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The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

4.50  ·  Rating details ·  423 ratings  ·  73 reviews
Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions?  In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained ...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published May 25th 2010 by Yale University Press
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James Smith
Jun 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A book this is both a conceptual symphony and prophetic challenge.
Jan 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is the third book in the last year that I have read about the entanglement between Christian theology and racism. Each has provided a slightly different perspective. Each has been well-written, provocative, and original.

Much like Carter in his Race: A Theological Account, Jennings believes that the way toward racism directed against black people was paved by the church's supersessionist anti-semitism. The thesis is convincing in both accounts. For Jennings it is a fundamental flaw dating ba
Adam Shields
Jul 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

In the past 8 years since The Christian Imagination was released, I have seen a diverse group of Christians say that this is the most influential theology book of the last decade. I am not going to disagree, although I do not have the depth of theology of make that type of statement.

I do not usually quote the description of books when I am writing, but I am going to here because I cannot think of a better way to describe the book.

Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, fa
Oct 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Zach Hollifield
This is one of the more thought provoking and framework shifting books I have ever read. I dare say it would be impossible to read this and think about “race” the same way. And, in my view at least, it only reveals how much steeper of an uphill climb the church has ahead of it to undue the problems of race.
D.L. Mayfield
Feb 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the hardest, most challenging, and yet formative books I have read in a long time. Jennings gets right to the roots of the diseased Christian imagination in the West. Absolutely required reading for seminaries, in my opinion.
Emily Lund-Hansen
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021
"To change one's way of imagining connection and one's way of desiring joining is no small thing." (294)

Published in 2010, this is one of those books that is held up as a classic of contemporary theological studies. It's a deep, detailed dive into the ways the Christian imagining of creation has contorted itself in justifying colonialism, slavery, oppression. It's very much an academic book (60 pages of footnotes!), but it's truly essential reading for understanding the conversation in studies o
Feb 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Normally when I rate 5 stars AND write a review, it means I’m recommending the book to everyone. The situation is more complicated with Jennings’s masterpiece. This book is extremely difficult intellectually. It requires not only intellect and interest in the subject, but slow, careful reading and the patience and willingness to theologically reflect.

BUT if the stars align and you’re on board, there is perhaps no book I could recommend more highly. Jennings takes you to four critical moments in
Simonetta Carr
May 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Thought-provoking book, unearthing insidious ways in which non-biblical colonial persuasions have infiltrated Christian thought. It's a book I will re-read a few times. ...more
A thoughtful and erudite historical and theological analysis of the interrelationships between racism, capitalism, and Christian theology. Jennings argues that a more properly developed and more biblical theology would have better resisted the drift toward colonialism and white supremacy. This book is not an easy read for multiple reasons. I am in no position to offer any kind of critique here, but I will say there is much in Jennings’ careful analysis worth pondering, not the least of which is ...more
Nov 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is amazing content! It is very heady, and it takes a lot of effort to study and understand the concepts suggested. But I think that it is worth the effort, especially in light of the racial conflict and tension that we are seeing daily.
Tyler Collins
Feb 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book was an entirely new experience for me. I read it for my Theology of Race course under Dr. Jacob Lett at MidAmerica Nazarene University. Over the past three years, I have had lots of exposure to the pop conversation around race. This is not that.

In this book, Jennings takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the history of colonial expansion and its effects on the colonized peoples of Africa and the Americas. Each chapter is spattered with primary source excerpts from the even
Dec 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A treasure trove of theologically-based examinations of the formation of race originating in the colonialist period. Beginning with a discussion of Christian missions work in South Africa, Latin America, North America, etc., Jennings sets out a foundation for understanding the conception of race based on identity, land, and race — ultimately highlighting their inextricability. He emphasizes the importance of land in the shaping of one’s identity and how moving away from that (displacement) is de ...more
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jennings weaves together various narratives of colonial incursion into the lives of indigenous and/or 'African' people in order to give the reader a sense of how race was constructed and understood, which largely amounted to the displacement of or assimilation of the other to the hegemonic category of whiteness. Must like Carter, he argues that supersessionist strategies (the replacement of Israel with the Church) were a significant theological culprit in promoting whiteness as the 'place' where ...more
Brianna Smith
Oct 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
A friend suggested this book to me as I began anew to think about race (as many have) in the midst of the renewed conversations about race in the wake of unspeakable tragedies involving the loss of life in the Black community in America this year. As I lamented the seeming lack of robust Christian academic though in this area, this book was a breath of fresh air. Jennings provided a narrative of the theological origins of race steeped in rigorous academic thought. While I’m not sure I agree with ...more
Ron Willoughby
Reading Dr. Jennings book was like being with this amazing, trailblazing guide who could see things I would have never recognized. There were amazing vistas, confounding paths, and heart-breaking valleys. Most of this work I will need to think about and reread in the months to come before I can say what I have learned, not learned, etc.

Somewhere in the last 75 to 80 pages of the book, Dr. Jennings left me. I back tracked. I moved carefully forward. No joy. Once or twice I picked up his trail onl
Faith Collins
Feb 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
What a challenging but important read! I read this for a Race and Theology class.

