What Am I Reading? "Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations"

Reading this volume was an awkward experience. No, I'll go further: Reading this book -- as a white, male, North American Protestant theologian -- was sometimes almost devastating.

Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, Edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk (IVP Academic, 2014)

For example, it was disturbing to learn from L. Daniel Hawk and Richard L. Twiss the extent to which Protestant leaders and institutions in the 19th century had been co-opted by, indeed worked actively to legitimate efforts to strip indigenous peoples of their distinctive cultural practices in order to "civilize" and "save" them (chapter 1).
Moreover, whereas I have often thought of apocalyptic theology as a kind of protest against the hegemonic ideology of an existing socio-political order, it was unsettling to follow Christian T. Collins Winn and Amos Yong as they sketched a dark trajectory from the medieval visionary Benedictine Joachim of Fiore to an apocalyptic supersessionist missionary theology that funded the Spanish conquest of the Americas (chapter 7). Christopher Columbus, as they show, saw his journey to the West Indies as a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. He also intended that the spoils of this endeavor would help fund efforts of the Spanish monarchy to retake Jerusalem, in fulfillment of end-times speculations. In a similar vein, As Kurt Anders Richardson demonstrates, Messianic and apocalytpic readings of scripture informed the enterprise of English colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries, helping give birth to the myth of American exceptionalism that informs our social and political discourse to this day (chapter 6).

In graduate school, I was introduced to a trajectory of modern Christian thought decisively shaped by the European Enlightenment and its aftermath in the 19th and 20th centuries (and I remain grateful for this education). It was thus jarring to read Teri R. Merrick summarize the colonialist metanarrative funding and informing some of the major thinkers of the modern Western canon (chapter 5). Thus, Kant, known as a critical thinker, reiterates gender essentialist stereotypes of women as the "sentimental," less intellectually endowed sex and, furthermore, extends this feminine-masculine binary into a racist theory of cultural development. Similarly, Merrick quotes this bit of proverbial wisdom from Hegel:

Negroes are to be regarded as a race of children who remain immersed in their state of uninterested naivete. They are sold, and let themselves be sold, without any reflection on the rights or wrongs of the matter (p. 118).

Confronting our colonialist past and present, as the contributors to this volume understand, may spark a crisis in our understanding of Christianity and its prospects for the future, but this confrontation with the effects of colonialism can be, or at least should be a clarifying and empowering experience. That is why it is crucial for professors, students, pastors and church leaders -- not only in the evangelical orbit, but throughout North American Christianity -- to grapple with this book. For these authors are not mainly, or even primarily, critical theorists and cultural critics; they are first and foremost Christian believers and constructive theologians. Consequently, not only do the authors provide critical genealogical analysis of the religious and theological heritage, but they also offer many stimulating, if all to brief, suggestions for theological reconstruction, particularly in the areas of Christology and eschatology. I will have more to write about these constructive projects later; for now, I focus on the cognitive dissonance.

A central incongruity suffusing this volume is the vexed question of what constitutes evangelical identity, a problem that has spawned a burgeoning literature of its own. Not being an expert in the field of postcolonial theory, I'm going to hazard the guess that this may be the only work in the field with essays that quote Dallas Willard and Carl Henry. In one of the brief essays that introduces the volume, Robert S. Heaney shows how the participants in the roundtable discussions that gave birth to this volume struggled, in diverse ways, to affirm key marks of evangelical identity -- for example, Christocentrism and a commitment to biblical authority and to the need for personal conversion -- while distancing themselves from reactionary elements that have permeated much of North American evangelicalism.

I find it somehow comforting that awkward and destabilizing effect this book this has had on me as a reviewer was also experienced by the authors themselves as the project came together; this was reportedly due, in part, to the diverse social locations, commitments and ideological perspectives of the participants. In introducing the last part of the book, Joseph F. Duggan outlines the conversations and commitments that gave birth to this book. The dialogue was seeded by the Postcolonial Theology Network Facebook group and was especially galvanized by the publication of Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (2008) and the panel discussion of that group at the American Academy of Religion meeting. Duggan was struck particularly by the dearth of distinctive evangelical voices from this conversation and concluded -- rightly, I suspect -- that scapegoating conservative Christians and Republicans for all the world's problems probably does not constitute an adequate response to the complex issues posed by colonialism and the postcolonial situation. Duggan worked with Judith Oleson and Dan Russ of Gordon College, along with leadership coach Steve Hu to bring together the Postcolonial Roundtable at Gordon in the fall of 2010. Those conversations seeded the essays in this volume, which David Congdon, who first introduced me to this project, helped to shepherd through the publication process at IVP Academic. A copy was sent to me with no expectation of a positive review, but I'm happy to commend it for widespread distribution and study, even if reading us makes all of us a little uncomfortable. As well it should.


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