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Fight for liberation

02 August 2013

Jesse Zink looks at a Black-theology guide


Black Theology (SCM Core Text)
Anthony G. Reddie
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 

THEOLOGY is never developed in a vacuum. St Paul's theology was a response to the issues the Church encountered in its Mediterranean expansion. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit came not from dispassionate reflection, but as a result of the challenge posed to the Early Church by the Montanist movement. "Practical theology" is a redundant phrase: if it does not emerge from praxis, it is not really theology.

Anthony Reddie's introduction to Black theology takes this seriously. His book seeks to articulate what it means to apply the Gospel to the situation of Black people. But it is not a book for one group of Christians. Readers of all backgrounds and social contexts may find their perspectives of Christianity challenged and enlarged.

Reddie makes a strong claim, that Black theology "seeks to reinterpret the very meaning of the Christian faith for the sole and explicit purposes [sic] of fighting for Black liberation in this world". To do so, it must engage with the real-life setting of poverty and oppression which many Black people experience. It must also engage with our affective side, the emotions and feelings that arise from the experiences of exclusion and discrimination. As a result, Reddie's book has not just the usual summation of Black theology's themes and major works, but also offers exercises to enable individuals and groups to reflect on how they approach scripture and faith. It is these exercises that help him to argue for the importance of experience to theological reflection.

Reddie never adequately addresses the question exactly whom Black theology is for. He repeatedly refers to "ordinary Black people", who are "predominantly poor". Yet he also describes - and laments - the way in which prosperity-gospel neo-Pentecostalism has led many Black people into a form of Christianity which he finds deficient and lacking. The reader is left wanting more explanation: if Black theology emerges from the experience of Black people, how does it account for the popularity of a non-liberative form of Christianity?

For an introductory text, Reddie relies too heavily on footnotes, and carries an excessive degree of his argumentation in them. His writing is also heavily repetitive, within and between chapters, which makes the reading a chore.

Readers may disagree with his diagnosis of the situation of Black people or the conclusions that he draws about the implications of the gospel, but all can be reminded that theological reflection does not take place divorced from real-world settings, and that if the gospel does not challenge and unsettle us, then we are probably reading it wrongly.

The Revd Jesse Zink is Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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