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Black and Not Protestant.

Diana L. Hayes and Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., eds. Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the United States. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998. xv + 285pp. $18.00 (paper).

Diana Hayes and Cyprian Davis provide an important discussion of the tone and texture of Black Catholicism using four modes of investigation: historical description, theological construction, social ethics, and liturgy. Davis ("God of Our Weary Years") lays out a historical time line of Black Catholicism marked by several key events: (1) the first African Catholics to reach North America in 1565; (2) the development of two orders of African American women; (3) ordination of the first Black priest in 1830; (4) the Black Catholic Congress and the development of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University. He points out, through this long and complex history, the manner in which the presence of African Americans in the Church raised questions concerning its racist practices, but in a more constructive way served to generate a "much richer Catholicism" committed to social justice.

In the section devoted to Black Catholic theology, this push toward social justice is explored in relationship to faith, Christology, and theological anthropology. Using African American cultural forms such as the spirituals and the principles of Nguzo Saba, Hayes ("Through the Eyes of Faith") pushes for an understanding of Black Catholic theology as premised on a profound faith in the liberating activity of Jesus Christ and the historical experience of African Americans. She argues for the vitality of the Black Catholic tradition as a proper source for the doing of liberation theology. Drawing on James Cone's notion of "ontological blackness," Hayes calls the Catholic church to become deeply connected to the liberation struggle of oppressed people. In this way, Catholics can mirror the concern for the oppressed demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Her appeal to the liberating activity of Christ as a model for modern praxis is continued in the article by Jamie Phelps ("Inculturating Jesus"). Using the method of correlation and a sociological/psychological lens, Phelps outlines the oppressive circumstances in and out of the Church - which African Americans have survived. She notes that a proper sense of African American identity is achievable through attention to the life of Jesus because emulation of Christ's ministry necessitates the destruction of oppressive sociopolitical and economic structures.

Whereas Phelps draws from the social gospel to provide a religious impulse for socioeconomic and political concerns, Hayes ("And When We Speak") draws on the work of womanist scholars. Her presentation of womanist theology's historical and ideological development is not unique, but Hayes's attention to the importance of the Mother of God, Mary, in the reconstruction of models of leadership and service is unique and intriguing. Moving away from Mary as a submissive and docile woman, Hayes proposes that Mary was a bold woman who went against societal norms to bring forth the will of God. In like manner, then, Black Catholic women must exercise defiance and courage in securing social transformation (which is the will of God for our age).

Recognizing that Black Catholic liberation theology is young, M. Shawn Copeland ("Method in Emerging Black Catholic Theology") pushes for sustained attention to methodology. Accordingly, Black Catholic theology must: (1) dispel misguided assumptions that the Roman Catholic church leaves no room for creative and constructive theological work; (2) determine upon what authority this theology is developed; and (3) think through Black Catholic theology's formation in light of the traditions of the Catholic church -- liturgical, spiritual and intellectual. She affirms the manner in which the cultural heritage of African Americans, the Catholic tradition and American history work in concert to form the basis of Black Catholic theological discourse defined by four elements: critique, retrieval, construction, and social analysis. With the first two, Black Catholic theology is able to explore scripture and the structures of the Catholic faith, and expose areas of repression and oppression within the Church. This is informed by an under standing of theology as archeological process by which the stories and voices of the marginalized are given attention that, in turn, provides an "archaic critique" of the Church. Reclaiming Black Catholic life is a moment of construction be cause it expands Catholicism beyond the questions and concerns of immigrant Europeans, Finally, Copeland's project involves social analysis by which the experience of Black Catholics serves as a resource for the doing of theology, allowing for the fruitful combining of black experience and Catholic identity and tradition.

