"Extra: Theology on Black Terms with Danté Stewart" Transcript

Danté Stewart: What can we gain? What type of knowledge can be produced that can be generative and constructive and liberative for us? By looking at the everyday ordinary lives of Black people, not just looking at Black folk who made it, but what can I gain about God from looking at the card table?

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to this special off-season episode of Shake The Dust - Leaving Colonized Faith for the Kingdom of God. A podcast of KTF Press. I'm Sy Hoekstra here with Jonathan Walton.

Jonathan Walton: Today we have an interview with Danté Stewart. Danté is a speaker and a writer who's worked in the areas of race, religion, and politics. He’s been featured on CNN and in the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Sojourners, The Witness, Comment, and a whole lot of other places. He received his BA in sociology from Clemson University and is currently studying at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The two of us, and Suzie, got to talk to Danté a couple of weeks ago about his new book, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, which came out October 12th. You will hear us talk to Danté about the book, his journey finding life and identity in the Black church and literary tradition, expanding our definition of what theology is, finding God and faith in the ordinariness of life and a whole lot more.

Sy Hoekstra: Just as a reminder as always, listeners who want to support the show, the best way you can do that is going to KTFPress.com and subscribing. That gets you our weekly newsletter, where we bring you curated media recommendations to help you in discipleship and political engagement. You get writing from us and you get bonus episodes of this show, like the monthly episodes that we're doing for subscribers during the off season, the first of which will drop next week. Subscriptions also support the free version of this show, as well as other projects we're working on, like the book that we announced with Tamice Spencer. You can subscribe and get the first month free by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth. That's KTFPress.com/freemonth.

Also, please remember to hit the subscribe or follow button on your podcast player. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ KTF Press and tell your friends about us. All right, without any further ado, here is our interview with Danté Stewart.

[Instrumental music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out]

Sy Hoekstra: Danté Stewart, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust. We're really happy to have you here today.

Danté Stewart: Yeah, what's up, man? What’s up, what’s up, what’s up?

Sy Hoekstra: So we're here to talk about this new book of yours that's coming out called Shoutin’ in the Fire. It's sort of a memoir of yours that takes us kind of on this journey of the last basically 10 years of your life, kind of starting around when you were a freshman at Clemson. Then it takes us through this journey of you having grown up in a Black Pentecostal church in rural South Carolina, then kind of entering into white evangelicalism and finding your way away from that tradition, and then your journey back into the faith and the culture kind of that you grew up with, with some caveats or extra thoughts, I guess, that we'll talk about I'm sure. But just to give, obviously if readers want the whole story, they're going to go look at the book. But just to give us a little bit of a sense of your story, can you tell us kind of what it was that drew you into white evangelicalism, and then what brought you back out of it?

Danté Stewart: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Wow. Well, first thank you all for having me on. Definitely deep honor. Deep, deep honor. So yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think for me, like so many young Black students and student athletes who are at majority white institutions, what many people will call predominantly white institutions or PWIs, oftentimes brought into greater proximity in what I would deem white social space. So spaces whose rhythms and institutional realities are dominated particularly by white people in very many ways, whether that be white social groups or white Christian groups, or the type of environments and things that people tell others that they should desire to be around and be plugged into. So as I came from the Black rural south, south of Columbia, South Carolina in a small town in between Swansea, South Carolina, St. Matthew, South Carolina, and Sandy Run, South Carolina, through school, and then church and family life and things like that.

When I arrived at Clemson, so much of the world that I came from, as you mentioned about me being Black Pentecostal, and just the kind of Black world that I was just immersed in, we trade it for white social space. So being a student athlete at Clemson, most times, more times than not, the people who have closest proximity to athletes are pretty much often, always white evangelicals or those who are Black and persons of color within those evangelical spaces. So you're talking about Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or other Cru or whatever. Those type of ministries and spaces are in closest proximity to the athletes. So one of the, really two things that tends to happen, is that, the message is that you should have access in those spaces.

