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The Recovery of a Powerful Art
By Henry H. Mitchell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1990 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Why Black Preaching?
Martin Luther King, Sr. ("Daddy King" to many of us younger preachers), once declared from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta that there was no such thing as Black preaching or Black theology. He was rightfully seeking to remove differences and draw the racial groups closer together, but such differences cannot simply be spoken out of existence. In our conversation after the service, I quietly advised Dr. King that not all of us had such a "daddy" with his circle of pulpit giants to teach us how to be effective in the pulpit of a predominantly Black congregation. Martin, Jr., had been such a powerful preacher, not so much on the basis of his seminary training as on the basis of what he had heard all his life. My task as the first Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Professor of Black Church Studies at Colgate Rochester Divinity School was to try to help those who were not the sons of gifted "priests" to achieve a proficiency similar to what "Daddy" and others had unknowingly taught his son.
The key to understanding the different styles of preaching is in the word culture: Preaching is carried out in the idiom, imagery, style, and world view of a particular people. The most obvious aspect of cultural differences is often in the very language used in preaching, whether Spanish or Twi or Arabic. But within a given language group such as English, there may exist a host of subgroups, each with an entirely different set of experiences to bring to the meanings of the very same vocabulary. Listen to the singing of "Amazing Grace" in a Black Baptist congregation and in a White Baptist congregation, and you will see exactly what I mean. The timing is different, the body language is different, and there is a huge difference in meaning when they sing the third stanza about "dangers, toils, and snares."
The uniqueness of the Black experience in America is so important to the understanding of Black preaching that the next chapter is devoted to the history of the Black pulpit tradition. Without taking a careful look at the factors that form this tradition, one once might have been tempted to assume that Blacks preach the way they do because they do not have enough formal education to preach like the White Protestant majority. But that, of course, is out of the question today. Blacks are now being asked to teach homiletics in seminaries all over the nation. It is increasingly clear that this Black tradition has much to offer all cultures. Just as Black music helped to make Elvis Presley the idol of a virtual cult, Black preaching has greatly influenced the style of some of America's most popular media ministers. And now the great Riverside Church of New York City, of national fame as a center of preaching in the Fosdick era, has called as its preacher a Black named James A. Forbes, Jr. What is the basis of this growing acceptance, and what has it to do with the unique cultural roots of Black preaching?
Before looking at the history of the Black pulpit tradition, let us look at the culture of this tradition. Without Black culture, there could be no Black preaching. What is the role of culture, and how does it affect the very meaning of the gospel?
The Importance of Culture
Culture is the accumulation over time of all the wisdom and methods of a given cultural group, for the purpose of ensuring its survival. Each group has a menu of acceptable foods, a collection of proper hairstyles and attire, a way to greet people, ways to sing music and tell stories, and ways to build homes and rear children. In addition to language, and included in the language, is a way to view the world—a belief system. I am reminded of this often, when I have to work so hard to delete sexist terms from materials I edit. If the writing had been in some of the West African languages, then there would be no need to avoid gender specific pronouns, since these languages have none. In the world view there, a person is a person, regardless of gender. African slaves were thought of as ignorant when they used the same pronouns for everybody, but now we know they had a sophistication to be desired in a world of liberated women. Subtle and obvious cultural differences like these require different modes of preaching the one Lord and one faith and one Bible.
Africans also practiced the supposedly recently discovered holistic way of practicing medicine. The mislabeled "witch doctor" was actually well apprenticed in both homeopathic (herbal) medicine and a form of psychiatry, in addition to the mysteries of religion. A more accurate term for this expert in these three inseparable fields would be "priest-doctor." If today's Black Christians turn to church, pastor, and religion for virtually everything, it is only a habit from the centuries, going back beyond their ancestors' arrival in North America to the culture of West Africa.
There have been widespread rumors that African Americans were fully stripped of their culture by the middle passage and the breaking-in process to which slaves were subjected, but this belief is rightfully dying out. Too much evidence affirming the contrary is visible to the eye of the American Black who goes to West Africa. I once wrote a doctoral dissertation on this very subject (published as Black Belief, Harper & Row, 1975), but it is enough here to say that culture has an impressive tenacity. Unless one separates babies and their mothers immediately after birth, at least some of the culture will be passed on. In fact, even at birth a baby may already be conditioned to trust or distrust the environment. So if American Blacks sound remarkably like some traditional Africans in worship (African Traditional Religion), it is only natural. Slave bosses could change the length of hoes and the manner of cultivating crops, but they could not change how the slaves believed. Nor how they prayed and sang at night in their cabins, or in unlawful gatherings in brush arbors and the like.
