When the authority of the Bible is used for white supremacist authoritarian purposes, it stifles the God-breathed nature of the text. In If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, Angela N. Parker engages in a robust discussion linking culture and hermeneutics. She argues that the authority of the Bible comes from a dynamic interaction involving the reader, the biblical text, and the Holy Spirit (23). This idea of authority comes from the Roman imperial conception of auctoritas, meaning an authority which emerges in the creative movement—the conversation—between preceding wisdom and the current context (22). Parker describes this understanding of “authority as a ‘living’ and ‘breathing’ conversation” and applies it to biblical authority (22). By reconsidering 2 Timothy 3:16-17 she is able to recast the meaning of the Bible’s authority as God’s breath working through the biblical text toward justice (14). Parker critiques White supremacist authoritarianism in the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and infallibility for stifling this authoritative movement of God’s breath in readers’ lives. Parker’s analysis is successfully driven by her womanist commitments.
Parker’s womanist approach is holistic, but two dimensions of it particularly stand out. First, she grounds her analysis in the experiences of black women, her own included. This book is “part memoir” in that she unfolds her own professional journey as a black woman student, and then scholar, in the white male-dominated field of biblical studies (109). Throughout the book Parker thoughtfully defines concepts like white supremacy, white supremacist authoritarianism, microaggression, shame, and gaslighting; she argues that they often fuel the deployment of biblical inerrancy and infallibility. These doctrines have been used to constrict her breath and the breath of other black women in a wide variety of experiences. A clear example from her teaching experience is when a White student berated her after class, incensed that she called the Bible a “text” and that she questioned Jesus’ behavior toward the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 (13). Additionally, Parker draws upon the experiences of black women to illuminate the biblical text. For instance, Parker utilizes the practice of Sankofa (an Ghanaian tradition developed in Black American thought, representing going back to the source for something that has been lost, and which heps to reconsistent identity) to explore women’s agency and women’s experiences of gaslighting in Mark 15:40-47 (34-36). In all of this Parker argues that breathing is the ability to give “full-throated voice to your own questions based on lived experience” (17).
Parker ultimately advocates for the liberated breath of the whole community, and this is the second way she advances womanist work. She contends that “Black women’s lived experience and Black women’s reasoning must be brought to bear in the reading of the biblical text, providing an avenue for churched African American women to experience power and testimonial authority stemming from biblical authority” (33). In pressing toward this authority for Black women, Parker also pursues “ethical and holistic biblical interpretation for the liberation of all people” (15). She powerfully unpacks this vision in her reading of Galatians in chapter 4. Examining Paul’s use of the verb bastaz (bearing) in the latter part of Galatians, Parker makes a compelling argument that bearing with one another in the present transforms a community in such a way that they need not fear bearing judgment in the end times (46-47). In calling Christians to mature faith formation, Parker calls for people to bear one another’s burdens so that everyone can “make it home.” Part of bearing with one another is the willingness to foreground identity and lived experience in biblical interpretation. Parker critiques the preoccupation with scholarly objectivity for its inherent biases toward a particular kind of lived experience (generally a white male Protestant experience). Embracing the subjectivity of different identities can make room for liberated breath. The task is building relationships of mutuality and respect across embodied difference. For Parker, “a turn to identity coupled with relationality can help us all begin to breathe” (18).
Parker’s argument in this book may be straightforward, but her approach is a rich tapestry of interdisciplinary insights and skills. She readily translates Bible verses directly from Greek. As a careful exegete, she often holds the tension of translation possibilities together rather than resolve them for the sake of certainty. Additionally, Parker is an apt reader of culture and critical theory. Her analysis weaves together commentary on events in the United States (including the murder of George Floyd, President Trump’s photo shoot with the Bible, and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to Supreme Court) with touches of critical theory (including Marxist and black feminist thought). She not only references womanist work throughout her argument, but also supplies an appendix listing other womanist biblical scholars for further study. And the book is itself a valuable addition to the growing corpus of womanist New Testament scholarship.
Parker’s clear-eyed engagement with culture and hermeneutics makes this a vital text for anyone interested in the relationship between the Bible and contemporary life in the United States. Her conversational and concise writing makes her book accessible for biblical studies students, established scholars, and Christian readers outside the academy. Readers who study at the intersections of religion, politics, and theology also have much to gain from Parker’s work. A few readers might feel disoriented by Parker’s brevity in some areas, particularly when she uses critical theory to develop her argument. Parker is aware that some readers may decry her use of critical theory as irrelevant for biblical studies (27), and perhaps as a result she is too succinct in her inclusion of these theories. Nevertheless, readers will gain precious insight from Parker’s thoughtful engagement with white supremacy, power, and biblical interpretation. Parker identifies the Bible’s authority as conversational movement between the reader, text, and Spirit that is directed toward justice; in similar fashion, her text invites readers into a reflective conversation that cultivates capacities for full-throated breathing.
Angela N. Parker is assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology. In 2018, Dr. Parker received the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion's New Scholar Award for her article "One Womanist's View of Racial Reconciliation in Galatians." In her research, Dr. Parker merges Womanist thought and postcolonial theory while reading biblical texts with real lived experiences of actual bodies.
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