Danté Stewart Is Rekindling Black Theological Imagination | Sojourners

Danté Stewart Is Rekindling Black Theological Imagination

Illustration of Danté Stewart. Original photo by Taja Ambrose, CrownedGold Photography, courtesy Danté Stewart. Graphic by Mitchell Atencio.

Danté Stewart is a product of two of the most powerful traditions in the United States: the Black Christian tradition and the Black literary tradition. In his new book, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, Stewart traces how these traditions have touched his life and why he believes they can heal the Christian church and the United States.

Part memoir, part essay, part theological reflection, Shoutin’ in the Fire showcases Stewart’s knowledge of Black literature and his talent for artistic, spiritual writing. Far from being just another “anti-racism” book or an attempt at mimicking legendary Black writers, Shoutin’ in the Fire blazes a unique trail in centering the Black experience while weaving in Stewart’s own perspective on Christianity, family, and post-Trump America.

Sojourners’ assistant opinion editor Josiah R. Daniels talked with Stewart about the work of writing, liberation, and imagination in Christianity and the Black church. Shoutin’ in the Fire is available for pre-order and releases Oct. 12.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: My sense from reading the book and your other work is that you ’ve never been too far from the church, but you have, at times, felt alienated from God and Christianity. What made you feel that way? And then what led you to remix your faith and renew your commitment to the Black church?

Danté Stewart: I would not be who I am without womanist theologians and Black feminists — particularly someone like Rev. Renita J. Weems. She writes on biblical interpretation and re-imagining the Bible, and she was asked the question: Why stay in the church? Why still wrestle with this text?

She says, “There are many parts of myself, for example, that are post-Christian. But it is not just about our/my individual predilections. It is about our/my commitments. To leave the church would be to leave other African American women behind. To reject the Bible altogether would be to cut off my conversation with the women who birthed me

I agree tremendously with Renita Weems — I don’t want to cut myself off from the conversation. [The church is] the world that I inherited. I want to honor that while critically examining it — not just simply accepting it — in order to expand it while embracing it.

So often we as Christians fail because our theologies and our traditions are oftentimes rooted in insecurity and fear; we believe that to be Christian means that somebody else must be put down. That, in order for us to feel like we matter, somebody else must be less. Toni Morrison talked about that — white supremacy and racism — [saying] it is profoundly troubling that we have been led to believe that in order for us to matter, somebody else must matter less.

I think this is such an important thing for us Christians to get: When the heart of our faith is about what we’re against and who we are against, what limitations does that present? That gets at the heart of so much of what I experienced. So many Christians I was around were not living within their limitations, understanding that if we look at Christian history, there is no such thing as a “pure Christianity.”

Some people reframe it and reshape it. Some people uphold it and protect it, but there’s no single Christianity. There are, in some sense, multiple Christianities, some of which look more like Jesus, some of which do not.

I don’t think the Black church has a purely heroic story. You know, both the white church and the Black church are oftentimes mixed bags, especially when you’re talking about our collective humanity.

[People say,] “The Black church has always been about liberation.” Well, if you’re a Black man, that might be your story. But if you’re a Black woman, then you may tell a different story. If you’re Black and gay or trans, you may tell a different story. If you’re Black and poor, you may tell a different story.

When I was in the Black Pentecostal church or when I was in a white Southern Baptist church, in both of these spaces there was a lot of stealing of our humanity, killing of our humanity and destroying of it. I wanted [Shoutin’ in the Fire] to be a creative book, a wonderful work of literature, but also — as James Baldwin did in “Letter from a Region in My Mind” — I also wanted to do theological imagining.

I recently watched Summer of Soul on Hulu and the Black artists emphasize in that documentary that the genres of R&B, soul, blues, can’t be separated from the Black church’s expression of Christianity. Do you feel the same could be said about your writing? And specifically Black writing?

In short the answer for me would be: yes, in some sense.

