Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Reflecions on a Curious Book: The Decline of African
American Theology, by Thabiti Anyabwile
Review by Bryan Crawford Loritts
As part of my doctoral work I am reading a lot of books that to one degree or another relate to my field of study. One of the books that I just finished was Thabiti Anyabwile’s, “The Decline of African American Theology” (The very title of the book provokes mixed feelings, none of which I found to be appealing, and leaves one wondering what exactly is African American theology? A question that I still have after finishing. But that’s neither here nor there). It’s been a week or so since I completed Thabiti’s work, and I still feel a sense of disequilibrium with it, so much so that I feel compelled to write, not a response, but my reflections on the book.
What cannot be denied is that Thabiti has done significant historical work, that I felt at times to be compelling. Theologically he works through a systematic grid, rooted in the reformed tradition. Each chapter takes one of the core doctrines (salvation, the Holy Spirit, revelation, etc), and begins with the biblical teaching of that doctrine. From here Thabiti then proceeds to take us through five major movements in African American ecclesiological (church) history. His breakdown is as follows: 1) Early slavery era through abolition (1600-1865); 2) Reconstruction, “Jim Crow” Segregation, the great migration and the “New Negro” movement (1865-1929); 3) Depression and World War II (1930-1949); 4) Civil Rights Era (1950-1979); and 5) End of century, Postmodern era (1980- Present). To sum up his argument: African American theology began on a solid footing because we were trained in the reformed tradition, but ever since then our theology has devolved into a downward spiral.
There is a lot that this book has to offer. Thabiti is no historical slouch, giving great biographical sketches of some of the major players in the African American tradition. Along the way he profiles both preachers and literary savants who have contributed heavily to the tapestry of African American thought and culture. As I read I kept finding myself immersed not only in his text, but in the footnotes as well. Thabiti has clearly done his homework…somewhat.
While I was enlightened with some of Thabiti’s work, I kept feeling a sense of frustration. To get straight to the point, “The Decline of African American Theology,” is not only a curious work, but forgive my bluntness, it is a very dangerous work.
As Thabiti lays out his argument, taking the reader through five periods in African American thought and culture, he lifts up certain “key” figures who contributed, well, to the decline of African American Theology, and here’s where his book suffers a major flaw. For example, the author references Dr. Howard Thurman as a major, if not the major, African American influence on the church during the Depression and World War II era. There is no doubt that Dr. Thurman was heavily influential. It’s been well documented that his writings helped shape the thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And yes, Dr. Thurman was not orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. Universalist is a better word to categorize his soteriology (his view of salvation). However, and here is where Thabiti is at fault, Dr. Thurman is in no way indicative of the African American church. As one who grew up in the black church, I didn’t even hear of the name Howard Thurman until I was in my late twenties, or early thirties. Now, I do not presume that my experience is indicative of most African American’s, but to lift up a universalist like Howard Thurman and to therefore imply that he is normative of a broad swath of African American culture, and particularly African American church cultural is intellectually irresponsible on the part of Thabiti. Yet, chapter after chapter in this book, Thabiti references him as if he is indeed that.
To further substantiate that African American theology has declined, Thabiti continues to use such caricatures as Creflo Dollar and James Cone. Granted, James Cone is indeed popular, but I do not find him to be indicative of a broad demographic of the black church. Case in point is the fact that Jeremiah Wright, our president’s former pastor who came to national attention during the 2008 presidential election, considers himself to be a disciple of James Cone. While Wright’s former church is a heavily influential one, it must be remembered that he pastored a UCC church that was off the charts liberal. Jeremiah Wright and his denomination do not remotely reflect the vast current of African American church goers who can be found in much more prominent, and admittedly conservative, venues such as the National Baptist, Progressive Baptist and Church of God in Christ. Thabiti would have been better served to have picked prominent pastors from these denominations to support his argument (In fairness to Thabiti he touches on C.H. Mason the founder of the Church of God in Christ, but does not give him nearly the same amount of treatment as he does Cone). Yet if he had done so, his argument would have collapsed.
This leads me to the curious part of Thabiti’s book: Why no mention of more popular preachers within the African American church like Dr. E.V. Hill, Dr. A. Louis Patterson, Dr. G.E. Patterson, Dr. E.K. Bailey, etc.? Even Dr. Mark Noll, one of my favorite historians who happens to be white, and professor at Notre Dame who wrote the introduction to Thabiti’s book, found himself in wonderment at the absence of such luminary black church figures. He even questions aloud as to why Dr. King, among others, were only given passing acknowledgement (page 9). Could it be that the reason Thabiti does not mention African American academics and preachers who were more representative of the whole is that his argument would have collapsed like a house of cards?
To be fair to Thabiti, he does mention Dr. Tony Evans and his troublesome statements about salvation as found in his book, Totally Saved. I read the book when it was first released and found myself aghast at the conclusions from the first African American to graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary with a Th.D. But I guess that’s my point. The very fact that Dr. Evans troublesome soteriological statements upset me and the mainstream of conservative black evangelicals (including the author) tells us that his position was in no way representative of black culture or theology. Once again, his argument is in peril.
As I read Thabiti’s book there was something that I was feeling that I couldn’t immediately put words to, and then it hit me. Thabiti, a black man himself, writes of the black church and culture as if he was a visitor to a land he’d never been to before. Granted his work is historical by nature, but it comes across as if it’s written by an outsider. Please do not misunderstand me, my reflections in no way questions the authors blackness, nor are they an attempt to cover up the errors of the black church. There is a lot of teaching within her that troubles me deeply, and that I have addressed publicly. What I wished I would have felt as I pored over these pages was a man who had tears streaming down his face as he wrote. I felt no love, no sense of pleading, as I did when I read I Corinthians for the first time- a book written by Paul who is pleading with people he loves to repent of their errors. Paul didn’t seek to sweep their sins under the rug, but while calling out their waywardness, he at the same time, does so from a place of fond affection for them. The overall stoic tone of the book left me wondering if Thabiti even loves the black church.
What’s more, is that I bought this book at the local PCA church, which of course is just about all white. There it sat in a prominent position, centered on a display case. As a black man who preaches in various contexts, many of them white, I am often fighting the feeling- either self imposed or real- of having to prove that I have good theology. Thabiti’s book, I fear, has just made that fight even more difficult.
Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Fellowship Memphis- a multicultural church ministering to the evolving community of urban Memphis. He served as an adjunct professor at Crichton College, and is on the board of trustees for Biola University, Presbyterian Day School, and Memphis Leadership Foundation. He graduated with honors earning an M.A. in Theology from the Talbot School of Theology. His blog is located Here: http://www.fellowshipmemphis.org/bryanloritts/.