5. Faith and Inquiry: Christ in Contemporary Cultures Conference

Dr. Cornel West served as the keynote speaker for the “Christ in Contemporary Cultures Conference” held at Gordon College in 2006. My colleague and I–Gregor Thuswaldner, Academic Director at The Salzburg Institute of Religion, Culture and the Arts and a Professor at Gordon College Wenham, MA,-co-organized this academic conference held within Gordon College’s Lilly funded Center for Christian Studies (now Center for Faith and Inquiry), which has since become the Center for Faith and Inquiry. Dr. Dan Russ served as director. I served as a Lilly/Center for Christian Studies Fellow from 2005-2007.

I first met Dr. Cornel West as a senior Honors College Student at Johnson C. Smith University in the spring of 1995 where he spoke within the University’s Lyceum Series and at the inauguration of Johnson C. Smith University’s 12th and 1st female President-Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy.

To Read the Call for Conference Papers, click here:


To Read the Conference Program, click here:

cornel west 2006 Christ in Contemporary Cultures

West and JohnsonWest with Conference Co-Organizers

Read: “A Critical Reflection: Christianity, African American Intellectual History and Scholarship”


 Brian Johnson, Ph.D.

No doubt the beggar’s joy was not true joy; but it was a great deal truer than the joy which I, with my ambition was seeking. And undoubtedly he was happy while I was worried; he was carefree while I was full of fears. And if I were asked which I would prefer, to be merry or to be frightened, I should reply “to be merry.” But if I were asked next whether I would prefer to be a man like the beggar or a man like I then was myself, I should chose to be myself, worn out as I was with my cares and my fears. Was not this absurd? Was there any good reason for making such a choice? For I had no right to put myself in front of the beggar on the grounds that I was more learned than he, since I got no joy out of my learning. Instead I used It to give pleasure to men – not teach them, only to please them.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine Book VI Ch. VII

Many of the most engaging and enriching conversations that I have ever participated in have taken place at No Grease Barber Shop. Damion Johnson and his twin brother Jermaine are the owners of this barbershop, and they have chosen a rather intriguing phrase as their slogan. Although it appears trite at first glance, the slogan reads, “This is no ordinary barber shop.” When one walks into their shop, you immediately notice that the ceiling is covered with red paint. This may seem curious enough, but when coupled with the knowledge that the shop’s activities include – hosting famous gospel singers like Darryl Coley, holding weekly bible study sessions on Monday nights, producing skits, hair/fashion shows, and poetry readings with reverential respect paid to the history of African American barbering and African American Christianity – one recognizes that the red paint is symbolic of their deep and abiding commitment to the blood of Jesus Christ.

In one of our conversations, Damion asked rather pointedly, “What do you guys do?” He was referring to African American intellectuals and scholars. After I articulated the activities that most African American scholars engage in, Damion replied, “Well, it ought to bear witness with somebody other than yourself.” This assessment of African American scholarly activity struck me as painfully correct. And even further, it led me into a rather sobering interrogation of my own pursuits as an aspiring African American scholar and intellectual. I realized that the activities of No Grease Barber Shop in a predominately African American community reflected a very real and deep-seated African American engagement that is a viable terrain for future intellectual consideration in African American scholarship. Further, if future African American scholars were to consider the activities of this powerful institutional dynamic without recognizing the Christian engagement of these barbers, then their scholarship will be lacking depth at best, and be disingenuous at worst.

Damion’s invocation of “bearing witness” speaks profoundly to the notion of agreement and solidarity with persons who concur with your aims and ambitions. This consideration led me to the ensuing conclusion about African American scholarship’s utility within the African American community. The impact of African American scholarship in the African American community suffers because of its failure to appropriate and legitimize the rich, successful and prevailing engagement of African Americans with Christianity. African American engagement with Christianity presents enormous opportunities for serviceable scholarship in the larger African American community; a community that speaks and understands a language that many African American intellectuals are deeply familiar with, but eschew entirely – the language of biblical Christianity.


Mark Noll’s (1994) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind argues in relation to the larger European American evangelical tradition that the “scandal” of the evangelical community is the lack of attention paid to its rich intellectual heritage in the Protestant tradition. In explaining his sense of intellectual tradition, Noll writes, “By an evangelical ‘life of mind’ I mean more the effort to think like a Christian – to think within a specifically Christian framework – across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts…failure to exercise the mind for Christ in these areas has become acute in the twentieth century. That failure is the scandal of the evangelical mind.”[1] Noll’s definition has strong reverberations when contextualized within an African American intellectual tradition.