So those spaces are going to bring you access to things that you didn't have before, and those spaces will bring you a claim. So you will be able to kind of ascend in certain ways, whether that be as a student leader. So we’re in college and there's nothing better in white evangelical spaces than the title of the student leader [laughs] or whatnot. And so yeah, yeah, yeah. So as I played football, you know, chapel services and things like that, it would pretty much be white men preaching or Black men who were in those spaces, or very much adjacent to those spaces, even though they might've been in Black churches. And so like, yeah, that journey really crystallized for me doing those moments in those college years. As I kind of recount in the book, I recount going to FCA and what that meant for me and the kind of feelings and things that it kind of brought out of me.

And the kind of promises that space made and makes for so many of us, either as a way to kind of reward us for distancing ourselves, or heal us for the ways that we felt like we were wounded. Or as many would say, “Hey, being raised Black Pentecostal,” as I said, “This is not the right way.” So we get, we started believing that proximity to whiteness means that we are closer to God and that following white people's ways means that we are closer to Jesus. So, many times, either in active forms and passive forms, that's the message that we receive and that's the message particularly that I believed. So yeah, that's what, that's really what happened. I went through some years there where I was immersed in that space preaching, teaching, leading, then ended up writing and things like that.

So the kind of catalyst for change for me happened when we met, my wife and I, who's in the Air Force, moved to Augusta, Georgia, and then in 2016, the shootings happened of Alton Sterling and then Philando Castile. Then going through a white reform, Southern Baptist church as a young Black Christian who's confused about my own identity, but also going deeper and deeper and deeper into white space and white religion and white theology as a way to affirm myself and bring me access and things like that, that kind of paradox was happening. So as those shootings and killings happened, it really brought out feelings that I had suppressed for so long. Then the really thing that changed it, was the response of white Christians as I tried to kind of make sense of what I was seeing in the world, but also make sense of what I was reading in my own time, as I was trying to develop language for the kind of lived experience I was having as a young, Black Christian within that space.

So yeah, that was kind of my entry point, and in a very real way though, James Baldwin was my exit point. I like to tell people there is no way, there is no way possible you can do a close reading, an honest reading of The Fire Next Time, and stay committed to white evangelicalism as, in its type of kind of faith, reality, practice and rituals and imagination that it holds out for us. So James Baldwin was that exit for me. I read that joint and yeah. My, as they say with Daniel, the writing was on the wall.

[laughter]

Danté Stewart: So yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: This is funny. When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned that book in a class that I was in, and I grew up white evangelical as you get. When I finished that book, I was like, I have no idea what I just read, but I think it might've changed my life [laughs]. You know what I mean? Like he was just coming from such a different perspective than me, but I was like, I don't know. It was one of those things where it just feels important, but even though you don't know why.

Danté Stewart: One hundred. One hundred. Yeah, and I think that's the thing about James Baldwin, as so much of the Black literary tradition and many of the traditions of Black writing or Black thinking or Black preaching. So one way, I guess on a big level, one, we call it the Black literary tradition. I mean, following the thoughts of someone like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison or Toni Cade Bambara, or even now in contemporary literature, Black literature regarding like Deesha Philyaw, Robert Jones, Ashley Ford, Kiese Laymon, Jason Reynolds. Who else? Who's doing that work? Sarah Broom, Maurice Ruffin. Jesmyn Ward and the likes and that Black literary tradition. But also, you’re talking about Black intellectual tradition. Talking about like Du Bois and traditions of Black study with like Fred Moten or Hortense Spillers and those, and the likes, like Stuart Hall or Kevin Quashie.

But then you’re also talking about the Black theological tradition. Thinking all the way back, you know during the times of enslavement and the ways in which Black folk dreamed of what my friend Ashon Crawley would say, “otherwise possibilities.” And so the hush, they were able to find God within the hush harbor. They were able to develop different experiences beyond the logics in the litmus of white Christian and social space, and the ways in which like it pressured them to try and diminish their humanity to feel like they must be accepted by God, as well as hold up a theology that destroyed their body and believed that the best things of life for Black folk were in heaven while the best things of life for white folk were here on earth.

So if we think about James Baldwin, James Baldwin is very much in that tradition of using theological or religious metaphor through the medium of the essay or through the medium of poetry or through the medium of an interview. Or through the medium of even writing a play and things like that. So I think like if we do a close reading of Baldwin, you're not just simply reading about Black life and the intricacies and the complexities and the beauty of Black life and Black worlds, but you’re also reading, you're doing theology. You're hearing Baldwin invite you into taking time to be still, and inviting you to sit and ponder with him about the sacred space, with him in the sacred space between his life and his body and the body of his nephew and his life.

