopf (almost, not quite, as long as Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, see the post and comments on that book below!). I wanted to bitch, at first, about why The Book didn't seek out a true scholar/expert in the field of African American women and religion to review the work at length. Nevertheless, I like the points made in the last two paragraphs:

Some books need to be written, and this is one of them. We need also another book about the arduous, angry battle between the sexes in the white Protestant churches, and that book, too, will be filled with unhappiness that women sought to pray away, along with uplifting stories of what they did to cope in a spirit of Christian humility. But the fact is that difficult knowledge that crosses the color line in America always carries an extra charge, one that can redound badly on blacks.

Perhaps for that reason, a lot in Collier-Thomas’s long book goes unsaid, and so it is not easy to read. It has the problems of an older, fact-driven history: dates and places pile up, landmarks appear, and names whiz by, seldom to be worked up as characters. Yet it has the virtues of its empiricism as well. These mounds of facts, culled from reams of dusty church minutes, religious monthlies, and ladies’ societies reports, contain the materials to re-imagine an entire political and spiritual history. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, I would as soon have this history of these ladies praying in the pews as I would the hundred and fiftieth life of George Washington.

Shout out on that last point.

Perhaps the public "debate" (if an online contest between scholars and intellectuals can be called that) about Eddie Glaude's essay on "the death of the black church" could use some more of these virtues of empiricism. If so, Anthea Butler's interview on NPR is a good place to start. Anthea says,

But I teach a younger generation, and I need to tell you, they don't know what AME means. They don't know what CME means. They don't care. They don't know which Baptist is which from another. They don't get those old black church denominational structures. So I think what this is going to force people to do is to update themselves for the 21st century and realize that the conversations that have been in the past aren't quite the conversations that are going on now.

In case you missed it, reactions to Eddie Glaude's original essay "The Black Church is Dead" (published originally on Huffington Post) are discussed at length in this article from the New York Times.


John G. Turner at: May 3, 2010 at 10:19 PM said...

Butler's comment is interesting in light of Laurie Maffly-Kipp's new Setting Down the Sacred Past, which I'm currently halfway through. She argues, among other things, that the failure to understand the diversity of the black confessional experience (and the salience of those confessional arguments and divisions) reifies the construct of a unified and monolithic "black church."

Art at: May 4, 2010 at 5:55 AM said...

Enjoyed the Butler interview. Also appreciated the albeit brief discussion of variety within the sphere of black religions. I'm not sure this has been discussed enough in the debate, but I haven't been reading along all that closely...

MARTIN:'ve also said that the black church may be dead in its incarnation as an agent of change. But you also say as the imagined home of all things black and Christian, it is alive and well. What does that mean?

Prof. BUTLER: What I mean by that is this: I mean, everyone had this idea about what the black church was, especially in civil rights movement. And if you think back historically to Du Bois and others who gave us the structure of the words the black church, right, what has happened now is that with Eddie's article, what it means is that people have imagined this to be this powerful social force, when it's always been very complicated.

And so now the show, as I'd like to call it, is in part about performance, but on the other side of it, I really do think that the ways in which we saw, in the 2008 election, how the black church got reconfigured in certain ways because of the election of Obama and the kinds of election politics that were played, and even if you go back to 2004, the coalition of what everybody thinks the black church is has broken apart.

MARTIN: Well, it sounds, in a way, though, that you agree with him. I mean, you say that the black church as a vehicle for social change really is no more.

Prof. BUTLER: I think there are individual churches that are agents of social change. As a collective whole, that has always been problematic. But, see, the other part of this - which I think did not come out in Professor Glaude's statement - is that you have people sitting in those pews. And the people in the pews really don't want the intellectual conversation about this. They are still very much invested in that church being an agent of change in their community. Now, it may be an agent of change on the micro level, but on the macro level, this larger level, that remains to be seen.

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