Conversations, Cultivating Communities

Willie James Jennings – The Christian Imagination [Interview]

Thinking Theologically About Space
Interview with Willie James Jennings
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WJJ: I spend a lot of time here at Duke talking to our students about this. I hope, first of all, that our churches would start to take very seriously the spaces they inhabit, the church building as well as those spaces inhabited by its members, and stop the modern condition of what anthropologists call being “geographically adrift.” We really pay no attention to any kind of geographic mapping and to the ways in which we live our lives completely floating along, however the spatial grid functions. So, wherever the homes are that we can afford, that’s where we buy; we find a property that we can afford to get and that’s where we’ll put the church [building]. We don’t think about these matters; we don’t make these issues matters of prayer; we don’t make them matters of discipleship. We don’t ask people to think about where they live and who they live with, and what kind of witness they want to make by where they live and who they live with. Usually, these questions are answered by looking for the best neighborhoods for their kids, but we [in our churches] need to start to ask deeper questions. I like to tell my students that almost every organization in the world that is trying to work its way in the world, maps us geographically – everything from governmental agencies, military agencies, even the Girl Scouts do mapping, so that they can tell you who lives in what neighborhood. And as we all know, part of the reality of demographic work now is that people map all your concerns, allegiances and alliances, politically, socially, culturally, by where you live. As the scriptures say, the world is often much wiser than we are, because we don’t think about these matters. What I would hope first is that churches would start to look at, open our eyes, become aware and talk about space: what’s where and why is it there? What’s not in a particular place? We need to ask serious questions because these things do not happen by accident. That’s the first thing, but the second thing that I would hope that churches would actually start to make it a matter of prayer and seeking the Spirit of God about where they should be, and not only where the church literally should be, but where the women and men of God ought to be. Who ought we to live together with? These are crucial matters that really need to be talked about, because part of what’s missing in trying to understand the operations of the racial condition is that if you don’t talk about geography, you really can’t understand race – understand how it functions, how it is reborn, how it is re-energized; you can’t understand it unless you also talk about its spatial aspects.

ERB: And that’s the problem of “displacement” that you discuss in the first part of the book.

WJJ: Right, and I think what’s so crucial for us is that we’ve entered a time now where attending to the specific reality of space and place – the ground, the dirt, where we live, how we live – are matters that are crucial for our discipleship. We cannot wait and do other things and get to this last because these are the decisive things. One of the most important groups of people that Christian pastors and Christian scholars and theologians ought to be in conversation with is real estate agents and developers. We ought to have meetings with them.

ERB: We’re on board with you there! One of the main works that we do here as a church is community development, and we are very involved with the real estate of our place and have several people who are very gifted in working with the various aspects of real estate, and helping us all to reimagine as the church, a community of God’s people in this place, what a more redemptive vision of this space might look like. Abandoned housing is a big issue here, as it is in so many urban neighborhoods, but we see that not as a problem so much as an opportunity.

WJJ: That’s wonderful and I would also add that part of what I hope we could start to do is to have conversations about the sensibilities – the social, cultural and economic sensibilities – that are housed within the real estate agencies, the ethos and the culture of real estate and the formation of a real estate agent.

ERB: It seems to me that the wisdom that you are describing, of rethinking the ethos of real estate in this case, really applies to any sort of career or vocation.

WJJ: Yes, my hope is that if churches can start to ask the deeper questions about where we put our feet on the ground, it makes it easier to talk about where we want to walk toward, and especially where we want our young people to walk toward.

ERB: Yes, coming from an evangelical background, it seems that all too often our vision and our imagination has been otherworldly, in many senses. We don’t have much of a sense of imagining what intimacy or reconciliation or God’s redemptive work might look like in any particular place.

One last question for you that is also related to the vision that you set out in the final pages of the book: Can you speak specifically about what this might look like in urban places, particularly in light of the challenges that urban settings present in reconnecting with the land, especially the land as a source of nourishment for all creation? Can you talk a little bit about how we might reconnect with the land in urban places, and think about the land as God’s provision for our sustenance?

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