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Review by Robert Zink
An Apprehensive Review
It is often said that the most segregated time in America is at 11:00am Sunday morning. While one may not affirm the absoluteness of such a statement, few would discount the veracity of the notion it conveys. It is an alarming statement that should generate a burden upon the hearts and minds of Christians within the United States. That alone necessitates the need for such a book as Anthony Carter’s Black and Reformed.
As I embarked upon an expedition through the book, I must confess some apprehension. Resounding within me were two intense and decisive questions that needed to be answered. The first was simply “Am I qualified to do a book review of this book?” While I have much experience as a missionary working across cultural confines, I am not naïve enough to think that I can completely get rid of my own biases in favor of a more absolute appreciation and awareness of other cultural ideologies.
Try as we may, all of us are still in contention with our own biases, although awareness of them definitely helps in giving a fairer assessment to some degree. With African Americans, this is further complicated in that I must freely admit my inability to relate to not just what it is like to be a slave, but even to know what it is like to have slavery and oppression as a deep-rooted part of one’s history. Yet, it is for this very reason that I am the perfect person to review this book, because it was written to several groups of people . . . one of those groups being people just like me who have a limited understanding on the subject.
My apprehension was further accentuated by the question, “Will this topic reveal something about me that maybe I don’t want to be confronted with?” While this question is partly motivated by a deep concern of wanting to love all of God’s people wholly and completely, I know that the deeper motivation was from my acute ability to think more highly of myself than I ought. The reality is that we all need to be continually examined and convicted to conform our image more into the image of Christ, and if God uses Anthony Carter’s book to do that then we should rejoice.
It is in light of these two questions then, that we delve into Black & Reformed to explore the issues and begin to understand how culture and doctrine can collide to create confusion.
An Exhaustive Review
While the topic itself may seem daunting, the shortness of the book helps ease the feelings of being overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean that the author has forgone the manna of such a writing in order to appease people. It simply means that he has succinctly put forth his points and proof for consideration without the reader having to dissect out a bunch of extraneous material. While the writing style is easy to follow and read, the topic requires deliberation and application.
A Cultural Theology
As he begins to work his way through Black and Reformed, Anthony Carter does well at beginning with the foundation, simply laying out the facts in order to give readers a solid base to work from. It makes sense then that from the outset, he sets forth by simply answering the most common question to be raised, “Do we need a black theology?” His answer? Of course! The alternative is an unsound black theology, and with such an answer, who can argue with it. However, the book would be lacking if he stopped there, so he goes further to establish why such a need is important in light of the fact that other cultures have a theology that defines them, so why not for blacks as well?
Herein lies probably one of the most distressing points within the book. There are times in which it seems Carter is suggesting that we need to define theology by the culture instead of defining the culture by theology. Whether it is lack of clarity on the author’s part or the reader’s part I do not know, but in spite of it seeming that the author is advocating a culturally defined theology, in no way does he ever actually present this in the book.
In fact, at other points, he is uncompromisingly clear that his goal is to show how reformed theology actually speaks and answers some of the greatest questions that have created confusion for African American Christians for quite some time. His concern then is to not generate a new theology for an African American culture, but to give them an opportunity to see how theology can generate a new perspective on their culture and history. With that understanding in mind, he is correct in saying, “To deny Africa Americans the right to formulate and sustain a biblical theology that speaks to the cultural and religious experience of African Americans is to deny them the privileges that other ethnic groups have enjoyed.” Other cultures have sought to use the Word of God to describe the historical and present culture in which they live, so why not African-American’s as well?
A Reformed Theology
In light of the culture’s history, especially the issue of slavery, accepting reformed theology can be difficult. When oppression comes from professed Christians, how can one expect African Americans to embrace their God. With the horrible realities of slavery that cannot be denied, how can one expect African Americans to embrace the sovereignty of God when it seems He wasn’t present during the oppression?
