Interviews

Interview with Jamaican, Dr. Noel Erskine

Written by Glen Laman

Dr. Noel Erskine is a distinguished Theologian and author. He is currently Professor of Theology and Ethics at Candler School of Theology and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His books include : Decolonizing Theolo;  King Among the Theologians;  Black People and the Reformed Church in America;  From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology; Black Theology and Pedagogy and an upcoming book entitled, The Black Church: Caribbean and African American.
The following interview with Glen Laman occurred after his return from Mozambique in June, 2009.

What attracted you to theology?

 My father was a Baptist preacher and my mother played the organ for church. Nurtured and nourished in the bosom of the church I was not surprised that when it was time for me to make a vocational decision of what to do with my life this decision came within the context of the church. So after high school I entered theological seminary in preparation to become a Baptist preacher in Jamaica.
 On reflection, I am proud of the choice as the Baptist church in which I sought to make sense of my calling was the church founded by George Liele, the father of the Native Baptists, which was home of celebrated revolutionaries such as “Daddy” Sharp and Deacon Paul Bogle.
 On graduation from theological school in 1964 I became pastor of about 5 churches in Westmoreland and Hanover. During my tenure at these churches I also taught Religious knowledge, Geography and Spanish at Cornwall College in Montego Bay.

How did you end up in Atlanta?

In 1970 my wife Glenda and I migrated to North Carolina where I studied for the Masters in Theology at Duke University. From there we went to New York in 1971 at Union Theological Seminary, where I did other Masters degrees and culminated my studies with the Ph.D. under the direction of James Cone, the father of Black Theology in the United States. I came to Atlanta in 1977 brought here by Emory University to teach theology and ethics, at the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University.

How are you different from other theologians?

What I would say is different about my approach to theology is that I seek in my teaching and books to talk about God, people and the world from the perspective of the hurts and suffering of people in the world. So in a way I really want to talk about God outside the church. The central question I broach is: “What is God up to in the world?” especially as this impacts the lives of the poor and those who are excluded from privilege, prestige and circles of power. This accounts for my book “From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology.”   I should also mention that I was raised in the village in which Rastafari faith began: Trinityville, St. Thomas.

Please explain some of the places you have traveled and your purpose for those trips

Most of the places I travel to are occasions to teach as visiting professor. Next semester, September 1 through December 14, I will teach as “Underwood Professor of Religion” at Yonsei University, in Seoul, South Korea. My visits in Nigeria and Kenya were sabbaticals where I combined teaching with research.
I came to Atlanta in 1977 brought here by Emory University to teach theology and ethics, at the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University.

What is your latest book about?

My latest book “Black Theology and Pedagogy” is about the history of exclusions we meet in many class rooms in college or the university setting. Why are certain texts and authors always excluded? What difference would it make for pedagogy—teaching and learning—if these texts and authors become central. For example, people of my generation did not study Caribbean history or sociology as academic subjects in high school or college. We did not learn about Marcus Garvey or C.L.R James or Walter Rodney or Edith Clarke. What if these histories of exclusion were central for the pedagogical task?

Which is your most popular book?

I think my most popular book which has been in print for over 20 years is “Decolonizing Theology”. The basic thesis is the need in theology to de-center Euro-centric theology and begin to talk about God from the perspective of our experiences in Jamaica.
For example, why should we sing in a Jamaican church “Lord wash me until I am whiter than snow” Why snow? Why not wash me until I am as beautiful as a ripe banana? Why should we sing Sunday after Sunday hymns and read liturgies that were written for people in England or the U.S.?  
Decolonizing theology seeks to peel off these layers and accentuate the experiences of our own people. To sing songs and read liturgies written out of the experiences of people in Europe or the U.S. is to risk making God a foreigner.

With which of your achievements are you most pleased?

I suppose I am most proud that my research and writing is anchored in the Caribbean. It is a way for me to honor my parents. The Bible enjoins us “to honor your mother and father.” In my research and writing and in my preaching and teaching I seek to honor my parents.
Can you tell us a little about your family?
I met my wife in college in Kingston. I was at Calabar Theological Seminary in Kingston and she was at Shortwood Teachers College and it was there the magic happened. We met in 1962 and got married in 1964 and are the proud parents of three children, Noel Leo Jr.; June Ann and Donna Marie. We also have four grandchildren.

What would we be surprised to know about you?

I think that deep in my heart I am becoming a Rasta. I am not yet but am becoming. I returned from Mozambique, Africa a few weeks ago and there I met many of the local people listening to Bob Marley’s music and seeking to adopt the Rasta life style.

What future do you see for society as a whole?

 I think this is our future. It is to practice peace making and to become natural mystics finding our rhythm with Mother Nature; taking responsibility for what we eat and devote our lives to “loving Jah.” I want to be forever loving Jah.

About the author

Glen Laman