In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Austin Channing Brown joins Pete and Jared to discuss her experience within various faith traditions and the importance of the Bible, sermons, and community within the Black church. Together they explore the following questions:
- What is the connection between faith, the Bible, and justice?
- Why was the Black church formed?
- How hard is it to put toothpaste back into the tube?
- How is the Bible used differently in Black churches?
- Why is community so important in Black churches?
- What is the process and the purpose of the sermon in a Black church?
- Who is Rizpah and what significance does she hold to people of color?
- What could potentially hold a church back from talking about justice?
- What is the point of contemporizing biblical stories?
- Why does the Old Testament get used more frequently in Black churches?
- What can be learned from the Black church about how to incorporate emotions into our spirituality and communal practices?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Austin Channing Brown you can share.
- “The Black church was quite literally formed in opposition to slavery, because white supremacy and slavery was trying to answer all kinds of theological questions about Black bodies.” @austinchanning
- “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The same God who freed the enslaved in Exodus is the same God who is watching Black Lives Matter unfold in the world right now.” @austinchanning
- “What often connects us to one another and connects us with God is this idea that the story isn’t finished yet, that God was addressing injustice then and God is still capable of addressing injustice now.” @austinchanning
- “In the Black church, it is not unusual to experience, at some point, every emotion. But I think for us that’s freedom because we so often are navigating a world in which we must be in control of our emotions at all times.” @austinchanning
- “I think because the Black church was born out of oppression, seeking freedom, I think there will always be something particular about that experience.” @austinchanning
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
- Website: https://austinchanning.com/
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Everybody, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and our topic today is “Preaching the Bible in the Black Church,” and our guest is Austin Channing Brown, who has been touring the solar system and the galaxies for the past few months from a book that she wrote last year called I’m Still Here.
Jared: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.
Pete: Right, which is just a huge hit and a lot of people are resonating with the book. But we’re talking about the experience of preaching and the Bible and just the overall experience in the Black church and it was a fascinating and very informative discussion.
Jared: I actually learned quite a bit and it’s one of the metrics I have for successful episodes here at The Bible for Normal People is how much do I learn? And I learned a lot from Austin. So, I appreciated that.
Pete: It’s like continuing seminary education and I mean that. Really, like we learned something. Like oh, okay, that’s interesting.
Jared: From different perspectives and different experiences, which in a seminary, you don’t always get. And that’s not always the fault of the seminary, sometimes you just limited in what you can cover.
Pete: Yeah, no, no, no problem there.
Jared: All right. Well, let’s have the conversation with Austin and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Austin: In the Black church, it is not unusual to experience every emotion. So, if you go to a service, and you don’t laugh and cry and dance and have a really rich conversation and maybe have one conversation that also made you angry, you probably didn’t go to church that day. But I think for us, that’s freedom, because we so often are navigating a world in which we must be in control of our emotions at all times.
Jared: Well, welcome, Austin, to the podcast. It’s great to have you on!
Austin: Thank you for having me.
Jared: Well, we have a lot we want to talk about with you today during our time, but before we do that, we’d like to give people a sense of who you are, where you came from. So maybe tell us a little of your story, and how it intersects with faith and the Bible and all that good stuff.
Austin: Sure. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and my parents sent me to Christian schools my entire life. And so, when I was in, like preschool, kindergarten, first grade, we didn’t really go to church. I don’t think we prayed before bedtime or meals, but I was not aware that we didn’t do those things because I was in a Christian school. So, I just sort of assumed that we were Christian, and everything was Christian, and we were all Christian. And you know, and it wasn’t until, actually, my parents got divorced that each of them then started going to church. And so, my father went to a Black Baptist, maybe 200ish people, where we could clap and dance and sing and have all the liveliness. And then my mother went to Presbyterian churches and Episcopalian churches and it was like the complete opposite experience. And then, of course, went to- I think the elementary school I went to was Assemblies of God, if I’m remembering correctly. So, I was getting a number of church experiences by the time I was about 10 years old, which I kind of enjoyed, actually, depending on the Sunday, of course. But so yeah, my faith has been formed by a number of pastors, churches, denominations since I was a little kid.
Jared: How is that- the differences that you grew up with, how do you think that that impacted you and shaped you in different ways? Do you remember specific things from specific traditions that resonated with you?