A concern with social ethics is acknowledged through articles by Bryan N. Massingale ("The Case for Catholic Support") and Toinette M. Eugene ("Between 'Lord, Have Mercy!' and 'Thank You, Jesus!"'). Massingale suggests that the ethical concerns commonly associated with liberation thought are supported by the Church's social teachings on distributive justice because these teachings are marked by an appreciation for the dignity of all humanity as created in the image of God. Therefore, the Church should embrace a commitment to a society in which all are capable of living with resources and opportunities befitting human per sons. Eugene continues this commitment to social justice by arguing for liturgy that fosters and supports the social ethics of the Church. She, like Black Protestant womanists, extends available resources through attention to the work of Alice Walker; finding in Walker's work tools for liturgical renewal. Those who are engaged in this liturgical renewal are called "cultural workers," drawing on the work of Henry Giroux, because they are engaged in the work for social justice as an outgrowth of liturgy defined by creativity and a "larger moral imagination."

Following up on Eugene's thoughts, Phelps ("Black Spirituality"), Giles Con will ("Black Catechesis"), Clarence Rivers ("The Oral African Tradition Versus the Ocular Western Tradition"), and D. Reginald Whitt ("Varietates Legitimae") discuss the liturgical implications of Black Catholic theology and its social ethics. Drawing on a historical survey of Black spirituality, Phelps extols the value of community-centered and biblically based spirituality that is not limited to a particular expression of religion. Rather, it cuts across denominational lines; attention to this inclusive notion of spirituality should affect the ministry and missions of the Catholic Church by creating a sensitivity to and appreciation for "God-given" cultural diversity. Ultimately this understanding of Black spirituality should result in liturgy that takes in the cultural uniqueness of the constituency. But what does this look and sound like? Conwill answers this question. He argues that a major challenge facing the Catholic Church is the removal of white and class bias in current cathechesis through a full participation in African American history, worldview, and Black culture. Conwill suggests a model for so doing that is premised on the interpenetration of holistic systems. This process brings together African American identity and the Catholic system, resulting in new ecclesial concepts and forms of ministry and liturgy, which draw on a Black aesthetic, artistic expression and Black language. Similar ideas are expressed in the essays by Rivers and Whitt. In both cases, there is a call to recognize the cultural richness of Black Catholics as a source of liturgical renewal. To Rivers this connotes a move away from the obstacles to religious celebration represented by puritanism and literal mindedness. For African Americans--who are from an aural culture--the latter is problematic because literal mindedness stifles imaginative and poetic forms of expression. As an alternative, aural culture can be used to enliven theology in ways that better express the transcendent. Whitt affirms River's interest and argues that the Varietates Legitimate does not restrict the emergence of new rites in the church. Rather, the Catholic Church is open to these transformations. Black cultural emphasis in liturgy is not only possible, it is encouraged.

Davis concludes the text by reiterating the viability of a Black Catholic theology and liturgy of liberation, and this book is an important step in the construction of this theology and liturgy. However, in subsequent work I hope these writers will place more emphasis on the distinctive nature of Black Catholic experience as a resource for theology. That is to say, it is at times difficult to distinguish the uniquely Roman Catholic nature of their liberation theology from what has been proposed by Black Protestant theologians. In subsequent work, the authors might address this, for example, by further examining the place of saints within Black Catholic experience and the manner in which this investigation introduces another dimension of religious history as theological resource. Furthermore, picking up on Phelps's concern with Black spirituality cutting across denominational boundaries, perhaps Black Catholic scholars of religion are in a unique position to do comparative work (a much needed investigation) on African American religions. Such a venture might begin with a look at Black Catholicism and popular forms of expression such as Black Spiritual churches that draw from the Catholic tradition. Copeland's concern with archeological recovery also points to this possibility. This comparative analysis, of course, should not supplant the important work of developing a Black Catholic theology of liberation. My suggestion is not meant to sidetrack the work represented by this volume; I am not attempting to shift the agenda. Rather, I am simply suggesting the importance of Black Catholic theological discourse presented in this volume as it relates to both an articulation of a broad Christian vision and its implication for comparative analysis.

This book is important and insightful. In particular, graduate students and scholars with enough background to know the context for Vatican II will find this text extremely useful and challenging. Those interested in understanding African American religious expression and thought beyond Protestant churches do well to read this book.

Anthony Pinn is the author of Varieties of African American Religious Experience and teaches at Macalester College.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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