How Christianity has Shaped the Contours of Black American Life
In Black is a Church, Josef Sorett, dean of Columbia College and professor of religion and African American and African Diaspora Studies, maps the ways in which Black American culture and identity have been animated by a particular set of Protestant ideas and practices. He reveals how Christianity, white supremacy, and colonialism coalesced in the modern understanding of religion, and became formative to the emergence of Blackness in this country. Black is a Church examines these surprising, complex alliances and, at times, contradictory ideas, which continue to shape the contours of Black American life.
Sorett discusses the book with Columbia News, as well as his summer plans, who he would invite to a dinner party, and how a book group he recently joined has affected him.
Why did you write this book? Coming so soon after your The Sexual Politics of Black Churches, is there any overlap between the two?
Black is a Church is preoccupied with a set of questions that have been with me going all the way back to my college years, probably earlier. But it was then that I took a class in Black Theology, and wrote a term paper on the relationship between spiritual and racial identities. Over the years, my questions evolved and were refined—from their origins in personal experience and observations—in ways that reflect my subsequent training in the fields of Black studies and religious studies. Most of the book was written during the same time that I was leading a collaborative project at Columbia, which culminated with the publication in 2022 of The Sexual Politics of Black Churches, the volume that I edited.
Readers of both books will perhaps discern some of the same questions in Black is a Church that I pose in my introduction to The Sexual Politics of Black Churches. If I were pressed to describe that overlap, it would be that both books are concerned with teasing out the complex and multifaceted set of relationships between Black churches and the communities they serve, as well as the larger social context that both facilitates and frustrates those relationships. To the question of why: I feel lucky that several issues I find incredibly interesting, and which I could not shake, took the form of a professional trajectory. There is also the fact that, in this profession, research and writing are required for a decent chance at job security. Some convergence of these dynamics led me to write Black is a Church.
Can you give some examples from Black is a Church of ways in which religion (namely, Protestant Christianity) is at the center of Black life in the U.S.?
In chapter one, I begin by looking at the ways in which, in the literary genre of slave narratives, an emerging notion of racial identity—what will eventually be named as Blackness—and a set of normative debates about the substance of Christian faith and religion, more generally, are braided together, all against the backdrop of a quest for freedom. Both chapters two and three continue to pursue these questions by examining, first, new religious movements—from American Pentecostalism to religious pluralism—at the turn of the 20th century, and then, emerging scholarship on race and culture, circa World War II.
Black is a Church ends with a chapter that brings together the foci of the first three, by analyzing some of the ways that various understandings of Christianity continue to shape Black life, across the spheres of literature, scholarship, and activism in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.
What's the last book you read that made you laugh? Which recent book made you cry?
Not long ago, I was invited to join a small book club—just a handful of guys meeting on Zoom—which has helped me redevelop a reading practice not tied to work. Frankly, it’s been hard to keep up with the reading while adjusting to the demands of my first year as dean of Columbia College. But the conversations the group has had have provided balanced portions of religion, politics, and self-reflection—and a measure of good humor, too.
Some of the books we’ve read include J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Reinhold Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I have yet to cry with any of the books, or in the group; but we have shared plenty of laughs. And I’m grateful for that.
What's the most interesting thing you learned from a book lately?
Courtesy of Coetzee—breaking with the expected conventions of a genre, if done well, can be an incredibly effective form of argumentation.
Any exciting summer plans?
I’m not sure exciting is the best word, but I am looking forward to my wife and I celebrating a milestone anniversary this July. We are planning a short trip (to an undisclosed location), which I am very excited about.
Which three scholars, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party, and why?
The historian Robin D.G. Kelley, now at UCLA. In the 1990s, he published an essay that explored the nexus of religion and Black life in the context of Black working-class life in the South. In that essay, among other topics, Kelley challenged a long-standing academic orthodoxy for thinking about where and how religion has shaped Black political activism. I’d be curious to hear his thoughts on where the field of Black studies currently sits in relationship to that specific challenge.
Hortense Spillers, a scholar of literature and professor emeritus at Vanderbilt. She wrote her dissertation, “Fabrics of History: Essays on the Black Sermon,” on the figure of the Black preacher, yet she never published it as a book. It is finally slated for publication with Duke University Press, in 2024 or 2025. I would love to speak with Spillers about how religion—and Black Christianity, specifically—has figured in Black literary and cultural criticism during the decades between her writing her dissertation and its publication as a book.
Lastly, the late Leonard Lovett, Pentecostal clergyman, professor of theology, and founding dean of C.H. Mason Seminary in Atlanta, with whom I took the Black Theology course at Oral Roberts University in the 1990s. I reconnected with him in the early 2000s for a research project I was leading, but I would welcome the opportunity to ask him some questions about that term paper I wrote back then, and, especially, what it was like to teach Black Theology at Oral Roberts during the 1990s.