H-Net Review [H-Nationalism]: Bare on Thomas, 'Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality'


Andrew Stewart
 



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Andrew Stewart

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Subject: H-Net Review [H-Nationalism]:  Bare on Thomas, 'Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality'
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Todne Thomas.  Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality.  
Durham  Duke University Press, 2021.  264 pp.  $26.95 (paper), ISBN
978-1-4780-1178-1.

Reviewed by Daniel Bare (Texas A&amp;M University)
Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2021)
Commissioned by Douglas I. Bell

In this ethnographic study of black evangelical religious kinship,
Todne Thomas, associate professor of African American religious
studies at Harvard Divinity School, offers a welcome and compelling
window into a faith community all too often obscured in the US
racial-religious landscape. In contrast to wider scholarship that too
often propounds "the monolithic construct of the 'Black Church'" (p.
13), Thomas insightfully traces how both white evangelical and
Afro-diasporic influences shape the worldview of black evangelicals,
with a particular eye toward their language and practice of spiritual
relationality and "family." Thus, the book hinges on Thomas's
examination of "kincraft"-a "collective relational ethos" driving
black evangelical visions of family to stretch beyond popular
"Christian constructs of nuclear kinship" and "the heteronormative
family" (p. 5). Identifying this concept of kincraft as "an
Afro-diasporic religious phenomenon" (p. 15), she illustrates how
black evangelical sociality both reproduces and challenges elements
of white mainstream US evangelicalism and evangelical family values.

Thomas's analysis centers on two Atlanta-area black evangelical
congregations: Corinthian Bible Chapel (CBC), a majority African
American church, and its "sister church," Dixon Bible Chapel (DBC),
which is predominately Afro-Caribbean in membership. More than a year
of participant-observation, as well as interviews and other archival
research, undergirds her detailed and nuanced look at the life of
these congregations. Dividing her six-chapter analysis into two equal
parts, Thomas designs part 1 to examine the larger historical,
ideological, and ethno-racial contexts for CBC and DBC members'
expressions of kinship and evangelicalism, before turning in part 2
to a series of narrower ethnographic portraits illustrating the
day-to-day practices of kincraft within these black evangelical
communities.

Chapter 1 locates the CBC and DBC evangelicals' expansive views of
spiritual kinship--their construction of one another as, for
instance, "spiritual parents," "spiritual children," "brothers and
sisters in Christ," and so on--as an intersection of three major
worldviews: the ecclesiology of the Plymouth Brethren tradition from
which these congregations trace their roots, the neo-evangelical
moral emphasis on the normative nuclear and heteropatriarchal family,
and Afro-diasporic practices of nonbiological kinship. While members
of CBC and DBC reflect typical neo-evangelical attitudes regarding
the moral value of the nuclear family and the perceived threat of
secular culture, they also uphold the Brethren concept of universal
Christian relatedness and Afro-diasporic notions of extended kinship
to create a "relational ethos" that is "not easily
compartmentalized," but which still functions to attend to "the
material and political conditions shaped by racialization" (p. 54).
This leads immediately into the subject of chapter 2, a fascinating
historical analysis of the missionary work of CBC's and DBC's
founder, Brethren evangelist T. Michael Flowers, an Afro-Bahamian
whose mission took him from the Caribbean to Michigan and eventually
to the American South. Flowers's Brethrenism continually pressed his
ministry toward the idea of universal Christian family and led him to
criticize the racialized religion he encountered in the South--both
the segregated exclusivism of white churches as well as the avowedly
black religious contexts that had arisen as a result of racism and
racialization.

Such an outlook from the churches' founder sets the stage for chapter
3's consideration of the interplay between religious kinship and
racial identity. While the members of CBC and DBC "consider shared
spiritual kinship rather than ethnicity and race to be the most
authentic basis for their group identity" (p. 83), nevertheless,
racial experiences and dynamics still impact the expressions of
spiritual kinship. For one thing, their twin experiences of racial
exclusion from white evangelicals (on account of their race) and
religious marginalization from other black Christians (on account of
their perceived proximity to the whiteness of mainstream
evangelicalism) provide black evangelicals with the common social
experience of possessing a "doubly minoritized" identity (p. 92). But
even so, the evangelicals of CBC and DBC also negotiate internal
ethnic distinctions that affect congregational and interpersonal
boundaries. Ethnic tensions between African American and
Afro-Caribbean evangelicals, which Thomas ties in part to these
different groups using different "grammars of blackness" (p. 97),
evidently played a role in DBC splitting off as a separate
congregation from CBC in 1991. Yet an attitude of institutional
silence about ethnic differences, at least in the hearing of
outsiders, also marked this as a family affair, thus representing a
generative strategy of sociality and kinship. Even amid ethnic
tensions, these black evangelicals understood their common religious
identity to represent "an 'otherness' than can be chosen" (p. 104),
in contrast to other social identities, and thus Thomas warns that
scholars "must resist the uncritical application of ethno-religious
and racio-religious lenses that try to define black evangelical
communities straightforwardly as the product of ethnic and racial
formations" (p. 84).

