Tertullian, 4th-century African theologian, once asked, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" Of course Tertullian was asking this question as a way to say that Christians should not import alien pagan philosophical ideas and assumptions into their understanding of the Christian faith. Athens, for Tertullian, represented a worldly way, as we say in church, to get at the Ultimate or ens realissimum (the realest Real) whereas Jerusalem represented the more faithful way, to understand the God of orthodox Christian faith. For Tertullian this was a practical matter. His passion, if we are to believe some of his contemporaries and commentaries, was for Christians not to lose their souls while reading Plato in one hand and Paul in the other. He's echoing Paul in his famous passage in Colossians 2:8:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
In this bit of anecdotal history and scripture I found an analogy with Kenneth Jones' chapter on “Biblical Spirituality: Experiencing the Spirit of God.” He begins our journey to biblical spirituality by first alerting us (which we will address at the end) of a new black spirituality that is gaining currency in the 'traditional black church.'. The new black spirituality is in concert with the changing face of 'American evangelicalism'. He then takes us into a faithful historical reconstruction of early North American Christian history, which is specifically the Christianity of some (if not most) of the colonists. Jones focuses in on the particular and very local theology of the Reformation. The orthodox theology of the Reformation consisted of "the solas of the Reformation, the sovereignty of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, sin and depravity, and the sufficiency and centrality of Christ."(Jones, p. 108)

We are then taken on an extended historical journey into slave Christianity and its tenuous relationship with Euro-American Christianity. The narrative is as detailed as you can get with only a couple of pages to work out a very complex history filled with both tragedy and triumph. I was very hopeful to think that many of my Euro-American Christian brothers and sisters will get a good dose of black church history. The black church still remains the strange 'other' in most of North American Christianity as evidenced by some of the recent responses to black theology of the more prophetic and social justice streams of the traditional black church.

From Jones' reading of the history I assume I am to learn, as one who is active in the black church, that Euro-American Christianity has its own heroes (from Martin Luther to George Whitefield). As a Christian, in the black church, I am to learn to appreciate and wrestle with the Euro-American Christianity of the many white patriarchs he mentions in his narrative. I am also to re-consider some of the caricatures often associated with the 'white man's religion.' An example of this would be to take a second look at the esteemed doctrine of Predestination held by many Reformed Christians, of many colors.

Predestination, as taught by Euro-American Christians, we are told, is viewed in suspicion because of the history of black people. The histories of slavery, sharecropping, voting disenfranchisement, white theological terrorism, Jim Crow, socio-political exclusionary practices, and many other episodes in North American history, past and present, are difficult to square with the eternal decree of God. That God willed and wills these realities is a difficult thing to bear as a person attached to a history of oppression and marginalization. And that's what many African-Americans hear. They hear God saying, "I wanted your people to suffer at hands of the theo-political terrorism of whiteness."

Of course this is a question of theodicy. But I think it’s deeper than that. A part of the difficulty arises from the location of where Predestination is taught or assumed to have the right of pedagogical primacy and normativity. Jones' famous quote from Phyllis Wheatley can be a good entry point to discuss this matter among black Christians. Her mid-rash on slavery and the providence of God would be a good entry point to discuss the doctrine of Predestination.

The pinch or difficulty comes, I believe, when Euro-American Christians tell black people what they should believe about their history and how they should theologically process their history, with the language-games of Euro-American reformed theology. These language-games have very little familiarity with the complexities of black life and black church history. These Language-games have had a very interested socio-political existence. An existence that often is blind (consciously and unconsciously) to the effects of theological white-ness on previously subjugated and oppressed peoples. It want's to speak without earning the right to speak. But this is the legacy of theological white-ness. That white-ness through the language-game of Euro-American Reformed theology is given pride of place in pedagogical processes is standard fare in talk about God. This is exampled by the naming of a localized theology, Euro-American Reformed theology, with the signifier 'biblical spirituality'. A part of the history of colonizing theological white-ness is the presumption to speak from a position of normativity and universality.