I suggest that if you read this book:
DO read the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much a historical and theological background to make sense of the stories he mentions in the intro.
DON’T stop going when the reading is difficult intellectually and emotionally. It’s not an easy read.
DO understand that the point of this book is not so much to provide a step-by-step framework for solving racism as it is a
Bob Bixby
Oct 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

My mind longed for this new imagination and could not begin to think it until I read this book, finishing just in time for “Columbus Day” tomorrow and, consequently, I will have more than just a social reactionary distaste for the holiday, but I will have some objective theological, Christ-honoring grounds for using the holiday as a day to mourn and to imagine hopefully. Thank you, Dr. Jennings, for this book. I only wish I had read it sooner.
Timothy Holmes
Jan 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredibly dense read, but also incredibly thorough. Jennings retelling of colonial history and the threads of racism, greed, and superiority that are entangled in the theological implications of their words, and actions is intelligently communicated. It is a book that likely needs multiple reads to fully grasp Jennings’ concepts, but it’s worth pushing through. Also, Jennings does a great job citing primary sources to strengthen his framework and perspective.
Nov 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a theological and anthropological tank of a book. Yet, despite the often times dense sections of this book, Jennings paints a beautiful picture of what Christian belonging and community could be and how the current Christian imagination hinders such belonging. It is a thought-provoking and convicting read.
Jens Hieber
Oct 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This one is going to take me a while to digest (and likely require a reread). Very relevant, worthwhile, and put together with both nuance and relentless purpose.
Feb 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I'm not ashamed to admit a lot of this book was above my pay grade. Willie James Jennings is a high level thinker, drawing together threads that have not previously been combined, digging deep into what has not yet been revealed. What I did grasp calls us to mourn the splintering effect colonialism has had on every aspect of our world and humanity, while striving for a new world that everything from community to land is reimagined. ...more
Jul 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Jennings' book is a critically important work that should be read by any who wish to see the unity of the Church and reconciliation among peoples become a reality. Jennings lays a clear and long-standing case for white racial bias being imbedded in Western Christianity. Unless one realizes it is interwoven, one will miss how challenging overcoming racism will be. From colonial times through the modern era a faulty theology has created the idea of race and racial superiority. The idea that (white ...more
Jun 15, 2015 rated it liked it
Jennings' claims in his conclusion are laudatory and necessary, I just find the historical argument he builds so limited as to be unconvincing and his prose heavily theory laden, repetitive, and tedious.

If only all his prose was as clear as this:

"I anticipate some resistance to the fundamental claim of this work, that Christian social imagination is diseased and disfigured. In making such a claim I am not saying that the church is lost, moribund, or impotent. Rather, I want my readers to captu
Ben Sanders iii
Mar 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Currently my favorite book on theology and race, "The Christian Imagination" does a masterful job of showing how Christianity is made synonymous with the work and logic of colonialism. Jennings argues that Christianity functions inside of a diseased social imagination that is inept to rethink its relationship to place, language, and intimacy.

I love that Jennings offers no easy answers. Instead he prioritizes painting a clear picture of the problem and, I think, challenges us to rethink the anato
May 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Also, even though Jennings speaks as a faithful theologian, for scholars not of a religious orientation, I think this book would be exceedingly helpful in thinking through theological/religious dimensions of the origins and genealogies of race--to add another dimension to studies that involve sociological/anthropological/economic factors. It is rich fare, extremely well-researched, and brings a crucial dimension--the theological (in his view heretical) erasure of land-based identit
Kevin Spicer
Dec 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book traces so many connections between, colonialism, capitalism, race, and theology that it can seem dizzying. The form the argument takes is hard to keep track of because it covers such a huge span of time, space, and disciplines. But it is impressive the way he pulls out similar themes from a such diversity of theological perspectives, and historical processes.

The argument seems to go something like this:

That theology, around the time of the discovery of the new world, in its conceptual
Dec 18, 2015 added it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book's description suggests that it has historical analysis as a major component, but the introduction makes clear that it won't, in favor of theological reflections. I persevered through the rest, but I'm not sure how to rate the book because it was never intending to be what I wanted. For the record, it disappointed me in general. ...more
Apr 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I would highly recommend that readers begin with this conclusion and then loop back and read the rest of the book, as the conclusion not only offers a concise and poignant vision of our disconnectedness from one another, from the land and from all creation, but also points us in the direction that we will need to go in order to recover the intimacy for which we were created. Reading the conclusion first in this way will help you have a clearer sense of the argument that Jennings is making here. ...more
Nov 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
In this book Willie Jennings takes on the task of theologically examining the formation of race in the colonialist period. Retelling the stories of Christian missions in Latin America, South Africa, England, and in the slave fields of North America, Jennings asserts that identity, land, and race are intricately connected and by displacing people from their land, they robbed them of identity. Even in the efforts to translate the Bible into the vernacular of the indigenous people, that translation ...more
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