The Moan and the Shout: James Noel on African American Religious Experience

James Noel

Background: “Continuity,” painted by James Noel

Listen to James Noel describe the African American Religious Experience

Listen to James Noel sing and recite poetry

Take a black sermon, print it in a book, then read it, and you have no idea what it means because it has been abstracted from the living worship of the black church, says the Rev. Dr. James Noel, (Ph.D. ’99), Farlough Professor of African American Christianity at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. The sermon’s meaning, he says, is determined by the hymns sung, the testimonials, the prayers said before and after the sermon’s delivery, as well as what went on that week for parishioners.

“My fascination is with religious experience and its various modes of expression,” he says, “especially African American religious experience, which is different than that of Europeans or white Americans. The disciplines generated by both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment aren’t adequate for elucidating black religion, and this has implications for theological education.”

Noel’s holistic view of African American religious experience and expression is reflected in his own life. This GTU graduate studies and teaches the history of African American Christianity, black religion in Africa and the Americas, and African American social, cultural, and intellectual history. He’s also a painter; a seventh degree black belt in Moo Duk Kwan, a traditional form of Tae Kwon Do; a playwright; and an author who recently published Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World (Palgrave/Macmillan: June 2009), which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of black religious experience.

Ritual by James Noel

from "Ritual," painted by James Noel

All African American expression, Noel says, from singer Michael Jackson’s funeral program to John Coltrane’s jazz saxophone works, includes “the moan and the shout.” At one end is the moan — a collective sorrow invoking the cultural memory of suffering, from the Middle Passage of slaves across the Atlantic, onward into slavery and oppression. Then comes the catharsis, the shout that releases the pressure of this personal and collective memory of oppression.

“Coltrane and the church —
it’s the same thing.”

Ascension by James Noel

Noel's "Ascension" hangs in the office of
GTU President James A. Donahue

“The shout comes from the glimpse of the possibility of a final release,” he says, “similar to what theologians call ‘realized eschatology,’ or the ultimate destiny of humanity. The way to give utterance to what’s glimpsed is a deep, visceral shout, a ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ I painted a portrait of Coltrane called, ‘Ascension.’ That’s the shout. I’ve also painted people in churches with arms stretched high, and that’s the shout, too. Coltrane and the church — it’s the same thing.”

In his new book, Noel asks whether the way we think roots us in the reality of life. He uses a type of phenomenology that views how human beings are constituted in modernity by the activity of imagination and the myths that arise from it.

“Art, the sciences, and literature are forms for expressing mythology,” Noel says. “The big myth is the world view that undergirds value judgments we make as a culture or civilization. Post-modernity, we believe there is no coherent reality. Before that we had the myth of Enlightenment, which stressed human reasoning over blind faith. Our reality — and, therefore, religious experience — is always one imagined within contexts that are historically and culturally conditioned. And the conditions under which black people experienced Divinity in modernity were different from those of whites.

“White Americans narrate their history in terms of agency — the ability to control one’s destiny, sailing for the Americas for religious freedom, or to spread democracy — not in terms of debasement, subjugation, and dehumanization,” says Noel. He references the forced “dark night of the soul” and “state of nothingness” resulting from the abominations on slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

“The horror of that experience was un-name-able and ineffable,” he says. “The collective spirituality of people who experienced the Middle Passage or the Holocaust includes a sense of the Divine that arises from it. This is the a priori of African American religious consciousness.”