Introduction

In a time when the message of the crucified and resurrected Jesus – victory through the cross/suffering – has been almost eclipsed by exclusive declarations of prosperity, Experiencing the Truth: Bringing the Reformation to the African American Church has rightly called such proclamations and their implications into question. In dealing with such matters, the book is spot on in that many men, particularly African American, are growing dissatisfied with many churches’ preoccupation with material gain and demagoguing. This work attempts to respond to the health and wealth or better yet, the capitalistic messages that fill so many American pulpits. And the response offered by the book is basically found in its subtitle: Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church. More specifically, this reformation should take place within five areas of the church as outlined by each chapter: theology, preaching, worship, spirituality, and grace/salvation.

Although, Experiencing the Truth should be appreciated for attempting to engage these problematic messages, unfortunately, the book’s prescriptions, particularly the theoretical model of a reformation extraneous to the Black church undermine the valuable theological resources of and intrinsic redemptive elements present within the Black church. This work also might have been more worthwhile if it was less likely to make superfluous proclamations without careful and detailed analyses that respect the integrity and context of the Black church. Therefore, with such gross shortcomings coupled with the perennial nature of this critical discussion among many Black Reformed people, a review seems to be mandated.

Theological Colonialism and the Black Church

Chapter one of Experiencing the Truth quickly opens by raising questions about the veracity of Black church practices, such as preaching, worship, ethics and consequently, theology. Carter then asserts:
The dearth of biblical truth among Christians today is caused by their search for places that serve them and meet their perceived needs rather than places where God is exalted and Christ is trusted because the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed. Yet, it is not only because people are looking for churches that will focus on their perceived felt needs; churches who are advertising themselves as places where people can get whatever they want, when they want it, and how they want it are equally responsible. This has created a chasm between Christianity in predominantly African-American churches and true, biblical Christian experience. Into this chasm we seek to posit historic, Reformed theology (p. 9).
Setting aside ambiguous notions of “felt needs,” it may very well be true that people look for churches that address matters that they think are important, but this is hardly the reason for the creation of this “chasm.” The so-called chasm “between Christianity in predominately African American churches and true, biblical Christian experience” is far from being a lack of “historic, Reformed theology.” If the African American Christian experience is truly a legitimate Christian experience, then is there really a “chasm” or just a different way of doing theology or church and bearing witness to Christ in the world?

To assert that there is a “chasm” uncritically assumes at least two things: (1) African American churches and “biblical Christian experience” are antithetical and (2) “biblical Christian experience” is not already cultural and necessarily conditioned by the social context of the Christian person having the experience. In other words, these points wrongly presuppose that there is such thing as a neutral disembodied “biblical Christian experience.” So when one gets behind the universalistic discourse of “biblical Christian experience,” what is implicitly being affirmed is a particular White Christian experience that masquerades as normative because of its hidden and undeclared nature. Furthermore, there have always been differences between Black churches and non-Black churches, particularly White churches. If such differences by virtue of their distinct experiences are called a “chasm” that somehow co-implicate Black churches as being unbiblical and White churches as being biblical, then this is patently false.

Unfortunately, the book’s logic that requires Reformed theology to close a “rift” between Black churches and legitimate Christian experience points up a type of theological colonialism whereby the theological reasoning of people of color is held captive by particular – White/Reformed – theological constructs and methodologies that subvert the humanity and ideological contributions of people of color. The miseducation of the Christian Negro will be greatly augmented as I have argued elsewhere to the extent Black Christians are unconscious of or do not want to come to terms with the ubiquitous nature of White theological colonialism.

And when White theological colonialism or deference is left unabated, the situation is most likely to continue on the course of a fathomless downward spiral toward theological blindness and nearsightedness. Put differently, White theological deference through colonizing the minds of its often unconscious adherents will not allow them to see what is really there (i.e., theological blindness) and only see what is placed in front of her or him (i.e., theological nearsightedness).