If we’re trying to be honest biblical interpreters, [we must admit] there is a lot of mess within the Bible, but just because something is messy or problematic, doesn’t mean that it cannot be sacred. And so, as I think about the high human endeavor of trying to imagine better stories for ourselves — particularly when you’re talking about Black writers and imagining better Black stories for our Black humanity — then I would say that many of them are doing the same.

[Black writers] are theologians in the truest sense of the word; they’re trying to make divine realities intelligible and coherent for Black people, and telling stories in ways that are as, Alice Walker notes, made beautiful in life.

When I think about what Black writers have done and are doing, it is the same type of idea and ideals of what many biblical writers were trying to accomplish: telling a better story and embracing humanity.

Why do you think it is that Black people resonate so strongly with the Hebrew Bible?

I think the Exodus narrative is, and has been, integral to the diet and consciousness of the African diaspora.

And the ways in which people thought of their connections to their bodies, to the land, to the earth, to the ground. I think [it resonated with Black people] because that story, and those metaphors, were grounded in God’s solidarity with the oppressed and this idea of a sojourner.

That story of sojourning found critical insight and intersection with our story of being enslaved and treated as chattel. The Bible is very rooted in a holistic, environmental wholeness that takes into account animals and bodies and lands and peoples. This kind of wholeness is what the African people relied upon.

Where do you perceive Black Christianity to be headed? What are some growth areas for the Black church?

Alarmism for [the Black church] is generational. What I’m seeing is that alarm is really built on insecurity and fear, particularly fear of losing. I don’t even know if the fear is losing people, as much as the fear about losing space and power and influence. So much of this anxiety is also a projection of Black evangelical fears. What they built is crumbling. And for many of them, evangelicalism built up their platforms and now they don’t have any margin to change it.

This is also true of Black churches as well, who are not evangelical, where generations are getting older. They don’t want to rethink things regarding gender, sexuality, the Bible, religion. There’s a meme that goes around [saying]: teach your children about African spirituality when they’re young, so that when they are older, they don’t think that it’s demonic.

So I think this alarm is overdone. There’s always been this anxiety of the direction to which Black people will be going and who gets to control that story.

We need to read a little bit more bell hooks and Frantz Fanon and [think about] what type of work needs to be done to decolonize the way that we think about ourselves, our worlds, our religion, our faith, and not be afraid to expand those understandings.

You know, when Jesus comes on the scene and [says], “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” Jesus is opening up the way to say, “There are areas in your religion that can be problematic that you really need to rethink. You do need to reevaluate.”

But Jesus also comes on the scene and preaches and says, “The kingdom of God is already found on the earth.” The kingdom of God is within us. Jesus always pointed to something, some people, some practice, some metaphors, some story that was already taking place on earth.

Contained within both of those stories is also a pathway to wholeness and liberation as Black Christians. How we have been problematic and how we can retell that story and embrace that story and expand that story based on who was rendered invisible within our religious spaces.

What would you recommend for a Black person or a person of color who wants to start freeing themselves from whiteness? What are the first steps that we need to take in order to liberate ourselves from internalized whiteness, and this internalized colonial imaginary?

I would suggest reading bell hook’s Salvation: Black People and Love and Elizabeth Alexander’s The Black Interior: Essays.

Those two books really helped me. When talking about decolonizing, I’d want to paraphrase bell hooks — to give ourselves love, to love Blackness, is to restore the true meaning of freedom, hope and the possibility of, for all of our lives. Doing the work of love, we assure our survival and our triumph over the forces of evil, industrial.

You can’t really change how people read your book, but you can try as best you can to write a certain way. And I didn’t want my book to fit neatly within the genre of “anti-racism.” I wanted my book to be Black literature. I didn’t want my book to be centered on white people. I wanted my book to help you explore and imagine the possibilities for the beauty of what we know of ourselves — the beauty of Blackness.

What is the world that you have inherited? And how can you explore that world? Don’t just set out to prove your humanity to white people or assimilate to whiteness, set out to love yourself deeply and embrace your humanity. Because I believe as the Bible teaches us that our humanity is our gift, and that God wants us to embrace and explore it.