Thursday, January 20, 2011

Willie Jennings' Social Imagination

Trying to decide what seminars to attend in the upcoming term, I have to say that despite the Systematics seminar on Luther's Galatians commentary and the Hermeneutics seminar on Barth's Romans commentary I think I am most excited about the Practical Theology Seminar on Willie Jennings' 2010 book entitled The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. The book jacket gives an overview of the book as follows:
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 [medievals such as] 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.

This excites me because I think it incredibly apropos in our increasingly globalized world and the supposed multiculturalism of our societies. Are our churches bringing the Christian imagination to bear on what these mixed societies can look like or are they breeding niches and cementing us in cliques (and spiritualizing it)? This book ought to have much to say and I for one am ready to consider it. I am also really looking forward to reading something that sheds light on society and Christianity in the middle ages. I feel pretty ignorant of that era; more well versed in caricatures than complex and accurate characterizations.

Here are some excerpts from the introduction, which kept me up late last night precisely when I had hoped to be put to sleep quickly:
This book attempts to narrate exactly what is missing, what thwarts the deepest reality of the Christian social imagination. Indeed, I argue here that Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination.

What I observed in the theological academy was [not the theory/practice or church/academy split but] fundamentally the resistance of theologians to think theologically about their identities.

Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native people enter its cultural logics, its ways of being in the world, and its conceptualities. Thus [today's] persistent preoccupation with ... obsessive labeling and positioning of theological trends ... [which reflects] the deep pedagogical sensory deprivation of this horrific imbalance. Western Christian intellectuals still imagine the world from the commanding heights.

[These commanding heights] are ways of being in the world that resist the realities of submission, desire, and transformation. A Christianity born of such realities but historically formed to resist them has yielded a form of religious life that thwarts its deepest instincts of intimacy... [and fails] to witness to a God who surprises us by love of difference and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation. Instead, the intimacy that marks Christian history is a painful one, one in which the joining often meant oppression, violence, and death, if not of bodies then most certainly of ways of life, forms of language, and visions of the world. What happened to the original trajectory of intimacy?

Of course, I think I will have plenty of questions when I read this book as well, such as: What about the tower of Babel? Are Christians responsible for racism, or complicit (at times) in its instigation and spread? And what is imagined alternative to the current forms of society exactly? Is it not the case the Christians had a gospel-inspired social imagination but were tethered to some biblical texts more tightly than others, causing them to spiral rather than fly true? What will tether the imagination to reality, and to a holistic sense of the Christian gospel? I'm glad to have the opportunity to read this in a group rather than on my own. The discussion should be good.


Dave M said...

What do you think the odds are that Willie Jennings' parents were country fans?

Jon Coutts said...

Ha! probably not good odds.
I see them more as the blues sort, and he definitely looks like a jazz man. But I wouldn't want to pigeonhole of course.