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Saturday, September 6, 2014

What I’m Reading: Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation

When the lectionary readings recently moved into the book of Exodus, I took it as opportunity to finally read a book that has been sitting somewhat neglected on my bookshelves.  In my mind this was a way of connecting with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and my reading of an introduction to black theology.  I wanted to read the exodus story in the light of African American experience. 

This isn’t to say that Stony the Road We Trod [i] is exclusively, or even primarily focused on the Exodus story.  This collection of essays, edited by Cain Hope Felder, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the School of Divinity, Howard University, is a collaborative work from eleven different scholars, exploring the history and style and range, and impact, and future of African American interpretations of scripture.  There is a lot in this little volume.

Though the collection was uniformly great, I was especially impressed by the material in the third section of the book - “Race and Ancient Black Africa in the Bible.”  Here the authors argued that, rather than being slighted or degraded in scripture, (especially in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible), Africans and African nations are held up as exemplary figures and powers.  They are strong, and wise, and rich.

I also really liked the essay by David T. Sherman, “’An Ante-Bellum Sermon’: A Resource for an African American Hermeneutic.”  Sherman examines in detail a sermon-in-verse written by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  As one who thinks of himself as a poet and a preacher (or as a preacher and a poet) I am amazed by both aspects of Dunbar’s work, and by Sherman’s exegesis of it.

The book’s title is drawn from second verse of the “African American National Anthem” song /poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

[i]  Felder, Cain Hope ed. Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN 1991.  

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