Featured Reviews

Gary Dorrien – A Darkly Radiant Vision [Review]

A Darkly Radiant Vision Identifying, Defining, Chronicling,
and Celebrating The Black Social Gospel

A Feature Review of

A Darkly Radiant Vision: The Black Social Gospel in the Shadow of MLK
Gary Dorrien

Hardback: Yale University Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Andrew C. Stout

With A Darkly Radiant Vision, Gary Dorrien brings his three-volume history of the Black social gospel tradition to a close. Dorrien identifies, defines, chronicles, and celebrates this neglected North American religio-political tradition. It is a tradition that connects various Black socio-political movements, identifying the Black church and the Black faith as the inspiring force behind them. The Niagara Conference, the formation of the NAACP, the civil rights movement, Black power movements, and the emergence of Black theology in the academy, are all expressions of this faith tradition.

The trilogy finds its focal point in Martin Luther King Jr.. The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (2015) charts four different schools of the Black social gospel as it developed in the late nineteenth century. In Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (2018), Dorrien shows how the Black social gospel laid the groundwork for King and other civil rights leaders to carry out their racial justice campaigns and enact very real social change. A Darkly Radiant Vision charts the development of the tradition “in the shadow of MLK.” While it serves as the final movement of this three-part history, the book stands on its own as a masterful account of Black theology and political sensibility in the post-civil rights era. 

Dorrien clearly and concisely summarizes the arguments of the first two volumes in the first few pages. He offers a robust definition of the Black social gospel, a tradition that “advocated social justice religion and critical consciousness, combining an emphasis on Black personal dignity with protest activism for racial justice, a comprehensive social justice agenda, an insistence that true Christianity is antiracist, an emphasis on the social ethical teachings of Jesus, and an acceptance of modern science and scholarship” (3). The scope of this definition requires an interdisciplinary approach, combining political history, ethics, cultural criticism, and theological reflection. The cast of politicians, pastors, thinkers, and activists who make up this tradition are correspondingly complex and diverse.

After mapping the trajectory of the book in the first chapter, chapters two and three respectively detail the political careers of two of MLK’s close associates, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. Chapter four is an account of the birth and development of Black theology in the academy, narrating the careers of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Gayraud Wilmore. It offers a close reading of the work of Dwight Hopkins, the major voice in Black theology’s second generation, and sketches J. Kameron Carter’s constructive critique of the first two generations of Black theologians. Chapter five traces the response of womanist theology through its founders, Delores Williams, Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, and Kelly Brown Douglas, noting the way this Black intellectual stream challenged and shaped Black theology while building a real academic community. Chapter six sees figures like Cornel West, bell hooks, and Michael Eric Dyson reflecting on broader cultural issues like democratic socialism, cultural criticism, and issues of gender and sexuality. Chapter seven brings us to contemporary pastors/activists/politicians carrying on the tradition like William Barber and Raphael Warnock.

The chapter devoted to Andrew Young’s political career features extensive discussions of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy (Young served as Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1977 to 1979) and the work that Young did as the mayor of Atlanta to bring the 1996 Olympics to the city. The chapter on Jesse Jackson’s political aspirations paints an unflinching portrait of Jackson’s personal flaws as well as the “moral center” that guides his ambitions. These chapters are fascinating, and each stands on its own as an important assessment of the development of MLK’s political impulse by those who have carried on his legacy. They read like miniature biographies of political figures, and they fit together oddly with the survey of justice-oriented Black theological scholarship that comprises the rest of the book. Dorrien effectively makes the case that despite the tension between the Young’s neoliberalism and the democratic socialism of Cornel West, they share a common tradition. However, the disparity between the extensive treatment of Young and Jackson and the relatively shorter shrift given to the career of James Cone, the founder of Black theology as a scholarly school, leaves the book feeling out of balance.

One question kept recurring to me as I made my way through the book: Do Black evangelicals have a place in the Black social gospel tradition? On the one hand, there is nothing in Dorrien’s definition of the tradition that rules them out categorically, and he even points out that one priority of Black social justice theologies is “to renew the social gospel and liberationist churches that combine personal evangelical piety and social justice politics” (24). On the other hand, there are no bona fide evangelicals in Dorrien’s narrative. He devotes significant space to the activism of  Eugene Rivers, a theologically and socially conservative Black Pentecostal pastor. Rivers is the closest that Dorrien comes to featuring an evangelical figure. Tom Skinner, the Black evangelist and activist who introduced an evangelical audience to the themes of the Black power movement at the InterVarsity’s student missions conference in 1970, was a Black evangelical leader who fits solidly within the tradition that Dorrien identifies. A contemporary historical theologian and activist like Jemar Tisby or a pastor like Charlie Dates of Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church are younger racial justice-oriented Black leaders who operate in largely evangelical spaces. To point this out is not so much a criticism of the book as it is an acknowledgement that the Black social gospel tradition is even more rich and diverse than Dorrien has space to detail.

It might sound odd to say that this book is a deeply personal one for Dorrien, a white scholar writing on Black theology, but it’s true. Dorrien has taught at Union Theological Seminary, ground-zero for the ongoing development of Black theology, since 2005. His conversations and relationships with colleagues like James Cone, Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, Cornel West, and Kelly Brown Douglas deeply inform his understanding of their published work and the trajectory of their thought. Beyond that, he served as a volunteer on Jesse Jackson’s first presidential campaign, giving him firsthand experience of the excitement that his candidacy generated. Dorrien insists that he undertook the project because no one more qualified would write a history of this intellectual and activist tradition. And yet, by marshaling his personal experience and his interdisciplinary approach, Dorrien offers an interpretation of this tradition that surely could be matched by no one else.

Andrew C. Stout

Andrew C. Stout is the Access Services Librarian at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He has also worked as a librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the journals Religion and the Arts, Pro Ecclesia, Presbyterion, and The Journal of Reformed Theology. Find him on Twitter: @ThomasACStout

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