Southeastern Offers its First Course on Black Theology: January 2014

airport_in_amsterdam1(Note: This is a guest post by Walter Strickland, who serves as Special Advisor to the President for Diversity & Instructor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post was first published at Prof. Strickland’s personal website.)

At first glance, a course on Black Theology at Southeastern Seminary is like spotting Lil Wayne at a Taylor Swift concert… it just doesn’t seem to fit. In my estimation, the racial and cultural incongruence of the average Southeasterner and a ‘dyed in the wool’ black theologian is exactly what makes this course so dynamic!

In recent years there seems to be a rediscovery of value in having Christian community with believers in various stages of life. As each person brings their unique perspective and experience into the community, there are fewer blind-spots, new opportunities to apply Scripture, and new awareness of needs in society. Doing theology is no different; the introduction of a new ‘voice’ into a theological dialogue will unearth biases, illuminate blind-spots, and sharpen the thinking of all who earnestly take part in the dialogue. This is why a course on Black Theology is valuable to Southeastern’s campus.

As a teaser for the course, I’ll offer a brief sketch of the historical developments that led to the advent of Black Theology, and in this blog I’ll offer more specific reasons for how a course in will benefit the average Southeasterner.

The African American community has nurtured a long-standing Christian commitment, particularly since the Second Great Awakening. The revivalistic Christian faith that slaves and freedmen received carried a marginalized people through chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Segregation, and into the era that is commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. During the Civil Rights Movement the Christian beliefs that had long undergirded this community were leveraged to speak prophetically into the political, social, and economic injustices blotted the African American landscape of the 1960s. This matrix of events sets the general stage for the emergence of Black Theology.

After having faithfully followed Martin Luther King, Jr. for nearly a decade, the Movement’s “foot soldiers” began to grow weary of the frequent sit-ins, marches, and imprisonments that were part and parcel with King’s nonviolent methods. By contrast, the more aggressive tactics of Malcolm X began to catch the attention of the masses, including some Christians. The 1968 assassination of MLK served as a tipping point that triggered a methodological shift in the minds of many. In the words of Dwight Hopkins, “With [the bullet that killed Dr. King], the movement for peace, non-violence, and racial fellowship ground to a halt. Within a week of King’s murder, one hundred and thirty cities went up in flames… forty-six civilians died, over three thousand were injured, and twenty-seven thousand were arrested.”

In 1969 James Cone published his first monograph with the express purpose of demonstrating that the politics of Black Power was the gospel of Jesus Christ. In emotive terms, Cone’s book Black Theology and Black Power articulated a means for blacks to hold fast to black church traditions and teachings (the longstanding backbone of the black community), while providing license to embrace the Black Power movement that sought liberation ‘by any means necessary.’

Cone’s 1969 volume solidified Black Theology as an academic discipline and in short order other black theologians proposed alternative ways of relating the Christian Scriptures to the black experience (i.e. cultural context). In the course, we will spend the majority of our time exploring three major black theologians and their approaches to the relationship between the Scripture and the black context. Beyond James Cone, we will dive deeply into the work of J. Deotis Roberts who emphases the necessity of liberation in order to have reconciliation in the church as a testimony of the Gospel. We will also examine William R. Jones who insisted that the primary concern of Black Theology should be theodicy (the problem of evil). For Jones, until that paradox is satisfied there is no reason to initiate constructive theology in the black context.

This simplistic historical sketch offers a window into some of the cultural dynamics and theological issues that we will tackle together in the two-week course. I look forward to seeing you in class (THE 7950) from January 6th-17th from 8 am to noon each java games

Global Context Series: 20 (or So) Books for the Globally-Minded Christian to Buy (and Read)

Over the past few years, we have posted approximately twenty installments in the “Global Context Series.” In this series, we posted notices or reviews about books that help Christians get to know the global scene as a whole, or a particular region or country in particular. We want to reissue this series in a single post so that you can perhaps find the right book for the area and people of the world that most interests you. The links below follow the titles of the original posts in the series.

The books are not necessarily the best books available on a particular subject, but they are among the best books that I have read on that subject. I try to tell you a little bit about the author, the style of the book, its readability, and of course a little bit about its content. I hope that you will find this series helpful. I hope you will enjoy the books, and will find them to be a stimulus to love God as you learn about, and learn to love, the people in God’s world.



