The Christianity embodied by Robert Beckford defies easy categorisation. The theologian came to public prominence after fronting a variety of Channel 4 documentaries with a controversial edge. Programmes such as Who Wrote the Bible? and The Hidden Story of Jesus took a sceptical approach to traditional understandings of scripture.
Meanwhile, Beckford’s political hero has been Malcolm X ever since reading about the black Muslim activist’s approach to social justice as a teenager. Yet he also affirms the life, love and hope provided by the UK black Pentecostal heritage he still sees himself as part of. His edgy political theology may be at odds with the preaching of the Wesleyan Holiness denomination that he grew up in (and with the theology of many black majority churches today), but he can’t deny the power of that community of faith.
There was always a tension in my household between faith and politics. I ended up merging the two by becoming a political theologian
Growing up, Beckford had a budding career in professional football and was signed to Wolverhampton Wanderers as a schoolboy. However, his career goals changed dramatically when he discovered a love of theology through two RE teachers at his school. Later, studying at Houghton College, New York his eyes were opened to black, feminist, and liberation theology, all of which influenced his own sociopolitical approach. Jesus stopped looking like a white, Western version of Christianity and began to look more like his radical political heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Beckford subsequently became the UK’s first tutor in black theology at Queen’s College, Birmingham. He has described theology as the “last bastion of white supremacy” in the UK, noting the fact that there are far more books by British theologians on whether animals have souls than on racial issues. He says he wants to open up theology to people from working class and multiethnic backgrounds. His contextual theology course at Christ College Woolwich, London is one attempt to do that and is run by the University of Canterbury where he is Professor of Theology and Culture in the African Diaspora.
One of Beckford’s overriding passions is to see the Christian story liberated from white, eurocentric assumptions, and affirm its expression in African, Caribbean and ethnic minority contexts. A recent project has been the Jamaican Bible Remix, an imaginative collaboration with urban musicians to present a narration of the Bible in Jamaican patois. Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, published by the Bible Society, was partly a response to TV historian David Starkey’s statement that the Jamaican dialect – which blends English, Creole and West African influences – was “wholly false” and had “intruded in England”. For Beckford, such statements are an ignorant refusal to recognise the struggle by captured Africans to keep their experience and culture alive in the language they spoke and how the legacy of slavery still impacts the black community today.
Recently, the BBC One documentary The Battle for Christianity saw Beckford on TV screens again. By most media standards it was a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of the UK Church, highlighting how many thriving churches are successfully transforming their communities. Beckford is also a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4 religion programmes, such as Beyond Belief.
That doesn’t mean he’s turned into a middle-class pundit from the Home Counties, however. The dreadlocks he once sported may be gone, but the passionate commitment to a radical vision of a Jesus who challenges prejudice and subverts injustice remains, and continues to fire his thinking.
What was life like growing up?
I was born in Northampton and lived for the first eight years of my life down the road in Wellingborough; there was a sizeable AfricanCaribbean community because of the old cobbler industry. Life there was blissful because it was a small market town.
Then it all went wrong. We moved to Coventry, the big smoke. My father thought that the future was in the car industry. Little did he know that by 1973 there’d be an economic downturn, the car industry would collapse and we’d enter a post-industrial phase in Britain. Life was very different. I became streetwise and very urban, in contrast to being a country boy from Northampton in my earlier years.
I had to find a way of making my faith relevant to the social-political world
Was there a black church community that you were part of?
Yes, there was. My mother pioneered two churches during her lifetime – in Wellingborough and then she did the same thing when we moved to Coventry. My mother was a real church planter – very dynamic, very articulate and a very committed woman of God who basically steered us all towards church.
It sounds like she was a pretty influential character in your own Christian journey?
Oh, completely! But my mother and father complemented each other because my mother was a person of faith; my dad was slightly more political. He was a trade unionist and although he went to church in his later years, there was always a tension in my household between the things of faith and the things of politics, and I ended up merging the two eventually by becoming a political theologian. So I like to think that my dad gave me a sense of the way in which to go about changing the world practically, and my mother provided me with the inspirational tools you need to ensure you are motivated and connected and have the right kind of spirituality to make those changes possible and long-lasting.
It was an RE teacher who really ignited your love of theology...
That’s right. I had a fantastic RE teacher, Mrs Jewel and another one called Mrs Delgano, and what they did was make religion a current affairs issue. We didn’t look at Judaism and say “isn’t that an interesting religious system”, we looked at Judaism in relation to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. We didn’t look at moral issues like drug abuse isolated from the economic conditions that caused young people to get involved in the drugs trade.
There was this brilliant ability they had to connect faith with popular culture and social justice, which meant that religion wasn’t just a private affair. It was the opposite, it was something that was fundamental to interpreting the way in which the world worked, and that really appealed to me as a 13-year-old.
Is there wariness towards academic theology within the black church community?
I was really quite fortunate because I was able to avoid some powerful forces in the Church which depoliticise people. One of them was not seeing book-learning as being fundamental to ministry, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that within Pentecostal churches, the call to preach comes from God. People will know God through reading the Bible, prayer, personal devotion, communal worship, rather than feeling that they need to go and read Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth.
