Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Review of "Stony the Road We Trod"

Stony the Road We Trod is a significant compendium of essays demonstrating African American biblical hermeneutics. The project seeks to offer an analysis of the way in which African Americans have interpreted and continue to interpret the biblical text. Integral to the project is the way in which the experience of blacks in America has shaped their hermeneutic. The claims made in the third chapter of the book by Weems constitute a significant conviction of the book: all biblical hermeneutics derive from the interpreter’s own experiences in such a way as to validate and reinforce those experiences. In this essay I will first describe the text’s construal of African American hermeneutics, and then conclude with a brief evaluation of the book.

As aforementioned, Weems' chapter is crucial for understanding much of what occurs in this text. It is her contention that meaning emerges between the interaction of the text and the reader. Thus, reading is very much a social convention that is predicated upon the interpretive community with which one identifies. The dominant class in society is therefore able to project its hermeneutic as the right one, often leading to legitimation of oppression and injustice. One of the pernicious subtleties of Eurocentric biblical hermeneutics is its self-understanding as normative. Such hermeneutics have failed to acknowledge their own cultural conditioning and biases. Following from these considerations Weems acknowledges that specifically African American women’s reading of Scripture have arisen out of the twofold marginalized experience of being black and a woman.

In light of the African American experience of white oppression in America, blacks initially retold and remembered the biblical stories relayed aurally by white slavemasters in relation to their self-interest as slaves. The chapter by Dr. Shannon on the “Ante-Bellum Sermon” demonstrates how in the context of slavery blacks developed a reading of Scripture that gravitated towards liberation, in particular the freeing of Israel from Egypt. A correlation was made between the ancient Israelites experience and the African American experience under slavery in order to inspire hope in the people and to subversively combat the ideological reading of the slavemasters. The resultant hermeneutic underscored God’s liberation and opposition to slavery, interpreting the conflict not between slave and slavemaster but between God and evil.

This hermeneutic establishes the tradition in which the contemporary African American interpreter stands. Black hermeneutics demands that its experiences be taken as seriously as those of the dominant Eurocentrism. Therefore scholars such as Cain Hope Felder, Charles Copher, and Randall Bailey, have gone to considerable lengths to expose the de-Africanization typical of Eurocentrism. In this text these scholars do so by demonstrating the presence of Africans in the scripture, not to posit Africans as a superior race, but in order to dismantle the allegation of African inferiority. The book also pays considerable attention to the so-called curse of Ham and the presence of Africans such as Moses’ Ethiopian wife, and Sarah’s servant Hagar. Felder considers the curse of Ham (or better of Canaan) to be a demonstration of sacralization, wherein an ideology was interposed on religious tenets in order to justify the conquest of the Canaanites. Similarly, Waters suggests that in the J and E traditions comprising the account of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham, we may be able to identify an increasing focus on the superiority of Israel in the E tradition. In J Hagar is seen as an Egyptian servant (conidered more historically probable) whereas the E tradition calls her a slave. One of the points these interpreters seem to be disclosing is that even the biblical texts are written from specific contexts in order to validate certain experiences.

This book raises all sorts of issues concerning canon and authority that lie outside of the scope of this essay. At this point I will describe some of the interpretive benefits this text grants, as well as some points of caution. First, one of the most significant aspect of the book is its ability to unmask the cultural conditioning of Eurocentrism. To call Black Theology a contextual theology presupposes not only a particular methodology, but also a dominant theology that is not Black Theology. With this unmasking Stony the Road offers us a reading of the Old Testament that may be more congenial at times than the typical Eurocentric reading. In particular, the close attention given to themes of liberation and care for the marginalized are often marginalized themselves. Furthermore, the black experience of oppression and stripping of identity in American society allows greater solidarity with the defining moment of Israelites history: the exodus from Egypt. This is similar to Myers claim that much of Eurocentric hermeneutic locks the interpretation of the text in the past, which makes it difficult to speak to issues of racism, sexism, and classism. The reading offered in this book opens up these possibilities more readily. Finally, in explicitly portraying black hermeneutics this book demonstrates Weems claim that interpretation depends on association with an interpretive community.

One of the problems that this text raises is how Scripture is to be appropriated. By pointing out ideological problems in the biblical text, I wonder how these biblical texts come to be used. If a text is inextricably “sacralized” can it be used? Can it only be used with deliberate rejection of ideology behind the text deemed inappropriate? In addition, one wonders if Weems’ claim that what one gets out of the text is what one reads into the text leaves us with no hope. If all of our interpretations are inevitably socially conditioned how can we reasonable adjudicate variegated interpretations? This is where the book risks what Myers considers James Cone’s tendency: to set up another imperialistic methodology. I don’t think, however, that the book ultimately falls into this error. In the preface Felder is clear that one of the purposes of this book is to provide a preliminary bridge to celebrate all of our stories as the people of God. Ultimately, though, a contextual theology such as the one found in Stony the Road retains the abstractness of theology with the presupposition that theology can be transferred from context to context and then used to legitimate the experience of that context. I am inclined to wonder if the narrative of Scripture has the potential to create what Dr. Kameron Carter calls “theological culture”. I want to believe that there is a sense in which we are not doomed to merely get out of a text what we read into it. In this sense I do believe that Stony the Road is exactly what it claims to be: merely a step in the right direction. But a significant step it is.

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