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

Overview

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.

PANELISTS

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).