One-Minute Book Reviews

December 28, 2006

Jason Johnson’s Celebration of Black Worship Styles

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Coffee Table Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:57 am

A contemporary photographic portrait of famous and little-known black churches from New York City to Los Angeles

Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. By Jason Miccolo Johnson. Foreword by Gordon Parks. Introduction by Dr. Cain Hope Felder. Essays by Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, Rev. Cardes H. Brown, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones. Afterword by Bishop John Hurst Adams. Epilogue by Rev. Dr. J. Beecher Hicks, Jr. Bulfinch, 159 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

On New Year’s Eve, many black churches will hold Watch Night services, a tradition that began in African-American worship on Dec. 31, 1862, the day before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date, slaves gathered in their congretations to await confirmation that they would soon be free.

Photographer James Miccolo Johnson celebrates the Watch Night tradition and others in Soul Sanctuary, a striking portrait in words and black-and-white pictures of worship in black Protestant and Catholic Churches from New York City to Los Angeles. Photography books often have a bare-bones text that does little to enrich an understanding of their images. Soul Sanctuary is exceptional for its thoughtful essays by three Biblical scholars, two ministers, a journalist, and the late photographer Gordon Parks. These essays explain standard practices such as the call and response between the pulpit and the pew (during which minister’s “Ain’t He all right?” may bring the response, “Yeah!”).

Soul Sanctuary also shows, in words and pictures, how black churches are changing. Newer forms of worship include “praise step teams” that are especially popular among students and “reminiscent of high school drill teams.” Churches may have gyms, classrooms, day-care centers, computer labs, recording studios, and conference centers. Some of the largest have parking lots so far away from the sanctuary, they use golf carts to ferry members to services.

All of this makes Soul Sanctuary an excellent introduction to African-American worship, and a book that keeps its focus on spirituality, not history or architecture or personalities. Those New Year’s Eve services evoke more than the joy of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Watch Night is also a time to give thanks to God for making it through another year and to pray for a better year to come.”

Best line: Each major section of the book begins with one or more Bible verses, and the one that best fits its spirit is: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118: 24 (King James Version)

Worst line: “Baptized believers have the right to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion … usually small wafers or crushed crackers (the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body) and grape juice (the wine, symbolizing his blood) from gleaming gold or silver trays.” This describes only the Protestant tradition, though the book also includes Catholic churches. Catholics believe that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ, known as the doctrine of transubstantion.

Recommended … without reservations, particularly as a gift for a minister or lay leader of a black, white, or racially mixed congregation.

Editor: Michael L. Sand

Published: April 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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