Jamaican Bible Remix
Robert Beckford has teamed up with Tony Bean of 5am Records and the Bible Society to produce the Jamaican Bible Remix, a project that mixes a Jamaican patois version of scripture with urban music and liberation theology.
The audio begins with the words of Jesus, quoting from the book of Isaiah, in Luke 4:18-19.
“Di Spirit a di Laad de pan me, kaaz im pik mi out fi kyari gud nyuuz go gi puo piipl. Im sen mi fi mek di prizna dem nuo se dem a-go frii, fi mek blain piipl nuo se dem a-go si agen, fi mek piipl we a sofa nuo se dem naa go sofa fi eva. An im pik mi out fi mek piipl nuo se dis a di taim wen di Laad a-go siev im piipl dem.”
Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment (Bible Society)
Growing up in the late 1970s, there was incredible political strife out on the streets, in all urban centres. Economic decline, Margaret Thatcher, pop culture, the music – the politics [were] all quite fractious. So I grew up with friends who were part of political groups, cultural groups which were engaged in social political activity and again that drew me out of the church context and made me realise that I needed to engage with these political issues.
I realised that I had to find a way of making my faith relevant to the social-political world. Not dismiss them, but find ways in which I could incorporate them into my own spirituality. That was important, finding a point of correlation and connection rather than simply seeing it as a case of either/or.
One of your best known books was Jesus is Dread (DLT). It’s about the black church community needing to appropriate theology for themselves in ways that aren’t simply shaped by a Western white theology. Somebody might say, “Theology is just theology. Why do we need these various cultural forms of theology?”
I would say that’s a really ignorant position to begin with, because we know that the biblical text itself is quite diverse and has competing groups writing about history and writing about God.
What I try and do is look at how Caribbean people in Britain and North America have understood Christianity, and how that is similar to but also dissimilar to what’s happened in Euro Christian traditions in Britain, and then ask how do we reconcile the two? It’s fundamentally important because the big issue that we haven’t resolved in Christian theology in North America and in Britain is slavery and the way in which Christianity was on one hand complicit with slavery but also on the other hand part of the traditions which attempted to eradicate slavery.
I often say to my students, “Go to the library and find how many books there are written by English theologians on animals.” They come back 20 minutes later and say they found 50 books. Then I say “Go and see how many books you can find by English theologians on race; on dealing with Christianity’s 500-year sojourn with racialised oppression.” And they come back 20 minutes later and say, “We found two!”
Last year you presented The Battle for Christianity documentary on BBC One. What kind of battle is going on and who’s winning it?
Well, the battle is for the soul of the nation. It is how Christianity can be relevant to a post-Christian demographic who are not interested in church. And how do they do that from a context where it’s an ageing population that have to do the outreach work in many churches? That’s one battle.
The other battle is among the churches that are doing incredibly well – churches that buck the trend. Anglican churches like Holy Trinity Brompton, evangelical Pentecostal churches like Hillsong, specifically ethnic churches like the Redeemed Christian Church of God. But what we’re intrigued about in those churches is how they then engage with a rising liberalism in terms of morality.
Whereas 30 years ago most people in Britain were against homosexual marriage, now the statistics show that the vast majority of people are quite happy for homosexual marriages to take place. We look at the battle against these churches to engage with a [population] that have a very different morality. And what we find is quite intriguing; despite the churches having a conservative or biblically based morality, they’re doing incredibly well despite the changes out there – they are winning.
Often we’re told it’s only when the Church catches up with society’s values around sexuality that the Church will be deemed relevant enough for people to go back. But you’re seeing the opposite?
Completely, yeah, it’s an odd thing, but it’s really quite complex. Although they’re called ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’, they’re really not. I think a better description is that they’re ‘biblical’. While they might be conservative on family morality, they’re quite radical when it comes to issues of social justice. What they’re actually doing is standing on biblical principles. They believe in a God who promotes a particular sense of community and family, but also a God who is just, so they’re going to speak out against injustice.
How has your faith changed since you first became a Christian in your mother’s church?
I was brought up to see God as someone to be afraid of. You became a Christian because you feared hell. We heard fire and brimstone preaching and thought, “My goodness! God could strike us down any moment! And that’s it! Won’t even get to see Coventry win the FA Cup!” I think there was a lot of fear, to be quite honest. Fear of death, fear of hell, fear of God. Obviously having grown up in the church, having travelled, and having studied Christian theology and teaching it, I would say I see God as much more of a God of love and justice, and those two sides of God being fundamental to my own worship experience and my own devotional experience.
The faith that I had was very exclusive: you had to be saved, sanctified, and you had to belong to our church!
The faith that I had in the early days was very exclusive: you had to be saved and sanctified to make sure you were going to heaven, and you had to belong to our church! I think I’m much more inclusive now, not just in terms of various denominations, but (and this may upset a few people) even in terms of religious traditions. I’m an inclusivist in the sense that I believe that there are many pathways to God. I just can’t believe that an all-powerful loving God would be crazy enough to say there’s only one narrow tradition over a particular period of human history by which people can know God.
I’m also much more committed to justice. I think that to be committed to God is to struggle for justice in this world. I think that is the signature for me, for being Christian.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio, at 4pm on Saturday 6th May or listen back to The Profile podcast – premierchristianradio.com/theprofile