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Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, reviewed by Amos Yong

Throughout the first two parts of the book, one of the dominant theological threads is that with the colonial project, the new norm of whiteness replaces the biblical Gentiles, which is understood by whites also to have superseded the Israel of the Old Testament. God’s plan, then, is to shift from a chosen group of people, bound to their land, to a universal group, now represented primarily by the white missionary vision and vocation. For the sake of the world’s salvation, then, the white chosen race is to think, act, and be universal religiously, politically, socially, economically, and geographically. White universalism thus displaces, literally, indigenous forms, ways, and philosophies of life (because of their limited, parochial, premodern, superstitious, pagan, barbaric, demonic, etc., character). The colonial project has succeeded to the point that the enslaved, or those relegated by the racializing forces of whiteness to the lower tiers of value in the human hierarchy, have embraced white theology to justify their own lot in life!

Part III is titled “Intimacy,” wherein Jennings proceeds to the constructive task of articulating, at the literary and theological levels, what it takes to move from racially fragmented and segregated mentalities and spaces “inside the white house” to communion, confraternity, belonging, embrace, and living spatially together. Central to the adopted strategy is a reconsideration of a non-supersessionist reading of the gospel narrative of Jesus and, in a short section, the Pentecost narrative as drawing Gentiles into Israel’s covenant narrative in ways that do not separate identities from land, culture, and language. Pentecostal, charismatic, and renewal readers of this journal will be intrigued and challenged by this part of Jennings’ argument.

There is no doubt that the contemporary global pentecostal-charismatic renewal began as an interracial and multiracial movement in the early twentieth century and, over the course of the next hundred years, expanded and permeated across nations, cultures, languages, and ethnicities. Equally certain, global renewal is constituted by modern technology, late modern capitalism, and an emerging global mentality that is deeply embedded in the colonial project. Within this matrix, renewalists, renewal theologians, and scholars of the global renewal have neither sufficiently theorized nor substantially theologized about the meaning of race for renewal movement in particular and the emerging Christianity of the global South in general. Jennings’s The Christian Imagination thus begs for extended reflection in relationship to renewal Christianity. Some of the questions this book ought to prompt among renewalists include:

Has modern theology inhabited and been deformed and distorted by the regime of whiteness? If so, what are the implications for global renewal and any renewal theology striving for articulation in the 21st century?

Is the recovery of a biblical pneumatology, one centered in the Day of Pentecost narrative, crucial for the theological task “after” or “beyond” race, as Jennings indicates? How might renewal and pentecostal theologians respond to the reading of the Pentecost narrative proffered in this text?

How might a renewal historiography that revisits the history of Christianity from its charismatic “underside” complement, extend, or revise the genealogy of modern Christianity as unfolded by Jennings? Do renewal, charismatic, or enthusiastic voices in the history of Christianity anticipate, parallel, echo, or otherwise set in relief the voices of people of color subjugated by the colonial enterprise?

If modern theology is embedded in a racially defined market economy as Jennings suggest, is the globalization of renewal Christianity also thus racially circumscribed? To what degree does the theology of prosperity in renewal circles participate in or perpetuate colonial configurations in a postcolonial world?

To what degree is renewal Christianity implicated in the supersessionist replacement of Israel and the Jews that Jennings says characterizes the emergence and development of modern Christian thought? How might renewal biblical hermeneutics informed by the Pentecost event continue, improve upon, or resist such supersessionist tendencies?

How are non-supersessionist modes of thinking essential for reconsidering the universality and particularity of the Christian gospel? To what degree is global renewal Christian identity dependent upon or even opposed to the identity of Israel as a people of the land?

How might renewal Christian perspectives drawn from across the global South—from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—contribute to the articulation of a post-binary (black-white) Christian theology called for by Jennings? How should inhabitants of the former colonies think about race and racialization in the 21st century?

Do the various trajectories of global renewal Christianity inhibit or encourage the post-European, post-Western, and post-colonial paradigm that is struggling for ascendency amidst the modern racially formed project? Do renewal categories of indigenization and contextualization help in this regard, and might the renewal motif of “the many tongues of Pentecost spoken to the ends of the earth” contribute to such an undertaking?

Jennings has focused on “the origins of race.” The God of Jesus Christ seeks now the redemption of race. What does that look like? Renewalists ought carefully and prayerfully to ponder this question while reading this book.

Reviewed by Amos Yong

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Category: In Depth, Pneuma Review, Winter 2013

About the Author: Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and over 30 books. Facebook

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