And so in some sense, I say people have to read The Fire Next Time, the beginning of The Fire Next Time as a prayer and the second half of The Fire Next Time as a sermon. So if we do those type of close, critical, theological and literary readings of that text, we can see that when Baldwin says, “If the concept of God has any validity, it can only make us more bigger and larger and freer and more loving,” that in some sense is inviting us into a theological imagination and narration of our stories, that would deconstruct and dismantle theologies that make us narrow and just simply concerned about power and control. So for me to read Baldwin in that space, and for others I think to read Baldwin, I think for us, that represents in so many ways the possibilities of the type of faith lives that we can imagine for ourselves that right now, I think we need.

Many people would say that so many people are tired of religion and tired of Jesus and very much that is the case, and has very much validity as it relates to their experiences within our church spaces. And instead of but, but and also, there are people who are tired of the kind of exhausting ways of practicing their faith that just simply wants to imagine faith as an argument or a war to be won, rather than humanity and liberation to be embodied and expressed within the practices and imagination of what we believe to be what Jesus says, that I've come to have death come, that you might have life and have it more abundantly. And so instead of our faith has many experience being one of stealing and killing and destroying.

And if there is any type of experience of Christianity that we know to be true and widespread, it is the traditions of Christian faith that is about stealing and killing and destroying. And I think for me, especially as I expressed within my book, you will be able to be invited into that journey of life and particularly Black life and Black life being alive and abundant.

Sy Hoekstra: Well, that was a sermon.

[laughter]

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, real talk.

Danté Stewart: And we’re just getting started.

Sy Hoekstra: I know. That was my next thought [laughs]. That was the warmup, I like. Okay, so I think then working off of what you just said, you write in your book that Baldwin and Toni Morrison and other writers in that tradition are theologians. And just because I think a lot of people's categories of what constitutes theology would not include those people, what do you mean by that?

Danté Stewart: Yeah. Yeah, great question. I think in some sense that might be the issue, is that what we deem to be theology or doing theological work it's so limiting. So much of our understandings of what does it mean to speak of faith, speak of our life and our embodiment too often, the litmus of that is, the litmus and the legitimacy of that, is oftentimes by standards of white people. So if we think about the time of enslavement and going back in the time of enslavement and thinking about the ways in which, what the plantation represented as it relates to whose life and whose story is legitimate. Who must always be the master and who must always be the enslaved and who must always be the one controlling bodies and imaginations and dreams, and the ways we talk about God in the spaces we live and move and have our being in.

And how can we develop alternative spaces where theology can be something more, something better, something more loving. So when I think about Baldwin and Morrison, I kind of started to, really my gateway into thinking about them through theology, has been and continues to be within the academy. I'm a student right now in modern religious thought and experience. I’m a master in theological studies, a student at Emory University at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. And most of my research right now is centering around texts, theory and theology. So looking at the ways in which Black texts intersect with critical theories and doing theological studies, particularly centered around Black and womanist theological frameworks.

So as I started to read Baldwin, as I started to read Morrison and I started to read Black, broadly in Black literature, I just started to realize that on a kind of personal level, when I read that literature, something spiritually happened to me, you know? So it's not just conceptually that what they were saying helped me think better or gave me different language. But what it did for me, especially as you’re talking about, if we're thinking about our theology and our religion and our Christian faith as coming to bring life, then I would say that whenever we are doing the type of work that embraces our humanity, that seeks to tell the story of our humanity and make it beautiful, and it holds out the possibility of a better way of being together, then that is doing the work of what Jesus calls life.

So I was, I wrote this essay not too long ago on Amanda Gorman. I was thinking about Amanda's work and thinking about like doing a close reading of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” And I was, in that moment I was actually, I had read this beautiful, beautiful essay by theologian M. Shawn Copeland, on Toni Morrison's Beloved. She was talking about the sermon that Baby Suggs gives in the clearing, where she says, “Here…” Where Toni Morrison writes, “Here in this place, we flesh. Here in this place, we flesh. Flesh that weeps, flesh that dances in the grass.” And she goes on to say, “You got to love your flesh. Yonder, they don't love your flesh. In a moment, they will kill you. They will destroy your flesh, but you have to love it.” And then she crescendos on, “That is the prize.”

