Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation. By Peter Goodwin Heltzel. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6759-9.
Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s Resurrection City is both a fascinating and frustrating work. Heltzel, an associate professor of theology at the New York Theological Seminary, has an ambitious goal: articulating a progressive theology for evangelical Christians at a time in which their ranks are dominated by defenders of neo-conservative political values. His Biblical exegesis and critiques of wealth and power remind me of blasts from late 19th century Social Gospel critics of religion-based Social Darwinism. Heltzel thinks that contemporary Christianity must become less white, “postpatriarchal” (120), less judgmental, more identified with the oppressed, and more just and loving. He calls for white men “to relinquish their power and be open to new configurations… based on racial and gender justice.” (152)
Heltzel also calls for Christianity to be more “Jewish” in the sense of recapturing Jesus’ ethnic identification and the symbolic systems through which he communicated his teachings. In the most compelling parts of the book, Heltzel parses original meanings of Biblical terms such as “shalom” (22-48). As he shows, the term “shalom,” often used as a stand-alone to mean “peace,” has multiple meanings and cannot be divorced from a larger understanding of mishpat (justice and judgment) and hesed (love of God). Such constructs mediate against systems of self-interested power and demand that people of faith stand on the side of movements and ideals that promote equality and alleviate human suffering. Heltzel uses many metaphors throughout, but one of the more convincing in his call for social justice is the juxtaposition of the City of Man (profane), the City of God (sacred), and Resurrection City (a redemption-in-process physical world).
As refreshing as it is to hear an evangelical cast his lot with social change movements, there are two problems in his book. The first is that Heltzel’s a much better theologian than historian or social scientist. He is sharp when dealing with African-American history. Two highlights are his fascinating read on the implied theology within the life and words of Sojourner Truth, and of the influence of Howard Thurman on the mission and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Alas, his takes on other issues are at times clumsy. It’s pointless, for instance, to discuss the Christology of Thomas Jefferson because he had none. In keeping with the philosophes that he admired more than theologians, Jefferson carefully excised all references to Jesus’ divinity from his Bible. Similar weaknesses show up in his views of the Resurrection City experiment of 1968, and of Occupy Wall Street (2011). In each case Heltzel confuses what he admires with what was achieved. I intend no belittlement of either movement, their respective values, or the transformative potential of their ideals, but social movement scholars generally interpret the first as a flop and the second as, at best, inchoate.
Then there is the issue that Heltzel would like to be the heart of his argument, but is the least convincing from where I sit–his call for Christians to learn from jazz how to improvise culturally and spiritually. There are interesting musings on jazz, especially the work of John Coltrane, but Heltzel unintentionally opens a can of worms when he suggests that jazz-like improvisations of faith will lead to renewed emphasis on love and justice. One must ask, simply, why? Once any religious-minded person accepts the premise that theology is malleable rather than rooted in timeless precepts, who is to say that modern prophets of wealth and privilege aren’t “improvising?” Much as he does with Resurrection City and Occupy Wall Street, Heltzel elides what is theological with what he finds personally meaningful. As postmodernists might say, he is privileging one reading over another. Why not, for instance, a sin-based theology based on the works of Black Sabbath, or a social change Christology rooted in the protest songs of Phil Ochs? Frankly, the jazz analogies embedded in Resurrection City struck me as mechanistic and contrived.
Heltzel needs to separate metaphors from theology. He also needs to more seamlessly integrate logic and personal meditations. His most convincing calls are those he anchors in Scriptural exegesis, not those he hears wafting from John Coltrane’s saxophone.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst