Book Plug: T. S. Eliot and the Fulfillment of Christian Poetics by G. Douglas Atkins

G. Douglas Atkins’s book, T. S. Eliot and the Fulfillment of Christian Poetics, is an engaging, close textual analysis, and extended meditation on Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets. Describing his approach to Eliot’s work, Atkins writes, “[m]y focus is how each poem of Four Quartets works, what it means, that and how it matters (so much), and how each of these parts supports the others ‘right’ in participating in the creation of a structure whose details we fully appreciate only at the end, the place from which we begin in order to appreciate fully those magnificent details. The issue is fulfillment—of purpose” (vi–vii). Rather than a “handbook,” which Atkins’s book certainly is not, the author has created a commentary qua “companion”—a “going-along-with” that includes a bringing together mirroring Eliot’s text.

Among the many topics and themes that Atkins addresses, I found particularly interesting his analyses of how Eliot’s Four Quartets dramatizes the “impossible union” of oppositions or alleged oppositions—time and eternity, human and divine, the way up and the way down (and other Heraclitian-inspired themes), the philosophical and the poetic, sameness and difference, life and death and so on.

Atkins likewise does a wonderful job of showing (via the unfolding drama of the poem) how the poet’s own voice struggles with his own pronouncements, i.e. with what he knows or perhaps better, believes, and how precisely “all manner of things is well” (including the good and the bad and many other oppositions, which constitute the “necessarye coniunction.”)

Just as the opening movement, “Burnt Norton,” began with reflections on time and being, as well as a scene resonant with but not identical to the Garden of Eden—reflections not necessarily representing Eliot’s own voice—in the last movement we return via echoes to a Garden. “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” However, now the pattern of the “logic of concepts” (philosophy) and the “logic of the imagination” (poetry) has been reversed. Here we have children playing “in the apple tree” and the “voice of the hidden waterfall” where both movement (noise) and stillness are “heard, half-heard” (103). We return to the childlike, but a very high price has been paid for this “coniunction” uniting humans with the divine. The “how” of the “all is well” and the “all shall be well” come at the end in time—the already and the not yet: “When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one” (103–104).

Syndicate Theology’s Symposium on Jennings’s Book, The Christian Imagination, July 21-30

Syndicate Theology’s symposium on Willie James Jennings’s book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, begins tomorrow, July 21. Below I have copied (from Syndicate’s website) an overview of the book and the opening paragraph from each panelist’s review. Please join us for what will be, no doubt, an excellent and lively conversation. Christian Imagination @ Syndicate Theology


Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

About the Author

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, where he previously served as academic dean. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.


Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Cross the Sea and Cleanse the Temple” (July 21)

CHRISTIANITY IN THE AMERICAS is shrouded in a dark past of white supremacy and colonial violence. Given Christianity’s history of colonial captivity, is the Christian imagination exhausted or can it still speak meaningfully and creatively today? In The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings lays out a persuasive case detailing the racist and capitalist underpinnings of colonial Christianity in Portugal, Peru, South Africa, and the United States, showing how this colonial legacy continues to dominate the establishment agenda of the theological academy. Despite these realities, he further argues that the Christian imagination can be fired once again if the church can reconnect to Israel, creation, and the Creator. His call to theological intimacy amidst a world of cultural fragmentation is prophetic, hearkening a post-colonial future for the world Christian communion.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Rending New Life From Mangled Places” (July 23)

WILLIE JAMES JENNINGS’ BOOK, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is a revolutionary study in the ongoing conversation of the relation between race and Christian theology and practice. In my essay, I discuss key themes of the book, which include: the connection between land and identity, the role of whiteness as an evaluative form or racialized lens for interpreting others and the world, the injurious and dehumanizing effects of Christianity’s embrace of colonizing practices, and Jennings’ original insights regarding how such practices can be understood as expressions of de-formed Christian doctrines. Toward the end of my essay, I transition to a more critical dialogue, both for the purpose of furthering the conversation and for my own education.

A. J. Walton, “Supersessionist Sensibilities, Supremacist Imagination” (July 28)

PERHAPS IT’S A TAD ODD to state upfront the many ways a theologian has influenced a young academic. But setting aside worries that I may come across as some crazed fan—a Beyoncé or Beatles type of groupie, you know?—I find no need to deny the fact that Willie James Jennings—the teacher, the mentor, and the many other descriptors that can follow his name—has and continues to shape not only how I understand Christian theology proper (if there is such a thing), but also how I navigate the everyday complexities that is life and vocation in this our (post?) modern context. The truth is this: Jennings is a theological genius and a force with whom we must all reckon.

Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “The Colorblindness of a Diseased Social Imagination” (July 30)

AFTER DOING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC study of a white southern Protestant church that decided to become multiracial I have seen how crucial it is to better understand and complexify the subject of “race” and Christianity. Initially thinking this church was a real gem, given how few significantly interracial churches exist, I discovered all sorts of problems, including continuing white obliviousness about race. Some of the white members who intentionally formed this interracial church, performed racist behavior. Some decided the church was getting “too black” and left. Other whites reacted negatively when the founding white pastor was replaced by a black pastor. Many white members just did not want to talk about race. As a southern white girl raised in a white church in a family that totally ignored race issues, I did not think I was either racist or privileged. Not until this experience as an adult did I even begin to discover my own obliviousness.