Bringing Euro-American Reformed spirituality under the guise of 'biblical spirituality' to the black church will be suspect. This attempt is suspect because on the surface it [Euro-American Reformed spirituality] seems to be very dis-interested in the complexity of black life. It seems to want to hold normative the American experience of Euro-Americans. For instance, Jones' brings us in on the conversation surrounding 'black theology' and what he calls 'black churchism':
Black spirituality from the perspective of “black theology” is more than just our unique soulful flavoring of historic Christianity. It is
doing theology from a different starting point (“oppression and suffering” as opposed to creation, the fall, and original sin), and with a different aim (to seek the liberation of the oppressed). But this is not the position of most African-American Christians, regardless of the fact that many black churches consciously or otherwise preserve the tone and tenor of “black churchism.” (Jones, 123-124)
Nowhere have I read in black theology that the starting point was 'oppression and suffering'. Black theology's starting point is a recognition that all theology is localized. Its starting point is the biblical witness that our knowledge of God is partial (I Corinthians 13) and speaks from a particular social location. An element of the location of black people is the history of oppression and suffering but that is not the whole story. Black theology and indigenous black church practices sought to resist white theological terrorism and re-humanize black people. That's why church mothers wear those big hats. Black church space was the only space in black life that one could be reminded that they were the imago dei or image of God.

To suggest that Black theology is opposed to creation, fall, and original sin is to be unaware of the biblical narrative at work in black church life. Just because it doesn't speak the language-games of ‘Euro-American Reformed theology proper’ doesn't mean it is 'opposed' to a faithful narration of the biblical story.

Furthermore, oppression and suffering are a part of the biblical narrative and examples of creation, fall, and original sin. The historical reality of black suffering and oppression is very much a manifestation of original sin and the fall. To suggest a bi-polarity between black suffering and sin is a curious move on the part of one trying to bring something to the black church. The suffering of black people on the part of white theological terrorism was sinful. To suggest otherwise is to sustain the narrative of white theo-political supremacy in the name of the Supremacy of Christ.

On to 'spirituality'. How should black Christians go about the business of 'biblical spirituality'? Jones' anecdote is the language-games, cadence, and rhythm of Euro-American Reformed theology and praxis. We must talk like white Christians in order to have a faithful biblical spirituality. Most black churches would be offended by such a statement. Nothing in his prognosis speaks to the complexity of black life. But it can't can it? Because it speaks from a localized position of Euro-American theology and church life. I think he has partly missed an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with black church life. He misses it because he is proposing to bring to the black church the assumed normative experience of Euro-American church life and language into a foreign space.

He wants black Christians to conceive of 'biblical spirituality' through the experience and lens of Euro-American theological language-games that have little interest in the complexity of black life. I admit that there is much we can learn from each other. But this will require humility on both ends of the spectrum. It is the recognition, as Jones carefully lays out, that streams of Reformed theology already indigenous to black church life (think African Methodist Episcopalian!). But it is also the recognition of the local nature of Euro-American Reformed theology and its connection with a presumed whiteness-as-norm in both an unconscious theologizing and church practice.

What does Euro-American Christian spirituality have to do with black Christian spirituality? A lot I suppose but we need to learn from each other. This will require a theological and epistemological humility given witness to in new streams of North American Christianity, such as the emerging church movement. Jones' actually gives a brief shout-out to one the movement's popular leaders, Brian McLaren. Of course he only quotes the title of the book as a way to give a description of the supposed negative pathologies inflicting American evangelicalism. McLaren is a part of an anything-goes-theology, we are told by Jones. But this is far from true. McLaren and many others in the emerging church movement are asking for praxis of theological and ecclesial humility and a recognition of how our theology has operated in and through a specific place of cultural privilege that has done some pretty bad stuff in history.

Many in the emerging church are calling for a theological and philosophical inventory of 'how' we do our theology. Such is an honest assessment that should recognize the epistemological posture from which our theology speaks and gains its legs. The language and praxis of modernity, the good and the bad, deeply entrench our theological imaginations. As a part of modernity is the emergence and reign of white theological terrorism and the invading alien forces of white theological homogeneity on the black church psyche. This is what is heard, in part, when I hear a call for 'biblical spirituality' dressed in Euro-American Reformed language-games.

I prefer to hear a conversation among friends than a monologue. Which brings us back to the ‘us’ being alerted of the new black spirituality. Who will be truly alerted by this chapter and book? I suspect that many blacks that live in the world of Euro-American Reformed theology will find this book appeasing to their own interests and sensibility but I wonder about those of us not entirely in this world. Will we find a friend here or will we find another form of colonizing Christianity without the interest of black Christian spirituality in view?

Anthony Smith (aka Postmodern Negro)


Experiencing the Truth Chapter Reviews:
1. Experiencing the Truth: A Critical Review Article of the Introduction - Chapter 1 reviewed by Co-Founder Xavier Pickett
2. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Theology - Chapter 2 reviewed by Mark Robinson
3. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Preaching - Chapter 3 reviewed by Stephan Cobbert
4. Experiencing the Truth: Biblical Worship - Chapter 4 reviewed by Randall Harris
5. Experiencing the Truth: Grace So Amazing - Chapter 6 reviewed by Co-Founder Michael Mewborn