in the way of Christ”
A Review of
Incarnation and Imagination,
by Darby Kathleen Ray.
By Brent Aldrich.
Incarnation and Imagination.
Darby Kathleen Ray.
Paperback. Fortress Books. 2008.
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Given the church’s call to embody a contrast society, it becomes necessary to look critically at the principalities and powers that dominate discourse of the world, envision and imagine new ways of being that resist those powers, and look to our history to trace the ways in which earlier Christians have embodied this task; Incarnation and Imagination by Darby Kathleen Ray does all of this, developing what she terms “a way of living in the world in which imagination, courage, and scrappy resourcefulness function as primary positive goods, as life-protecting, world-sustaining strategies for thinking and living”(12). Her specific parameters for this as an ethic, though, is in the context of the Incarnation. It is because of the ingenious and subversive nature of the life and resurrection of Jesus that we are authorized to model it as an ethic.
Drawing heavily from several sources, including feminist critiques of master narratives, the postmodern and poststructuralist power critiques and deconstructions, and children’s and African-American stories with a trickster character, Ray begins by presenting dominant discourses (capitalism, the nation-state, etc) and then shifting the focus to those on the underside of power to construct an ethic from this vantage. Looking to the edges of empire does two things: it “throws into relief the dominance of the dominant moral traditions” and asks those on the margins to “move toward new ways of seeing, being, and valuing” (20). This is named “christic imagination,” and is the lens by which the narratives in this book are formed.
Ray traces this ethic through two case studies, that of medieval Christian women and African-American history, beginning with slave religion, through Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance, up to current womanist theologians. These were all marginalized communities in their times; the practices by which the members functioned to subvert the dominating narratives of their time in light of the Christian narrative gives concrete examples to the conceptual ‘ethic of ingenuity.’
The politics of medieval women’s bodies was determined for them by the ruling powers (read: patriarchy); largely that meant the split that is all too familiar by now of mind and body, heavenly and earthly. These woman adopted body-centered practices such as fasting to subvert a system balanced against them; what is intended to deprive the body becomes the primary source of their communion with God. Additionally, the focus on the body incarnated their theology into the world around, “[putting] their religious experience of divine mercy into concrete action in their local communities, working to transform the material existence of their neighbors” (68).
The same engagement is true of Christianity as interpreted by slaves, utilizing song, story-telling, and work as means of passing on their culture, and a theology based largely on the “Exodus tradition of God liberating the Israelite slaves from bondage in Egypt; the Hebrew prophets’ denunciations of the greed and cruel indifference of the ruling classes; and the words and actions of Jesus, which expressed care especially for the widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor” (99). The evolution of the black church is cited as functioning as an alternative space for African-Americans during Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement, which became the central common space for blacks in
Nonviolence as a means of resistance as articulated and practiced by ML King is a clear example of the subversive and radical ‘ethic of ingenuity,’ modeled after the Cross: “nonviolent direct action…represented a bold attempt to be faithful to the legacy of an African-American ethic of incarnation and ingenuity – an ethic whose roots extended deep into the independent black church movement, slavery, and early Christian church…it engaged those at the fringes of social, economic, and political power in ingenious practices of resistance and liberation” (124).
Incarnation and Imagination concludes with a critical look back at itself, recapitulating the ‘ethic of ingenuity’ and giving more shape to the Christology of it, making certain that it is the audacity of the Incarnation and Resurrection on which we should model our imaginations: “If there is one thing we cannot do without on this journey into Christian responsibility, it is imagination, robust and patient. The situation is too complex, the problems too entrenched, the suffering too acute to rely on convention” (89). It is affirming that another reality is in fact possible, and imagining ways of participating in the kingdom in ways that reject the powers of the world, and instead looks to the margins, to the ‘abandoned places of Empire” as the New Monastics name it, to develop a theology that is subversive to these powers, but rooted in the in-dwelling of Jesus.
There are communities embodying this reality now, and there are many more throughout history that utilized this “christic imagination” as a means of being set apart in their culture; Incarnation and Imagination gives a structure by which to speak about the creativity of many of these communities, drawing from cultural critiques not often heard in churches. Perhaps a survey of many of the contemporary ways communities are incarnating imagination would be a helpful way to move this dialogue further. Bringing in voices marginalized throughout history, coupled with an incarnational theology and foundation, makes this book a useful support for engagement and resistance.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com