Emmett G. Price III on Studying Black Christian Experience
“If we don’t see each other in the Bible, we get stuck in social perplexities that cause us to not be a good witness,” says Emmett G. Price III.
Emmett G. Price III is professor of worship, church, and culture; dean of the chapel (Hamilton campus); and founding executive director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE) at the Hamilton Campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also serves as founding pastor of Community of Love Christian Fellowship in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. In this edited conversation, he talks about how ISBCE offers blessings for all kinds of churches and Christians.
What does your institute mean by the phrase “the black Christian experience”?
We are talking about more than African American Christians in the U.S. Our vision is to share with the global church the powerful testimony, rich heritage, and dynamic distinctives of the collective black Christian experience. That history begins earlier and includes more nations, movements, and denominations than many Christians realize.
Most U.S. evangelicals haven’t noticed that Africa and her children are prominently present in the Old Testament, New Testament, and early church. Hagar, Keturah (Abraham’s last wife), Ruth, and numerous others were of African descent. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron were born in Africa. Many Christians find it difficult to grasp Christianity’s vast spread in Africa and Asia during the first through sixth centuries. They don’t know that Tertullian and Augustine wrote from North Africa. In our churches today, we infrequently reference and more frequently ignore Christianity’s continuous presence and rich traditions in the Coptic Orthodox Church, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Many U.S. evangelicals think of Africa as deeply in need of being evangelized. Few know that Africa has 631 million Christians, the most in any continent as of 2018. My wonderful colleagues at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity know that Ethiopia and Ghana are in the top ten nations where evangelicalism is growing most rapidly (2000 to 2015 data).
Why did you help found the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience (ISBCE)?
The ISBCE is the fruit of a long prayer vine. Many before me had a vision for an inclusive entity within the seminary whereby progeny of the African diaspora can bear witness to the miraculous move of God in our lives. Our ISBCE mission is to:
- Engage in the theological formation of seminarians, pastors, and activists.
- Encourage research and scholarship by faculty and institute scholars and fellows.
- Stimulate interactive dialogue locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
- Provide educational opportunities through lectures, forums, symposia, and published research and scholarship.
We host courses on a number of our campuses. Our monthly digital colloquium inspires, encourages, challenges, and interrogates fresh perspectives on standing issues. We also share innovative findings from U.S. and global researchers. As a new institute, we are always expanding our influence and impact by investing in brilliant minds and inspiring courageous hearts.
How does ISBCE help people begin to grasp the enormity of the black Christian experience?
We research and teach the phenomenal expressions of Christian worship throughout the African diaspora. I’m a trained musician and ethnomusicologist with a huge interest in ethnodoxology. Learning how black people around the globe worship fascinates me. It is a testament to deep faith, forgiveness, hope, lament, celebration, joy, and lots of energy!
I remember walking into local mom-and-pop shops in Trinidad. When owners weren’t waiting on customers, they tended to be reading the Bible or listening to Christian radio. I commented to one shopkeeper, “You appear to be such a voracious reader of God’s Word.” She replied, “Do you know anything about witchcraft? If you’ve never been exposed, then you have no idea how powerful it is. The only way to combat the power of witchcraft is with the Word of God.”
Here in the U.S., we’re content to pray maybe 10 minutes a day and read the Bible for 15 to 30 minutes. In Trinidad, where people are more aware of dangers and demonic presence in their culture, Christians spend more time absorbing and memorizing scripture.
Is the ISBCE mainly for well-educated black people?
It’s broader than that. I’m at a seminary that values biblical literacy and cultural competency. An imbalance in either creates radicalization. Not all my clergy colleagues have had an opportunity to attend seminary, so we also create learning opportunities for them beyond the classroom.
We also work with churches and other groups to train and consult based on their needs and our resources. For example, the Faith & Law group in Washington, DC, asked me to speak to them about diversity, race, and inclusion. These are congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle who want to live out their Christian witness amid today’s political tensions. My lecture to them drew from an ISCBE semester course, “The Bible and Race.”
Given the longevity and magnitude of global black Christian experience, why don’t more evangelical Christians know about it?
One reason is that our image of Christianity is dominated by the amazingly creative depictions by 15th to 17th century master artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Raphael. These artists depicted Jesus, angels, and heaven from a Eurocentric view.
A second reason is that most evangelical history, narratives, and academic research focuses on the call to personal piety and a formational process stemming from the Reformation—which is very important. But the challenge is that these perspectives are most often driven from a biblical foundation through a white male lens. Thus, our reading of the Bible reflects and projects this vision. It can blind us from seeing how much God cares about social justice and social equity.
What can congregations and individual Christians gain from seeing their faith through another cultural lens?
Seeing Christianity through only one lens skews how we see one another. If we don’t see each other in the Bible, we get stuck in social perplexities that cause us to not be a good witness. God calls us to live as one body, with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Unfortunately, we in the U.S. haven’t wrestled enough with what it means to be one church with multiple expressions. Anything that takes us away from Christian unity and harmony must be scrutinized.
Most people in this great nation don’t want to talk about the history of injustice against people of color. But not talking about indignity and oppression means you miss out on healing. In black worship, we take time to admit our pain and process it with God. Then we get excited, filled with joy as we recover our hope that God will prevail.
This piece of the African diaspora experience can be shared by anyone who experiences despair in historical and real life. One gift of the black Christian experience is how worship helps us hold on to hope as a lifeline, not just for us, but for the generations to come.
Anything else you’d like to say about what you often describe as “the glory, beauty, and teaching of Africa and its diaspora”?
Many U.S. evangelicals might know about Desmond Tutu but rarely see other African clergy and theologians as global leaders. Knowing that Africa has so many Christians might help change our view of the church there and might prompt us to learn from African leaders.
Our ISBCE courses, events, research, and scholarship do not aim to disprove or discredit anyone’s experience. Instead we want to include narratives, experiences, and areas of expertise that have been neglected or written out of history. One of our courses, “The Black Christian Experience: from Africa to the Americas,” aims to fill the gaps in most church history curricula.
Hear Emmett G. Price III speak at the 2019 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
Read about the Institution for the Study of the Black Christian Experience in Contact, the Gordon-Conwell Seminary magazine.
Price is executive editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of African American Music.