When Crossway was offering books to bloggers for review, I was eager and tentative at the same time to take on this book, Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation, edited by Anthony B. Bradley, (2011). Would a middle class white reader such as myself have anything to gain from this conversation? It turns out, I do, partly because we are all believers in Christ, the writers and me, the reader. I highly recommend this to any believer, of any skin color, but I also can recommend this to those who don't share the faith of the contributors, because the church is essential to the discussion of African-American culture.
Each author uses the controversial book by Cosby and Poussaint Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors (2007) as their foil. Regardless of the validity of Cosby and Poussaint's statistics, which were questioned by another black intellectual, Michael Eric Dyson, the authors see these issues in need of spiritual answers, found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dyson's input is acknowledged in the opening and closing chapters, but whether drop out rates are higher or equal to whites, they are still too high. So what are the solutions? There are ten essays with overlapping and non-exclusive proposals. I want to highlight some of them, based on the amount of my underlining.
The first chapter, by Vincent Bacote, PhD, finds a path in discovering the true history of African-Americans, also known as the archeaological approach. For African-Americans this is seen in efforts such as Black History Month (something I've blogged through a few times). But Bacote doesn't want the story to start in the 1600's, when Africans were being brought to North America. He wants the church to inform their congregations of their ancient history, recorded in Genesis, flowing through the gospels and culminating in John's Revelation. This is an important job for the church, as no other institution in our culture will do this. He then references a song from one of my favorite bands, "Our hope in the future directs our gaze to a day when we are free from our personal, relational, and societal dysfunction. An eschatological vision tells us where we are going. In the words of the band King's X, "we are finding who we are," and echo of 1 John 3:2..." (p. 37). In other words, Bacote wants the church to refocus on spiritual formation, catechesis.
In the second chapter, Bruce Fields, PhD, seeks a restoration of the value of the Biblical vision of family, a husband and a wife and their children. But so much needs to be overcome. "The foundations for the perpetuation of the family and the enhancement of its effectiveness in the African-American community must incorporate some historical reflections, beginning iwth an analysis of the devastating effects that slavery had on the black family in America... Families could be easily broken up, with family members being sold simply at the master's whim or because of economic necessities." (p. 43) He then proceeds to show the case for the Bibllical family model from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Matthew. He declares, "Marriage is something with which God is intimately involved. Thus from a biblical narrative perspective marriage is far more than a mere sociocultural institution." (p. 53) Regarding to those who want to accomodate the reality of the culture and modify the ideal he warns, "our recent history has demonstrated that such a view has been devastating to the community." (p. 59) The experiments consistently fail, there is nothing new for family structures, only the debris of the self-destructive experiments.
In the third chaper, Pastor Howard Brown speaks to sexuality in the black community. He punctures the simplistic thought that marriage solves everything, "I do not believe marriage, in and of itself, is the answer to our sexual brokenness. Marriage itself can be only as healthy as the people it unites." (p. 66) But the adults are responsible in ending the mysoginistic cycle, "boys observe crass, even pornographic descriptions of male exploits. The mere description of such things with adolescent, teenage, or younger boys is a form of sexual abuse, causing much of the same damage as physical abuse. The images, deposited by men they trust, rip their way into the tender psyche of our boys, leaving deep scars that surface in their later sexuality." (p. 75) How is this cycle broken? "The church, the people God has called to Himself, remains the place where we practice the message of God's transforming grace in healing our sexual sin...In this place we call men to see and be seen by their Creator in ways powerfully intimate enough to call them out of a fallen image of sexuality into God-ordained manhood." (p. 78) He provides more details on how this can happen.
The fourth chapter written by Ralph Watkins, PhD, advises us to listen the secular prophets of Gangsta Rap. He focuses on Ice Cube and neglects Tupac (perhaps because Ice Cube is alive and still performing). He asks, "Can the church see what has caused and continues to cause the conditions under which poor inner-city African-Americans are laboring? If the church listened to hip-hop as a weeping prophet, how would that change its take on gangsta rap?" (p. 93) Specifically in regards to the youth he asks, "Do they feel heard in hip-hop? Do they feel loved by hip-hop? Has hip-hop become their pastor?" (p. 94) He provides a list of songs to find to begin to hear the prophetic voices crying out against the injustice that black culture suffers.
Pastor Lance Lewis, in chapter six, speaks of the community of the church. "Against the backdrop pf incredible dehumanization, the black church stood as the one foundational rock of black humanity. As my brother Carl Ellis Jr. says, 'You may have worked as a janitor and been called john and "boy" all week long, but in the church you were Deacon Jones.' Black people and the black community came to rely on the church as the main agent and actor in our ongoing quest to be simply regarded as people created in God's image and thus owed a measure of dignity, respect, kindness and justice." (p.120) But the American evangelical church has failed by tribalizing God and the solution is to cultivate a desire for a satisfaction greater than the American dream, and a devotion to a mission greater than lifting the the underclass into the middle class, and a determination to seek a place more secure and beautiful than a gated community.
In chaper eight, Pastor Anthony Carter calls the church to orthodoxy in word and deed. "The world is filled with institutions ready and able to feed the hungry...Yet there is only one place people can go to hear the message of redemption from sin and eternal life in Jesus Christ...When the church forfeits the uniqueness of the gospel and turns it into a social construction for social empowerment and political change, it ceases to be the eternal change agent for which Christ gave his life." (p. 160) If Pastor Carter preaches as well as he writes, it must be hard to leave his church every Sunday. "There are infinite ways to lose your soul. There is only one was to save it." (p. 161) He compares the church which focuses on the temporal to the minimization of the eternal to Esau, selling its "birthright for that which is fleeting and momentary." (p.165) He warns the church from allying themselves to any political party, hindering their freedom to speak prophetically and confidently from the word of God. "A society morally adrift...does not need a church unsure of what it believes." (p. 174)
In the last chapter Craig Mitchell, PhD, analyzes Michael Eric Dyson's criticism of Cosby and Poussaint, acknoeledging the many things Dyson gets right while also demolishing the dead ends of black liberation theology and it's partner communism.
The problems in the poorer African-American community are deep rooted, and the issues Cosby and Poussaint are the symptoms. The causes are systemic and in the hearts. The church can do the soul surgery, by pointing to Jesus and his words, and acting from that perspective. The book concludes with the contrast as presented by Tupac's "Keep Ya Head Up" and the motto of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, The Holy Spirit our Comforter, Humankind our Family. There is hope, and it begins and ends in Jesus. This book points over and over to Jesus and is a powerful read, it only took me two days to finish it. Hopefully, the quotes prove that any Christian can be edified by this book and not just black believers.