Different Sides of the Bible

Old Testament scholar Yolanda Norton reinterprets scripture through the lens of African-American women.

Yolanda Norton

What does the Bible mean to you? Its lessons have been widely accepted by many Christians, but some Bible stories resonate differently for minority readers. As the H. Eugene Farlough Chair at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, scholar and minister Yolanda Norton ’04 BA (PSc) challenges Eurocentric understanding of scripture.

“I am particularly interested,” she says, “in interpretations of the Bible that have been used to oppress black people and specifically black women.” The story of Ruth and Naomi, for example, is typically seen as a celebration of self-sacrifice and obedience, but, says Norton, it reinforces black female subservience. The story of Noah and his son was once seen as justifying slavery.

To help students connect contemporary life to the Bible, Norton often begins with novels and other stories that illustrate black life today. It occurred to her that the musical artist Beyoncé could also serve the purpose; her life and songs provide “a way to reflect on issues of how we treat black women.” Norton asked her students to write a sermon drawing on Beyoncé; she then delivered it on campus. When she scheduled a repeat presentation at a nearby cathedral, complete with choir, she launched a media sensation. Roughly 1,000 attended a mid-week service that ordinarily draws dozens. Despite an online flare-up — people mistakenly assumed the mass sought to deify the singer — the service, presented three additional times since, has drawn hundreds of people back to the church, Norton says.

Norton was led to the ministry by children’s rights advocacy she did as a political science major. “There has always been an intersection of conversations about faith and justice,” she says.

This article appeared in the spring 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.