For instance, Carter argues, “Christianity in America, and particularly the predominantly African-American expression of Christianity, has sought to be a biblical faith, and Reformed theology has presented the most biblically consistent expression of Christianity and Christian thought known to the world” (p. 13) and “Reformed theology, when rightly understood and proclaimed, is the most truly experiential form of Christianity” (p. 16). If “Reformed theology has presented the most biblically consistent expression of Christianity and Christian thought known to the world,” then what does that actually imply about validity of other Christian traditions? Secondly, what is an “experiential form of Christianity?” Do non-experiential forms of Christianity exist? If so, what are they? Also if one thinks Carter’s statements are untenable and perhaps, bizarre, given the fallibility and finiteness of human discourse about God, then when Carter says, “Reformed theology is the hope of Christianity [and] it has been the hope of Christianity since the Reformation, and it continues to be the hope today” (p. 19), anyone, but especially those unfamiliar with Reformed theology might find such comments at best naïve or worse, elitist.

The number of questions that might be raised by these gratuitous assessments are entirely too many to list here. But some of the plaguing questions would be: If Reformed theology is “the hope of Christianity,” what about Jesus? What about those who have died (and will die!) never hearing of “the hope of Christianity” – Reformed theology? How can any human Christian tradition claim “hope” for the entire Christian faith? How can Reformed theology be “the most biblically consistent expression of Christianity and Christian thought known to the world,” and “the hope of Christianity since the Reformation” while creating and maintaining the most heinous forms of human evil (e.g., slavery and apartheid) that were part and parcel to its theological framework, which was legitimized biblically?

After making such brash assertions that may in part be due to White theological colonialism one would think that it would be supported by ample scholarly research, particularly from within the Black canon. For Carter to posit Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a new reformation, as the basic remedy for the Black church and woefully ignore the indispensable questions of theodicy (e.g., slavery, lynching, racism, Jim Crow, and apartheid) raised by William R. Jones’ groundbreaking work, Is God a White Racist? among other critical works (e.g., Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology by Anthony Pinn; Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West; Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition by Allan A. Boesak) in the Black theological canon is bewildering. Regrettably, a book purporting to deal with the Black church and by extension its religious and theological tradition, one would have expected more significant interaction with its canon. However, the reader would be hard pressed to find any thorough engagement with the wide range of Black religious and theological literature. And where there is engagement with the Black canon, it is terribly thin to the degree that it would be extremely difficult to identify the book as African American, at least methodologically.

An Uninformed Sociological Analysis

The problematic analysis of the book is furthered by a peculiar interpretation of a Washington Post journalist, John Fountain’s church experiences. Fountain’s testimony is worth quoting at length:
I am the grandson of a pastor and am myself a licensed minister. I love God and I love the church. I know church-speak and feel as comfortable shouting hallelujahs and amens and lifting my hands in the sanctuary as I do putting on my socks. I have danced in the spirit, spoken in tongues, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior. I once arrived faithfully at the door of every prayer meeting and went to nearly every Bible study and month-long revival. I attended umpteen services, even the midnight musicals and my church’s annual national meetings, like the one held two weeks ago in Kansas City. Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church (p. 12).
Notwithstanding the possible emotionalism that may be a part of Fountain’s experience, Carter’s odd and perhaps, ideologically driven analysis, seems to overlook the reason John Fountain himself gave for why he does not attend church, even as a licensed minister with all his previous involvement: “Yet I now feel disconnected. I am disconnected. Not necessarily from God, but from the church.” It is not so much the “emotional high” that is the problem with most churches, but rather a lack of community and sense of belonging.

Also there are many disillusioned Black church members of prosperity and mega churches for some of the reasons mentioned in the book, but they are not necessarily running toward evangelical or Reformed churches for answers because these churches are in many ways just as ill-equipped to deal with their questions and issues. Many young Black Christians in their 20s and 30s are tired of both evangelical/Reformed churches and prosperity churches for non-theological reasons. In fact, H. Dean Trulear, professor at Howard University School of Divinity, says, “What the reformed/evangelical and prosperity churches have in common is an emphasis on individualism, neither of which can ultimately satisfy a regenerated child of God created and now recreated in the image of an internally relational (internal economy) triune God.”