Historically, African American intellectuals and scholars have viewed the academic “scandal” facing African American intellectual and scholastic thought in terms of a “crisis.” Since Harold Cruse’s (1967) The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, African American intellectuals such as Nathan Hare, bell hooks, Cornel West, Hortense Spillers and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have sought to respond directly or indirectly to Cruse’s despondency about African American intellectual culture. The most notable of these respondents is Cornel West. In prophetic fashion, West may be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” preparing the way and making straight paths for re-vitalizing African American intellectual and scholarly life in the 21st century. To be sure, West’s intellectual positioning with regard to African American intellectual and scholarly life does not amount to overbearing advocacy or espousal of Christianity, but it does represent the kind of clearing of the land or demolition that is necessary before either erecting or re-constructing African American intellectual thought and scholarship. For West, the present state of African American intellectual and academic life is not a “crisis” but a “dilemma” – a quandary that has no solution amongst available alternatives.

In his essay, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” West outlines and discusses four distinct frameworks for literate African American intellectual activity that may be capitalized upon in future work. [2] What is most compelling about West’s essay is what he does not suggest. Prior to discussing these four models of historical African American intellectual production, West suggests “that there are two organic intellectual traditions in African American life: the black Christian tradition of preaching and the black musical tradition of performance…Both [oral] traditions are rooted in black life.”[3] And in concluding his essay, West remarks that the expansion of literate black intellectual activity:

…will occur more readily when black intellectuals take a more candid look at themselves, the historical and social forces that shape them, and the limited though significant resources of the community from whence they come. A critical “self-inventory” that scrutinizes the social positions, class locations and cultural socializations of black intellectuals is imperative… The future of the black intellectual lies neither in a deferential disposition toward the Western parent nor a nostalgic search for the African one. Rather it resides in a critical negation, wise preservation and insurgent transformation of this black lineage which protects the earth and projects a better world. [4]

Contained within the whole of West’s argument – which tries to project some hope against the plight surrounding present scholastic difficulties in African American scholarship – is a latent framework for merging successful oral African American intellectual history with its less successful descendants of the letter. What is the most likely point of convergence between the intensely sermonic African American oral tradition and the African American intellectual tradition? Where are the most “significant [historical] resources” that African American scholars may draw upon when studying the African American communal experience in America? What would a “self-inventory” of African American culture reveal about African American intellectual and literate life? What intellectual “lineage” can African American scholars hope to rely upon that has sufficient institutional and communal interplay to promote genuine intellectual exchange between persons within and beyond the academic academy? Finally, where might this “wise preservation” of a rich and complex intellectual tradition be found that is neither in the Western backdrop of the Guttenberg Press nor in the explicitly oral, dynamic and pluralistic African Diaspora?


African American literary scholarship should immerse itself into projects that ferret out distinctive Christian components. By revisiting an African American literary ancestry consisting of slave narratives, poetry, political/polemic/abolitionist tracts, novels, speeches, sermons, private journals, letter writing, newspapers and magazines, scholars might uncover the ways in which African American engagement with Christianity has created a vibrant and sustainable tradition of African American intellectual acumen. Such a task would perhaps resolve the “scandal,” “crisis” and “dilemma,” which all but ostracize African American scholars from the larger African American community and the predominantly European American academy alike. Such a task does not fail to recognize the very profound and traumatic impacts of America’s historical abuse of Christianity recorded by African American and European American writers alike. Racism in the European American community and patriarchal abuses in the African American community rightly should be taken into account when assessing a distinct African American intellectual tradition in relationship to its Christian underpinnings. Yet, this examination would not simply amount to Black liberationist theology either.

The sort of investigations that I am suggesting are tantamount to a recognition of a living and breathing historical Christianity, which has always and will ever remain a part of the African American community. In a universal life-cycle of births, weddings and deaths – including renunciations of the plausibility of Providence and the divinity of Jesus Christ – Christianity has always been a part of the air that African Americans live, move and breath within; and, as a result, it is virtually impossible to extract African American thought from its deeply imbued Christian framework. To borrow a proverbial phrase, “it’s like taking a fish out of water.”