So as I thought about Toni Morrison and I thought about Amanda Gorman, I’ve been thinking about Baldwin and broadly in contemporary Black literature.  I would say that these writers and thinkers are theologians in the truest sense of the word. How? How are they theologians in the truest sense of the word? For me at least, as I'm trying to think about frameworks of doing theology, for me at least, they are making divine possibilities intelligible. They’re making divine possibilities intelligible. So when Jesus comes on the scenes and talk about liberation, when Jesus comes on the scene and started healing bodies and shaping stories and holding out better, than many of the religious and political leaders were holding out. He was holding out divine possibilities.

And so when Baldwin is doing his work in Just Above My Head, or when Morrison is doing her work in Paradise, or when Bambara is doing her work in the Salt Eaters, or when Deesha is doing her work in the Secret Lives of Church Ladies, or when Kiese is writing in Heavy, or when Jason is writing in Look Both Ways, or even when Robert is writing in The Prophets and others are just doing this incredible, incredible work. And even Sarah Broom is writing about the intimacy of the house and what the house says and feels like. Or when Jesmyn writes that last line, “home,” she says, “Home,” in Sing, Unburied, Sing. These type of writing are pressing us deeply into divine possibilities, and they are offering us, as theologians should be doing, offering us a world of love. An alternative world of love, freedom, hope and joy.

So for me theology, I don't think theology is simply just speaking or even wrestling. So proclamation from pulpits or proclamation within classrooms, or even wrestling with harder questions of theology and frameworks of theology in your own study. But it is also helping us dream a little bit about the possibility of the future that God can have for us. So as Toni Morrison writes in The Site of Memory, she says, “It's not just simply about pondering the actual, it is also about imagining the possible.” If that is not theology, I don't know what it is. I think theology, at the heart of theology, doing theology. Living righteous, meaningful, beautiful, and lovely and complex lives is about pondering the actual of life. What does it mean to ponder life in a pandemic?

What does it mean to ponder life in a moment when a cop sits on, kneels on the knee of George Floyd? What does it mean to ponder the actual of Breonna Taylor being murdered? And we hardly, in some sense, remember her name in the ways that we remember Black boys and Black men. What does it mean for LGBTQ and trans brothers and sisters in Image Bearers to be killed and devalued and oppressed? What does it mean to be an immigrant or a migrant running away from home trying to find a home again? What does it mean to be, what does it mean to ponder the actual of being a young kid who is in one of these rural towns where you don't really get to make the decisions about your life, but you have to figure out how to live with what you have, where your family is trying to make do with what they got.

That work is theology and pondering. Pondering the actual, but it is also imagining the possible. So I want to think about, as Williams writes, “How can I enlarge my world and explore my own story in a story of others?” For me, as I've done that in my book as people will read, in every chapter there's a metaphor. A working metaphor in every chapter. There's a type of narration of trying to do that work, that theological work of pondering and imagining. So for me, I think that that at its heart is a part of what we mean by doing theology.

Suzie Lahoud: Danté, first of all I feel like this is church right here. I agree with Sy that you've just given us a couple of sermons to sit and meditate on. So thank you for not just writing this book, but for bringing your words today. One other thing that we wanted to kind of dig into since we have the privilege of talking to you is, one thing you emphasize about the process of reclaiming your tradition, is realizing the ordinariness of faith, and the ways that you now find God in your everyday life. Actually you referenced womanist theology, and that insight makes me think of Yolanda Pierce's recent book that came out, In My Grandmother's House, and drawing on those rich traditions and experiences. So can you flesh that idea out for us more? What do you mean by that? Can you get into that, explain that, because I think it's so interesting and so important.

Danté Stewart: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. And Yolanda's book is absolutely amazing. It is a beautiful … Wow, Yolanda's book is an absolute, stunning, stunning work of story and theology, but just absolutely beautiful writing. I mean, she took, I think she took such deep care about the ways that she told the story of Black women, but also, you know, Black women in particular, but also broadly Black people in general. I think for me, that's kind of a part of that process of reclaiming my tradition and a particular ordinariness. I think for me on a kind of theological level, I don't know if we actually really take the time to think about this, but so many of the books of the Bible center divine life in the ordinariness of our lived experiences.

