Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Christian Imagination

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

Willie James Jennings
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Christian Imagination
    Book Description:

    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 segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation-social, spatial, and racial-that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

    Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

    Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16308-7
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Mary, my mother, taught me to respect the dirt. Like many black women from the South, she knew the earth like she knew her own soul. I came along late. I was the last of her eleven children, born not of the South but of the North, the fruit of the great migration when black folks wearied of the Jim Crow South and, in search of work, pointed their hopes toward northern cities and replanted their lives in colder air.¹ So I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and found myself each spring with my mother, Mary, in her garden...


    • 1 Zurara’s Tears
      (pp. 15-64)

      At dawn on August 8, 1444, Infante Henrique—Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator—sat on horseback at the port of Lagos patiently awaiting the disembarkation of cargo that had arrived from Cape Blanco. Spectators assembled to witness the portentous ritual that was about to occur. People from town and countryside lined the streets and crowded together on boats, all hoping to catch sight of this sign of Portugal’s arrival as a world power. The day before this staged event, Lançarote de Freitas, the man who had led the very successful expedition in search of this cargo, had suggested to...

    • 2 Acosta’s Laugh
      (pp. 65-116)

      On April 27, 1572, an eager young Jesuit named José de Acosta Porres disembarked from a Spanish ship onto the soil of Lima, Peru. He had most recently spent several months in Santa Domingo, having traveled from Spain three months earlier. By everyone’s account this young man was exactly what the new emerging order, the Compañía de Jesús, the Society of Jesus, hoped for—a supremely trained, profoundly devout agent of ecclesial renewal who would help foster in those he taught a learned piety. José de Acosta Porres seemed bound before birth to be a Jesuit. Born in 1540, the...


    • 3 Colenso’s Heart
      (pp. 119-168)

      John William Colenso set foot on the shores of Durban at Port Natal, in what is now South Africa, on Monday, January 30, 1854. This newly minted bishop of the Anglican Church was about to begin one of the most important odysseys of a missionary bishop in the history of the Christian church. The world of Bishop Colenso was far removed from that of José de Acosta. Colenso was an Anglican bishop of the nineteenth century, shaped by a Protestant church and an England still feeling the effects of the French Revolution, immersed in the industrial revolution and in the...

    • 4 Equiano’s Words
      (pp. 169-204)

      Olaudah Equiano was born in 1745 in a place he called Igbo, an area of Africa that is now southeastern Nigeria and that entered the consciousness of the Western world during the slow and steady ascension of the British nation to military and financial dominance.¹ By the year of his birth, the British had been involved in the slave trade for almost two hundred years, ever since the anti-Catholic sentiment and action of Queen Elizabeth I and the unquenchable greed of the ruthless merchant John Hawkyns. Impatient with Portuguese and Spanish Atlantic domination and angry about arbitrary papal rule that...


    • 5 White Space and Literacy
      (pp. 207-249)

      Equiano learned to read and write on the small space of a ship and therefore a geographic instability and forced mobility undergirded his intellectual accomplishment. Coupled to this geographic instability, the central resource of his accomplished literacy was the Bible, which played a pivotal role in translating “The African” into English vernacular Christianity and into its domesticity. Reading and writing not only introduced him to a New World but also set him on a path toward a new kind of social performance. Vincent Carretta identifies this as Equiano’s desire to be recognized as a gentleman: “[Equiano] subtly and rather quickly...

    • 6 Those Near Belonging
      (pp. 250-288)

      The question of how one should imagine space is by far one of the most complex questions facing the world today. Space continues to be ever further enclosed inside the economic and political calculations of nation-states and corporations. Yet how one imagines space is inseparably bound to how one imagines peoples and their places in the world. Although the history of Christians in the colonial West shows the difficulty of people imagining space and peoples together, Christianity itself offers hope of their joining.¹

      To capture this new possibility I return to an old theological question. How are the people of...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 289-294)

    A different story of race needs to be told, one that helps people grasp the depth and power of racial perception. Many theorists and historians are trying to tell the story of race beginning, of the origins of a concept of race. Some believe race conceptuality has its determinative origins in the Enlightenment and in modernity. For my part, I join the chorus of voices that spy out racial formation before the Enlightenment, before common notions of modernity’s beginnings, and in the earliest moments of modern colonialism. Yet I want to draw attention not simply to a medieval beginning of...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 295-356)
  10. Index
    (pp. 357-366)