“The Clash of Civilizations”

“The World is Flat 3.0”

“Hot, Flat, and Crowded?”

“A New Christendom With New Faces”

“The Post American World”


“An Obsession with Power and Control”

Central Asia:

“The Ayatollah Begs to Differ”

“The Great Game”

“The Ayatollah’s Democracy”

Central Asia / Afghanistan:

“The Kite Runner”

“A Thousand Splendid Suns”

“Ghost Wars”

East Asia / China:

“Chinese Lessons”

“Out of Mao’s Shadow”


“Europe, Islam, and Christianity”

“The Penguin History of Europe”

Europe / Russia:

“Stalin’s Children”

North Africa / Middle East:

“How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future of the Globe”

“The Crisis of Islam”

“The Arabs in History”

South Asia:

“Freedom at Midnight”

“On India, Calvinists, and Cow Dung Shampoo”

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”Download java games

Question 12: How do I contextualize a biblical truth?

It is not possible to not contextualize. Every Christian is actively contextualizing all the time, and is either doing it well or doing it badly. Gospel proclamation, church life, and theology are always contextual. As Hiebert points out, “On the one hand, the gospel belongs to no culture. It is God’s revelation of himself and his acts to all people. On the other hand, it must always be understood and expressed within human cultural forms” (Hiebert, Anthropological Insights, 30). The task of this brief blog will be to point out that Scripture provides us examples of contextualization, that contextualization is inevitable, and that in order to contextualize well, one must proclaim and embody the gospel in ways that are faithful, meaningful, and dialogical.

First, Scripture provides examples of contextualization. Because of the scope of this blog, I’ll limit myself to a few examples from the book of Acts. A quick perusal of Paul’s ministry gives abundant and incisive examples of gospel contextualization. Paul shaped his sermons and speeches according to each particular context. An examination of his sermons in Acts 13 (to a Jewish Diaspora), Acts 14 (to a crowd of rural animists), Acts 17 (to the cultural elite of the Areopagus), and his testimonies in Acts 22 (to a mob of Jewish patriots) and Acts 26 (to the elite of Syria-Palestine) reveal Paul’s deft ability to communicate the gospel faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically in a variety of settings. (Note: For further study on Pauline contextualization, see Eckhard Schnabel’s account in Paul the Missionary.)

Second, contextualization is inevitable. The call to contextualize the gospel is not limited to dramatic scenarios such as the one portrayed in Acts 17. Just as the four Gospel writers shaped their books for engaging particular communities of readers, and just as each of Paul’s sermons and speeches are fashioned according to a particular context, so our gospel communication is always accomplished within a context: the gospel is always expressed in cultural forms and cannot be otherwise. “Disciples do not follow the gospel in a vacuum but wend their Christian way through particular times and places, each with its own problems and possibilities” (Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology?, 16). Indeed, every church contextualizes by the type of building and décor it chooses and the style of music that is played. Every preacher does the same by choosing, for example, a form of rhetoric, a way of relating to others, and a manner of clothing. The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. The question is not whether we will contextualize; the question is whether we will do it appropriately or not. In order to proclaim the gospel and plant churches in an appropriately contextual manner, we must proclaim and plant in three ways: faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically.

Third, therefore, we must contextualize faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically. The first of those imperatives is that we must contextualize faithfully. Biblical fidelity is imperative. We must pay careful attention to our beliefs and practices, ensuring that we express and embody the gospel in cultural forms that are faithful to the Scriptures. In being faithful to the Scriptures, we seek to interpret the Scriptures accurately before proclaiming them within a cultural context. Although some scholars view texts as vast oceans of indeterminate symbols that lack transcendent grounding, and while we acknowledge that the reader does come to a text through finite and fallible interpretive frameworks, we nonetheless argue that faithful interpretation is possible.

In addition to doing so faithfully, we must contextualize meaningfully. We must proclaim and embody the gospel in a way that is meaningful for the particular social and cultural context. James McClendon writes, “If hearers were (minimally) to understand the gospel, if there was to be uptake, the preacher must understand the culture addressed” (James McClendon, Systematic Theology, vol.1, 40). Indeed, we want the hearer to understand the words we speak and the actions we perform in the way that we intend, and we want them to be able to respond in a way that is meaningful in context. This type of proclamation takes hard work; learning a culture is more complex than learning a language because language is only one component of culture. Pastors and professors must work hard to teach their audiences not only how to read the Bible, but also how to read the culture.

