A Brief Review of Jennings’ After Whiteness

Willie James Jennings is a professor at Yale Divinity School. His book After Whiteness explores how theological education has been warped by “whiteness,” a “deformed building project” that has shaped the Western world and education in particular since the era of European colonialism. The book contains many interesting stories, some of which are especially poignant. Yet its central claims are highly dubious, sometimes murky, and rarely based on any serious engagement with Scripture.

The Wages of Whiteness

Jennings’ main thesis is that the Western imagination has been captured by “whiteness” or by “white self-sufficient masculinity” or by a vision of “racial paterfamilias,” related ideas that Jennings uses to explain how seminaries form students into an idealized “white” man: a competent, self-contained, self-assured master and ruler. “Whiteness” was used to justify taking possession of the New World, enslaving or subordinating its people, and bending nature to the will of imperial powers. Moreover, human beings were turned into objects to be bought and sold and exploited for profit: Colonialists “turned the whole world into commodities–not actual commodities but commodities in potential– a whole world that could be possessed, because everything could be stolen” (p. 41).

Similarly, the plantation ideal consisted of the white master ruling over his subordinate family and slaves: “This [plantation worship service] is the embodiment of the racial paterfamilias, that is, the rule of the plantation father over the family and of the master as the organizing central of domestic and public life. This plantation service also gestures to the biblical household codes and its domestic order: master-mistress(wife)-children-slaves/animals” (p. 79-80).

While Jennings often refers to this white ideal in racial terms, he emphasizes that when he uses the word “whiteness,” he is not referring to any particular group of people:

White self-sufficient masculinity is not first a person or a people; it is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together. In this regard, my use of the term ‘whiteness’ does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making” (p. 8-9).

Because “whiteness” refers to an ideology, white people are not the only ones formed by seminaries and divinity schools into white self-sufficient masculinity: “It would be a terrible mistake to imagine the racial paterfamilias only residing in majority white institutions and not…in bodies black and brown, in places and spaces called Asian, called indigenous, called native, called independent but dependent on an institutional practice that conceals an institutional unconscious: strong men (even if they are women) must lead. They must become masters” (p. 95).

Erotic souls

If Jennings’ use of “whiteness” to describe an ideology rather than a skin-color is confusing, then his use of the term “erotic” will be even more perplexing. He never defines the word clearly, so I’ll simply quote him at length:

“a returning to an intimate and erotic energy… drives life together with God. These words –‘intimacy’ and ‘eroticism’– have been so commodified and sexualized that we Christians have turned away from them in fear that they irredeemably signify sexual antinomianism, moral chaos, and sin, or at least the need to police such words and the power they invoke. But intimacy and eroticism speak of our birthright formed in the body of Jesus and the protocols of breaking, sharing, touching, tasting, and seeing the goodness of God…. we are erotic souls. No body that is not a soul, no soul that is not a body, no being without touching, no touching without being” (p. 11).

Elsewhere, he writes: “A vision of life together in service to the formation of erotic souls must reckon with the imperialist habits of mind born of whiteness that imagine peoples through boundary identities” (p. 19-20).

When a gentleman at a dinner party objects to these ideas, saying that “intimacy and eroticism is what I share with my wife, not the church,” Jennings asks him a series of questions ending with: “[Is] hearing the words, Sunday after Sunday–this is my body, this is my blood, take and eat–[is] this an erotic act?” (p. 12). Jennings appears to believe that the answer is self-evident.

Jennings doesn’t seem to have anything sexual in mind when he makes these (admittedly creepy) statements. He seems to be using the word “erotic” to mean “embodied,” contrasting a closed, distant, impersonal, objectifying attitude of spiritual formation into “whiteness” with a healthier open, intimate, interpersonal, relational attitude. Yet here, I come to one of my main frustrations with the book: its almost deliberately obscure and opaque style.

Prose or Poetry?

A few pages into After Whiteness, I thought to myself “this writing is more like poetry than prose.” By page 11, Jennings had begun explicitly inserting poems into the text. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with poetry. However, poetry is not the best way to communicate ideas clearly and Jennings’ writing suffers from a fairly extreme lack of clarity.

