Bill Cosby Trumps Black Theology (because he's safe for whites)

In my post on Black Theology from late last night, I received an interesting comment:

pastormack said...

Who gets to decide what "black questions" are? One black theologian? In practice, African-American academics can have a narrower orthodoxy than the most stringent whities out there. Just ask Bill Cosby.

This is one problem with contextual theologies. Who gets to decide what "black" or "hispanic" or "queer" theology is? Seems like this will always tend toward a totalizing and therefore unjust and unrepresentative view of all blacks or hispanics or LGBTers.

I think we should all just do Christian theology, but I'm old fashioned I suppose. Anytime theology's starting point is anthropocentric, we're set up to fail.

I responded...

Pastormack, apparently one black theologian can't speak for black theology, but Bill Cosby can? Why? Because he's safe, and says things white
people are comfortable with?

"Who gets to ask what black questions are?" I'm not certain Pastormack, but I am quite certain it isn't you or me.

And there is no such thing as "just Christian theology." That's not "old fashioned," it's a redaction of theology's own historic pluralism. "Just-whatever" is whatever is normative. Cone does a fabulous job of demonstrating how whiteness presumes its own objectivity.

[and my own normative white experience attests to that truth]

Cone writes:

There is a need to respond to a certain kind of critical dismissal of Black Theology, typified by the statement of one distinguished theologian that blacks "are not free to violate the canon of exact reflection, careful weighing of evidence, and apt argument, if they want to make a case for other intellectually responsible listeners." Because theological discourse is universal, I am constrained to reply to this comment, serious despite its patronizing mood, by a fellow theologian. Because theology is also particular, my reply is (in brief) that he is wrong, and that he is wrong because his theological perspective is determined by his whiteness. He is saying nothing other than, "Unless you black people learn to think like us white folks, using our rules, then we will not listen to you." And that is bad theology. (7-8)

Besides, all of the black, queer and feminist theologians I have ever read eagerly acknowledge that their field is not monolithic, but dynamic, diverse and evolving. I haven't discovered any dissident, marginalized echo-chambers. Cultural bunkers? Maybe (a lot of bombs get dropped on refugees). But it's not the way CBN, TBN and Focus on the Family have dominated the Evangelical airwaves in whitewashed unison.

I think it's interesting how casually those of us in dominant culture (I'll include myself here, because it's true for me as well) can belittle alternative worldviews and epistemologies. We have nothing to lose in questioning. In many ways, this is because we have nothing to lose in being questioned.

pastormack responded...

Point of fact, J. Kameron was my theology teacher, and one of the reasons I liked him is that he really had a foot in both the black church tradition and the orthodoxy of someone like Barth.

There is not just one "dominant narrative." Different schools of thought and circles have their own. There is certainly one in black and feminist theologies. I didn't suggest Cosby got to determine the questions because he "agreed" with white people (certainly not with white liberals, mind you). I simply implied that his views don't fit within the African-American paradigm as told by people like Cone and Dyson.

There is also a dominant narrative in feminist theology. Similar to black theology, it revolves around victimhood, but also has a lot to do with gender theory and the belief that naming gender as a sociological phenomenon is reason enough to believe one can either undo or transcend it.

Same story with queer theory (which I know next to nothing about). If it has anything in common with other contextual theologies, it has some seriously Marxist presuppositions. How would conservative, Republican homosexuals fit into that picture? (Yes, they exist)

See the point?

I also think that the view among some of the contextualists that there has never been a non-white, non-male voice in theology is far overplayed. Think about the women mystics. Augustine and Athanasius. Thecla.

Of course it is good that there is an increasingly representative number of theologians from across the globe. I simply think the starting point for theology should be God, in particular God in Christ who reconciles the world to himself. Starting anthropocentrically is to build a foundation of sand - the house can't stand. You start with the James Cone, but the logical endpoint is someone like Anthony Pinn.

And if it is not the outsider's role to critique the beliefs of others, then why, in your words, is OK that "Many contextual theologies purpose to exist specifically as critiques and counterbalances to the dominant narrative"?

While we are on the subject, Jonah was not an insider when the called on the Ninevites to repent.

Am I wrong, or are you saying it is perfectly OK for contextualists to rage against "the dominant narrative" but not OK to criticize how they go about it?


Brandon K. Baker said...

Hey Peter,

I don't know PastorMack, and I wont assume anything about his/her ethnicity. But, in my experience, when people call for sticking to "just Christian theology," what they're really advocating for is "just white theology." I don't think this is done consciously, but it's the same argument as: "why can't black people (or any other race/ethnicity just be American instead of African-American?" What we mean by "just" is "white."

Great thoughts.


James said...

I would enjoy hearing more about what you mean by "normative white experience".

Peter said...

That which is associated with the dominant culture and the majority rule, and considered positive as such.

A normative statement expresses a judgment about whether a situation is desirable or undesirable

Clearly there are nuances, peculiarities and variances to every individual experience, and countless subcultural norms based on religion, family-of-origin, geography, economics and so on.

In America, speaking Spanish is not normative, being Muslim is not normative, refusing to vote or recite the pledge of allegiance is not normative. Graduating high school is normative, owning a home is normative, and going to a Christian church is normative. Individualism is normative, collectivism is not. Et cetera...

pastormack said...


Please at least do me the favor of posting my reply to your comments before making me into a public whipping boy. I think I've read enough black theology not to make the elementary errors I'm being accused of.


Peter said...

You got it. There it is.

pastormack said...

Peter, thank you for the full disclosure.

Josh Mueller said...

I told you that you misread him.

Should be interesting to hear your answer to his actual concerns.

Peter said...

No problem. Mack, I'm not well-read enough or intelligent enough to make you (or anyone else) my whipping boy.

My intention - specifically with reposting our initial comments - was to rescue them from the invisibility of the "comments" section, and to highlight a key area of my worldview that has been shaping me in the last couple of years.

I think Jonah's is a good cautionary tale for how badly things can go when an outsider attempts to address the "other." People don't have the grace or perspective that God has. Whether or not Jonah's tale actually occurred in some semblance (its validity as a historical document is extremely questionable), he was also speaking to Empire: "the exceedingly great city of Nineveh."

Queer Republicans do fit into constructs of Ken Stone's "Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible," because its essays affirm the myriad manifestations of sexuality and worldview.

To your last question: "perfectly OK"? No, not perfectly. But OK? Yes. I confess to a double standard. Like Gustavo Gutierrez's "option (or preference) for the poor," I believe that the truth of God purposefully arcs toward the marginalized, powerless, poor and oppressed. That's not something I can try to debate or prove. It's a position I find most spiritually meaningful and most personally stretching. It prevents me from trying to defend myself or justify my vantage.

I do agree - objectively - that "victimhood" may be unhelpful, taken to extremes. But I have never been victimized. My response is advocacy, rather than rebuke. And I pray (I really do) that the Holy Spirit leads those victimized in all truth - in the Spirit's wisdom, and in the Spirit's timing.

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