So when you talk, now, I'm kind of go … Okay, none of my, I was talking about texts theology, but now let me talk about theory a little bit. I'm going to get a little theoretical real quick. So when we're talking about epistemology and things about how we know, we have to be honest to say that the Bible takes seriously lived experiences as ways of knowing the divine and ways of imagining our faith lives as multitudes. So there is, as far as genre, there is erotica in the Bible, called Song of Songs. There's a genre of erotica. But then there's literature and history. And in there are books that centered around stories of ordinary people coming in contact with an extraordinary God. So when I think about the ordinariness of my faith and trying to reclaim those stories, I don't just want to close that story up in the Bible and say that that type of reality is over.

That God does not speak within our lived experiences. Because oftentimes that language of God being done, and that language of a certain closedness of God, is not necessarily because people think so highly of the Bible as much as they think so highly of themselves and so lowly of others.

Jonathan Walton: Say it again, preacher.

Danté Stewart: Yeah. I don't even know if I can repeat that, but you know [laughter], they think so highly of themselves and so lowly of others. So even back to the story about, even as back to the question about why Baldwin and Morrison being theologians. Too often times, theologians in our minds have been the white heterosexual men, or Black men, or white women. And then you can kind of go down the hierarchy then about whose story matters. And I'm willing to say I want to find ways to enlarge my world through everyday ordinary experiences of Black people. Everyday ordinary experiences like my momma, and my grandma and my granddaddy. Even that story that I told about going back to the river and things like that. Like that for me is like the ordinariness of faith. The willingness to listen to that still small voice. The willingness to say faith is not no triumphal story, and that even my losses that I take can contain knowledge.

Can contain the production of knowledge and things like that. So I'm reminded of Emilie Townes writing in her beautiful, beautiful work, Womanist Ethics, I think, and the Cultural Production of Evil. So womanist theology and the ways in which, for me, so much of my theological imagination right now, is kind of formulated and formed through womanist theology as well as Black feminist thought. So for me lately, I've been kind of sitting with Emilie Townes and M. Shawn Copeland on the womanist side, but also sitting with Patricia Hill Collins and sitting with, particularly with Terrion Williamson and her beautiful book, Scandalize My Name. And just trying to think deeply about the ways in which for them, how they saw Alice Walker and her way of thinking about womanish and taking that word that was meant to destroy them and devalue them, and take it and turn it into something that is to liberate them and make them feel seen and loved.

Or the ways in which somebody like Tamura Lomax in her book, Jezebel Unhinged, the way in which she takes feminist theory and Black religion and turns it into something beautiful and liberative. And so like for me, I tried just to take seriously the everyday ordinary lives of Black people, and trying to figure out what kind of, what can be gleaned, what can be gained, what can be broadened in my own type of faith life from doing a close reading and in embracing a sentence, or like Terrion Williamson say, “What does it mean to look at our Black lives and say that they are as much a serious starting point for our understanding about life as much as any other?” So I think when you start talking about knowledge and starting points and things like that, I want to say, I want to take seriously, what type of production of knowledge can be gleaned, can be gained from Black literature, from Black art, from Black protests?

From somebody like Jo’Artis Ratti dancing in the street? What can be gained from that? When we think about seeing, man, Hanif’s book. What's that joint? It’s Hanif’s book, A Little Devil in America: in Praise of Black Performance. And thinking about ways in which we can, what can we gain? What type of knowledge can be produced that can be generative and constructive and liberative for us? By looking at the everyday ordinary lives of Black people, not just looking at Black folk who made it, but what can I gain about God from looking at the card table? What can I gain by God from looking at a young brother going to school first day trying to wipe his J’s? What does that care … what does that teach me about the care and concern about bodies that should be had, you know? Or somebody's looking at how, like Kiese in his book, Long Division.

Like what does the brush for Black boys symbolize about the beauty of the humanity of Black life and the ways that which oftentimes, as I write about in one of my chapters, that oftentimes we Black boys learn distrust, and oftentimes that's aided by the church. And if that is aided by the church, how can we deconstruct and decolonize those theologies so that we can hold up something better? What type of metaphors can be had? So for me, just like the Bible, I think Black lives, and not just Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, as many people would say, but I do think that it's a way we can think about it as Boundless interpretations or illustrations. Boundless Illustrations Becoming Lived Experiences. So if the divine life can be obtained and enlarge our own understanding of ourselves within the Bible, then I think the same thing can be had in everyday ordinary Black experiences.

