Can I urge you right from the get-go to consider reading this book? I urge you to read it whether you are black and Reformed, white or Reformed, black and non-Reformed or any other combination. No matter the relationship between you and the title, I am convinced Black & Reformed is a book that will benefit each and every person who reads it. See, there are many categories of books that we tend to overlook because we do not immediately understand how they apply to us. We may not read books on suffering because we are not now suffering, we may not read books on disability because our lives have not been seriously impacted by it, we may not read books on marriage because we are single. Yet when we neglect to read books written out of the experiences of other people and from their perspective we impoverish others and ourselves, we neglect an opportunity to better understand and love brothers and sisters in Christ.
As Christians there is a lot of value in learning about experiences that are not your own, experiences you, by definition, have not been able to have. There is value in perspectives on life and theology that you have not been able to see before. In the case of this book, I have plenty of experience of being Reformed but have no experience of being Reformed and black (and, in particular, African-American). In this way, and for this reader, the book opened my eyes to experiences and perspectives of the faith that were tremendously challenging and helpful.
Black & Reformed, now in its second edition and with a slight re-titling (It was first published in 2003 under the title On Being Black and Reformed), is Anthony Carter’s attempt to “ask, and posit answers to the basic questions of the African-American experience.” It is that and more. To this reader it was a demonstration that African-American Christians and churches are at their best when they ground themselves in Reformed theology and that Reformed churches are at their best when they deliberately discover and account for the unique strengths of African-American perspectives on the Christian faith.
We need to understand and admit that we all come to theological study with biases and prejudices. “These biases, however, are not inherently a negative. In fact, the danger is not that we look at the Scriptures with a jaundiced eye, but that we think we can look at them without one. If we recognize our biases and the impact of our experiences, we can become more capable and insightful teachers. The Holy Spirit can use our experiences in our interpretation of Scripture and formulation of theology that is relevant and effective.” We are all biased yet all prone to think that our perspective is the truest and most complete.
“My goal in Black & Reformed,” says Carter, “is to redeem and reform our perspective on the black American experience through the most legitimate lens available, theology—in particular, biblically based and historically grounded Reformed theology.” To do this he first has to defend the very idea that there is value in a black theology. “We need a sound, biblical black theological perspective because an unsound, unbiblical black theological perspective is the alternative. A large constituency of Christianity—namely, those of African-American descent—believes the truth claims of God, Christ, and the Scriptures, but feels that the larger body of Christian theology has ignored their cultural context and circumstances.” Conservative Christians have failed to deal wisely and justly with the unique issues related to African-American history and consciousness. “The sad yet irrefutable fact is that the theology of Western Christianity, dominated by white males, has had scant if any direct answers to the evils of racism and the detrimental effect of institutionalized discrimination. The major contributors to conservative theological thought over the centuries have, consciously or not, spoken predominantly to and for white people.” Our understanding of church history and the Christian faith will be enriched by integrating an African-American perspective on theology. Not only that, but we will now speak to the hearts of people who have far too long been overlooked.
The black church needs Reformed theology to increase and maintain its theological purity and strength. As Carter says, “My experience as an African-American Christian was not crystallized until I discovered the richness of Reformed theology and I coupled it with the indomitable character of African-American Christians.” At the same time, the Reformed church needs the African-American experience and perspective to widen and sharpen both theology and practice: “In the same way that the common articulation of American history has been little more than white American history, the common articulation of American theology has been little more than white American theology.” This theology is “incomplete insofar as it fails to consider the African-American Christian experience. … Just as an emphasis on African-American history can enhance and better our understanding of American history, so too does an emphasis on African-American theology enhance and better our understanding of theology. A biblically based and historically consistent black theology will not contradict the historic theology of the church (as the nascent black theologians did). Rather, it will enhance our theological understanding. Such diversity in theology is to the glory of God.”
For me, then, this may be the greatest takeaway from the book: To experience the fullest riches of the Christian faith we need to experience the unity of believers and gladly learn from their perspectives and experiences. Our temptation is always to think that we have all the knowledge and all the perspective we need. Yet “despite obvious God-glorifying benefits of seeking diversity in theology, most of the American theological community has neglected to incorporate the rich theological heritage of her darker brothers and sisters. As a result, it has been diminished to the extent that it has failed to do so.”
In his foreword, Thabiti Anyabwile says the first edition of this book was “the opening gambit in an effort to see the riches of the Reformed tradition joined unselfconsciously to the riches of African America. A decade later its insights continue to be relevant to those finding their way in Christian and ethnic identity.” And, indeed, they do. Black & Reformed is an excellent primer on one of the most pressing issues in American Evangelicalism today. It is equally at home in the hands of an African-American Christian investigating the claims of Reformed theology and in the hands of a white Christian seeking to better understand his African-American brothers and sisters.