Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: THE CHRISTIAN IMAGINATION by Willie Jennings [Vol. 3, #28]

“The Grotesque Nature of
Disembodied, Modern Christianity”

A Review of
The Christian Imagination:
Theology and the Origins of Race
By Willie James Jennings

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The Christian Imagination:
Theology and the Origins of Race
Willie James Jennings
Hardback: Yale UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Many readers of The Englewood Review will recognize that there is something deeply wrong with Christianity in these early years of the twenty-first century and most of these readers would argue that these problems are hardly new and have plagued the church for decades if not centuries.  There are, of course, an abundance of books published each year that detail these shortcomings, and posit solutions for how we might repent of these sins.  Few books, however, offer as broad and holistic a picture of our brokenness as Willie Jennings’ new theological masterpiece, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, and even fewer books (perhaps none) can come close to the depth of Jennings’ historical account of how we wound up in the mess we are in today.  Jennings concisely sums up the aim of the book in his conclusion:  “I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property.  Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (293).

Speaking of Jennings’ conclusion, I would highly recommend that readers begin with this conclusion and then loop back and read the rest of the book, as the conclusion not only offers a concise and poignant vision of our disconnectedness from one another, from the land and from all creation, but also points us in the direction that we will need to go in order to recover the intimacy for which we were created.  Reading the conclusion first in this way will help the reader to have a clearer sense of the argument that Jennings is making here.  The Christian Imagination is a decidedly historical work but Jennings has no illusion of writing a comprehensive history of how the Church’s social imagination has become diseased, but rather “to paint a portrait of a theological problem in order to suggest a way forward,” (9) which he approaches by telling a number of detailed theological stories from the era of Western colonialism that each illustrate distinct facets of this problem.   Most of the stories that Jennings narrates here are from the theological margins of the colonial that which have largely been ignored in the course of most Western theological education, and will likely be unfamiliar to most readers.  As Jennings observes, however, these stories are essential to our understanding the problem of our deep brokenness and also to our imagining how we can reorient our life together in church communities in such a way that God can begin to heal these wounds and transform us anew.

The first story that Jennings offers is that of Gomes Eanes de Azurara, otherwise known as Zurara, who was the royal chronicler of Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator.  Zurara played a key role in the theological narration of early Portuguese colonialism.  Jennings focuses specifically on Zurara’s account of a slave auction in Lagos in August 1444, and his account of the suffering of the Black Africans that were offered for sale.  Crucial to Zurara’s record of this event was not only that these Black Africans were being sold, but that they were being displaced (ripped out of the places that provided meaning for them) and sold.  Zurara’s telling the story in this way, Jennings argues, reveals a key facet of the theology of modernity: viz., that such accounts of displacement (and the actual displacements of conquest to which they refer) came to form modern persons, black and white, to think and act primarily in a disembodied fashion.  Jennings fleshes out his point here with stories of displacement of Native Americans as well as modern African tribes, which emphasize that the displacement of modern, Western thought is not a necessity.

Jennings’ second historical reflection focuses on the work of José de Acosta Porres, a Jesuit teacher who did his most significant theological work among the Andean peoples of colonial Peru in the sixteenth century.  Acosta’s work, Jennings states, “marks the theological beginning of imperialist modernity” (71).  Acosta is a significant figure because he redirects the theological vision of the Church Fathers and the philosophical tradition of the ancients away from placed, embodied reflections thus perpetrating a “loss of historical consciousness.” Third among Jennings’ narratives is that of John William Colenso, an Anglican bishop, who over the course of many years of translating theological works into the native languages of South Africa came to be converted to a faith that was resistant to colonial forms of theology.  The fourth and arguably the most familiar of the stories that Jennings recounts is that of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano, whose slave narrative was not only perhaps one of the most authentic in that it survived the editorial colonialism to which many other slave narratives were subjected, but also exhibits some striking theological insights into colonial Christianity.  Equiano is, Jennings concludes: “a man of our time who uncovers the perils of our remade world and yet spies the possibilities of its unmaking” (203).

In the book’s final section, Jennings begins to imagine what it might look like to recover the intimacy with God and creation for which we were created.   Following, the key theme of language that he developed over the course of the book, Jennings advocates for literacy and for a deep theological engagement, namely “Christian faith receiving its heretofore undiscovered identities, which are found only through interaction with the social logics of language, landscape and peoples” (248).   Following the excellent work of his Duke colleague and “wonderful conversation partner” J. Kameron Carter, Jennings also emphasizes in this final section that the Christian faith should be aligned once again with the biblical people of Israel, in a process of creating a space of joining and communion through which we can in the struggles of our life together begin to recover some of the intimacy with God and creation which has been lost over centuries of racialism, capitalism and displacement.   The vision that Jennings offers here is a substantial one, offering us much to reflect upon and well-grounded in the narratives he developed over the book’s previous chapters.  However, one does wish that he would have explored more deeply how churches, as expressions of the Body of Christ in particular places, can begin to create such spaces of communion among their members and their neighbors.

In reviewing J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account, I surmised that it might be the most significant theological work of the decade, but perhaps Willie Jennings in The Christian Imagination has, in catching a glimpse of how the church might recover a healthy social imagination, outdone even Carter’s excellent work of criticism.   Indeed at the heart of Jennings vision of the Christian social imagination is a conviction that is of the utmost importance to us here at Englewood Christian church, that God’s mission is one of reconciling all things (note: I’m using scriptural language here, although Jennings has good reason for steering clear of the terminology of reconciliation in his text) and that God has called us to engage theologically with this mission in our specific location and according to the gifts and skills that each of us has been given.  At the close of the book, Jennings eloquently summarizes his vision:

A social imagination that begins to take place seriously begins to grasp the textures of the social in a comprehensive way.  At one level, I hope to open up a new dialogue between disciplines that rarely interact – geography, theology, postcolonial theory, race theory, ecology, Native American studies and so forth.  In this regard, I hope for a conversation between those deeply involved in the formation of space and those concerned with identity formation – urban planners, ecologists, scientists, real estate brokers, developers joined in conversation with theologians, ethicists, literary and postcolonial theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. … [My] hope is more than academic, by attending to the spatial dynamics at play in the formation of social existence, we would be able to imagine reconfigurations of living spaces that might promote more just societies.  Such living spaces may open up the possibilities of different ways of life that announce invitations for joining. (293-294).

Jennings has articulated excellently here the vision the Church’s mission that drives us forward each day here at Englewood Christian Church in our corner of urban Indianapolis, and the conversation that he describes here is precisely the sort of embodied, holistic and diverse conversation that we hope that The Englewood Review of Books can serve to spark – at least on occasion – in church communities around the world.

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

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. Wow, great review, Chris! I wish we had all read and prepared to discuss this book before the EP Gathering on race and the church a couple of years ago. How much richer and more meaningful would our work have been with such a text?

    As always, I appreciate the strong and important work you and Brent do to deepen our thinking and to enrich our collective conversation at ECC.

  2. Chris,

    How does Jenning’s thesis jibe or not with J. Cameron Carter’s? You compare the relative value of the two books, but don’t say anything about the connections or tensions between their ideas. Are their analyses of the race/theology relationship compatible, similar, dissonant?

  3. Jeremy —

    Good question. Their work is complementary. Maybe this is too simplistic a characterization, but Carter’s work tends to focus more on the philosophical emergence of race, where Jennings is more interested in socio-political elements.

    James K.A. Smith’s brief reflection “Theology and Race: A ‘Duke School?'” is worth reading:

    Hope that you are well,