On the Lived Theology Reading List: Read Until You Understand

The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature

From Dante Stewart’s reading list comes this blend of memoir, aesthetics, political philosophy, and literary criticism by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. Named a “best book of the year” in 2021 by both the PBS NewsHour and Publishers Weekly, Read Until You Understand takes its title from a note Griffin’s father, who died when she was nine, wrote her as a child.

Griffin’s father had her study the United States’ founders and founding documents even before she started school, having her memorize the opening of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the names of the country’s presidents. Her father was “a natural-born storyteller,” and because she adored him, she “experienced learning as love.” This book is her love letter to what she has learned from Black writers, orators, and artists from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison.

Griffin credits her lifelong engagement with Morrison as the inspiration for the questions that animate her book: “What might an engagement with literature written by Black Americans teach us about the United States and its quest for democracy? What might it teach us about the fullest blossoming of our own humanity?” Read until you understand.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

Quietly captivating…This is a life lived among books, and reinterpreted through them.

— Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

A book like Read Until You Understand takes courage to produce…Griffin’s evangelizing of Black literature does what the best sermons do: It sends you back to Scripture—Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker and others—to discover or rediscover them, to ponder and treasure them anew.

—Monica Drake, New York Times Book Review

The insight and joy bursts from Read Until You Understand authored by one of the greatest literary scholars of our time. Thank you Farah Jasmine Griffin for this sage gift, for packaging all these sage gifts for us.

— Ibram X. Kendi

Farah Jasmine Griffin is one of the few great intellectuals in our time! This wise and powerful memoir is a masterpiece. Griffin beautifully weaves her profound devotion to the life of the mind with her deep and abiding love of Black people and culture. Her magical words enchant and empower us like those of her towering heroes—Toni Morrison, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Wilhelmena Griffin!

— Cornel West

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s vivid, passionate, and powerful tribute to the great gifts of Black culture offers a deep dive into such fundamental human themes as freedom, justice, rage, death, beauty, and love, as lived and celebrated through her own experience, music, and creative art, and that of countless others in the community she embraces, from the legacy of Black history to her own family, her wide explorations of literature and art, and her close friendships with many artists and writers.

Elaine Pagels

Read Until You Understand gives us Farah Jasmine Griffin in full and mighty sail. Keen cultural analysis, storytelling, and gorgeous lyricism combine in this book that makes a genre of its own. In recollection there is profound insight here; we have a portrait of a rich Black community in place and time, and of the teachers Griffin finds in neighborhood, family, books, and music. The sounds, words, and wisdom that Black folks make also make us, and no one expresses that with more beauty and power than Griffin. This book is a talking book, a teaching book, and a treasure.

— Elizabeth Alexander

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Spirit in the Dark

A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

From Dante Stewart’s reading list

Josef Sorett is interested in the ironies of secularismso much so that his next book, The Holy Holy Black, will carry the subtitle The Ironies of an American Secular. In his first book, Spirit in the Dark, he is interested more specifically in how the ostensibly secular and secularizing literature of Black cultural movements in America in the years between the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s was inextricable from religion.
Sorett, professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia University, traces what he sees as the false conflict between African American literature and religion back to Benjamin Mays, whose first book, The Negro’s God (1938), lamented what he (Mays) saw as a increasing tendency toward atheism in Black literature emerging from the New Negro Renaissance.
Sorett could not disagree more: “African American literature has since its advent and across its history been cut from a religious cloth”even during the New Negro Renaissance. Sorett goes even further, contending that “black literature…is an extension of the practice of Afro-Protestant Christianity.” Sorett confesses that he once hoped to find that Black writers offered an alternative to Christianity. Instead, he found that religion, specifically Christianity, has always been an essential ingredient in the distinctiveness of Black literature and culture. Hence Spirit in the Dark is A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, and adds those aesthetics to an ever-growing body of inquiry into the ironically religious dimensions of secularism.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Sorett unveils the contours of a literary history that remained preoccupied with religion even as it was typically understood by authors, readers, and critics alike to be modern and, therefore, secular. Spirit in the Dark offers an account of the ways in which religion, especially Afro-Protestantism, remained pivotal to the ideas and aspirations of African American literature across much of the twentieth century.”

— Reading Religion

Spirit in the Dark is a finely honed compendium of black American writers and the breadth of their religious influences. That black intellectuals and artists were also sometimes dogmatic religious adherents, eclectic spiritualists, and irrepressible agnostics is not an unknown observation, but what these identifications meant for modern black expressive culture has gone mostly unsaid. Until now. A richly historical study, Spirit in the Dark is a valuable resource indeed.”

— Maurice Wallace, English and Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia

“In this magisterial book, Josef Sorett takes us into those black literary spaces that have heretofore been described as secular and reveals how those who reside therein imagine the beautiful in light of the religious. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, Sorett pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the workings of the ‘spirit’ and, in doing so, unsettles our understanding of black religion and literature. This SPIRIT moves in this book. It is a must read!”

— Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University

For more information on the publication, click here.

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Theologian and Writer David Bentley Hart to Speak on the New Atheists and Christianity

On Tuesday, April 5 at 2:00 p.m. EST, David Bentley Hart will be a guest of the Project on Lived Theology for a Zoom talk on “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Critics.” In addition to being an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, Hart is also a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. 

Hart’s lecture will be based on his acclaimed book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, published by Yale University Press in 2009. His other books include In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans, 2008); That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale, 2019); and Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Baker Academic, 2022).

In his book Atheist Delusions, Hart dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. He provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’ misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

The April 5 event, which is free and open to the public, can be watched on Zoom at https://bit.ly/3DuhGfE, Passcode: 921417. A question-and-answer session will follow the lecture.

The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia is a research initiative, whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.