Sy Hoekstra: You called everything that you just said theory, but then having read your book, like I can so clearly see how you did all of that in like just in the everyday experiences of your family.

Danté Stewart: Yeah, for sure.

Sy Hoekstra:  And so I would urge anybody listening to check it out just because that is not theory for you.

Danté Stewart: Oh yeah, no doubt. But then also on the other hand, it is theory. And I think it should be theory, because oftentimes even in like, so like in my classes on theory, then often times we're reading, I mean, I'm reading people, I'm reading theoreticians, you know, whatnot. So I'm reading something to these theoreticians and it's just like, what type of theory can be gained from looking at though it's everyday experiences and saying, okay, that is doing theory as well, you know?

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: I think what I mean is, for you it's not just theory.

Danté Stewart: Oh yeah, no. No, no, no, no, no. I got what you meant. No, I got what you meant. I got what you meant. That is not just theory. It's every day. It's existential. But on the other hand I’m saying, that it should be contained in theory, and we should theorize about it. And we should write in ways that’s still radical so that we can say that our lives must be taken seriously no matter where they find themselves. Whether that be in the academy or in the street or in the churches and things like that. So one of the harder things though, that I felt like I'm so proud of that I was able to do, is that when you read my book, I'm doing theory, but it doesn't feel like theory. So I’m weaving like Alice Walker. I'm weaving Toni Morrison. I'm weaving Baldwin. I'm weaving Audre Lorde, and I'm doing that type of work, but I'm so proud that I was able to maybe think like a theorist, but write like an essayist.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. I think in our broader culture, there's a fear of the deconstructionist. And I think the actual thing that you're doing that's dangerous, is reconstruction. Because deconstruction will leave you in a room like a kid with a bunch of Legos, but reconstruction will actually take you to a different place and you begin to build a new world. So the books that you, I mean, you listed off a library of people, right? You, there's a, Kyle Howard talks about he got a white education, and I think you just laid out like a Black syllabus. So what I would love for you to talk about, is how you, and who helped you, reconstruct a faith around Jesus. Because you did not throw away Jesus, you threw away white American folk religion, what I would say.

You threw away the race-based, class-based, gender-based hierarchy that actually interrupts the intimacies of life, and coats it with exploitation and violence. Where you were able to create something different in your book and paint a new picture of what a world might look like that is intimate, but it's also accessible if we're willing to do the same work. So can you talk about the process of reconstruction around a Jesus that liberates and not one that constrains like the whips and chains that first brought our folks here?

Danté Stewart: Wow. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. For sure. That's a good question. That's a great question. You know, one of the things that's just for me at least, that's weird about like the whole conversation regarding deconstruction is, the type of … number one, I'm not in that space. So like, I think that those who are deconstructing are in a particular space that they're carving out, you know? And that's just not my space nor my place speaking in that way, just because that's, I mean, that's just not, that's not what I'm doing. That's not… Like that's like when people ask about anti-racist texts. Oftentimes people, that's why you see like, when you go to Barnes & Noble, you see Robin DiAngelo in Black section. Like no, she not Black, nor is she doing like Black work. She doing good work, for some people.

Jonathan Walton: But she over there.

[laughter]

Danté Stewart: Yeah, but she ain’t talking to us, she ain't doing any work for us. So for me, like that's just not my space that I'm in. I mean, I am in a space, you know, that I'm a minister in pastoral ministry in a Black, progressive space. Black progressive denomination and church that have all types of Black folk. Whether you're talking about progressive or conservative. Whether you’re talking about LGBTQ or homophobic. You just got a mixed bag in this space. You got intergenerational. So, and I'm trying to carve out my space, doing work centered around Black lives and Black literature and things like that. So I don't want to kind of even set myself up as somebody who presents a reconstructed alternative, even as opposed to those who are doing deconstruction, because that's just not my space.

