Review of Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination

This book was transformational. Here is my summary.

Replacing Israel with Christians as the people of God (a doctrine called supersessionism) created a hole in the theological imagination that Europeans were able to fill with themselves. Moving on from there, creation and the incarnation demonstrate God/Christ’s focus on the whole world, which Europeans construct themselves as regents of, with authority to construct whiteness as closer to God and blackness as farther away. This last detaches people from place, time and culture and sets them instead within an abstract theological frame imagined to be Christianity.

By creating identities based on race rather than geography, white colonials, with God-like hubris, lost their own and removed others’ connection to the land, connections that grounded many people’s knowledge of who they were and how they acted. This cannot be solved by simply erasing race, because there is nothing left to ground identity except bare individualism.

Upon coming to these new peoples in new worlds, Christians might have used the tools they had used to Christianize Aristotle, or the memories of themselves as gentiles who had had to be Christianized to imagine these new people as neighbors to be loved, as people among whom God was already at work, and with whom they could imagine new ways of faithfulness to God both for them and for themselves. Instead, because they saw themselves as the new Israel, able to discern all others as pagans, and because they imagined the new people abstracted from their land and therefore were unable to comprehend them as peoples, they turned theology and pedagogy inside out. Instead of coming to them as Christ came to the world and teaching from a position of humility, they became the teachers and regulators and evaluators par excellence. They even saw the riches of the new world as God’s reward and enticement for their hard labor in converting people whom they judged inferior and demon-taught. And they imagined their own difficulties in converting the new people as their own version of the sufferings of the apostles.

Western Christianity, unmoored from the story of Israel, is seen as neutral, and therefore able to be translated into every and any other culture. But this act of translation, undertaken by colonials for colonial interests, translates black bodies and interest only from and for the perspective of white ones. The goal is the taming and use of the other, and Christianity had to be used to serve those interests, because they are invisible to the colonist behind Christianity. What is missing is both the particularity of God’s choice of self-revelation through Israel, and white and black communion as fellow-strangers and dependents on a savior who comes to them, to us, from a world of particularities different from our own. To sum that up: it’s not about some (non-existent) neutral Christianity that can be translated into each and every culture, which can only, ultimately, serve nationalist goals that divide. It is about all cultures (other than Israel) being invited to be guests together at an Israelite table.

Some African economies tied commercial exchanges to relationships. Western economy was not like that. The transformation of Africans into blacks and slaves cut them off from both previous relationships and precluded any relationships with whites on an equal footing. And even salvation was not imagined in a way that could change that. Thus salvation, for black people in the 18th century, constituted them in relationship with God and with the Scriptures, but it was a salvation into a Christianity impoverished by its inability to address the social and economic injustices of its world, because it could not override the racial and economic constructions of the West.

In translating the Bible into each language Europeans encountered, they created literary spaces that were separate and distinct, fracturing the world. At the same time, as elite discussions moved from Latin into European vernaculars (French, at first), they vied for primacy as the one, “impartial” space for world-shaping discussions. This can be seen, in a powerful example, in the way in which American slaves were denied literacy and thus prevented from speaking into white spaces. In this way, Western whiteness constructed the world in capitalistic ways in which black and brown bodies were primarily valued and evaluated according to their utility to whites. Still today, worldwide commerce and entertainment are primarily structured by and for standards of European whiteness, even if they are occasionally embodied by people of color.

We must first remember that we are gentiles. We were eavesdroppers on this conversation between God and Israel before we were brought in. God broke into a pagan/gentile world to create Israel, and then he broke into Israelite existence through Jesus to eventually by the Spirit invite gentiles in. God does not offer any of us self-sufficiency, security or domination. Instead, God offers himself in Jesus. Jesus’s body becomes the place where we meet as we express communion with God and, flowing from that, our desire for communion with one another. We are reconstituted as brothers and sisters in a way that must cause us to re-imagine the colonial outlook that uses another’s land for my own enrichment. The divisions and hierarchies of the capitalist system are questioned and resisted in this new space, in which the suffering of the Jew and the suffering of the marginalized (specifically, African-Americans) have something to say to each other. The misshapenness of white colonial theology needs to learn the language of the other, in order to be broken and re-created in the image of God.