Finally, we must contextualize dialogically. We must also allow the gospel to critique the culture in which it is embodied and proclaimed. There is an ever-present danger that Christian preachers, missionaries, and communities will equate the gospel with a cultural context, the consequence of which is devastating. In an attempt to communicate the gospel meaningfully within a culture, and in an attempt to affirm whatever in a culture can be affirmed, Christians may lose sight of the effects of depravity on that same culture. Therefore, we must remember that the gospel stands in judgment of all cultures, calling them to conform themselves to the image of Christ. The gospel does not condemn all of a culture, but it is always and at the same time both affirming and rejecting. If the gospel we preach does not have a prophetic edge, then we are not fully preaching the gospel.

In seeking to proclaim the gospel in a way that is meaningful, we listen to the questions that a culture asks, acknowledge the categories within which it thinks, and learn the language that it speaks. But at the same time, we recognize that without the gospel the host culture does not know all of the right questions to ask, does not have the all of the right categories within which to think, and does not possess a fully adequate vocabulary. David Clark writes, “Using a dialogical method implies we notice the danger in simply asking Scripture to answer the culture’s concerns. A dialogical approach requires that the Bible not only answer our concerns but also transform those concerns” (Clark, To Know and Love God, 115). In taking a dialogical approach the Christian who seeks to evangelize, plant churches, disciple, or pastor within a particular context will find himself in a continued dialogue with that cultural context.

In a recent essay on “Gospel & Culture,” I adapted David Clark’s dialogical framework for contextualization, applying it to the task of church planting:

Take, for example, a church planter. Those seekers with whom he converses raise questions from within their particular cultural and sub-cultural contexts. The church planter offers initial responses from the Scriptures. As these seekers come to faith in Christ, begin to obey, and keep their hearts open to God, they also allow the Scriptures to critique the cultural viewpoint from which they raised their questions. Through Bible study and prayer, they begin to form a (contextual) theology. If they are able, they discuss their theology with believers from other contexts (whether by reading historical theologians and writers, or by conversing with contemporaries who find themselves in a different cultural or sub-cultural context). Again and again, they return to the Scriptures, evaluating their emerging theological framework and praying that God will guide them into a proper interpretation, synthesis, and application of the Scriptures for their particular culture.

One notices here that both “insider” and “outsider” critiques are helpful. In the process of contextualization, participants from within a culture need to take the lead. They have both explicit and implicit (tacit) knowledge of their culture that the cultural outsider will never match.[1] However, the cultural outsider also has the advantage of being able to see that same culture from a different vantage point. This is why Clark argues that “questions framed in the terms of non-Western cultures can help illuminate blind spots” in Western theology. Christian Scripture provides a particular set of categories, poses a particular set of questions, and provides particular answers to those questions. These categories, questions, and answers should challenge the conceptual framework of all cultures. For this reason, we endeavor to read the church fathers, the reformers, and others who preached and embodied the gospel in eras different from our own, and to read and converse with Asian, African, and Latin American Christians who proclaim and embody the gospel in socio-cultural contexts different from our own. (Bruce Ashford, Theology and Practice of Mission, 122-123)

The big point is this: we need to work hard to exegete both Scripture and culture. “In order to be competent proclaimers and performers of the gospel,” Vanhoozer writes, “Christians must learn to read the Bible and culture alike. Christians cannot afford to continue sleepwalking their way through contemporary culture, letting their lives, and especially their imaginations, become conformed to culturally devised myths, each of which promises more than it can deliver” (Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 35). The Christian who ignores cultural context does so to his own detriment and to the detriment of those to whom he ministers.

[1] Tacit knowledge differs from formal knowledge in that it is not codified and not easily shared. A person who learns to ride a bicycle, for example, has both formal and tacit knowledge of how to do so. His formal knowledge would include “one must pedal” and “one must balance.” His tacit knowledge, however, is the learned experience of how to balance, pedal, and steer. This knowledge is not easily communicated but nonetheless very important. Cultural insiders have tacit knowledge of their culture that a cultural outsider (including a bi-cultural person) might never gain. Michael Polanyi brought attention to tacit knowledge within the fields of science and philosophy, but the concept is helpful also for missiology. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958).