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The Spirit's Work of Ignorance

When you’re about the only white man in a sea of black faces, you learn strange things. A dispatch from the Hampton Ministers' Conference.
The Spirit's Work of Ignorance
Image: Courtesy Hampton University Ministers' Conference

Yesterday I saw a doctrine. I'm at the annual Hampton University Ministers' Conference in Virginia, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. This year it gathers some 8,000 African American bishops, pastors, "first ladies," music directors, and assorted church leaders for mutual encouragement and inspiration. These brothers and sisters love to "do church," which means (among other things) getting heart, mind, soul, and body involved in worship.

It also means they take seriously the doctrine of the illumination of Scripture. That doctrine reminds us that before we can grasp—with heart and mind—the meaning of any given passage of Scripture, the Holy Spirit has to illumine us. For introspective types like me, that means experiencing a lucid moment, quiet and inward, of insight or inspiration. Not so for my black friends.

They begin preaching not merely assuming the illumination of the Spirit, but almost demanding it. They read the text, massage the text, and, as one seminar leader put it, make love to the text. Their cadences roll like an ever living stream, from a trickle to a roaring waterfall. Black preachers assume that the full range of emotions need to be elicited if we're going to understand a text. By the time the preacher is through, the congregation is alive, hands are raised, bodies are dancing, voices are lifted in praise.

The expectation of illumination is so powerful in black worship, it can happen spontaneously. One preacher, James Forbes, asked someone from the audience to read the text he wanted to preach on. A woman stood, and as loudly as she could in the vast arena, read from Exodus 15, with Forbes repeating each phrase from his microphone. She wound her ...

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SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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