Being unfamiliar with author Willie James Jennings, I eagerly ventured into the introduction of his new book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. I was told by Jennings that Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination. Jennings asserts that something went drastically wrong within modern Christianity and that the formation of Christian intellectuals is damaged and disassociated from reality. He adds that today’s theologians do not think theologically about their identities.
To this day I cannot articulate the distinction Jennings is trying to make between “the Christian imagination” and “the Christian social imagination.” It is only by reading his very dense book that I came to appreciate what drives Jennings’s scholarship: the great sin of slavery that was justified, perpetuated and exploited by Christianity. Why this is not stated clearly in the introduction is a mystery.
I commend the author for the way he lays out the tragic story of slavery in the West. We are introduced to four historical figures whose names do not appear in our history books. They are Zurara, a 15th-century royal chronicler of Prince Henry of Portugal, José de Acosta Porres, a 16th-century Jesuit schooled in scholasticism, John William Colesano, an Anglican bishop from the 19th century who desired to preach and present the Gospel to indigenous peoples in their native language, and Olaudah Equiano, born in Africa in 1745, who experienced slavery firsthand. Jennings’ sensitively descriptive writing brings each man to life and draws the reader into their stories. They offer a lens through which to understand the tragedy of slavery.
Those who came to the Americas on behalf of their kingly and queenly European patrons were incapable of appreciating the amazing peoples and cultures they discovered. This study lays out realities that must be honestly admitted and historically chronicled, for many of the abuses of the past are being played out in our time. The conquerors found it necessary to destroy and control the landscape that provided food and livelihood to the Indians. The conquering Christians found it necessary to rename what they found, disconnecting places and stories from their roots. Stories and histories were lost forever. Zurara does indeed cry as he chronicles how sacred locales are “displaced.” I applaud Jennings’s insight that Christian theology became a theology of displacement—ironic, since its Jewish forebears were so sensitive to place. To this day indigenous cultures continue to be displaced for the benefit of governments and private enterprise.
This book reminded me of the film “Black Robe,” the story of a young Jesuit who travels to Canada to minister to the Iroquois Indians, especially the chapter describing the education and theological vision of José de Acosta Porres. Was it a good thing that the lives of so many were forever changed because of their exposure of Christianity? Many will answer yes, but Jennings’s chapter on Acosta poses many doubts.
Especially noteworthy is the narrative on Bishop Colensano’s struggle to respect the vernacular of the common people, but the chapter recounting the story of Olaudah Equiano moved me beyond measure. Like so many others, I was deeply affected by the miniseries “Roots,” and recognizing the power of the story, use clips from “Amistad” when I teach. The way Jennings shapes his research into a compelling narrative is truly masterful. The reader is at Equiano’s side as he walks the long journey to the sea in chains. No doubt some of my European ancestors participated in his enslavement.
Jennings concludes his book with two scholarly chapters that explore how the Bible itself has been “misplaced” by Western Christianity, and the way by which the identity of the people of God is established in Christian scholarship. The reader will come away from these final chapters more critical of what they read in the Bible and with a new awareness of the significance of particular biblical translations. One must ask who was “left out” of the story of God’s faithfulness and who was deemed unworthy of being made in the image and likeness of God. The final chapter is somewhat difficult to categorize, for as with the introduction, Jennings pours in countless themes, including the significance of the biblical theme of exile.
The closing pages of this book are a wonderful synopsis of the ways colonialism and slavery dismantled peoples and places. Jennings is honest in his yearning for a Christian theology that affirms a different narrative from what has been offered in the past. He continues to bemoan theologians who do not offer a clear Christian intellectual identity that is compelling and attractive. I am unable to commiserate fully with Jennings’s longings in this regard, as I know and appreciate the work of countless honest, compelling theologians who continually challenge themselves.