Contra Carter’s appraisal that believes Fountain’s testimony is a “sad illustration of a man who thinks he experienced God, when perhaps all he experienced was religious experience itself …[and] could use a Christianity that does not simply accentuate the novel and promote the excitable,” the broader American religious landscape seems to say otherwise. One could easily cite growing Christian movements, such as the emerging/emergent church or the rise of small-groups efforts, as a way of confronting privatization and individualism within churches. Emerging/Emergent churches, for example, are responding to similar concerns that Fountain had, but within a different context, specifically evangelical/Reformed. The problems within many American churches are not necessarily a preoccupation with having an energetic religious experience. Rather, American churches suffer from a lack of connectedness and community, which reinforces rampant American individualism. Robert Wuthnow in The Crisis in the Churches seems to further complicate Carter’s appraisal by arguing:
The prevalent theology seldom connects with the ways in which people think about their money or their work, and when it does, the connection is more likely to be one of solace than of prophetic vision…[Clergy persons] misperceive the spiritual dilemma of the middle class, failing to realize how pressured middle-class people feel nowadays and how deeply the middle class is afflicted by the complexities of new jobs, new information and new values. And they fail to recognize the extent to which they have accommodated the wider culture—and thus the extent to which their sermons fall on deaf ears because people are hearing nothing new, nothing that challenges them to live any differently than their neighbors who have no interest in religion (p. 5-8).
Therefore, Carter does not only seem wrong about the Black church, but also the broader religious context in America.

The Problematic Nature of the African American “Experience”

Apart from Reformed theology, the African American experience is the main basis of the book. Yet, oddly enough, there is no discussion on the nature of the “African American Christian experience.” Is it just appending Duke Ellington to Beethoven’s Symphony? With such an unanswered question, this only leads to more fundamental questions: What is “experiential truth?” Is there non-experiential truth? Is Reformed theology “experiential truth” because it can be subjectively experienced whereas other theologies cannot? How is it that Blacks “experience” the truth? Do Blacks “experience” the truth while Whites do not? What are the differences in how Blacks and Whites “experience” the truth? Does Reformed theology contain all “experiential truth” and African Americans do not?

These set of questions are paramount to the subject matter because we all have the problem of interpreting our experiences, particularly if we try to interpret our present experiences based upon past experiences. Therefore, Carter is right to offer a theoretical resource like Reformed theology to clarify human experiences, but wrong with regards to the kind and functional extent. In making his case, Carter says:
In fact, Reformed, biblical theology should serve as the foundation of all experiential truth, particularly the experience of African-Americans. To see the African-American Christian experience apart from an intentional application of Reformed theological principles is like reading a book by the moonlight. We can see the page well enough to make out the story, but it is so much easier and indeed enlightening to read by the direct light of the noonday sun. Reformed theology shines the noonday sun upon Christian experience so that we see more and further than we could by moonlight (p. 9).
Based upon the logic that Carter provides, Reformed theology functions as the theoretical resource by which Black Christians are to interpret their experiences. And Black Christians cannot fully understand their experiences independent of Reformed theology. In other words, Reformed theology is the only way African Americans can “truly” make sense of their experiences. So without Reformed theology, Black Christians are basically groping around under the “moonlight.”

Under this White theological colonialist model, White Christians supply the theoretical resources via Reformed theology without which African American Christians cannot meaningfully interpret their faith or Christian experience. To put it bluntly, Black Christians only provide experiences to the Christian tradition whereas White Christians provide theory (see Lewis R. Gordon’s Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought). What this deeply problematic schematization presupposes is that Black Christians do not in fact have indigenous theoretical/theological resources to clarify their own experiences because they only have experience, which is often a euphemism for having "passion," "high energy," or "rhythm." Therefore, with such a white supremacist ideology, particularly its epistemology and thus theology, African American Christians must always rely upon extraneous Western European theoretical resources to interpret their experiences and even beliefs or ideas. Having subordinated Black existence to the realm of “experience,” it will necessarily require Western European theoretical resources to not only validate African American “experience” as being “biblical,” but also to justify Black existence altogether.

Specifically, the fallout of this subordination is that if one’s existence is exclusively relegated to “experience” in such a way that she or he will always be dependent on the Other for ideas and reason, then she or he cannot have a legitimate point of view because that would necessitate having theoretical resources (e.g., ideas and reason) of their own. And if one does not have a point of view, then one cannot be fully human because having a point of view or giving an account of God’s creation through one’s particular ideas and reason is essential to what it means to be human. Therefore, if Blacks “experience” truth whereas Whites “reason” about truth, then Blacks are not even human. And Blacks are again enslaved by and slaves within a white supremacist theoretical framework that denies not only their humanity, but their existence, even though, many Blacks are complicit with such dehumanizing ideologies.