That's not what I'm doing. That's not like, like that's just not in, yeah, it's just not my space or whatnot. Do I think like, do I think that that work is necessary and needed? Yes. I think it is because oftentimes, even ways in which like we use the term orthodoxy, it's a complicated, complex term, especially as you’re talking about church history. I don't know who taught people church history class, but I mean, Christian history is just terrible. It's messed up. It's a bad, bad history. There are moments where it's beautiful, but there are many, many moments and many more moments where it's actually terrible. So in that regard, there are things that need to be deconstructed and unfolded and got rid of or what not, but then there are other people who will...

We're not trying to present alternatives to people with deconstruction, but also who’s saying, you know, for me, and this is where I'm at right now. Christian identity is not even my first identity at the end of the day. I don't, I'm not that person. I'm not someone who says Christian identity is my first identity. That's just not the case. When I wake up in the morning, I'm a husband, I'm a father, I'm Black. I'm just trying to do work. I'm a student. Of course my faith informs all of that. But Christian identity is just not my first identity. Being Black in some sense, it's my first identity, and Christian is a part of that. It's not like a hierarchy of identities as much as it more so is a way in which those identities are intersectional and interlocking and integrated.

So for me it's like, Christian identity for me is not an exhaustive identity or reality, but it is a meaningful one. It's a meaningful one. And so for me, I want to say I stand in the world first as a Black writer, but also I stand in the world of someone who finds deep meaning in the liberating and loving story of Jesus. So that informs the way that I write. But then for me like, even with my book, I didn't want to write a Christian book. Because on one level, I think so much of Christian writing as it relates to the genre, I think, I don't know if it's very creative. I just don't know if it's very creative writing. Like if people are really thinking about skill, when it comes to how do I write something that's creative and compelling? It's almost like sermonizing.

Like, okay, here's the text for the day, here is historical background, here is my three points of my sermon, close you out and give you something to take away home. And I think we need to do better writing as Christians and as it relates to the genre of Christian writing. My book is a Christian book. It is, but I'm not writing Christian literature, because I want to expand that. So as it relates to my faith, I'm a Christian and that's a meaningful identity, and that informs how I tell my story. That informs how I understand my story and interpret the world. But I'm also Black and I'm in a traditional Black writing and a traditional Black thinking and in a traditional Black world making. And that informs my writing. So like, especially in certain chapters, you're going to see where I talk about where things feel grounded in a certain type of theology, but then where you're going to also feel what things are grounded in a certain type of tradition.

So for me, as it relates to reconstructing and thinking about how do we reconstruct and put our faith stories and lives back together again, I think about the Toni Cade Bambara quote out of the Salt Eaters. So there's a story of Velma, I think if I'm not mistaken, being asked, “Hey, yo sweetheart, are you sure you want to be well? Just so you know, healing ain't no trifling matter. A lot await when you’re well.” And so like I think about that healing and wholeness is no trifling matter. So putting our faith lives back together again is no trifling matter. It's going to take a lot of weight. There are going to be some things that need to be taken off and deconstructed. There are also going to be some things that need to hold us down, and that gives us some weight.

And I'm not even thinking about people who say, “You got to make sure your foundation’s strong and things like that and make sure you’re …” No, I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about what type of stories ground and root your experience that helps you generate meaning in the complex, ugly, beautiful, and oftentimes confusing moments in our lived experiences. So what stories help us generate meaning? What metaphors help us generate meaning? And for me, that's the type of work I'm trying to lean into. I'm not trying to be, I'm not trying to be a correction to evangelicalism. I'm not trying to be a correction to deconstruction, to traditions of deconstruction and de-colonial theory and theology. Number one, I'm not smart enough, number one.

Number two, because in some sense, man, like it takes a while to kind of think about these concepts and theories and do good work around these things. But then on another level, I think the most pressing need from me, is to how can I lean into Black stories and try and write in such a way and think and talk and do work and move and maneuver in such a way that our Black lives are more than simply just performance and just simply plain pain. That our lives are embraced and cherished and loved and explored, and that our worlds are made beautiful. So like that was in some sense if we were out to speak about a certain type of reconstruction, or as Terrion Williamson writes, I love how Toni Morrison talks about this and Terrion Williamson. Terrion Williamson says it's like getting back to living again.