Austin: Oh, my gosh. Do I? So, my Christian school was predominantly white. And I really- I didn’t know anything about like, whether or not, like this debate about whether or not women could or could not preach and give sermons and all the things. And so, our chapel services were almost always male, but I never I never thought to question it. And the way, the way their chapel services went usually went something like, “Do you see this tube of toothpaste in my hand?”
Pete: [Laughter] Okay…
Austin: “I am now gonna squeeze this tube of toothpaste.”
Pete: Good for you. Okay.
Austin: “Child, come join me up here and try to put the toothpaste back in the tube. See how hard that is?”
“This is like your words. Once your words come out of your mouth, they’re not very easy to put back in. So, we should watch what we say.” And then came the part where you’re supposed to accept Jesus into your life.
Pete: Make sense to me.
Jared: Yeah, that that logic is impeccable.
Pete: That’s right out of the Bible, I think.
Austin: I mean, right? And then there would be a cute little Bible verse that would be attached, and we would go on about our weekend.
Austin: So, the first time I walked into a Black church, and you are actually expected to take your Bible out and read along—that was novel. I walked in, and there was a choir—that was novel. Said choir did not necessarily stay in their seats.
That choir danced and every song they sang had a different twist on it. There was a choir director, who would change the song every week. So, you never knew what was coming even if you thought you knew what was coming. There were no slides to tell you what the words were.
Pete: Wait a minute, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down here.
Jared: No overhead projector?
Pete: That can’t be.
Austin: There wasn’t, there wasn’t even space for one because you would have been covering up the cross and that would have been a no, no.
Pete: Oh, right.
Austin: It could not have been more culturally different. And so, then I went from this, like very kid-friendly space to this Black Baptist church that was full of energy. And then every other weekend, I would go hang out with my mom in a very quiet service that was very heady, very intellectual, and very proper. I was like, this is fascinating. So obviously, I had a preference. But looking back, it really was kind of fun to experience so many different church traditions before I honestly understood anything about church denominations or who believed what or why. I was just a participant and that was okay.
Pete: Do you gravitate to now—thinking of your experience when you were young—do you gravitate towards one of those expressions more than the other? Or are you more eclectic or just went in a different direction altogether?
Austin: Yeah, that’s a great question. I will always, always, always be in love with the sort of traditional Black church and I think that’s for a number of reasons. I think one, as I’ve gotten older, I have personally experienced the freedom that comes with being in a Black church, with, that comes with being in the majority, that comes with being able to define the culture instead of fighting leadership for the culture. There is just something that is very safe about Black churches. And that’s not to say that they’re perfect or utopias, or you know, I’m not trying to be extreme at all, but in terms of where I sense belonging, there is just nothing like being in a Black church for me.
Pete: Like, I mean, would it be fair to say that your race isn’t something that has to be explained?
Austin: Exactly, exactly. And everything connected to it, right? So, when I go to a Black church, I’m not wondering whether or not the latest social injustice is going to be spoken about, you know? I’m not- I’m not wondering whether or not we’re going to pray about it, whether or not the pastor is going to speak about it, whether or not the pastor is even going to know about it. So, there’s a great deal of safety.
Jared: So, the safety in knowing that from this tradition, they’re going to talk about social issues and injustices, where, you know, kind of looking at your past and your history and understanding, where does that come from? Because I would guess that that’s, you know you kind of say, “in the Black church.” Would that be true of basically all the Black churches that you’ve ever been a part of and kind of where does that come from of this tying of social justice in with the faith tradition?
Austin: You know, it’s really funny is that when I go to white colleges, in particular, predominately white colleges, there is almost always a student who will say, ‘Can you tell me more about the connection between faith, the Bible and justice?’ And I’m always a little taken aback by the question, not in offense, but because my mind starts spinning because those distinctions generally don’t exist in Black churches. There is no question about how those three things: the Bible, your faith, your spirituality, and justice all fit together. It is simply understood that they do.
Pete: It’s kind of like being asked, “Can you tell me about the connection between Christianity and Jesus?”
Pete: Like, “I’ve never thought about that connection before. Help me understand.” Okay.
Austin: Yeah, it really is. They are not taken apart. They’re not disembodied from one another in most Black churches. Now of course, there are very conservative Black churches that do not talk about justice. Particularly the larger the churches get, like, when you get into mega-church land. There are absolutely churches that are culturally Black, as in the music and the expressions, but are taking a very different reading of the Bible. So, I don’t want to suggest that we’re monolithic.
Jared: What would you ascribe that to? Why do you make the connection between them, I mean, I’m sure that’s true. What do you think accounts for that?
Austin: Power and money.
So, if I go back to your original question, sort of how did we even get this, right? The Black church was quite literally formed in opposition to slavery, because white supremacy and slavery was trying to answer all kinds of theological questions about Black bodies. For example, do Black people even have a soul? Can Black people become Christian? If Black people become Christian, does that mean we can’t have them as slaves anymore because you probably shouldn’t enslave your sibling…
Pete: Do the math, pal. Come on.
Austin: And so, in order for Black folks to indulge in a faith tradition, it required doing so outside of white supremacy, outside of the whole industrial complex that was slavery. And that is, in large part, why. So, imagine being enslaved and hearing “slaves obey your masters,” and, right, all these, like, any verses that could possibly be twisted to say you are subservient and you should be subservient. And now you have the opportunity to either read the Bible or simply reinterpret the stories that you’ve heard out of the Bible through a lens that is explicitly tied to your own experience of the world? Well, when you are actually enslaved, how do you not read Exodus and go, “Huh! I think God doesn’t like slavery. I think maybe God wants to crush injustice. I think that Moses and Jesus might be connected somehow.” Right? That there is literally no separation that the Bible is, that if the Bible is true, then it must speak to what my body is experiencing right now. And therefore, out of a people who have been enslaved, it inherently must, in some way, recognize injustice and speak to that injustice and it’s still doing that today in many churches.
Pete: Well, okay, so this is bringing us I think, to maybe discussing how the Bible works in the Black church, specifically in sermons. Because, I mean, Jared and I, not to try to be cute or funny about this, but you know, a lot of our preaching experience growing up is essentially a lecture.
Pete: You know? And it’s, even though it can be really good lectures, like very conversational lectures and very artfully done and you learn a lot, but it seems to be more about passing on information.
Pete: And not to prejudice the question at all, but I know a little bit about preaching in the Black church, not a lot, but I know that it’s not that.
Austin: It’s not.
Pete: Right. So, help us understand, just the use of the Bible in the Black church, specifically in preaching, because it’s not the way a lot of people look at it.
Austin: True. So, this is a hard question to answer. So, a couple caveats. One, obviously, I’m speaking extraordinarily generally, right?
And there are plenty of exceptions to all the rules I’m about to name.
Pete: Well, you know, how about just in your experience? We don’t have to generalize this.
Austin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s good. Thank you.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Austin: So, in my experience, particularly in the churches that make me feel safe, I would say that the Bible is trying to, I would say that the pastor is looking for the real-world experience of those who lived in the Bible and of us today. So, the question is, what is our connection to one another? So, I have never heard a lecture, if we stick with Moses, I’ve never heard a lecture on Moses. I have only ever heard Moses was afraid, Moses didn’t understand, but Moses went anyway. Moses stood up to Pharaoh. Moses told Pharaoh the truth. And even when the people turned against Moses, Moses still had to do what he knew God was calling him to do. Right? That is completely different from-
Pete: And that’s because the point is to form the connection with people’s lived experiences.
Austin: That’s right. That’s right. And so, if you are a Black person who is trying to speak truth to your supervisor or who is trying to do what’s right in your family or who is maybe away at school and trying to figure out what to do in this new world of professors and administrators, Black pastors are trying to give congregation members tools that are biblically sound, that give you an identity with Moses or an identity with Esther. So that these folks feel like your friends, feel like people that you are looking up to, feeling like people that you want to try and model your life after, and folks who are teaching us what we ought not do.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Austin: Like, here is an example of what you probably should not do. And the way Black pastors do that is so fascinating because Black—a phrase that you will often hear in the Black church is “now I imagine,” or “in my sanctified imagination.” And what the pastor will do, is he will turn a chariot into a low rider, right? He will take something that is ancient, and say, “Here is how this shows up right now, in your life, on your street, on your block,” so that these folks don’t feel ancient anymore.
Jared: Well, what I hear you saying is first, a humanization of the character.
Jared: You know, sometimes, for me, growing up the time of the Bible and the characters were so two-dimensional and kind of one-sided. And so, there’s this humanizing within the Black church that they are, that they’re humans, and there’s things that we learn from, to do and not to do. So, I never really got the “not to do” part. It was just like be brave like David. David’s perfect, he’s great. You know?