An Alternative Vision: A Reformation from Black folks

A way out of the theological and sociological quagmire of this work is to avoid reductionistic solutions that posit a low-grade Reformed theology, namely the 5-points of Calvinism and the 5 Solas of the Reformation as the answer for the problems of the Black church. The Black church does not need Reformed theology in order to be “saved.” However, this does not mean that Reformed theology has no place at all. Rather it does not occupy a solitary place. In other words, Reformed theology cannot be the only tradition at the table.

The paternalistic theoretical model of reformation coming from outside of the Black community into the Black community fundamentally undermines their humanity in such a way that Blacks could never become equally valuable contributors to the world, much less their own lives. Because in this method, Blacks find themselves again waiting to be rescued by the White Messiah in the form of Reformed theology while their humanity is essentialized into (theological) beneficiaries. In other words, what is needed for Black uplift is White theological assistance for the purposes of maintaining theological welfare among Blacks under the auspices of “biblical,” which can be a euphemism for theological homogeneity and White normativity.

Another problem with this approach is that it woefully fails to recognize that with all of the Black church’s shortcomings, it is essentially more than those shortcomings. With such an unfortunate theoretical course of action, the book’s method was plagued at the outset because embedded within it is a theory/theology of Black inferiority – low expectation – that inherently nullified the freedom and potential of Blacks as constructive image bearers. If the Black church is only defined in terms of its problems, this would seem to resurrect the methodological problem that Du Bois corrected at the beginning of the 20th century when he argued for a distinction between “the Negro problem” and the problems Negroes face.

In other words, Du Bois differentiated between the Negro as the problem and the problems occasioned by the Negro’s social environment. Therefore, we must be careful to avoid the methodological tendency to collapse the problems with the Black church into the Black church becoming the problem. Without this critical nuanced distinction, one could easily walk away with the impression that the problem with Christianity in America is the Black church, much like the problem with America is the Negro – the fact that the Negro exists. Put differently, Christianity in America would be improved without the drag that is exerted from the (caricatured) Black church.

Beyond the general assessment that some parts of the Black church are preoccupied with material success and superstardom, the book never really gets around to discussing other, perhaps more important, issues – substance abuse, unemployment, drug trafficking, poverty, health care, fatherlessness, HIV/AIDS, achievement gap, abortion, criminal justice system and so on – that affect many churches and its congregants. In fact, from the content of each chapter, it does not seem as though the authors are familiar with those issues, much less what an imperialistic reformation as advocated in the book has to do with unemployment, HIV/AIDS or poverty. If attention would have been given to those set of personal and social concerns that may occasion prosperity messages, perhaps, such messages would not seem so problematic.

Therefore, in contrast to the oversimplified solutions offered in the book, an alternative model, one that is indigenous and constructive, is desperately needed that accounts for more of the complexities of Black existence, including the church. We at Reformed Blacks of America have suggested an alternative vision on many occasions over the last couple of years, stated explicitly in Michael Mewborn’s “Haggai’s House Calls” and implicitly in my other works, specifically, “More Chocolate In My Milk Please: The Necessity of Integrating Blackness and Reformedness.” That vision is not so much about bringing a reformation or Reformed theology to the Black church, but more so bringing a reformation from Black communities and churches to Christendom and the world!

Unlike Carter and the authors of Experiencing the Truth, we do not believe that because many Black churches are not “Reformed,” then they must somehow “lack content” (p. 11). On the contrary, the Black church has historically acted more Christianly, particularly toward others, compared to their White counterparts due to (instead of a lack of!) biblical or proper theological beliefs. As a result, our basic starting point is that Black folks are not objects of history – a reformation to Black folks – but rather subjects of history – a reformation from Black folks. Black folks are not passive entities in the world waiting idly by for a foreign reformation, but rather active agents who engage the world by creating and shaping global reformations based upon their unique God-given theoretical resources and experiences.

Co-Founder Xavier Pickett

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Experiencing the Truth Chapter Reviews:
1. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Theology - Chapter 2 reviewed by Mark Robinson
2. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Preaching - Chapter 3 reviewed by Stephan Cobbert
3. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Worship - Chapter 4 reviewed by Randall Harris
4. Experiencing the Truth: What does Euro-American Reformed Spirituality have to do with African-American Christianity? (Biblical Spirituality, Chapter 5)
5. Experiencing the Truth: Grace So Amazing - Chapter 6 reviewed by Co-Founder Michael Mewborn