But then Toni Morrison says in the New York Times, I think it was in 1974, New York Times essay, where she was like, “It was like growing up Black again.” So for me, my journey was about getting back to living again and growing up Black again. And yes, in ways things need to be deconstructed and some things need to be held on to. But I wasn't trying to simply do that. I was trying to say, okay, I was trying to do, how can I press deeply into the ways in which I became terrible and the ways in which being Black and Christian and American oftentimes is terrible and confusing, complex, but also can be beautiful, generative and life-giving. So yeah, that's kind of how I've been thinking about it instead of as a correction to other folk.

I ain't, I just ain’t, I ain't trying to be that person. I don't want to be known as that person. I want to be known as somebody who love Black people, who love Black stories and tried to write them beautifully, and who did excellent. I mean, phenomenal, ground shaking, beautiful writing as a style, as a content, as a form. That I wrote in ways that a year, 10 years, two years from now, like people think, they're still thinking about Between the World and Me. People still thinking about Sing, Unburied, Sing, or people still thinking about Maya Angelou's work or Toni Morrison's work or Heavy or Secret Lives, or whatever. People still think about this writing, because not just because it's like great content, but that it’s absolutely beautiful writing.

That's the type of work I want to do. Is that 5, 10 years from now, when people think about their faith, their embodied experiences, their trauma, their pain, and trying to translate those wounds into worlds, I want them to be talking about Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, as something that grounds them, that loves them, that sees them and inspires them.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. And I mean, I think, you have done that. Just in case you, I hope you're not wondering that. And I think people who are listening need to know that that book is that. I think the, your stubborn biblical refusal to be categorized and classified in a bookstore is awesome. And I hope that that is a testament to the people who are listening, that the things of God will not be codified. Again, it’s a transcendent thing that you've done and what all of us are invited into. When we write and when we read and we engage within life with God and sincerely with other people, and the things that they have been gifted by God to do in the world. And so, so amen to all that.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. And I think people are going to try, I think people already do try and put you in categories like deconstruction or whatever. And so much of that is like you said, just from a desire to put people in their place, to categorize them as good or bad, to control them. It's also partially a result of continuing to just see absolutely everything through the lens of whatever is happening in the white church. And I appreciate you just saying, “Nope, I'm not a part of any of that.” Yeah, Danté, this has been an incredible conversation. We really, really appreciate you being here. Other than the book, is there anything you want to plug in? Where can people follow you on the internet?

Danté Stewart: Yeah, so people can connect with me @StewartDantéC. That's pretty, my handles are pretty much standard across the board. They can also connect with me on my website, Dantécstewart.com. I got a newsletter that you could sign up for, where I'm keeping everybody kind of up to date about the book, but also, you know, yeah. It's like I share, it's like a word from me, a word on the book, a word from James Baldwin. So I kind of, it's called The Amen Corner. A word from James Baldwin, and then I kind of keep people up to date on kind of things I'm doing in public. So you can connect with me there. I try my best, now things are getting a little bit more busier. It’s getting a little bit harder, but I try my best to respond to everybody. So yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: Again, thank you so much, Danté. I'm on that newsletter already. It's worth it, go sign up and follow Danté everywhere on social media. You're going to get a ton of good stuff. Thanks again for being here. We really appreciate it.

Danté Stewart: Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

[Instrumental music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out]

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for listening. Please remember to take a look @ KTFPress.com and consider subscribing, and get a free month of that subscription, at KTFPress.com/freemonth. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KTFPress. Hit the subscribe or follow button on your podcast player for this show. And you know what, give us a rating or review in your podcast player if your podcast player allows that sort of thing. That's actually really helpful for other people finding the show.

Jonathan Walton: But only do that if it's five stars, otherwise, keep it to yourself.

Sy Hoekstra: He's, yeah, that's right. I agree with that. Give us a five star … Listen, if you think it's a four-star show, just give us five. Like just be nice, be generous. Our theme song is citizens by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you when we come back for season two next year. Or if you want to subscribe, next week. Talk to you later.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: That subscription gets you our weekly newsletter, curiating resources for discipleship and political engagement.

Jonathan Walton: Go back. You said curiating.

Sy Hoekstra: Curiating?

Jonathan Walton: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: What if that is what I'm doing? What are you doing, curating? Pffff. That's, you've got to keep up with me. I'm curiating. It's being curious and curating at the same time.

Jonathan Walton: I'm sure that's what it is. You go ahead.

[laughter]

Sy Hoekstra: So my point is I did everything right and you shut up.

[laughter]