#1 – The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings (My Top Ten 2020 Reads)

This may be the most important theology book I have read in a long time. If I was to recommend one theology book to pastors and teachers to read right now, it would be this one.

Jennings argues the Christian imagination is deficient and he traces the roots of this to the dawn of modernity. If you have studied theology in any formal matter, you ought to be able to see the problem Jennings identifies: we move from the New Testament and early church to a bit of medieval and the scholastics then to the Reformers and the challenges of the Enlightenment. This curriculum ignores the formation of modern identity.

Jennings spends a lot of time examining history. The figures Jennings focuses on are not usual ones in a theology work. There is Jose Acosta, a Jesuit in Peri in the 1500s and then John Colenso, an Anglican in South Africa in the 1800s. Jennings also looks at the work of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave writing in England in the late 1700s. Throughout all of this, Jennings is illustrating the way colonialism twisted Christianity.

Emerging through all of this are a few themes, primary among them is that the movement away from an emphasis on the role of Israel in scripture provides a direct line to elevating and universalizing whiteness. This supersessionism replaces Israel with the Church and enables theology to then favor national identity. Jennings illustrates this by looking at Isaac Watts translation of the Psalms, where he often substitutes “Britain” for Israel. As Israel is ignored, so to is an emphasis on geographical place. Through colonialism, Christians looked out at the world as a place to conquer and tame. Jennings thoughts here blend well with other critiques of capitalism and histories (such as McCarraher’s The Enchantment of Mammon).

In order to restore Christian imagination we must recognize the deep harm to our thinking of colonialism. Colonialism drove a wedge between land and people as well as giving a vision of a Creator endorsing the eradication of people’s way of life and the creation of private property. Colonialism turned away from identity in the resurrected Son and created an identity of assimilation into whiteness and capitalism. Our interaction with the land and other people became rooted in production and consumption.

Jennings admits near the end that his critique will be difficult to hear. We in the west simply assume capitalism is the only way to function in the world. As Christians, we assume we have Jesus all figured out for that matter (a Jesus who basically endorses neoliberal capitalism). Jennings writes:

“I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity changing of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (293).

And:

“To change one’s way of imagining connection and one’s way of desiring joining is no small thing. Yet I am convinced that such a change is not only necessary but now stands before human communities as the only real option for survival in a world of dwindling natural resources and tightening global economic chains of commodification. To imagine along the direction I suggest in this book would be nothing less than theological act, indeed, as I suggest, a Christian act of imagining. And if, as I believe, Christian life is indeed a way forward for the world, then it must reemerge as ac impelling new invitation to life together” (294)

This is a book that deserves a much longer review. I am unable to do Jennings’ work justice. It is fantastic and I am sure I will be thinking about it, and returning to it, frequently in the future.

Honorable Mention: Over the past many years, I have read a ton of books that cover the transition from the medieval world to the modern world. Jennings book covers this same ground but from a different angle than others. Plenty of these other books focus on philosophical developments in Western Europe and how these ideas trickled down and shaped the culture. One thing I liked most about Jennings book is he told the story of those who did more to directly shape people’s attitudes and ideas.

Sadly, these people were bishops and pastors and church leaders and they were shaping racist ideas.

I think my honorable mention here is simply a warning to not read one book and think we know it all. As I read Stamped by Ibram X Kendi this year (#7 on my list, btw), I couldn’t help but wonder what happened prior to the story he told. In some ways, Jennings fills in the background of the story that Kendi is telling. Of course, then McCarraher’s book on the development of capitalism tells another part of the story (#9 on my list).

I could mention books from previous years. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is always one that heads such a list, and perhaps one I need to revisit in 2021. Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on moral philosophy, specifically After Virtue heads this list as well. This year I read a wonderful book analyzing those two writers, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and the Demise of Naturalism by Jason Blakely.

I could mention NT Wright’s History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Or if you want to go further back in the story, there is Tom Holland’s magnificent work Dominion which puts the rise of the modern world in the context of the Christian revolution, beginning five centuries prior to Jesus (which was my favorite book of 2019, btw).

Maybe I should mention Hannah Arendt’s works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Or I could mention the two books I already read the introductions for, which will probably be two of my first reads for 2021.

My point in all this is, there are LOTS of books out there that cover this transition and it is a subject that is vital to learn about. Our experience of religion and God and everything else, much that we just take for granted, has been shaped by forces which we do not even realize.

But that’s why we get on the journey of reading. To keep learning…

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