The great strength of Black Christianity today, therefore, is not due to any great missionary activity, but to independent, clandestine meetings which adapted their African Traditional Religion (very close to that of the Old Testament) into a profoundly creative and authentically Christian faith. Black Christianity has the tremendous momentum of a faith deeply imbedded in the culture. Black Christianity refuses to die easily; decades of brutal and alienating urban existence and exposure were necessary to make even the dent in Black culture and religion that is apparent today.
This fact has an interesting application in mainline White Protestantism in America. Much of the present decline in mainline White Protestant denominations is the result of a theological-educational elitism which considers folk religion of the early American frontiers too ignorant for our times. I was once hired as a consultant, and the most significant result of my efforts was to persuade a very important body of religious professionals to put "Amazing Grace" back into their hymnal. Television preachers are not as successful as they are because people crave obscurantist ideas; people just want some warmth and spontaneity, something that speaks to their entire being, not only to their intellectual consciousness. People's "nostalgia" for this type of worship is a cultural survival from another century of American life.
The real message of this cultural consideration, then, is not the promotion of a particular culture, but the insistence that the preacher affirm and work within the culture of the congregation. Whatever that culture may be, it is utterly fruitless to try to communicate effectively outside it. The preacher should also remember never to fight a war with or engage in frontal attack against the surrounding culture; it is too well entrenched and one could get uselessly wasted. And besides, if the preacher were to succeed on a large scale, it would be disastrous for the hearers to see so much of their survival kit destroyed. They could very well become pathologically disoriented, requiring institutional care. Fortunately, very few people are ever successfully stripped of their culture and world view.
This insight affects churches denominationally as well. From time to time, there have been sizable departures from the ranks of United Methodism (the Holiness groups) because the denomination was losing the fire which once characterized the "shoutin' Methodists." The strength of the A.M.E.s (African Methodist Episcopals) in some parts of the South can be traced to the extent of the affirmation of their own culture in those areas, according to Frank Madison Reid III, a third generation A.M.E. preacher. I agree with his belief that the areas under the leadership of the venerable Bishop Daniel A. Payne (father of Wilberforce University) after the Civil War are the weakest areas today. It was Payne who called African shouts "fist and hoof religion," and who urged that emerging illiterates worship with hymnbooks, anthems, and organs. The areas under the leadership of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and men like him are far stronger today, because those leaders affirmed the African heritage in worship while upholding education and a manifestly orthodox system of belief.
A great deal of learning from other cultural backgrounds is expressed in Black sermons, to be sure, but it is always most effectively communicated by being translated into the "mother tongue"—the imagery and idiom of the Black masses. Culture is a factor that cannot be overlooked. It is primarily a medium rather than a content. No amount of concern for educational levels or correctness of belief should be allowed to lure the preacher into frontal engagement with the fundamental wisdom of the communal life of a group or race.
This is not to suggest, however, that culture is automatically sacred and untouchable, or that it is buried too deeply to be changed. Quite to the contrary, there are times when it desperately needs to be altered. The point is simply that what was not formed by rational discourse in the first place cannot be changed by that means. Important change has taken place as a result of preaching, but the preaching has been within the traditional style. The hearers have been seeking wisdom all along, and they welcome what is presented as an extension of the faith already accepted. This process, called acculturation, has avoided making the hearers feel that their ancestral wisdom and their own identity are under attack. Acculturation rather than intellectual imperialism is the preferred process.
The mainstream middle class churches of today are suffering decline, in part because their clergy have been taught to scoff at and war against the "less intellectual" belief system of the average member. Some clergy who have considered themselves martyrs to the cause of justice have actually been victims of their own estrangement from the people. If such clergy had only instructed the people from the people's own frame of reference, then the people might have gladly defended the pastor's right to follow his or her prophetic conscience. "Amazing Grace" and "O Happy Day" may have been ignored in the hymnbook, but the hymns broke out on the pop charts. They who speak the language of the revivalism that made America what it is can lead many of the most theologically conservative to concerns for justice, granted they speak in their mother tongue. Indeed, the most stable base for social ministries in Christian churches may well be the religious groups with a "gut" grasp of justice as a biblical mandate.
