Recently read: Jennings “After Whiteness”

Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School) has written a challenging reflection on the current state of theological education and what many institutions value in how they train students. His main concern is with the formation of students: What does a graduate become? What values do they receive? For Jennings, most institutions are preparing their students to function in a world that values “whiteness” which he defines not as “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. 9). This is exemplified by “White self-sufficient masculinity” that “is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together” (pp. 8-9). If I’ve understood him correctly, education, and even theological education, aims to create the self-sufficient man (and yes, I think our culture’s visions of masculinity is key), the Lone Ranger-type.

One example he uses is the Paterfamilias of the colonial plantation who is the self-sufficient center around which everyone else circles (see pp. 78-83). The foundation of the type of education that has been passed along to us was designed first and foremost for that male heir; that mythological “great man”. Jennings describes it this way:

A vision of the self-sufficient man—one who is self-directed, never apologizing for his strength or ability or knowledge, one who recognizes his own power and uses it wisely, one bound in courage, moral vision, singularity of purpose and not given to extremes of desire or anger—is a compellingly attractive goal for education and moral formation.

p. 31

In contrast to this elite man, Jennings writes:

We have failed to see that this is the ground of theological education and of all education that aims at the good. It is the crowd—people who would not under normal circumstances ever want to be near each other, never ever touching flesh to flesh, never ever calling in unison upon the name of Jesus, never ever listening together to anything except Roman edict or centurion shouting command, now listening to the words of Jesus. Yet the crowd is not Christian, nor is the crowd exclusively Jewish. The crowd is not a temporary condition on the way to something else. The crowd is the beginning of a joining that was intended to do deep pedagogical work.

p. 13

I don’t teach in a theological institution (though my school is supported by The Episcopal Church). Also, the book reads like you’ve sat down to have a chat with Jennings. He shares stories and poetry that weaves through his insights. It’s the type of book I’d never “review” because while its true that all acts of reading are subjective experiences, this one is subjective in the way a conversation is subjective. If each reader sat down and talked to Jennings about this same series of topics it would be a different experience depending on your identity and affiliations.

I don’t think you have to teach in a theological institution to learn from this book. Some of his insights on institutions in general were all too relevant, real, and challenging for me and I teach a very demographic than the one Jennings teaches. But if you’ve wondered about the model of education that’s primarily about the individual and not the community—the one that aims to set you up for success rather than bringing us together—then you’ll benefit no matter what age or topic you teach.

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