Review of Raquel St. Clair’s Call and Consequences

Review of St. Clair, Raquel A. Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark. Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 2008.

The person of Jesus is of great importance to many African American women. He reveals God, and is a co-sufferer with them. This becomes problematic, however, when that suffering is understood as ordained by God for the sake of others. If discipleship entails following Jesus into similar suffering, Christianity can only enforce the status quo in which African American women suffer in service to the good of others.

While Markan scholars have examined the suffering of Jesus, it has often been divorced from his life, on the one hand, and from discipleship on the other. Also, insufficient attention has been given to the difference between agony that is transformative (what St. Clair calls pain) and agony that is simply ongoing (what she calls suffering). Pain, ultimately, is “the named, recognized agony that comes as a temporary result of life-affirming ministry” (162). St. Clair constructs a sociolinguistic methodology based primarily on Blout and Chatman which allows her to incorporate a narrative analysis that takes its cues from the context of the Second Gospel with the questions provided by womanist theology.

In Chapter 4, St. Clair establishes contexts from which to interpret Mark. She concludes that Mark was most likely composed in “a village in southern Syria near the Galilean border shortly after the fall of the Jerusalem temple” (95). I am concerned that the text does not offer enough support for such precision especially since St. Clair does not provide a methodology for her assumption that the characters in the Gospel reflect the Gospel audience (103). However, her conclusion to this chapter (107-108) is stunning in its clarity as it highlights the elements of her assumed original readership that parallel the cultural context of African American women.

Chapter 5, the longest chapter, contains her analysis of Mark 8:31-34. She suggests that Peter (v. 32) does not rebuke Jesus, as some scholar suppose, because he misunderstands the nature of Jesus’ messiahship by leaving out the need for suffering. He has, instead, correctly apprehended Jesus’ identity because of his life-affirming ministry. St. Clair points out that there is no agony inherent in Jesus’ ministry itself (132-33). In fact, “[t]he primary connection Mark makes between ministry and agony prior to 8:31 is to show that Jesus’ ministry is characterized by eradicating the agony of others” (161). And because Jesus’ ministry is affirmed by God, “the alleviation of agony” is his will (164). In Mark 5:26, for example, the woman with the flow of blood exercises “life-sustaining behavior on behalf of herself” (122) which ultimately is confirmed and brought to fruition by Jesus’ healing.

Instead, Peter rejects agony as “the consequences of Jesus’ messianic ministry” (113). Yet Mark 8:31 lists “the elders, chief priests, and scribes” (120), and these should be seen as the agents of Jesus’ pain, not God. God, rather, is the one who allows the pain that is inevitable given the resistance to Jesus’ ministry but redeems Jesus’ honor through the resurrection (120-27). The agony that Jesus endures (based on St. Clair’s analysis of Mark 3:4-6; p. 119) will be both physical—the cross—and social—shame (119). She weaves in the relationship of the text to the concerns of womanist scholars by pointing out that “[t]he existential dimension of agony identified by womanists corresponds to the social dimension of shame identified by New Testament scholars. The physical dimension of agony corresponds to the physical dimension of shame” (121).

In another important section, St. Clair argues that the self-denial required of disciples (Mark 8:34) cannot be understood as the individualistic denial of one’s own needs that Western culture would assume it to be. It is, instead, the denial of one’s duty to family or class that would have been the center of one’s identity in the Mediterranean world (133-36). “Read within this context, the command to deny oneself is a command to relinquish one’s primary group orientation and accept Jesus and his followers as one’s new group” (135). “Therefore, the call to follow Jesus is a call to reorient their perspective and affirm Jesus’ honor system. Rather than seeking the honor that the religious rulers and other elite members of society have the power and authority to ascribe, they must seek the only true honor—that which God bestows through Jesus” (139; see also 160). To deny oneself means that disciples “must be prepared to deny their claims to worth based on their initial group membership. They must choose association with Jesus as their primary group, even at the risk of being rejected and therefore shamed” (161). Thus, “following Jesus results in the sharing of his shame and his honor” (140). This honor come from God, but will only be visible to others at some future time (13:32) (143; 162). All of this coheres quite well with the social scientific analyses of the Bible of scholars such as J. Brian Tucker with whom I work.