Austin: [Laughter] Right.
Jared: This and that sort of thing. But also, this, you know, I think of it as like, it’s making the story 3D and connecting to our experiences. And so, this imagination would also be, would that include like changing the setting? Changing some of the characters? It’s sort of it’s taking the heart, maybe you can say this better, but keeping the heart of the story, but then dressing that in ways that would better connect with the audience now?
Austin: Right. And I would take it a step further and say that I think what pastors are trying to do in these examples, is say that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Right? So, they’re trying to say that the same God who freed the enslaved in Exodus is the same God who is watching Black Lives Matter unfold in the world right now.
Jared: What’s the power in that? Why does that, why would a pastor want to do that?
Austin: Yeah. One, because Black folks so identify with our ancestors, right? And so, I think that’s partly because we don’t have family crests, many of us don’t have family crests. We don’t have a whole lot of tangible items that were passed on because we haven’t owned much traditionally, historically. And so, what we had with our ancestors is time and connection, tradition, like black-eyed peas and cornbread, and cast-iron pots, and the Bible. And so, what often connects us to one another and connects us with God, is this idea that the story isn’t finished yet, that God was addressing injustice then and God is still capable of addressing injustice now. And there’s a great deal of power in that.
Pete: You know, I remember when I was in seminary, and this is definitely one of the brighter a-ha moments, but it was in a preaching class and our professor, he was a good man, was talking about the art of preaching, blah, blah, blah. And a student took objection to what he was saying, because the student said, “Well, the point of a sermon is to teach people doctrine.”
Pete: And the professor said, “No, it’s not. The point of a sermon is to make people feel the presence of the kingdom of God.”
Pete: I like- I actually still get emotional thinking of that, because I think that’s it. I don’t know how to do that.
Pete: But I think that it seems to be the point. It seems to be to create an experience and a meaningful one that changes you and that shows—I think you just said, that gives you hope.
Pete: It gives you hope that the story’s not over and it’s continuing.
Austin: That’s right. That’s right. And I would underline that it’s creating an experience. It is, from beginning to end—Black church is an experience.
Austin: You know? It is walking in the front doors and being met by ushers who are going to hug you and love you and give you a peppermint. It is walking by the church mothers on the front row and complementing their hats. It is waving to the children who are going to give their little children’s talk later on. It is the choir and the preaching. It is the dancing, you know? Like the whole thing is an experience and it feels, I imagine it would feel chaotic to someone who has never been through it before.
Pete: Or an introvert.
Austin: Right. There’s no slides. No programs.
Pete: No slides. No program. No, “everybody quiet.”
Austin: [Laughter] That’s right.
Pete: Oh, man.
Jared: But that’s also because it’s highly- I think of, those things are a little bit like training wheels, right? When you have the slides and the things, those are for people who don’t yet know the culture and don’t know the rhythms and the seasons. And so, by not having that it’s not that it’s chaotic. It’s actually probably more organized, because it’s kind of in the bones of everyone there.
Austin: That’s right.
Jared: We know what’s coming.
Austin: Oh, it’s extremely ordered. Yeah, totally, totally. You know, exactly when sister Johnson on the third row is going to get the Holy Ghost.
It’s extremely ordered.
Pete: It’s just a different kind of liturgy. Right?
Austin: That’s right.
Pete: It’s a different kind of liturgy.
Austin: It’s a different way of saying, here’s what I need to loose in order to connect with the Divine.
Jared: And I think there’s something really important about helping individuals in a very disconnected culture remember, like, literally remember that. That there is, that this stuff matters, right? So, Pete talking about our tradition, the reason we had lectures was because the information was all that mattered, not the connections between human beings, but that God was somehow transmitting information into my individual brain. And so, what I hear when you talk about the Black church is I hear the word community, and how God is present there and how that matters just as much, if not more so than the other parts of the liturgy or of the faith that we maybe privilege in other traditions.
Austin: I completely agree. I think that because, you know, the further we move from history, the increased numbers we get of pastors who have gone to school or have gone to seminary and are absolutely incorporating doctrine and translating words from Hebrew and Greek, right? Doing all that hard work, but not sacrificing the community or the experience.
Jared: Exactly, integrating it.
Austin: Right, exactly. So, underneath the doctrine is going to be a song from Al Green or Stevie Wonder. Like we are going to infuse the richness of Black culture, the richness of today into that sermon because the experience, the community, our survival, I think our survival is still paramount to whether or not we have every doctrine correct.
