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Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation (Prophetic Christianity (PC))
Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation (Prophetic Christianity (PC))
Peter Goodwin Heltzel
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012
219 pp., 28.99

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Edward J. Blum

Decolonize Your Theology

Learning from the prophetic African American tradition.

This book should never have been written. The author should have died. Instead of taking the subway downtown to his Fidelity Investments job at the World Trade Center Towers, Peter Goodwin Heltzel spent September 11, 2001 writing his dissertation prospectus. When two jets reduced the skyscrapers to an inferno of ash, Heltzel was safe at home. The next day he went to Ground Zero as a volunteer from Riverside Church. He remembers now that as he worked "amid the acrid smoke" and in the "wasteland," he experienced a call to put theological flesh to the improvised love he witnessed. Ten years later, he encountered another form of that community as part of the Occupy Movement. Discussing his journeys, presenting his theological insights, and calling evangelicals to tap into the prophetic Christianity of African American theological and musical innovations, Heltzel offers a new book that inspires hope amid troubled times.

Heltzel, whose previous book Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (2009) investigated the role of race in evangelical politics, has several aims for Resurrection City. First, he wants white Christians, particularly evangelicals, to own up to how European and North American theologies and lived religions have benefited from and, at times, sanctified white power. He urges white Christians to recognize their history of violence and to rid themselves of theological tendencies that distance Jesus from his Judaism and, in so doing, whiten the gospel.

Next, Heltzel calls Christians to embrace Jesus through the African American prophetic tradition. This is a tradition that identifies with the covenant people of Israel, that extolls Jesus as a poor Jew from Galilee who was crucified on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, and that searches for and builds up resurrection cities that stand against the idols of whiteness, colonization, and patriarchy. Heltzel seeks a mystical-prophetic consensus that builds on the theologies of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., to link individual experience with communal justice.

Finally, Heltzel asks Christians to approach their faith in a jazz-like, intercultural, improvisational way that can transform cities from citadels of capitalism to theaters of festival, feasting, and faith. He recommends that Christians connect their reading about Jesus Christ with their listening to John Coltrane, the great jazz saxophonist. In jazz, Heltzel finds a musical model for how the church should be. If Christians can decolonize their theology, if they can embrace black prophetic theology, and if they can turn away from the "neoliberal capitalist order" that "is shaped by ego-driven competitive relations," then the poet-prophets can be heard and an age of "rebel cities" can emerge.

Unlike many liberal commentators who merely spit fire (or satire) against the sins of modern America, Heltzel offers a creative and constructive theology to follow. He does not just bemoan the state of Christian music; he shows how jazz and its communal, call-and-response texture can be emulated by the church. He does not just lament the rise of megachurches and their television-like atmosphere; he looks to Resurrection City (the ill-fated culmination of the Poor People's Campaign that was run out of Washington, D.C., by the police and the rain in 1968) and the current Occupy Movement as a way churches can put into motion their faith. Reading Resurrection City is a bit like watching Godspell. Just as one cannot help but hum "Day by Day" after the film, I could not help but consider how today I could improvise with love in the places and spaces of my being and moving.

Resurrection City is one of the few books on race and religion in the United States that has a hopeful tenor. Sociologist Michael Emerson's research keeps showing that evangelicals were, are, and may continue to be as "divided by faith" as they are "divided by race." New work on the evangelical Left (the so-called "moral minority") suggests that it fractured during the 1970s and was largely defeated by the so-called moral majority. Heltzel intervenes with his willingness to do what so many scholars of evangelicalism have avoided: he embraces African Americans as main theological influences and views them as primary historical actors. Heltzel takes his theology from Sojourner Truth, not Thomas Jefferson. While he applauds Jefferson's rhetoric and ideas of freedom, Heltzel demands that we also account theologically for his Monticello architecture that resembled a slave ship and his refusal to free his own slaves. Heltzel follows James Cone more than John Stott. By taking seriously the theopolitical insights from the black prophetic tradition, Heltzel is able to nod in agreement with King that hope can be cut from a stone. Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois once prayed during the high-water mark of lynching and racial segregation, "It is never too late to mend. Nothing is so bad that good may not be put into it and make it better and save it from utter loss."

Some historians may object to the ways Heltzel occasionally flattens out history. When discussing the christologies of Jefferson and Truth, for instance, he sets them against the theological backdrop of James Cone's recent work on lynching. Cone, however, was discussing a particular phenomenon of racial violence that shook the American landscape from the 1880s to the 1930s. Jefferson and Truth were working out their theologies one hundred years earlier and in a time of state-sponsored slavery. But Heltzel's broader point—that American theology must take into consideration the history of violence and how it has severely limited many whites' vision of freedom in Christ—should be heard.

Similarly, some theologians may object to the ways Heltzel romanticizes African American Christianity and the Occupy Movement. Without doubt, as numerous scholars have discussed, black Christianities have their fair share of exploitative and hierarchical elements. And without doubt, Occupiers have had a tendency to fetishize themselves and their movement. Yet for all the blemishes of African American Christianities and the Occupy Movement, it would not surprise me if a resurrected H. Richard Niebuhr classified both movements as manifestations of the "kingdom of God" in America that he chronicled so eloquently in the late 1930s.

Other theologians may find it frustrating that Heltzel neglects the aspects of the Bible that seem to picture God as a "moral monster." The destruction of the Canaanites, the death of David's infant son, and the Pauline words that seem to teach community control rather than individual liberty are all left out. Readers will have to look elsewhere to reckon with the sides of the Bible that seem unjust.

As well, some church organizers may object to Heltzel's calls for intercultural and improvisational approaches. Church planners often focus on niche marketing and bureaucratic consistency. Whether for legal purposes or to maximize small labor forces, churches often focus more on regulations than on righteousness, more on the system than on the spirit. But Heltzel does not want more churches built. He does not want to see increased numbers. Heltzel wants radically new churches conceived, born, and embodied. He wants the church to enter the street, redeem it through improvised festivals, and bring "shalom justice" (that "communal and ecological well-being" which springs from "the people of God embodying the justice and righteousness of God") to redeem our cities.

Those who read Heltzel's book only to quibble academically will miss his point. He is not writing to debate, but to inspire. He is not hoping to conform to any scholarly dialogue, but to transform how Christians move in their worlds. Resurrection City pulsates with both the prophetic rage and redemptive joy that Heltzel finds in the Bible and especially its central figure, the Jewish Jesus "who is leading an intercultural, improvisational movement of love and justice." To read Resurrection City is to hear the jazzy theological ruminations of a white man resurrected by the black freedom struggle and the Occupy Movement. It is to read of a man who has been reborn over the past ten years. I'm thankful that Heltzel stayed home that tragic September day.

Edward J. Blum is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. His most recent work, co-authored with Paul Harvey, is The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Univ. of North Carolina Press).

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