George Marsden’s groundbreaking effort in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship – which argues for the acceptance of academically rigorous “faith-informed” perspectives in the academy – also provides an insightful, yet, perfunctory glance into the predicament of aspiring African American scholars who wish to pursue African American academic projects in relation to their Christian dimensions. Marsden writes:

African Americans, for example, are enthusiastically encouraged to enter the mainstream academy, but the condition typically has been that they do not bring the religious dimensions of their culture into intellectual life. Ever since African Americans began to be permitted to play a role in mainstream academic life, they were also sent the clear message that they must conform to the standards of the mainstream academy concerning religion. No matter how religious they might be, they were not encouraged to think about the implications of their religious beliefs for their intellectual life, unless they were studying in divinity schools. [5]

Marsden’s account is reason enough for aspiring African American scholars to resist Christian examinations as part of a distinct African American tradition. Far more disturbing, is that such sentiment is found in African American thought as well. Significant African American intellectual figures also have held hostile positions about Christianity’s influence upon African American nationhood. Richard Wright’s remarks in “Blueprint of Negro Writing,” are an example. Wright contends:

It was through the portals of the church that the American Negro first entered the shrine of western culture. Living under slave conditions of life, bereft of his African heritage, the Negroes’ struggle for the religion of the plantations between 1820-1860 assumed the form of a struggle for human rights. It remained a relatively revolutionary struggle until religion began to serve as an antidote for suffering and denial. But even today there are millions of American Negroes whose only sense of a whole universe, whose only relation to society and man, and whose only guide to personal dignity comes through the archaic morphology of Christian salvation.[6]

Even while granting Wright’s premises as fact the question still remains: How does an intellectual assumption that identifies African American engagement with Christianity as inadequate, illegitimate, embarrassing and intellectually unworthy enough to grapple with, reconcile the overwhelming evidence of African American intellectual reliance upon Christianity? The historical fact remains that the African experience in America, conventionally speaking, does begin in Jamestown. Jamestown and other similarly situated slave-trading posts, without question, mark the beginning of the African American experience. Certainly, one way of proceeding as an African American scholar is to retreat to a intellectual framework that suggests that to examine one’s history in light of the drudgery and demeaning nature of slavery is to produce uninspiring explorations of the earliest literary antecedents in the African American tradition.

On the other hand, one just as easily could consider American slavery as an intellectually viable pretext to ingenious African American intellectual activity. No ideological position in the African American community, and for that matter, in the European American community is ever free from the rubric of Christianity. It is the “oversoul” of all of Americana, ever serving as a referent or sounding board from Early American Puritanism to Contemporary American Postmodernism. Similar to E.O. Mathiesson’s suggestion that “one way to understand America’s intellectual history is through Puritan orthodoxy, Unitarianism and transcendentalism,”[7] if indeed African American literary scholarship serves a communal purpose by offering a variety of ways for students to theorize, understand and appropriate a intellectual and literary history, then it becomes increasingly problematic to fail to recognize Christianity as one of many justifiable scholarly approaches, methodologies and areas of investigation in African American scholarship.


Extensive scholarly investigations of African American literary figures such as – Booker T. Washington, Phyllis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Zora Neale Hurston, Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune Cookman, Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Williams Wells Brown, Maria W. Stewart, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Nat Turner, David Walker, Frances Harper, participants in the American Negro Academy, Alexander Crummell, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Amiri Baraka, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Harriet Wilson, Margaret Walker, Ernest Gaines, Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Randall Kenan, Rudolph Fisher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nathan Hare, Jesse Jackson, George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hamer amongst many, many others – which flesh out the Christian contours of distinctly creative intellectual projects is crucial for potent scholarly connectivity with students and community members. Still further, perhaps in the face of high African American illiteracy rates, inadequate inner-city education, and woeful numbers of African American college professors, Christianity and African American scholarship answers the most pressing question in the 21st century American academy – How do we promote authentic, innovative and representative scholarship among African American professors that will genuinely invite African American students and community members to participate in shaping 21st century American thought at American universities?

You can contact Dr. Johnson at dr.brianjohnson73@gmail.com;

You can follow Dr. Johnson on twitter @DrBrianJohnson1

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1994) 7.

[2] 1. The bourgeois Model: Black Intellectual as Humanist   2. The Marist Model: Black Intellectual as Revolutionary 3. The Foucaultian Model: Black Intellectual as Postmodern Skeptic  4. The Insurgency Model: Black Intellectual as Critical Organic Catalyst. See Cornel West, Keeping Faith (New York: Routledge, 1993) 74-84.

[3] West, 73.

[4] West, 83.

[5] Marsden, 36.

[6] Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W.W. Noton, 1997) 1382.

[7] E.O. Mathiesson, “Introduction,” American Renaissance (1941).

2 responses to “5. Faith and Inquiry: Christ in Contemporary Cultures Conference

  1. Jim Trent

    This conference has been the high point of my time at Gordon College. Nearly eight years later, I think of it often.

    Liked by 1 person

Thoughts, Comments or Questions?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s