Pete: You know, in your book, Austin, I think you have, if I remember right, I read it a few weeks ago, but you have a chapter titled “White People are Annoying.”
Austin: [Laughter] Yes.
Pete: So, what would you like to tell white people about preaching? I mean, about like, to help white people understand, especially who might not be sympathetic about just the process and purpose of the sermon in the Black church experience for community and for remembering and all of that. Like, how does that function? First of all, how long are the sermons in your experience?
Austin: [Laughter] Right.
Pete: I’m Episcopalian. The smartest white people are Episcopalians because they preach for 12 minutes and that’s it.
Pete: And they know enough to shut up and sit down because it’s not working. Right? So, how, I mean, how? Educate us. Talk to us. Help us to understand that dynamic.
Jared: No offense to all you Episcopalian people who are listening, so…
Pete: I can, I’m Episcopalian so I can do that, Okay?
Jared: You can say it because you’re Episcopalian. Okay.
Pete: Okay? Go ahead.
Austin: I think what’s really, first of all, I continue to be shocked by how little white America knows about Black culture, period.
If it’s not, you know, a real popular rap song or a real popular rapper, chances are white folks just don’t know a whole lot about what is happening in Black homes, Black neighborhoods, and Black churches. And so, I think the most recent example of this was the Jeremiah Wright issue that happened when then-Senator Barack Obama was seeking election.
Austin: You know what I mean?
Pete: Is this the God damn America thing?
Austin: That’s right. That’s right.
Austin: A clip of him saying, “God damn America,” went, like, beyond viral. Don’t know what beyond viral is, but beyond viral. Right?
Pete: Right, right.
Austin: And it was stunning to me, how many white folks just had zero context for what preaching is in a Black church. And so, the reason that I think I struggle to even answer this question is because if you’ve never experienced it, I’m not sure it can be explained.
Pete: Yeah, okay.
Austin: And I think an example of this… So Pete, you and I were at the Evolving Faith Conference.
Austin: And almost everyone there gave a lecture.
Austin: [Laughter] Right?
Pete: I recall that.
Austin: Lots and lots of lectures.
Jared: He recalls some of it, he was sleeping.
Pete: Especially through my own, but anyway, go ahead. Right. So, it was it was like a talk, it was lecture-based, right. Passing on of information, right?
Austin: A lot of information, right? And it’s for people who are deconstructing their faith, who are trying to reconstruct their faith, sort of how does this doctrine and how does this idea, how does God fit into the experience that people are going through right now in 2019/2018, right?
Austin: And it’s good, right? There’s nothing bad about it. There’s nothing, like, it’s, it’s good. But then, on the second day, I get up and I preach. And I preach the way Black people preach. And I had the same amount of time as everyone else, but multiple people said to me, “I could have listened to you for another 20 minutes.”
Austin: That’s because I didn’t talk about doctrine. I didn’t talk a whole lot about like theology or theological truths. I just transported them into an experience that connected the Bible and themselves.
Pete: Can you talk about, I mean, I would actually love for you to preach that sermon right now. Because it was, I mean, I’m not just saying this, I’ve said this to many people. It was actually beautiful to listen to. But what was the story?
Pete: Briefly, what was the story in the Old Testament? It was in the life of Saul, or David rather.
Austin: That’s right.
Pete: And how you connected it to our moment?
Pete: Because that’s an example people might be able to latch on to.
Austin: Yeah, so in that story, I focus on Rizpah, who is one of Saul’s like second wives/concubines, depending on your tradition. And she gets caught up in all the political madness that is the change between Saul and David and she is deeply impacted by it. And when David officially becomes king, it’s assumed that everything will settle down. And instead, David makes a promise to kill five, I think, of Saul’s offspring, one of which is Rizpah’s son. And David takes things way too far. I would argue that was far. Just kill some folks, right?
Pete: It’s how he rolls, taking things too far.
Austin: You know what I’m saying? Right. But then he takes it even farther by just leaving the bodies up. And Rizpah decides that she is not going to take it, that she is going to climb that mountain and essentially hold vigil for all the bodies that are on that mountain. And I argue that people of color and allies who stand in solidarity with people of color are Rizpah. That we are climbing the mountain. That we are saying this is not okay, and hoping against hope that the powers that be will try to make reparations, will try to make it right because they must confess what they’ve done is wrong, is unjust.
