Reading Black Books

How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just

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Christianity Today 2023 Book Award Finalist (Culture & the Arts)
Midwest Book Review 2023 Gold Book Award Winner (Nonfiction - Religion/Philosophy)

Learning from Black voices means listening to more than snippets. It means attending to Black stories. Reading Black Books helps Christians hear and learn from enduring Black voices and stories as captured in classic African American literature.

Pastor and teacher Claude Atcho offers a theological approach to 10 seminal texts of 20th-century African American literature. Each chapter takes up a theological category for inquiry through a close literary reading and theological reflection on a primary literary text, from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Richard Wright's Native Son to Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book includes end-of-chapter discussion questions.

Reading Black Books helps readers of all backgrounds learn from the contours of Christian faith formed and forged by Black stories, and it spurs continued conversations about racial justice in the church. It demonstrates that reading about Black experience as shown in the literature of great African American writers can guide us toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living.

1. Image of God: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
2. Sin: Richard Wright's Native Son
3. God: James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain
4. Jesus: Countee Cullen's "Christ Recrucified" and "The Black Christ"
5. Salvation: Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain
6. Racism: Nella Larsen's Passing
7. Healing and Memory: Toni Morrison's Beloved
8. Lament: W. E. B. Du Bois's "The Litany of Atlanta"
9. Justice: Richard Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground
10. Hope: Margaret Walker's "For My People"
Discussion Questions


"Reading Black Books is an exemplary work of literary criticism and Christian wisdom. In elevating and illuminating the important voices examined in these pages, Claude Atcho brings a great and greatly needed gift to the world. The books examined here offer ways of seeing more clearly our full humanity: the heavy weight of injustice, the elusive meaning of suffering, the profound dignity of all people, and the wondrous power of good stories well told."

Karen Swallow Prior, research professor of English and Christianity & Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

"Claude Atcho's Reading Black Books is brilliant and thought provoking. He has brought fresh eyes to some of the great works of African American literature, while also encouraging deep theological reflection. There are holes in the lived theology of many Christians that Atcho has used Wright, Ellison, Morrison, Hurston, and others to help fill. A must-read for anyone who loves reading literature and thinking deeply about God."

Kathryn A. Freeman, writer and cohost of the Melanated Faith podcast

"Written with the passion of a book lover and the urgency of a preacher, Reading Black Books not only reminds us of the richness and vitality of classic works like Invisible Man, Passing, and Beloved; it also connects the form and themes of these writings to God's sovereign story of justice and righteousness. This is Christian literary criticism at its best, offering both artful appreciation and gospel witness."

Josh Larsen, author of Movies Are Prayers; editor at

"God's people do everything as Christians--even read literature. Atcho conducts a theological reading of popular Black novels and poetry to unearth the joys, sorrows, and longings that have often marked Black life, examining them through divine revelation. This volume either puts words to your own experience or to someone's you love with the ultimate goal of finding hope in Christ. Reading Black Books answers the abiding questions from Black literature with theological insights and a pastoral heart that marks every page."

Walter R. Strickland II, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

"In Reading Black Books, Atcho offers us one part riveting English class and one part soul-stirring theological groundwork. His work reminds us of the truth that Black voices are more than trendy. In the elevation of these often-neglected stories, he reminds us of the common grace that weaves wisdom and insight throughout beautiful literature. Atcho's words inspired me to revisit each and every work he profiled with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation."

Jasmine Holmes, author of Carved in Ebony: Lessons from the Black Women Who Shape Us

"I met Claude and his family when they moved to Boston to plant a church here a few years ago. While they were building their team, they attended our church, so I got to know Claude and Kelsey and was excited for them to become church planters as they are such delightful, gospel-hearted people. When Claude guest preached, I told my husband I thought we'd just heard the next Tim Keller. Claude is a gifted communicator with a particular flair for speaking to people of different backgrounds and educational levels and carrying a broad audience with him. I'm thrilled that he has applied his skill to this fascinating and timely project. This is his first book, but I'm confident it will not be his last. I see Claude as a rising star, and I look forward to watching God use him in the coming years, both in print and in the pulpit."

Rebecca McLaughlin, author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the Worlds Largest Religion

"Claude Atcho has artfully crafted a masterpiece of literary and theological reflections. Reading Black Books dares us to better see and understand the Black experience and, in doing so, to better see and understand ourselves. Claude is our guide to embracing and embodying a more whole and just faith through the study of Black books."