As Thomas transitions into part 2, the sharper focus on quotidian
examples of kincraft in CBC and DBC life becomes immediately evident
as a major strength. Chapter 4 traces connections between the
community's biblicism and gendered ideals of brotherhood, drawing a
constellation between biblical literalism, fraternalism, and gendered
ideas of institutional authority. Bible studies and other Bible-based
rituals function as markers of religious belonging, spaces of
community formation and socialization, and sites that reify the
expectation of male leadership and the shared fraternal labor of
biblical interpretation. Thus the textual practices, within a
framework of literalist interpretation, create "gendered zones of
spiritual kinship" within the community. With this in mind, chapter 5
moves to consider the ways that churchwomen craft spiritual
relationships and connect the church to the day-to-day functions of
the domestic sphere. Suggesting that DBC sisters' domestic labors
might be reconsidered in a sacramental framework, Thomas presents the
churchwomen's daily practices of "walking together," visiting one
another, cooking for one another, and other forms of hospitality as
"the corporealization of community" (pp. 146-147). Moreover,
churchwomen's practice of "experiential rituals" of "everyday
religious kinship"--practices like creating networks of "prayer
partnerships" or mentoring younger Christians through "spiritual
motherhood"--illustrate the types of influence and spiritual
authority available to black evangelical churchwomen, even in an
ecclesiastical context that centers male pastoral leadership.
Finally, chapter 6 explores the tensions at play as black
evangelicals embrace the mainstream heteronormative nuclear family
ideal amid a discursive landscape that often forwards the trope of
the "dysfunctional black family" as a major element of American
discourses about the proper boundaries of "the family" (p. 170).
Thomas argues that black evangelicals mobilize spiritual kinship
through "the creation of emergent networks of support" and
"confessional intimacy" to navigate this landscape (p. 195); such an
approach allows them to also interject critical visions of the US
racial-religious landscape, as when T. Michael Flowers expressed that
neo-evangelical focus on "the family" was "displacing a proper
prioritization of God-focused piety, salvation, and evangelism" (p.
177).

Among the obvious strengths of Thomas's work are the significant
scholarly interventions and the compelling intimate portraits
generated by her methodological approach. Her foregrounding of black
evangelicals as a group to be seriously studied rather than
marginalized or ignored forwards considerations of diversity within
the ranks of both evangelicalism and black Christianity--group
identities that are often treated as largely monolithic. She makes
this point deftly when considering the variety of political
perspectives she observed within DBC and CBC during the 2008
presidential election cycle, noting that black evangelicals "cannot
be neatly mapped onto the political axis of the Right, nor can black
Christians in the US be located on the Left, or depicted as
prioritizing a single set of 'racial' or 'religious' sentiments or
positions in the election process" (p. 12). In addition to the
needful focus on black evangelicals, within the realm of kinship
studies Thomas's work also offers a self-conscious and powerful
critique of the language of "fictive kinship." She argues that
describing nonbiological familial ties as "fictive" marginalizes
these kinship practices as non-normative and functionally
"delegitimizes some of the social ties that have been vital to black
social life" (p. 49). The book makes a strong case for the legitimacy
of the ties of "spiritual kinship" as not merely "fictive," but as
real, binding, and legitimate. These arguments are reinforced by the
strength of Thomas's fieldwork, which entailed more than a year of
interviews and participant-observation. Many of the most poignant,
compelling, and convincing moments in the book come from the words or
actions of the members of CBC and DBC themselves, mediated through
Thomas's interviews or keen observations. As a result, these black
evangelicals emerge as real people, three-dimensional figures, rather
than stereotypes or caricatures.

At the same type, prospective readers must also consider that the
book is heavily theorized, leading at times to pages that are dense
with terminology that may not be easy or familiar to a popular,
non-academic audience. On the one hand, this does help situate the
work deeply within a wide array of scholarly discourses, but it also
potentially limits the appeal to those without specialization or
scholarly background. Moreover, Thomas's treatment of spiritual
kinship and evangelicalism raises additional questions about the
disjunctions and potential overlaps between black and white
evangelicals. For instance, terminology like "brothers and sisters in
Christ," "spiritual parents," "prayer partners," and so on can also
be found in various white evangelical circles. While Thomas
convincingly demonstrates the significance of these kinship ties in
black evangelical life, including their significance in the context
of a racialized US culture, it would be fascinating and helpful to
evaluate the similarities and differences in how black and white
evangelicals utilize and conceptualize these expressions of spiritual
family. Perhaps this could be an avenue for future scholarship to
build on Thomas's work.

Ultimately, _Kincraft_ represents a welcome and significant step
forward in the study of both American evangelicalism and black
Christianity. It brings a degree of nuance and complexity to issues
that are often treated as straightforward, and encourages readers to
reconsider their assumptions about the relationship between racial
identity, religious identity, politics, culture, and conceptions of
what it means to be "family." While best suited for an academic
audience, the book's overarching conclusions and its compelling
ethnographic portraits of black evangelicals represent points of
interest for wider audiences as well.

Citation: Daniel Bare. Review of Thomas, Todne, _Kincraft: The Making
of Black Evangelical Sociality_. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
December, 2021.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56563

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.


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