Pete: And you drew a connection, as I recall, between Rizpah’s son and Trayvon Martin.
Austin: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s an easy connection to make, if you’re a person of color.
Pete: Right? Exactly. It is not one that I ever would have thought of.
Austin: Right. Right.
Pete: So, when you said it, I said, “Oh, crap. What have I been missing?” Okay. Anyway, but yeah, I mean, that’s what you said before of connecting past-
Austin: That’s right.
Pete: And like contemporizing the stories and connecting through that, which we don’t do very often. I mean, again, my experience, Jared, like, the way I grew up in churches, that wasn’t really the point. And in fact, in some traditions it gets in the way.
Jared: There’s something though, a little deeper that I want to ask you about, because it just struck me as, you talked about experiences, that the sermon is creating an experience. And I wonder, is there something that a lot of us can learn from the Black church about how to incorporate emotions into our spirituality and our communal practices? Because when you start going into experiences, the first thing I think of is we’re moving out of our head and moving down into our heart. And that is a, not only is it something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, it’s just hard to do. And I think maybe the Black church and pastors in the Black church are more practiced at that. Would that be fair to say? And how can, yeah, maybe just speak to the emotional agility in the Black church?
Austin: Wow. So, in the Black church, it is not unusual to experience, at some point, every emotion. So, if you go to a service, and you don’t laugh and cry and dance and have a really rich conversation and maybe have one conversation that also made you angry, you probably didn’t go to church that day.
Austin: But I think for us, that’s freedom because we so often are navigating a world in which we must be in control of our emotions at all times. Because if I am not in control of my emotions with a police officer, then I could be Sandra Bland. And if I’m not in control of my emotions with my supervisor, then I’m an intimidating, angry Black woman who needs to be fired. That I need to watch how I walk through stores—every single time that I go to my local Target, I get my prescription filled there as well, for medicine. And I always, always, always stand at that counter, I open up my purse, I put my prescription in my purse while the physicians are watching me, so that everybody is clear that I’m not stealing anything, that I have purchased this, that everything I do is calculated in the world, and to be able to walk into a church where I can be free to experience all of my emotions, to let them all out and to arrive at peace at the end of it, I think that’s why Black churches take three hours.
Austin: Yeah, we need some time!
Jared: But there’s something, again, I would, for me, it’s learning from the Black church because I just don’t know if we know how to access that. It’s not, like you said, for you in particular as a person of color, to be really guarded. But I think that’s something we value in our culture.
Austin: That’s right.
Jared: Repression of emotions.
Austin: That’s right.
Jared: And we bring that into our faith, and yet we’re emotional people and so in relationships and in community then we just fumble through it, and we don’t know how to connect emotionally. And so, it just painted this picture that I think the Black church is ahead of us, for those of us who don’t go to a Black church, ahead of us in something we can really learn from.
Austin: I think because the Black church was born out of oppression, seeking freedom, I think there will always be something particular about that experience. And part of me, what I honestly struggle with is that part of me wants the world to know about what makes the Black church so special and so unique and at the same time, I want it to continue to be our little secret.
Pete: Yeah. It’s almost like you want people to know, but they have to earn the right to know.
Pete: And they can step on that too. Without really—it’s throwing pearls before swine, in a sense.
Jared: Well, we have a history of appropriating things.
Pete: Don’t we, though? Yeah. So, sort of, yeah.
Austin: [Continued laughter]
Pete: But do you have a favorite Bible story? I like asking that question, but I hate being asked it because the answer for me is no, I have seven and it changes every week. But do you have one that you feel just says things so beautifully to you?
Austin: I do. I really love the opening of John.
Pete: Oh. Why?
Austin: It’s so poetic.
Pete: Uh huh.
Austin: It’s so, just, beautifully poetic. It feels like it shouldn’t be a part of the Gospels in some way. You know? Because the Gospels are so rooted in actual story, right? Like, Jesus did this. And then Jesus went there. And then Jesus said that. And it really doesn’t make sense that there would be this opening that – “The Word was God and the Word was with God,” and like, it’s just so beautiful. It gets me every time.
Pete: Yeah. It is, you know, it sort of has this rhythm to it.
Pete: And then a crescendo that isn’t like, “And here’s the story of Jesus.”
Austin: Exactly, it’s not here’s the generations. Here’s where he came from. Here’s where you lived. It is beautiful –
Pete: It sparks the imagination.
