A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of August Wilson‘s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. The play was intense, humorous, and profane. It surfaced the complex ways Christianity has become a part of the fabric of African-American culture–even for those who have found themselves responding to the church and its message with skepticism and rage, as “white man’s religion.” After the play, for the second time this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a panel of theologians after the performance (many thanks to United Theological Seminary president Mary McNamara’s hard work in arranging these panels).
Here are the reflections I shared on the play and the African American experience it portrayed:
First of all, I feel I’m standing on holy ground. Our playwright August Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But it’s more than that. When, as a young man, he decided to become not a lawyer but a writer—a spiritual craft if there ever was one—he incurred the ire of his mother. As a church historian, I remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also decided to follow his own path and enter a spiritual profession—the monastic life—instead of becoming a lawyer. And he, too, provoked the wrath of his parent; his father. Continue reading
The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church
This church is one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation.
It’s the Metropolitan AME Church, located on M Street between 15th and 16th streets in downtown Washington, DC.
According to a recent article in “DCist,”
The church hosted Frederick Douglass‘s and Rosa Park’s funeral, had President Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bishop Desmond Tutu as speakers, and held pre-inaugural prayer services for President Clinton. Continue reading
First African Baptist Church, Savannah (Chatham County, Georgia)
From an outstanding article (and check out the moving video) at CNN.com:
More than 150 years ago, slaves built this church by fire and moonlight. They raised the walls with clay and sand blocks known as Savannah Gray Brick, and a white ceiling patterned after a nine-patch quilt, a symbol of safety from slavery.
After the first Bible study of the day, Johnny McDonald explains this to a small tour group seated in the church’s curved oak pews. He was baptized in First African’s chilly pool at age 7 and began giving tours as a teen. He’s 22 now, one semester shy of graduation from Savannah State University. He learned the church’s history through a thousand sermons and older members’ memories. Several times a week, he leads tours of each level, and shares everything he knows.
He talks about the earliest church leaders, who were whipped and harassed by white residents who balked at the idea of a black preacher. Continue reading
Here’s an exciting new book examining the social influence of black Christian women in 20th (and 19th) century America.Like other recent analyses of the black church in America, the author ends her account with on a sober assessment of recent disengagement and a plea for re-engagement.
I was immediately reminded of Nancy F. Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780 1835, which shows how women similarly laid the groundwork, through prayer, finances, and organization, for the Second Great Awakening, including the success of revivalist Charles G. Finney.
Bettye Collier-Thomas’ Jesus, Jobs and Justice is a tour de force for the study of women and religion.
It navigates within and beyond the walls of institutional religion to delineate the tremendous contributions of African American women of faith to the larger American project.
Collier-Thomas, professor of history at Temple University, makes the convincing argument that it was, indeed, the amazing networks of organizations that women developed in the 1920s and ’30s that laid the foundation for the success of the civil rights movement.
Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)
This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).
In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).
Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged African-American Christianity, Antony of Egypt, Benedict of Nursia, Benedictinism, church and state, communal life, Constantine, Constantinianization, Council of Nicea, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Martin Luther, Medieval, medievalism, Middle Ages, monasticism, new monasticism, prophetic life, radical Christianity, slavery