Willie James Jennings on Race, Place, Identity, and the Need for a Decolonized Christian Imaginary

Jennings Christian ImaginationIn August I will participate in Syndicate’s online symposium focusing on Willie James Jennings’s landmark study, The Christian Imagination. Theology and the Origins of Race. What follows is a preview of my discussion of key themes in Part III of Jennings’s book. I encourage you to check Syndicate’s website regularly for additional information, updates, and future symposia. Lastly, I hope that you will join us in August for the actual Syndicate forum dedicated to Jennings’s outstanding and timely work.

The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter five, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).

Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’s most important and original claims: (1) place and identity are intricately linked, (2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land, and (3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had disregarded completely the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,

[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system (225–26).

With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”

In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had to acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,

[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces (241).

If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).

Guest Post #2 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: The Il-logic of Divine Un-favor

David Horstkoetter is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Marquette University. He received his Bachelor’s Degree at Multnomah Bible College and his Master of Arts at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. David’s interests are history, social ethics, and systematic theology. He blogs at Flying Farther.


Violence is often seen as evidence of divine un-favor—the opposite of blessing within a prosperity gospel context. Here violence done to one is equated with a person losing; while to be victorious, or feeling the victory promised by the church after one gets saved, is predicated on vanquishing. Now, of course this is far from unoriginal, but the twist here is that this logic also works itself out on a more subtle level when people feel that they aren’t winning in their life. The import is that a simple feeling of malaise becomes evidence of divine un-favor or no salvation. The result is a Christian life as pragmatic and will-to-power, even in every day details, whether one subscribes to a prosperity gospel explicitly or not. Apollo Fights the Fires of Dionysius

Where we place the importance of violence will determine (literally and logically) whether we do—or ignore—violence to others. Half jokingly, I wonder if we should recover the theological category of divine smiting, just to make sure that violence is put in its proper place, rather than allowed to have too much purchase. If we are not careful, violence becomes legitimated because it is understood as earned. I believe this explains much of the logic for conservative Christian proclamation that parades like a Hebrew prophet of old, explaining away natural disasters and, say, September 11 through terrible theodicy arguments. In such cases, violence was understood as deserved divine punishment-retribution. (I should say here that I am not ignoring the political concept of blow back. The September 11 attacks were certainly the result of blow back from American policy.) This is the same logic used by people who blame the victim in rape cases. Here one sees a(n) (ana)logical consistency between individual rape cases and the oppression that liberation theology addresses on a structural level. And perhaps this explains some of the current resistance to liberation theology: why align one’s self with the losers? After all, Jesus didn’t tap out, right? (See Wait, people seriously say that?!)

We must obviously take care to understand violence as parasitic (not determinative) and that Christians are called to God’s economy. Perpetrators of violence warp the God-who-judges and simplistically see violence as the evidence of judgment, while ignoring the economic and social vulnerability so crucial to God’s sense of judgment-justice and gratuity. Violence visited upon the weak is not God’s way because the divine kingdom is not a self-serving empire or spitefully vindictive. If the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount have anything to say, it is that God cares for the true victims. Gustavo Gutiérrez has rightly seen that the “God in whom we believe is the God of life. Belief in the resurrection entails defending the life of the weakest members of society. Looking for the Lord among the living leads to commitment to those who see their right to life being constantly violated. To assert the resurrection of the Lord is to assert life in the face of death” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, God of Life, 14). Thus to let others be defined by violence has allowed us to write them off — they did not triumph on their own, so they are not worth our attention. Blaming the victim rids the person or people of their humanity and thus turns subjects into objects of derision. Weakness has somehow become something to take advantage. Clearly this is incongruent with God on the cross.

Up until now I have oh so eloquently made moves that the Hulk could describe: “Violence, bad!” How does this square with its conflict with texts of terror? First, a few boundaries. We must be aware of historic anti-semitism in Biblical studies that subtly still rears its head at times. And we also cannot give into a Marcionite urge. However, we also must allow for honesty: there is indeed a tension that seems to exist. Is there inherently a supercessionism in Christianity? But J. Kameron Carter has argued that supercessionism has helped bring about racist racial categories (Race: A Theological Account). Then again, what about the different kind of supercessionism, a universalizing kind, that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well? Questions abound and the complexity is mindboggling.

I do think there is a way to deal with some of the issues around violence that hopefully eliminate what should not be an issue in the first place. Perhaps this is evidence of my time among the Jesuits, but difference in order to unify may work here for moving beyond impasse or paralyzing frustration. The distinction? Covenant.

Covenant is originally given, not earned; covenant was instituted by grace and fulfilled in human response. Also, Jewish covenant, especially with Abraham, has a tendency toward expansion, if not outright universalism: a blessing to the nations. Some of the covenants clearly had conditions, however, blessings and curses in covenants work differently than prosperity assumes.

We, as Christians, are not in covenant that speaks of any blessings or curses. None. The book of Hebrews may come close—that is, at least there is contention on whether one could lose their salvation by continued disobedience. But this has nothing to do with blessings and curses associated with obedience and disobedience through the Jewish covenants. We do, as Christians, work within a different paradigm that also has continuity with Jewish thought: God’s economy of gift. Or at least we are supposed to.

The logic of violence as divine un-favor has no support within contemporary Christian thought, yet somehow it continues. I suspect that such a discourse has more to do with capitalism, privilege, and victimization, than it does with Christian notions of humanity and what God desires.