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  • Aarik Danielsen

Reading the ‘Thick Hope’ in Great Black Stories

In Reading Black Books, Claude Atcho ends with what must be the beginning of a renewed, united Christian community.

Lining up behind 20th-century writer Margaret Walker, Atcho offers a river baptism in just two words—an idea powerful enough to sink us beneath cleansing currents and raise us to walk in newness together. Those two words? Thick hope.

Thick hope numbers us among the saints.

“Contrary to a thin hope, thick hope, even if fanned into flame by the faintest flickers of faith, is still an unmatched power through which one is sustained to keep fighting, to keep trusting, to keep living,” he writes.

Thick hope numbers us among the saints, and reflects Atcho’s quiet, constant zeal to embrace—and be embraced by—fullness. The fullness of the church, carrying the fullness of one another’s burdens as an offering, on our way toward the fullness of God.

Atcho’s work identifies arrows, pointed toward fullness, in stories printed on the pages of great Black American literature—and in the questions orbiting these stories like satellites.

An arrow in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, its prose fluttering and humming like the console organ in a storefront church; an arrow in Nella Larsen’s Passing, as slight and staggering as the first glances shared beyond Eden’s rusting gates; an arrow in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with its inexhaustible light radiating heavenward from basement bulbs.

Now pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Charlottesville, Virginia, Atcho encountered many of the titles discussed in Reading Black Books later than he now would wish. In his early reading life, Atcho gravitated towards best books lists—trying to surround himself with objectively great literature—and plunged deep into science fiction, he said in a conversation this summer.

Discovering these texts while studying English in college, then in graduate school, he felt as if he “found something hidden in the family closet—how come no one brought these out?”

Hearing whispers that would become a roar, he noticed how “literature as story not only captures and portrays; it also has explanatory power. It seeks to make sense of the world,” as he writes in the book.

Words rippling off pages gathered to form question marks. Atcho absorbed the impact of a “collision” between these stories and his beliefs, he said. How might he discuss what he was reading in a God-shaped context?

Marking where they challenged him, and where they spurred him on, he longed to translate literature into the language of faith without locating these books in some simplistic “Romans road” framework, he said.

With guidance, over time, Atcho learned to see through the dual lens—literary and theological—he demonstrates in Reading Black Books. Invoking theologians like Howard Thurman, Atcho worked out a “gritty application of Jesus and the gospel narrative that can actually speak to people who’ve really been through hell,” he said.

As the most perceptive, faithful interpreters eventually realize, Atcho saw that great Black novels don’t need Christians to proselytize or push them into salvation; rather they salvage something essential in us.

“By trying to make theological sense of our stories, we seek to bring the human predicament into the light and sense of God’s kingdom,” he writes in the book.

Also a dedicated reader of the world around him, Atcho encountered conversations among church people limited by wanting degrees of imagination and empathy, he said. He believed Christians humble enough to sit with Black stories would speak—and listen—in very different fashion.

Hoping to connect crucial dots, he penned Reading Black Books. The work both captures and transcends its cultural moment.

“Right now, Black voices are in,” Atcho writes on the book’s first page. “... I want to present this humble offering: one of the best ways to listen to Black voices is to attend to Black stories, specifically the enduring ones captured in classic African American literature.”

Great Black books prove timely in the universal and specific.

Those with eyes to see will recognize the image of God presented and pressed upon within Invisible Man, which “moves us from the theoretical to the lived,” Atcho writes. Or the multidimensional nature of sin in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a “pervasive power” present in “persons and systems, a power that emerges as a feedback loop and a power that deceives.”

Reading Black Books holds Countee Cullen’s portraits of Jesus before the reader, calling us to reimagine how he looks, what he feels; and the text examines righteous anger as a true precursor to healing in the work of Toni Morrison.

“For rage is proof that we stared suffering in the eye and saw it for what it is: an affront to the reign of God and the value of his image bearers,” Atcho writes in conversation with Beloved. “A faith that shrugs at suffering is a faith on life support in deep need of revival and reacquaintance with the Scriptures.”

Great Black books prove timely in the universal and specific. For one, Go Tell It on the Mountain proves a crucial reframe for all-too-prevalent “modern stories of pastoral abuses and failings,” Atcho said in a follow-up email.

Baldwin’s “Gabriel is a character pastors should know, noting especially the manner in which the novel examines him with a sense of truth, mercy, and accountability,” he added.

For readers unacquainted with the 11 titles Atcho handles here, he recommends starting with Larsen’s Passing. “Pragmatically speaking, it's short and suspenseful,” he said.

What’s more, Passing is “a word on target for the present through the ways in which it speaks to and complicates notions of race, class, and racism. Larsen's exploration of two black women who can ‘pass’ as white demonstrates both the mythology of race and the dangers of a racialized society,” he said.

Atcho also identifies more contemporary writers, such as Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward, treading in the footsteps of the authors he covers. Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing “would certainly be in a version of this book were it written sometime from now,” he said.

Moving toward, never sidestepping, the question marks formed by Black literature “forces the angle of the question to shift a little bit—and then it brings out new light,” Atcho said. The light he describes is one every Christian should welcome and no Christian should fear.

“Literature is not indoctrination but revelation,” Atcho writes, “a bright and complex light shining upon the complications of the human condition.”

Literature forces a confrontation, a necessary gaze at the world from more than one experience, he said. We begin to practice not only the weekday reading of a literary seminar but a Sunday study to deepen what we see, Atcho added.

This liturgy of thick hope holds appeal, and great potential energy, for a people who follow the Word made flesh.

Coming to Scripture carrying the stories of Black books, asking the questions posed by all the saints, “dignifies the work these authors have done, and the lived experience that’s attached to their work,” Atcho said. And the “beauty of the faith and the Scriptures” comes alive, growing more brilliant and beautiful in our eyes.

As texts collide for us the way they did for Atcho, we will begin to understand his words early in the book: “We are after not less than empathy but more.”

The more, he said this summer, reshapes our categories for situations and people. Not merely content with “Do I feel what they feel?” we ask better questions. Such as “What does this moment say about God and his kingdom?”

Among the best questions we can ask, Atcho said: “If this person was walking along the road to Emmaus, how might Jesus address them? And how do I come into alignment with that message?”

And Black stories lead readers toward the thick hope Atcho cherishes and clings to. Such hope is “three-dimensional, featuring the experiential, the theological, and the eschatological,” he writes.

Penning the book grew Atcho’s own hope, he testified, during a span of difficult years. In struggle, hope stretches; we recognize it in the words of Baldwin, Wright, Morrison and more, then seek it wherever else it might be found. These rhythms—of reading and absorbing, finding and seeking and finding again—form a liturgy in us.

“Let us put on hope as a posture, a practice, a patience, a participation,” Atcho writes on the book’s last page.

This liturgy of thick hope holds appeal, and great potential energy, for a people who follow the Word made flesh. Coming to our faith with the enfleshed words of others will no doubt change the steps we take, together into the fullness of what awaits us in the life of God.


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