Theology and Creativity: James Cone on the Theological Imagination

God’s Word is a poetic happening, an evocation of an indescribable reality in the lives of the people. James Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 17.

James Cone wonderfully situates theological work within the realm of human artistic production: theology is a creative response to an active, living presence, the “event of liberation” that is Jesus Christ (32).

Viewing theology as a creative work allows one to quite clearly see and understand the contextual determination of theology. I was reading James Baldwin a few days ago, and he mentions the limits of Faulkner’s portrayals of African-American life. Faulkner had no access to the world “behind the veil” (Du Bois) and thus, understandably, could not depict African-American life in its robust and complicated fullness. It’s not a criticism but simply an observation: our imaginative abilities stem from and therefore are limited by our social location.

For Cone, theology is a creative work. It is not an analysis of certain concepts or a particular grammar but is instead a living and embodied response to the subject of theology, Jesus Christ (32). It is, therefore, obviously dependent on our social location.

The “indescribable” event of liberation claims us completely and thus frees us to respond poetically (16), in the rhythms of our bodies (21) and “the emotions of language” (18).  Theological work is a way of participating in Christ’s liberating work for and with the oppressed, and it therefore builds from worship (18), praxis (34), and the fullness of our embodied and “earthy” lives (22). Christ’s gift of liberation is a gift in and to this world. We participate in it with our entire lives, and thus, within the limits and therefore the freedom of our creaturely imaginations. Evocation–and not “explication” or even “witness”–best describes the creative human activity we call theology.

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7 Responses to Theology and Creativity: James Cone on the Theological Imagination

  1. Thanks for getting back here again! It is interesting to hear Cone use the language of the ‘poetic’. That term needs to be carefully understood and perhaps it finally cannot. There was a type of theology I appreciated a few years back but no longer as it now falls on my ears as just poetry and by that I mean without meaningful social location. If I would venture a guess I think the meaningfully poetic as now that which results but is not created. I have rightly or wrongly lost interest in the internally poetic but also of the directly ‘applicable’. I am more interested in understanding non-neutral description than poetic creation, which I think are two different processes.

  2. I should also say that I began writing in that sort of ‘poetic’ language and a few people kept calling bullshit . . . and they were right.

  3. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks for the warm welcome–it’s nice to have enough space in my life to blog again. I think “poetic” is used in a pretty broad sense of creative and with a view of that creative process being firmly materially embedded (the socioeconomic, racial, cultural context). In the introduction, he quotes Richard Wright, who says “expression springs out of an environment” (3). I like the “evocation” language in that evocation simultaneously calls out from and calls out to. It’s a wonderful way to capture what I think you mean by “non-neutral,” which is not just partisan but also engaged (committed to change). The language of evocation allows one to bypass the theory/praxis divide as theology is a calling forth of Christ’s liberation in our midst. As Cone says, “the moan, the shout, and the rhythmic bodily responses to prayer, song, and sermon are artistic projections of the pain and joy experienced in the struggle of freedom” (21). With theology, “Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom” (32). Or, in the terms of truth, he says, “To know the truth is to appropriate it, for it is not mainly reflection and theory. Truth is divine action entering into our lives and creating the human action of liberation. Truth enables us to dance and live to the rhythm of freedom in our lives as we struggle to be who we are” (28).

  4. I love God of the Oppressed. One of the books I keep going back to.

  5. After I left my comment I went to a hospital to visit some parishioners. There I encountered the un-exceptional images and sounds. A bag full of urine, a bloody skid mark on the floor, someone’s foot bloated like a blown-up surgical glove, a voice coming from some room Deloris . . . please help me, Deloris . . . please help me, Deloris . . . please help me . . . .
    I think of the fine sounding words people often turn to (and look for from me) in these times but I can’t imagine the hope that can actually come from them. It seems ‘poetic beauty’ must somehow be molded from that very piss and shit.

  6. Pingback: Taking as its medium « the de-scribe

  7. timkumfer says:

    This is a really helpful reading Tim, thanks for it.

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