Michelle Ami Reyes, vice president, Asian American Christian Collaborative; author of Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections across Cultures

"No one knows better or shows better than Claude Atcho how twentieth-century African American literature is equipment for a better, truer orthodoxy. Reading Black Books offers brilliant and accessible theological readings of this literature that function--and feel--like the pastoral care we desperately need. Faithful to the works on their own terms, Atcho recognizes both the unflinchingly critical theological challenges and unfailingly constructive theological contributions of these matchless, essential works. His readings bear life-giving theological fruit that nourishes readers toward life together, daring to do so because the literature dares and the gospel declares! For generations, these books have been bread in the wilderness, a table prepared in the presence of enemies. Atcho's work helps readers in these desolate, polarized days to find anew in African American literature the welcome table. This is the book--and its hope, the hope in Christ--that I have been hungry for as a reader and as a teacher."

Tiffany Eberle Kriner, associate professor of English, Wheaton College

"Claude Atcho opens his book with the acknowledgment, 'Right now, Black voices are in.' Thank God for that! But his claim also implies the embarrassing history where Black voices were silenced. For the God who created all people, what a sorrow that churches have been divided and some voices amplified over others. Atcho's book participates in redemption by handing the mic to Ellison, Wright, Hurston, Morrison, and others. Even more than extracting truth from their work or increasing our empathy with their characters, Atcho highlights how this literature discloses eternal verities. We dig into Countee Cullen's portrayal of Christ, Wright's depictions of sin and justice. By attending to Black books, we renew our faith in the God who did not leave us to carve our own path but who revealed himself through his creatures and the stories they tell as they reach for him."

Jessica Hooten Wilson, author of The Scandal of Holiness

"This book is a superb achievement that combines keen theological insight and in-depth literary analysis in a highly accessible format. Under Claude Atcho's masterful guidance, classic works of African American literature become an invitation to Black experience and, thereby, to a deepened Christian imagination. With its focus on the beauty of great stories, Reading Black Books has the potential to transcend ideological barriers and to open up new paths of discipleship for all Christians at this cultural moment."

Rev. Matthew Wilcoxen, author of Divine Humility: God's Morally Perfect Being and rector of St. John's Anglican Church, Sydney, Australia

"Using strong systematic theological categories, and with a firm grasp of Black literature, Claude offers the reader penetrating insight into both biblical theology and the Black experience. His treatment of uncomfortable racial topics is evenhanded, convicting, and inspiring. With literary nuance and careful theological reflection, Claude takes the reader on a potentially transformative journey. We must contemplate these insights with honesty and prayer to emerge not only more informed but also more compassionate and just. The world needs more theologically reflective books on substantive literature, like this one. This book deserves wide reading."

Jonathan Dodson, pastor of City Life Church; author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and Our Good Crisis

"This book breathes the Black experience with overtones of strength and hope and Jesus. Reading Black Books pays homage to brilliant Black scholarship while demanding we pay attention to the Christ it points to. Well-written and unique."

Jason Cook, senior pastor, Fellowship Bible Church-Roswell

The Author

  1. Claude Atcho
    Jonny Pineda

    Claude Atcho

    Claude Atcho (MTS, Midwestern Seminary) is pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has taught African American literature at the collegiate level and is a regular writer and podcast contributor for Think Christian. He...

    Continue reading about Claude Atcho


Christianity Today 2023 Book Award Finalist (Culture & the Arts)
Midwest Book Review 2023 Gold Book Award Winner (Nonfiction - Religion/Philosophy)

"An original and engaging work on the theological implications and themes of classic African American literature. . . . Atcho does not go into literary theory, but his book is a strong example of interpreting literature theologically and applying its lessons practically. He draws on his expertise as both a pastor and a literary scholar, skillfully weaving these two worlds together to produce meaningful and original analyses of canonical African American literature. This book will appeal to readers with interests in either literary studies or Christian theology, and Atcho's writing is accessible enough to make this a book not just for scholars but also for educated lay readers. . . . An excellent addition to both public and academic libraries."

Sarah Mazur,

Library Journal

"Examines literature from ten great African American writers, including Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, in order to inspire conversations about racial justice."

Publishers Weekly

"We very highly recommend [this book]. . . . Atcho is a remarkable author for this volume and even those of us who may know a bit about African American literature and its glories and insights will learn much."

Byron Borger,

Hearts and Minds Books