Before answering such questions from a reformed perspective, one must understand what a reformed perspective is. The term ‘reformed’ can be unintentionally divisive because it comes with a lack of clarity as people use it in such a broad way. Yet, the author spends an entire chapter defining some of the basic tenets of a historically reformed position, at least the points that are relevant to the discussion at hand. One can appreciate the prudent manner in which Carter handles the issue so as to be accurate in his defining and representative of those who would declare they are reformed.
Coupled with his accuracy is his elevation of God. I am thankful that as he outlines his points, he does so with a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the sufficiency of Christ (three points to his summation of reformed theology). Each point is necessary and integral as they will impact not merely the theology of an individual, but every aspect of one’s life. Therefore, the treatment of such a subject is crucial to the development of any topic, and the author does well in laying out those necessary points.
A Historical Theology
It is perhaps the author’s inclusion of not just history, but an African American perspective on history that is the most crucial in developing such a topic. It is his treatment of their historical perspectives that is necessary for someone like me to even remotely begin a comprehension of any potential conflicts between culture and theology. Only upon recognizing the horrible atrocities that took place against the Africans during the days of the slave trade and slavery, can one then begin to understand why they were so hesitant to trust in God and especially a sovereign God. How can one reconcile that it was God’s will for horrible events to continue on not for merely a few years, but for decades that spanned into centuries?
The understanding doesn’t stop with that mere point alone. In fact, that is only where it begins. As Anthony Carter demonstrates, it is not until one understands how slavery impacted evangelism or how different responses from different denominations were perceived by the African American culture, that one can even begin to recognize the vastness of the conflict that takes place between culture (African Americans) and theology (reformed).
A Black Theology
Upon revealing both a reformed theology and the historical legacy of the African American culture, the author does what he set out to complete from the initial sentence of the book. He combines reformed theology with the culture of African Americans. He never claims to have all of the answers to such difficult questions, but only that he will address some of the questions of God’s work and role in the lives of African Americans during the height of the slave trade (which was his intended goal at the very beginning of chapter one).
Was God silent during slavery? Did His perceived silence mean to suggest His approval of slavery? It is here that Carter begins to answer those questions by combining theology and culture. This is what he meant by a black theology. In no way does the author justify slavery, proponents of slavery, or any of the side effects of slavery. Instead, he simply tries to explain them to the best of his ability in light of God’s glory. If God is sovereign and all things work for His glory and the people’s good, then we must take that into account as we confront some of the darkest days in our country’s history. For this reason, it becomes necessary to be cognizant of the disconnect that can be created between culture and theology, and how best to handle that.
A Conclusive Theology
The author concludes by answering two questions: can African Americans be reformed and should they be reformed? His answer is simply yes to both the questions. Without duplicating his previous foundational points, the author simply indicates that there is no conflict where one seems to exist. Instead, one should rest in the sovereignty of God with a complete trust in His will alone.
For those who need more convincing, Carter leaves readers with several appendices that are important and relevant. In fact, they add great details to the discussion by providing some insight to previous steps of reconciliation and common ground to be sought between two seemingly divergent groups.
An Indisputable Review
Of great help within the book are the study questions included at the end of each chapter that are meant to provoke further thought and discussion. As a Caucasian reviewing this book with a better understanding of the issues and background, the book would have been aided with some more specific application points to place within our lives to help create more accord between culture and theology. Perhaps this is the great benefit of the lengthy recommended resources included at the back of the book. One doesn’t have to stop at the conclusion of this book, but can journey further into the discussion by picking up some of the other resources.
So as the author asks at the very beginning, “Do we need a black theology?” I would tend to agree with his answer and say yes. Let’s once again be clear though. In no way do I want to advocate a new theology, but instead I want to advocate for an application of theology . . . which is really what Carter is suggesting. He is not trying to explain theology based on the African American culture, but instead is explaining the African American culture based on theology.
Black & Reformed goes far in trying to bridge the gap between a Caucasian culture influenced much by their early European counterparts and an African American culture that finds its roots in Africa that were severed by the era of slavery. Is it a catch-all, answer-all book? No. There will never be such a book. It is simply a good starting point for people of both cultures as they seek to understand the mindset of one another and seek to find common ground in their theological convictions.