June 9th, 2012 | Published in Three Worlds Diary
I’m in the United States now, visiting some of our Florida supporters this week. I rented a car in Miami and have been criss-crossing the state to say “Thank You” to our supporters. With 57 churches, it takes a long time to get around to all the churches and I’m not even going to make it to all of our Florida churches this time.
For the most part, I enjoy driving across the United States (I do prefer some regions to others…ahem…) and nothing passes the time faster in the car than listening to ESPN radio or FOX sports news radio. But the other thing I like to listen to if possible is black preaching. It’s not always on the radio, and it depends which part of the country you are in, but especially in the South it doesn’t seem to hard to get a black preacher on the radio at some point during the drive.
Black preaching is a worthy topic for a Three Worlds post because African-American Christianity has some roots in the non-Western (ie. Africa). Whenever I hear black preaching I always feel considerably uplifted. I asked myself “What is it about black preaching that almost demands that you yell “Amen” when listening to it?” There are a few things: It’s powerful, it’s often funny, it’s often common-sensical, and it’s often rhytmic. True that.
But what I feel is really special (and non-Western as opposed to traditional or post-modern) about black preaching is its tone of certainty. It is unapologetic. It’s not shy about Biblical truths and sermons are not constructed in a rational, heady way as they are in the traditional euro-centric church. The preacher almost starts from a standpoint of: ”Jesus is the way and you’re crazy if you can’t see that?? We all do.” In that sense it really is very similar to non-Western Christianity found in Asia, modern day Africa, and Latin America. There’s little room for doubt. The preaching itself radiates authority.
One of the most interesting books I read in graduate school was a book by scholar Albert Raboteau called “Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. The book traces the history of African-American Christianity. African American Christianity is very interesting in that the slaves became Christian and developed their own African-American orthodox denominations. This is very different than in Latin America and the Caribbean where many of the black slaves hung onto their tribal African faiths: Haiti and Brazil being two good examples of where African based religion still exists full force.
There were many traditions from Africa, however, that were preserved in the style of African American Christianity (as opposed to the mixing of African religions and Christianity–sycncretism). The call and response, the ring shouts, the rhythmic music and dancing, and even the way the pastor has more of a role of honor and plays more of a community chieftan role in African-American communities than an Anglo pastor (the anglo church being more compartmentalized and individualistic).
The slaves often had to meet in secret away from their slave masters and needed to find a way to celebrate their weddings, births, and mourn their deaths as they would in Africa. Christian rituals and traditions became the way to do that. And much like the Non-Western world today, the African-American church was a persecuted church and the descriptions of the prophets in the Old Testament had a significance for them that they don’t to most of us. Those Old Testament stories about exile, enslavement, and exodus had a deeper and more real meaning for the slaves than they did for the masters. The negro spiritual was the sound of the African American community adopting the Bible’s promises and scriptures of liberation. Consequently, it seems to me, it’s a tradition of certainty. It does not have the post-enlightenment skepticism of the Anglo-European Christian tradition. It couldn’t afford that luxury.
It’s fascinating how the African-American faith became orthodox despite the fact that there was such a need for the early slaves to preserve or return to their African traditions. Raboteau suggests that this is because there were many new arrivals that kept arriving from Africa into Latin America and the Caribbean after they did in the U.S.
I don’t think it’s an accident that so many non-Christians found the worship at Whitney Houston’s funeral so moving. It was a prime example of the rhythm and certainty of the African American church. In a world addicted to skepticism and superficiality and at the funeral of a fallen celebrity no less–, that worship seemed mighty transcendent and mighty certain that day.