Mary E. MCGANN, et al., Let It Shine: The Emergence of African American Catholic Worship. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Pp. 181. ISBN 978-0-8232-2992-5.
Reviewed by James DALLEN, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99203

Liturgical inculturation, though called for by Vatican Council II, has generally been blocked by the Roman curia. (The state of the pending English translation of the Missal is but another instance.) What has been attempted shows how complex the process can be. Maintaining the standard structure and text but introducing unique music styles and some other practices has been less controversial and more likely to be allowed.

That level of adaptation or cultural accommodation is what is generally meant by “African American Catholic worship.” It is not the inculturation envisioned in the Constitution on the Liturgy, but it is probably as much as can be hoped for at the present time. It is also, arguably, the responsible way to adapt to the style of a subculture without isolating it from the dominant culture. Underlying these essays is the contention that the Black Catholic community deserves and needs something more.

Worship is the most obvious way in which those who choose to be African and American, Black and Catholic, are able to express what DuBois called a “double consciousness.” Embodying that in distinctive styles and patterns has empowered the Black Catholic community and shaped its identity. Those styles and patterns of music, prayer, preaching, and witness can be traced back to the era of slavery and in many cases to African roots.

The historical overview offered by Mary McGann and Eva Marie Lumas presupposes the heritage shared with other African American Christians which was suppressed within American Catholicism. Only in the 1960s did the confluence of the Council and the civil rights movement make such expression possible. The well documented survey of developments since and debates over adaptation and inculturation contains much of value to the broader Catholic community and liturgists in particular.

Clarence Rivers is credited with beginning the Black Catholic Renaissance with his music and his articulation of an African American liturgical aesthetic. This liturgical movement flowered in the 1970s, especially in sacred song—spirituals, Gospel music, and a Black style. In the 1980s Black theologians and bishops identified characteristics of African American spirituality and worship, and studies indicated both its expression and the constraints that hindered expression.

Discussions of an autonomous rite which began in the 1970s continued in the 1980s and 1990s. A document from the American bishops, “Plenty Good Room,” further affirmed spirituality characteristics and ritual emphases. Though that document sided with adaptation rather than inculturation, discussion did not end and proposals continued to be put forth. More “Africentric” practices entered the liturgy, but inculturation, encouraged in theory in a 1994 Roman instruction, was disallowed in practice, occasioning ongoing debate in the Black Catholic community. That is where the matter rests.

Part Two of the book consists of McGann’s analysis of Rivers’ vision of effective African American worship. His foundational role and the continuing relevance of his insights makes this careful analysis of particular value for those interested in liturgical inculturation.

Ronald Harbor’s essay on an African American Catholic liturgical aesthetic in Part Three builds on the Black Catholic community’s forty years of pastoral experience and scholarly reflection. He distills twenty-three theologically based performative values for Black Catholic worship from the presentations of Black Catholic theologians and liturgists. Though their abstract statement lacks soul, they are the theoretic underpinnings for inculturation.

The value of these well-documented essays lies not only in what they offer Black Catholics but also the model they provide for liturgical inculturation. In both cases they have much to offer to liturgists and to anyone who is interested in the interrelation of faith and culture. An excellent bibliography and an index increase the book’s usefulness.

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