Austin: Yes! I love it.
Jared: Well, tying that into kind of what we talked about, I mean, I think there’s a reason that—I mean, I think it sets up, if we know, you know, that other differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics, it makes sense that John would begin this way.
Jared: In this more creative, certainly agenda-driven, but I think, a worthwhile and worthy agenda, portrayal of the life of Jesus in a more poetic way. For sure.
Austin: Right. And I would say the same thing is true of the Black church, right? That we are absolutely agenda-driven. There is—it’s so funny, because I listen to white churches talk about being like apolitical and like, that is a word I would never hear in the Black church, apolitical, like, we are very clear on where we stand on everything.
Pete: Speaking of that, the sermons that you’ve heard in your life, is there a tendency to preach from like all different parts of the Bible? Or are there like, favorite places? Like the Protestants, I know, they just love Paul. Just camp out on Paul.
Austin: Oh, sure. Got it.
Pete: And Gospels? Sort of. Old Testament? Yeah, whatever. But where, is it more spread out in your experience or are there like pet places to land?
Austin: Yeah, there is. This is gonna sound like minimizing language, and I don’t mean it to be. But sermons for Black folks are almost a game. So, it’s like, how creative can you be? So, when I was a kid, at least one time a year, all the ministers in our church would have to preach from both the Old Testament and the New Testament in the same sermon. Every year, we do the Seven Last Words and what usually happens is every single Minister, again, has to preach on just one of the last words. The Old Testament, I would guess that the Old Testament actually gets preached more often. Like if I had to give a survey that would just be my guess because it is so filled with story, right? There’s just so many people, so much happening, so many here’s what you should do and here’s what you should never ever do. You know, that it is just so rich in that way, but Black folks are here to talk about the Gospels too now. Don’t miss the sermons on Jesus. So, yeah!
Pete: But in terms of connecting though with people-
Pete: You know, I do see the point of the Old Testament because it’s like the New Testament happens so quickly. It’s like a few decades and it’s over, you know? You don’t have the time to develop the story genre in the same way because you’ve got hundreds and hundreds of years of people suffering things going well, things going poorly.
Austin: That’s right.
Pete: That you don’t really- you have a more of a triumphal tone. And clearly, the idea of Jesus is coming back, like in five minutes, so just don’t get married.
Pete: There really is a belief and I think that sets the tone. And you know, the liberating message of Jesus, and I believe too, the liberating message of Paul and the anti-Empire talks of the New Testament is very helpful.
Pete: But in terms of the stories, you really have to go into the Old Testament for that sort of thing. You just don’t have a lot. You have the book of Acts and that’s about it.
Austin: That’s right. That’s right.
Pete: That makes sense to me. Okay.
Austin: Yeah. And even when going into- I don’t think I’ve ever heard Black pastor preach from the Old Testament and not end it with Jesus.
Austin: Even when, obviously in many instances, there is no Jesus. Like Jesus does not show up, generally speaking, in the Old Testament.
Pete: Generally speaking, yeah.
Austin: And yet, the pastor’s ability to do exactly what you said, to end with a triumphant Christ is ever present, it’s ever present.
Jared: Well, we are coming to the end of our time, Austin. It’s been such a wonderful conversation with you. Can you just let people know where they can, maybe continue the conversation with you, either social media online or just other projects you’re working on that they can find out about and where they can find out about those?
Austin: Sure. So, I am all in on the social media. So, my handle is @AustinChanning for both Instagram and Twitter. It’s my full name for Facebook, Austin Channing Brown. And then my website is also AustinChanning.com. And I actually do have a really exciting project that’s about to happen. So, if people want more information on that, they should totally go over to my website and click on Announcement, because we’re gonna have some fun things coming up this spring that I’m really excited to talk about.
Jared: Keeping it mysterious. I like it.
Austin: Keeping it mysterious.
Pete: You’re not going to tell us. You’re gonna make us go on the internet.
Austin: I am.
Jared: I see the frustration in Pete’s face.
Jared: He doesn’t actually know how to work the internet, so this might be a challenge.
Austin: Just help him out, Jared. Help him out.
Pete: I’m just impatient is what I am. Fine. Fine, I’ll Google it later.
Jared: Excellent. All right. Well, hey, thank you so much for coming on, again, and for sharing your experiences and your stories.
Austin: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks, guys.
Pete: Thank you, Austin.
Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
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