African American Theology

An Introduction

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Frederick L. Ware
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , March
     2016.
     256 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664239503.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In African American Theology: An Introduction, Frederick L. Ware—associate professor of theology at the Howard University School of Divinity—attempts to articulate the various shapes of religious thought among Black people in the United States, giving particular emphasis to Black Christian thought. Though Ware considers the work of African theology coming from the African continent, his main focus is on the religious thought of Black Christians in the United States. This strategic choice to limit the scope of the text by not conflating African American theology with the study of all Black theologies—an approach that overlooks the diversity of people of African descent around the globe—invites readers into a focused analysis that is scholarly, engaging, and thought-provoking.

Central to Ware’s project is the claim that at the heart of African American theologies of the divine (or that which is ultimate) is the movement towards the foundation of a new society where humans live in such a way that they are liberated from all forms of injustice—especially racism—that prevent people from living in community with one another. For African American Christian theology, this means that authentic Christian faith—regardless of who practices it—must lead to liberative ways of living in the world (5). Through an analysis of the history of African American theologies, the factors shaping Black religious thought, and brief summaries of major areas of theological inquiry, readers will come away with a sense of the multiplicity of ways in which people of African descent in the US envision the intersection which transcends human existence with life in the world. While privileging a Christian framework, African American Theology also attests to religious diversity within the community by incorporating important insights from humanism, traditional African religious practices, and other ways of making sense of what is ultimate within Black culture.

There are two discussions in the text pointing to crucial trajectories for African American Christian thought. First, Blackness as something that is embodied—rather than simply lived out as a construction—is dealt with at length in the sixth chapter, which lays out African American theological anthropology. While acknowledging the social constructedness of racial identity in America, Ware considers how it might be positively understood as a deep symbol for a particular way of life. The advantage of this type of thinking is that it challenges notions of Blackness, which are simply defined over and against Whiteness. Second—and I would argue that this is the most important contribution of the text—is his engagement with what it means for a perfect God to be present in the midst of centuries of Black suffering as the result of systemic racism. Clearly, the author is aware of critiques leveled at Black liberation theology in recent decades by scholars of Black humanism. He does not shy away from important questions for African American theologies with theistic orientations that see the divine’s salvific work manifesting itself through the liberation of oppressed peoples despite continued oppression. While God is working things out for the oppressed of the world, Ware also argues for the place of human activity in challenging the structures of power that diminish Black people’s humanity.

Overall, Ware accomplishes his goal of introducing his readers to the theological thought of Black Americans who adhere to a Christian paradigm of envisioning which is ultimate. While the text does not dedicate large amounts of space to the various areas of inquiry, it gives readers plenty of ideas for how they might continue to explore the subject. Without a doubt, African American Theology is an introductory text: it even provides discussion questions to further engage the concepts. However, both newcomers and seasoned intellectuals will find it an important addition to their studies in Black religious thought. For students who are new to, or unfamiliar with, the discourses within the large family that is African American theology, this text gives a comprehensive and accessible opening to the subject matter. Scholars who are already engaging with the field will find Ware’s bibliographies (provided at the conclusion of each chapter in addition to the comprehensive one in the back of the book) quite helpful for identifying further readings. African American Theology is an excellent addition to university/seminary classes dealing with the religious thought of Black people in the US and can even be used outside the classroom to introduce readers to the rich discourse of Black Christian theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Roberts is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Southeastern University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederick L. Ware is Associate Professor of Theology at Howard University Divinity School in Washington, DC. He is the author of Methodologies of Black Theology.

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