It is interesting to me that the thousands who sacrificed so much to follow the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr., were moved and sustained by spirituals and gospel songs, which are more akin to country and western than to classical. When a message rides in on the surrounding culture, it partakes of the power and lasting quality of that culture. The results among traditional Christians and people outside the church can be astounding. In the African American community, lyrics of gospel songs turn up in the most unexpected places, and the Christian world view is expressed unashamedly by persons who never set foot inside a church. They may not be fully believing and committed followers of Christ, but they are not very far from the Kingdom. Because the Word in the Black churches is often preached and sung in familiar idiom, it is not confined within the church walls.
An illustration of this reality occurred many years ago. A Black head nurse on an obstetrics ward in Brooklyn was commenting on the various ways the women of various cultures responded to the final pains of labor. Some went so far as to curse their husbands for their part in this sacred process. But the pattern of African American mothers was to cry to God, "Have mercy!"—no matter how far they were from church membership, or how deeply involved they were in prostitution, dope, or rackets. If they were reared in a Black community, then they called on God in the climax of the crisis. The residue of religion expressed in foxholes is better than none, and it can be the foundation for later growth.
Fearing that Black culture had lost its grip in the twenty-five or more years since that interview, I asked other nurses across the nation if they thought this report was typical and accurate. Invariably they agreed and were pleased, although most had not noted it before. One eighteen-year veteran offered an amendment: "It's not just the women, and it's not just the labor. Let that real pain strike one of us, man or woman, and we'll call on God no matter what." Whatever the credibility of the sample, and whatever the possibility that other cultures are equally prone to call on God, this much is certain: Culture does affect awareness of and openness to faith.
The African American Hermeneutic
To more fully understand how significantly Black culture shapes interpretations, let us consider the implications of the term hermeneutic. Such a consideration may seem strange, at first, since scholars know the word as part of the name for a German school of theological thought. Today Americans are trying to get away from German domination, and Blacks are trying to shake off majority influence of any kind. In this vein, Alan Geyer, editor of Christian Century, wrote in 1969:
Systematic theology, by and large, remains in a state of Teutonic captivity. The Aryan bias of Christian doctrine is perhaps the most serious intellectual obstacle to full ecumenical fellowship with the younger churches, to their own theological creativity and to Christian evangelism in Asia, Africa and Latin America ...; the tragedy is that because of the confinement of even non-Western theologians in Teutonic captivity very few indigenous theologies [or religious ideas and interpretations] have emerged.
Black Christianity is in a condition similar to Asian, African, and Latin American Christianity. The difference is that Black Christianity has been on its own much longer. The faith once defined by the Bible and interpreted by the White man never really took hold among Blacks. The fact that Black and White were in geographical proximity was unimportant. Their worlds were far removed; segregation was king. If nothing else, Blacks were in charge of their own churches and Bible interpretation.
Thus, Black Christianity does in fact have more of its own beliefs than is generally recognized. These beliefs simply have not been committed to writing by the Black church. In fact, only in the past twenty years have we become aware that we have any ideas or serious interpretations worth preserving. Now that this self-respect has dawned, there is still the problem of a language in which to frame these ideas. In the absence of something better, we seem to have no other choice than to borrow from the existing theological vocabulary. The term "Black hermeneutic" seems to provide the handiest name for the unique thoughts and interpretations of the Bible that grow out of the Black religious experience and are expressed in Black preaching.
In other words, a good way to be sure that any theologically informed person understands the folk-patterns of interpretation occurring in Black culture is to call attention to the ways in which these patterns parallel the New Hermeneutic. This German term does not legitimate the culture, but it names a long-valid process and stimulates fresh reflection on a tradition taken for granted. Bluntly put, the Black preacher, whether in folk mode or working from a background of professional training, has been apt to trade "learned" language for indigenous vocabulary, familiar images and metaphors, and common experience. This has been thought of as making it plain, which is the same as the existential meaningfulness for which the New Hermeneutic strives.
Excerpted from Black Preaching by Henry H. Mitchell. Copyright © 1990 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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