Numerous passages illustrate this problem:

“the fragments of faith can keep us from working with the colonial fragments and prevent us from overcoming the effects of the process that constantly creates the commodity fragment. We are fragment workers avoiding patterns of belonging.” (p. 17)

“He moves in the intimate spaces between dream and hope, dedication and wonder, surprise and curiosity, never appearing as what he is, a usurpation, an arrogance bound up in seeing something at a glance and then too quickly turning away to summarize what has been seen.” (P. 50-51).

“Colonialist assimilation draws people down to silent objects even when they speak. They become anticipations of an echo, with variations, but nonetheless an echo. This is an assimilation that hides itself as assimilation” (p. 110).

“The pain present was not the overthinking of their relationship but the thorny trail of moving from inside to outside, from their own individual thoughts to their conversations and back to their thoughts and then to the expectations that surrounded them–of mastering the racial problematic in their own lives–and back to their thoughts, then to their relating, and back to their thoughts” (p. 116).

“The racial paterfamilias binds exploiter and exploited together in the misery of mutual loss. The loss of connection, the loss of formation, the loss of voices excluded by soaring visions of power and a desperate hunger for perfection” (p. 160).

These passages, even when read in context, take incredible effort to decipher. Now, before the English majors in the audience accuse me of being a hopeless philistine who’s incapable of parsing anything more complex than a comic book, I’d like to point out that you’ve been unwittingly subjected to a literary Turing test. One of the passages above is my own creation, and a second has been altered to completely reverse its meaning. If you can’t tell which statements are Jennings’ originals and which have been fabricated/modified, then consider whether Jennings’ unnecessarily florid prose, and not my lack of sophistication, is the problem here.

Profound or Obvious?

Normally, I wouldn’t critique stylistic issues, but lack of clarity obscures the book’s content. In particular, Jennings doesn’t explain exactly what he wants seminaries to do and what a divinity school would look like if it rejected “white self-sufficient masculinity.”

Some of his observations are quite reasonable, even if they tend to be buried beneath verbal flourishes. For example, he’s quite right that European Christians and colonizers were often responsible for terrible abuses and made little effort to preserve any native culture or to separate good from bad. Jennings writes: “Not everything can or should be made Christian, but too many peoples never got the chance to do that discerning work before everything was shattered into pieces” (p. 37). Elsewhere, he points out how the hegemonic power of Eurocentric norms impose arbitrary and frustrating constraints on seminary students. Why exactly does every student need to learn particular European “scholarly languages,” even if they are irrelevant to his or her research (p.54)? Why should European history and a familiarity with Western culture be a prerequisite for true knowledge (“The lie is that in order to know the world, one must know the European world. The truth is that in order to know the world that has come to be, one must know the European world”, p. 120). Finally, his stories are always interesting and sometimes moving, as when he tells of an older Asian man who was brutally insulted by a preceptor for his “terrible, juvenile” written English, despite the fact that he knew six other languages including fluent verbal English. One doesn’t need to accept any of Jennings’ more extreme claims to appreciate the need for educators everywhere to think reflectively about their curriculum and pedagogical practices.

Yet he tips his hand when he appears to reject the very notion of any kind of hierarchy as the basis for an institution: “We have to recall this moment what we know of the self-sufficient man. He wields power responsibly, never apologizing for fully acting in his abilities… Some are better than others–quicker, clearer, smarter, stronger, more gifted–and worlds, whether social, political, economic, or academic, should be ordered around such people… [My colleague] offered me this elitist anthropology as a kind of natural theology, that is, a way to recognize a divine intentionality for ordering the world through the natural occurrences of greater ability in some” (p. 126).

On the one hand, Christians should quite forcefully reject the idea that any human being is ontologically better than any other. One of the great truths of the Christian faith is that we are all equally made in God’s image, are all equally fallen, and are all equally in need of salvation through Christ. Yet this recognition in no way negates the fact that human beings are not all equally talented, or equally competent, or even equally spiritually mature.

Not only is this truth patently obvious to anyone who has watched an Olympic event, or a spelling bee, or a Broadway show, it is stated repeatedly in Scripture. Hard work and talent are rightly recognized and rewarded (Prov. 10:4, Prov. 19:10, Prov. 22:29, Prov. 26:3). Not everyone should be a teacher (Jas. 3:1). Young converts should not be put in positions of leadership (1 Tim. 3:6). Not everyone is qualified to hold church office (Tit. 1:5-9). To insist that institutions should not be ordered around God’s natural or supernatural giftings is to ignore both common sense and Scripture.

The revolutionary teaching of the Bible is not that all hierarchies should be abolished, but that those at the top of whatever hierarchies exist must use their power to serve others rather than “lording it over” them (Luke 22:24-26). Jesus did not teach that no one should lead, but that the one who leads should be the servant of all. He did not abolish all authority, but commanded his followers to use their authority for the good of those under it.

Jennings does indeed seem to recognize that some kind of qualifications are necessary for any functioning institution. Similarly, he acknowledges that theologians have always distinguished between being humanly self-sufficient and competent while at the same time being utterly dependent on God’s mercy and provision. But then, it’s not at all clear exactly what Jennings’ objections are. What is the alternative to an institution organized around competence and self-control?

Summary

The stories Jennings told were the highlight of his book. His experiences as a professor and as an academic dean are worth reflection and undeniably shed light on problems faced in a seminary/divinity school environment. His poetry was passable and -at times- interesting. But his prose offers little in the way of a cogent argument.

Additional quotes:

“All theological education in the Western world is haunted by this illustration: a plantation at worship and an enslaved preacher” (p. 82, bold and italics in original). “The racial paterfamilias spirit… lies so close to our institutionalizing practice because it was born of Christianity in its colonialist form, moving and feeling itself in the power to dream a world well organized and running efficiently like a plantation where bodies are organic machines and profit begets more profit” (p. 88)

“I have, however, met many nonwhite intellectuals in my career within and outside the academy who don’t love their own peoples’ ways of knowing or what they know” (P. 64).

“Theological education must be formed to glory in the crowd, think the crowd, be the crowd, and then move as a crowd into a discipleship that is a formation of erotic souls, always enabling and facilitating the gathering, the longing, the reaching and the touching. Our educational settings need to be aimed at forming erotic souls that are being cultivated in an art that joins to the bone and that announces a contrast life aimed at communion [which is] the deepest sense of God-drenched life attuned to life together” (p. 13-14).

Speaking of a how students of color responded to “a few racial incidents on campus,” he writes: “Their friendships with white students and some assimilated students of color carry a labor totally unfair and cruelly taxing” (p. 121).

“the racial paterfamilias [is] a seducing power that invites us into a form of cultivation aimed at building masters who desire to build, embodying self-sufficient masculinist form, and who carry a relentless vision of people as essential tools necessary for the work of building” (p. 103).

“In such a frame of thinking and knowing, education is a calculation of exchange. How much to I need to know in order to give the student what I know? But if assimilation means lifeworlds brought inside lifeworlds, then something historically urgent and spiritually crucial is at stake in this moment. I was after something else with them–a deeper reality of entanglement” (p. 112).

“We work in the inwardness, existing in the journey of the quiet, moving from inside to outside and back again inside” (p. 114).

“Rachel thought her blackness, Louise her whitenesss, Louise thought Rachel’s blackness, Rachel thought Louise’s whiteness, entering and existing shadow and light as they corrected and explained, apologized and asserted their separate beings” (p. 115).

“The problem is not that judgments are made but that they are spoiled. They arrive to us already old and stale, filled with the colonialist’s tormenting spirits that are unleashed on us and that we then unleash on each other, moving from institution to institution, always turning judgments both local and contingent into a contorted universal perspective on people and their work” (p. 118).

“we inhabit a social world constricted through whiteness that has left us with limited options for imagining how we might be with each other. That social world, to be clear, does not need the presence of peoples of European descent to be active, strong, and destructive. It only needs desire deformed by colonialist urges to control bodies, aimed toward their objectification and exploitation” (p. 151).


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