Is Christianity the White Man's Religion?: How the Bible is Good News for People of Color by Antipas L. Harris caught my eye while scrolling through Instagram. I've had my share of conversations on this topic, and though I've already been able to navigate this question for myself, I thought the book might introduce more information that would make such conversations easier. Based on the title, I expected the book to provide historical and theological answers to some of the age old questions people have by delving into the true history of the Bible, the Church, and white Christianity. Unfortunately, if I didn't have answers to the titular question, this book would not have helped me on that journey.
A Surface Level Mess
At 70 pages in, Dr. Harris has mentioned police brutality, racism, the Hebrew Israelites, Nation of Islam, African Spiritualism, and Megyn Kelly, but he hasn't answered a single question. Not only has he not answered questions, he has lead the casual reader to have new questions. For instance, he introduces the Hebrew Israelite theory that black people are the true Israelites and even provides the scriptural reference they use to support their idea (one of the few scripture references we see written out thus far), but as he complains about this group pulling young blacks from the church, he doesn't give any push back as to why they are wrong. If I was unfamiliar with the group and the theory, I would have been more interested in researching their theory than continuing his book. This is just one example, but there are three main issues I have with the book:
- it lacks a clear focus
- it doesn't know who its audience is
- it has questionable language when it comes to the theology.
A Lack of Focus
In one section, Dr. Harris has a heading "Does Jesus Care About Black People?" In this section he starts to discuss how racial identity informs how we relate to people, thus provoking black Christians to desire a black Jesus whom they can relate to. He follows this up with an example of Megyn Kelly asserting Jesus to be white, and then states that she needs Jesus to be white. Dr. Harris then leaves this conversation to discuss his time pastoring in prisons. He begins talking about racial bias in incarceration rates and how the Nation of Islam empowered black prisoners (also members of Nation of Islam are allowed to wear the Nation of Islam bow tie in jail). At the end of the chapter, I have potentially useful tidbits strung into an incoherent mess.
- Dr. Harris never answers the question "Does Jesus Care About Black People?" in the section. Why did he make that the heading if he wasn't going to answer the question?
- The discussion of how racial identity drives our interaction with God could have been flushed out much deeper. There are historical and psychological aspects to this topic. What's more is that Dr. Harris asks if Christ can relate to the ghettos and barrios, but he neglects to talk about Christ's position at the bottom of society. Not only was Christ considered lowly in Jewish society, but the Jews were conquered by Rome and considered low among the larger society.
- When Dr. Harris brings up Megyn Kelly, he names the woman she was responding to as though it is of importance, but it doesn't actually have any relevance. In fact, he spends time bemoaning her need to view Jesus as a white man just a paragraph after explaining why minorities want to see him as a man of color. He doesn't give any reason why one is justifiable and the other is not. Nor does he offer any suggestions...
- Instead of addressing the questions he has already brought up, Dr. Harris goes off on a tangent about people in prison. Why do we need to know about bow ties in prisons? Why are talking about the Nation of Islam instead of answering the question? If we're going to tie prison in to identity, why aren't you discussing the fact that most of the disciples were wrongfully accused and thrown in prison?
The entire book reads like this.
Who is Your Audience?
Another big issue in the book is that there's a disconnect between the title/synopsis and who the intended audience is. Based on the title, I assumed the audience was someone who was either asking the question "is Christianity the white man's religion?" or someone who deals with people asking this question (pastor, youth leader, parent, etc.). Instead, the book reads as though it is written for someone who doesn't know this question exists and has no idea why anyone would ask the question. The first chapter should introduce the problem, but subsequent chapters should move you closer to an answer.
There are definitely larger issues of structural racism or concepts of racial identity that warrant deeper discussion in an individual chapter, but there should also be answers within these chapters. For instance, in the above example about racial identity informing the relationship one has with God, we should have also had discussions about how we can identify with God. If the audience is already asking the titular question, they aren't reading the book to hear more questions.
If instead the book is meant for those who are confused as to why one would ask the question, the title and synopsis should have been written to indicate that the book is meant to guide people through the minds of those asking the question. It should not purport to answer the questions if it's not going to deliver.
The Language of What You Believe
Several sentences in this book made me pause and ask about the authors beliefs. We're going to discuss 3 of them.
The incarnation is about a God who came among us in Jesus Christ and set up residence in our neighborhoods (John 1:14)
On page 72, Dr. Harris refers to "a" god coming amongst us and not "The God" who came into our life. If this was the only questionable sentence in the book, I would write it of as poor wording. However, just a few pages later (page 75), he seems to question the Biblical narrative of history.
From this child, the Hebrew people—the nation of Israel—are said to have eventually emerged.
Dr. Harris doesn't seem convinced that the nation of Israel descends from Abraham and Sarah's child Isaac. He leaves room for other possibilities, making me question his loyalty to the scriptures. This is exacerbated by his sudden confidence in the worldly narrative.
Finally, when Constantine's own mother converted to the faith, the emperor saw the light. Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.
On page 86, Dr. Harris seems fully convinced that Constantine actually converted to Christianity. Most scholarly sources admit that Constantine had a very superficial understanding of Christianity. In fact, Constantine's "conversion" is a crucial part of the problem the book is supposed to be addressing. The Romans had a habit of taking the religions of the regions they conquered and melding them with their own beliefs for the benefit of the kingdom—a weird form of assimilation if you will. This is how may of the pagan practices crept into the religion, but more importantly for Dr. Harris' book, this is how the religion went from be the religion of brown people, to the religion of Europeans. The pattern of him questioning the Biblical narrative of Israel's formation (the words of Moses, a man of color) but boldly asserting the narrative of Constantine, is the exact issue he's supposed to be addressing in the book!
What Dr. Harris Got Right
I like to end on a positive note, so let’s talk about what Dr. Harris did achieve. Eventually he does get to issues such as "the curse of Ham" (there is no curse of Ham, the curse was on Canaan), and discussing the African presence in the Bible. Really, the meat of the book doesn't start until about half way through. By the time I had reached this part of the book, I was exhausted and had no interest in finishing. If you must read this book, I suggest starting in chapter 6, then you might actually finish.