Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Victor Anderson, Oberlin Theological School Professor of Ethics and Society and Professor of the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies and Religious Studies.
Professor Anderson recommends The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010, pp.ix-366.
Professor Jennings’ book is a genealogy of Christian theologians’ participation in the geographical and geopolitical constructions of modern world imperialism over black and captive flesh. Where to start is an especially important question for a theological history where race, imperialism, colonization, and Christianity are intrinsically embedded and appear “natural”. Jennings deconstructs this “natural” transfusion of race, colonization, and Christian faith in three parts: Displacement, Translation, and Intimacy. The “Introduction” highlights two distinct imaginings that frame Jennings’ genealogy. First, he experiences himself, his parents, and community as objects of evangelism and missions. His parents, migrants from the Deep South, settle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Mecca of Reformed Christianity. Stories and story-telling were determinant aspect of his upbringing. His parents were devout believers for whom Jesus and their Biblical faith were ever present realities. Jennings remembers one day when white missionaries from the Christian Reformed Church in the neighborhood invited themselves into his mother’s garden to inquire into her faith, talk about their church, and inform her about programs available for children. He remembers himself being addressed as if he were five years old when he was actually twelve. Well planted in their community, pillars of their church, and living in the neighborhood for years, this all fell on deaf ears to the congregation in their midst. He, his parents, and his neighborhood were suddenly objects of missions. What came together in this garden were two alienated Christianities, one black and one white. Jennings ponders: “Why did the men not know me, …not know the multitude of other black Christians who filled the neighborhood that surrounded that Church?” Years later, Jennings finds himself now a student at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed institution, delivering his first sermon at chapel and receiving handshakes from his theology professors. In contrasts to his first encounter with Christian Reformed missionaries, Jennings now finds “a sense of connection and belonging and of a freedom to claim, to embrace, to make familiar one who is not.” He imagines Christian intimacy as a genuine possibility. Jennings’ book deconstructs a complex history of contact and conquest that makes possible the segregated Christianities experienced in his mother’s garden and forms of intimacy experienced to him now as a student at Calvin College. These two moments frames Jennings’ book, which is a genealogy of Christian imaginings of faith and race through Displacement, Translation, and Intimacy in six powerful chapters.