St. Clair’s conclusions disassociate agony from discipleship and therefore from ministry (160). All suffering is not carrying our cross (8:34). However, self-denial (i.e. denying oneself the honor one might otherwise pursue) and pain come as a result of Satan’s resistance to the work of disciples, their ministry (162-63). “Since pain is one of the consequences of discipleship, only the agony that we endure as a result of life-affirming, God-glorifying, agony-eradicating ministry is analogous to what Jesus experienced and can be identified as a cross

This book is extremely helpful in counteracting one prevailing model of discipleship that fails to address the suffering of Christians (particularly the suffering of marginalized groups) because of the mistaken belief that any and all suffering is evidence of discipleship and that the call of the Christian is to bear it gladly. St. Clair provides the exegetical analysis that undergirds a call to action, a call to a discipleship that instead works to alleviate the suffering of others and accepts social shame because of the honor that God provides. I recommend this book as a vital resource to any scholar of Mark and to every Christian leader.

I do have a few quibbles and concerns:

I believe Gundry’s insights are incorrectly applied on p. 111 to conclude that Mark 8:31 signifies that Jesus is teaching something new. I also believe that pathein and anastēnai are only co-extensive because of the dei (125) which extends to the other infinitives in Mark 8:31 as well. I am not convinced of Neyrey’s analysis of nakedness, cited on p. 137, but that does not annul St. Clair’s argument that crucifixion was shameful. I am concerned that her section on “The Tenor of Discourse” (144-58) links “Pharisees, Herodians, scribes, chief priests, elders, Satan, and, eventually, the crowds” (158) in a way that opens the door to anti-Semitism (and I am not convinced by the references that Mark 1:24 and 5:9 show Jesus encroaching on the social space of the scribes and the Romans; p. 146). On p. 112, she seems to be contrasting interpretations of v. 32 with interpretations of v. 30, although she does eventually get to v. 32. And I was not convinced by her analysis of dei in Mark 14:31 because she omits attention to the conditional in that sentence (114). There were occasional missing words and typos, including the missing word “beginning” on p. 111, line 11, and I believe “physical dimension” should be “social dimension” on p. 138, line 18. However, none of these notes are meant to detract from my deep appreciation for this work. I will be recommending it to everyone I know.

Review of Cynthia Westfall’s Paul and Gender

I have been looking forward to reading Cynthia Long Westfall’s latest book, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ since it came out last year. It is a meaty book (315 pages), that digs into Greek words and ancient cultures (Roman, Greek, and Jewish), and I decided I would need to read it twice: once skipping footnotes, to get the gist of her arguments, before going back a second time and working through the book more slowly, analyzing, summarizing, and evaluating. But since it might be a few years before I get a chance to do that, I thought I would write out some first impressions, and I have chosen to focus on innovative sections that might be of particular interest to pastors and preachers.

For one thing, Dr. Westfall’s approach is unusual for a book on this topic. Usually, each Biblical passage is addressed in turn, once each. In Paul and Gender, however, various passages (1 Cor 11, 1 Tim 2, for example) are not discussed just once, but are brought in several times from the perspectives of such topics as culture, stereotypes, creation, the fall, eschatology (end times), the body, calling, and authority—the titles of the chapters. Dr. Westfall has much to discuss and much to establish before she turns to 1 Tim 2:11-15 in the last chapter. Dr. Westfall’s biblical theology approach allows her to shed new light on the issues related to gender in Paul’s writing. Rather than using one microscope to look at each passage in series, she uses 8 different lenses to look at the issues, and brings in the passages that each lens best illuminates. Some of her most interesting suggestions are as follows:

1 Cor 11:10, “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels” (NIV). This verse is often taken to mean that a woman ought to be under the authority of a man. Furthermore, interpreters frequently assume that the women in Corinth wanted to stop wearing veils, even though this is not explicitly mentioned in the text. If one assumes the opposite, that the women in Corinth wanted to wear veils, but the men were encouraging them not to, the passage makes more sense. In verse 10, the women are then being given the authority to do what they judge to be correct, to wear a veil. The reference to angels makes sense as it recalls 1 Cor 6:3 which says that we all (no gender restrictions) will judge angels, so giving women authority to judge now is part of our life in Christ. And the masculine pronoun in verse 11:16 also makes more sense: “If anyone [masculine] wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” Although this masculine pronoun could be a stand-in for men and women, if only the women were contending against wearing veils, it would have been feminine. So the masculine pronoun indicates that some or all of the men were involved. Finally, if veiling were the sign of an honorable woman (something I myself need to research further), it makes more sense that previously dishonorable women now part of Christ’s new creation would want to wear them, rather than the more usual assumption that honorable women would want to stop wearing them. New interpretations are always difficult because they strike us as suspect at first, as Dr. Westfall acknowledges. But this one is definitely worth pondering.

There are three other matters of theology that I found very insightful, and can summarize a bit more briefly. The first is that there is no indication that when the earth is restored, women will be subject to men (e.g., Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7), especially when we note that there is no subjugation implied in Gen 1-2. This means that as we live as Christians on earth, we live in a future reality that is (or should be) only constrained by our mission to particular cultures. There might have been, and in some places might still be, a reason for women to voluntarily (and likely temporarily) set aside our new creation privileges for the sake of mission. But there is no reason to do so in a culture that claims to aspire to the full inclusion of women. In fact, I would add that the Church ought to be better at it than the rest of the US, because we know that women are co-heirs of life.

I have long thought that Romans 12 was an important section for the gender discussion, and Dr. Westfall includes an excellent chapter on calling where she discusses the way Romans 12 and other spiritual gift passages include gifts, such as teaching, that are sometimes thought to only be given to men. (Another interpretation is that women can have these leadership gifts but only exercise them over children or other women.) However, both of these conclusions contradict the contexts in which they are found, which offer no gender restrictions whatsoever, and which explicitly say that the purpose of the gifts is to benefit the whole body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:7). It has always seemed to me that we have to make a decision. If we are going to say that these gifting passages would be understood as addressed to men without Paul explicitly saying so, then logically we should say that nothing in the NT is addressed to women unless Paul explicitly says so. Instead, even Romans 4, where verse 8 specifically references a male and the whole passage speaks of circumcision which is restricted to men, is preached as if it applied to women as well, as if Abraham is our father, too (Rom 4:16). In James 1:8, also, the person referred to is explicitly a male, and yet we assume the passage applies to women as well. If we do not think that the broader NT addresses only men, there seems no reason to suppose that Paul did not expect both women and men to be given all the gifts mentioned, to use for the benefit of the whole body, as led by the Spirit.

Another of my favorite chapters in Paul and Gender is the one on authority. Dr. Westfall points out that in many of our American churches we have established a hierarchy that we call “servant leadership” that in fact looks nothing like servanthood but that rather focuses on authority. Furthermore, we have often interpreted verses that focus on submission as though the submission of Christians to those we take to be their pastor (1 Cor 16:16), or the submission of a wife to her husband (Eph 5:22) implies the authority of the pastor/husband over the congregation/wife. However, that view completely misunderstands the true (and revolutionary) nature of Christian leadership the way Paul describes it (Phil 2:1-11; 1 Cor 2:1-5). If I submit to you, that does not require you to rule over me.

This book just came out last year, so it will be interesting to see how it is received, and what arguments are made by others, both for and against Dr. Westfall’s work. In any case, it has certainly had an impact on me, and I look forward to having the time to go through it again, and interact with it in more detail. Let me end with a longer quote of one of my favorite paragraphs:

“The exercise of male rule and dominion over the church subjects more than half the members of the church, women (usually more than 50 percent of the membership), who according to Paul’s gospel are equal heirs; they have the same future of ruling with Christ as all believers have. But, what is more disturbing, it equates leadership in the church with imposing subjugation rather than serving—yet the true measure of leadership is to become a slave to everyone, which is both Christ’s and Paul’s model. Undermining this principle is the primary fallacy behind the overrealized eschatology of those who argue for only male leadership in the church. The claim that the unilateral exercise of authority in models of ‘male headship’ is ‘servant leadership’ creates an oxymoron on virtually every level.”