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Yale theology professor to speak at Baccalaureate

By Luanne Williams

An ordained Baptist minister who has pastored Presbyterian churches; an award-winning author who has penned books, commentaries, articles and poetry, much of it aimed at dismantling the “diseased social imagination” of white Western Christianity; and an esteemed professor who has been arrested at the North Carolina Legislature, Wingate’s Baccalaureate speaker is both passionate and to the point.

Dr. Willie James Jennings, an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, will challenge Wingate graduates at the University’s virtual service, set for May 13.

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jennings earned his B.A. in religion and theological studies from Calvin College (1984), his Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary (1987), and his Ph.D. from Duke University, where he taught theology and Black-church studies for 25 years.

A theologian who prefers the term “Christian intellectual,” Jennings urges his students to not just think deeply but also to “feel through the questions” posed in his courses. He has long grappled with the intersection of Christian identity and race, telling one interviewer, “I couldn’t understand how folks could be so serious about Christianity and so racist at the same time.”

Tackling issues with both intellect and emotion is “the only way we will get our hands around the racial condition, because the racial condition isn’t just about a set of ideas and concepts that have been passed down through centuries,” Jennings says. “It’s also about the entire way we have learned to see ourselves. You access that by not just how you think, but how you feel.”

Jennings has examined the problems of theological education within Western education in After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, published last fall and already described as “urgent reading for any institution that purports to care about God and race.”

His 2010 book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the largest prize for a theological work in North America. His commentary on the Book of Acts, titled Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate, received the Reference Book of the Year Award from the Academy of Parish Clergy in 2018.

Jennings is working on another book provisionally titled Unfolding the World: Recasting a Christian Doctrine of Creation and is also wrapping up a book of poetry, The Time of Possession.

He is a believer in the power of narrative.

“In order for us to do our work as people of faith trying to think through our faith, we have to think with story,” Jennings said during a recent Q&A. “The faith that comes to us through Israel is a story. It’s the story of a people that God has created and called to God’s self. Story is, in many ways, not the only, but the most appropriate modality within which to think about theology and think about life with God and life with one another. ... Story speaks to the nature of the human creature. We live and die in story.”

Jennings' address will be featured during Wingate’s virtual Baccalaureate, set for release at 7 p.m. on May 13. Musical selections will be performed by the University Singers and graduates Chasey Seifert and Jordan Locke. Other featured student participants and speakers will include Tatianna Onley and Martha Wrenn.

May 4, 2021