Jennings, The Christian Imagination

JENNINGS, WILLIE JAMES.* THE CHRISTIAN IMAGINATION: THEOLOGY AND THE ORIGINS OF RACE *. NEW HAVEN: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011.*

WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT

This book is a theological portrait/genealogy of the origins and outworking of race in the modern West. Although Christianity has (or at least had) the ability to imagine socially – to redefine the social in terms of true intimacy – that this now occurs so infrequently means that something has gone wrong. Jennings claims that Western Christianity has a diseased social imagination, and that the story of how it acquired this disease is intertwined with the story of colonialism. He gives us this theological portrait as somewhat of a lament, in the hopes of regaining what was lost.

Chapter One: Zurara’s Tears

  • Supersessionism is the theological error that led to White European bodies as the anchor point for a racial scaled related to election (white) and reprobation (black).
  • The racial scaled is related to disassociating one’s identity from land/place and restricting it to an individual’s body.
  • There is also a temporal scale at work here, as seen in the notion of “primitive peoples” alive today.
  • In an inversion of God’s being-in-act/becoming, Europeans played co-creators with God in their relation to colonized lands and peoples.
  • We must recognize the connection of race and place in order to fix these problems.

Chapter Two: Acosta’s Laugh

  • Acosta represents an epistemological crisis in the Christian tradition, as Old World encountered New World, it had to confront its limited (geographical) knowledge.
  • Instead of producing epistemic humility, this encounter produced pedagogical hubris, which, Jennings claims, has trapped and determined theological discourse in the New World.
  • Re: supersessionism – the Church lost its “Gentile remembrance”
  • Xianity could have approached the New World with incarnational humility and openness, but instead it approached in pedagogical imperialism.

Chapter Three: Colenso’s Heart

  • The flight from the particular to a colorblind universal is not sufficient, although it appears to affirm other cultures.
  • Without the particular “concurrency” of Jew/Gentile, Xianity is unable to join others in true intimacy.

Chapter Four: Equiano’s Words

  • Due to its enmeshment in racialized exchange networks & colonialism, Xianity has been stripped of its rich vision of koinonia/mutual belonging.

Chapter Five: White Space and Literacy

  • Vernacular translation of the Bible was catalytic in the process of “national awakening,” a territoriality in which the racialized identity/being scale functioned.
  • Xian theology has been confined within this nationalistic territoriality, but also within a way of imagining social reality formed by
    • vernacular world literary space
    • vernacular space of private property
    • ˆthese are aspects of a racialized world produced by whiteness
  • The Bible was constrained in the racialized literary and geographic spaces (cf. African Americans not allowed to read/write) – severely curtailing reimagination and Xian community.
  • We need a doctrine of creation about PLACE and PEOPLE.

Chapter Six: Those Near Belonging

  • Xianity offers hope of joining people together around/in the Body of Jesus.
  • Jesus himself creates space for Jews and Gentiles to belong to one another, and the Holy Spirit continued Christ’s work in the book of Acts by driving Jews and Gentiles toward one another.
  • Jewish and black bodies today can help expose and break open the racialized foundation of the Modern West, but this will require thinking of God in light of the Shoah and colonialism.

Conclusion:

To move forward:

  • We need a doctrine of creation that takes places and people seriously, in order to address the connection between race and place.
  • We need a doctrine of the church that takes relations between Jews and Gentiles seriously, to address the connection between supersessionism and racialized colonialism.
  • We need to detach theological discourse from colonialism and whiteness, in order to think theologically about both.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

This book is important because it offers a rather novel theological account of the origins and developments of race. Although I don’t think it has the ability to stand alone as THE overarching and all-encompassing theological account of race and colonialism, Jennings DOES succeed in complicating the narrative to more accurately reflect the complex intersections of supersessionism, race, place, colonialism, and Western theology.

WHAT THAT MEANS TO/FOR ME

Although Jennings’ work probably won’t feature in my dissertation, it has given me much to think about in terms of my future work and ministry in the Church and Academy. I was particularly challenged by his claims about pedagogical imperialism at the end of chapter two.

For me, the questions remain:

(1) How to get the Church in the USA to overcome its history of anti-intellectualism and appreciate the contributions of the Academy and the importance of the ongoing theological conversation in the West? AND YET

ALSO (2) How to expose the racialized shortcomings of the Western theological conversation? How to incorporate other, non-white, non-Western voices?