Stories and Signals – My Morning with Robert Jensen’s All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice
By Kenny Smith
Robert Jensen is arguably one of the most provocative intellectuals of our time. A professor of journalism for nearly twenty years at the University of Texas, Austin, Jensen has authored works enticingly (or menacingly, depending on one’s point of view) entitled: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007), The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (2005), Citizens of Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2005), “Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving,” and “Why White People Are Afraid.”(1) As such titles suggest, Jensen’s critique of mainstream American culture cuts rather deep. Indeed, given the crushing social, political, economic, and environmental problem to which his critiques frequently point, it would not be unfair to characterize his perspective as somewhat apocalyptic: our civilization, he argues, must evolve beyond social systems that emphasize domination and subordination, and thus systematically exploit and destroy virtually all they touch. Failing radical social change, he warns, our civilization faces imminent collapse.
Recently, I sat down with Jensen’s newest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). This is truly an ambitious work, one that hopes to integrate two often antagonistic perspectives not only within Jensen’s intellectual life and lived experience, but contemporary American society: the secular, even atheistic, social critic who has no interest in religion (and who may see religion as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution); and the visionary, prophetic voice deeply grounded in religious community.
Jensen, apparently, grew up in a moderately religious family in the American Midwest, “attending a Presbyterian church… trudging off to Sunday school as a youngster, then to church services when I got older,” culminating in confirmation at age fourteen. Of this first encounter with religion, he writes, “this early experience was life-threatening–I was bored, nearly to death…. In my life I have cheated on only one test: the exam required to pass that confirmation class, out of desperation so that I would not have to endure the process a second time.” Like many of his peers, he “quit going when our parents decided we were old enough to choose for ourselves,” and “in my adult life, the thought of interaction with organized religion has always come with many negative associations.” (p25-6)
Still, shortly after arriving at UT, Austin, he began to visit St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.(2) He was sympathetic to the church’s progressive politics (e.g., its support for gay and lesbian rights), and interested in developing discussions of important issues in ways that bridged the secular/religious divide. He also began to perceive a limit to the kinds of secular inquiry which he had for many years pursued, and the possibility that religious resources might speak to such limitations. He explains,
As I worked on political issues connected… [to] systems of oppression–patriarchy, white supremacy, United States empire, capitalism, human domination–I found that… [r]adical feminism, antiracist theory and practice, traditional anti-imperialist and anticapitalist movements, and the best thinking in ecology–all were more than adequate for providing an understanding of how these systems work… But increasingly I had a sense those traditions could not take me all the way home. I had difficulty fashioning an answer to that nagging question: What does it mean to be human? (p17-8)
A wealth of biblical stories, teachings, and exemplars (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, among many others), when properly embedded within living religious communities, he concluded, are capable of pointing in the right direction, offering insights and examples of how to live humanely despite our nature as imperfect and flawed human beings.
All My Bones Shake is a very good read for a number of reasons. Firstly, the story of Jensen’s “Presbyterian follies,” that is, his becoming a member of St. Andrews despite his open identification as an “agnostic Christian” who did not believe in God, heaven or the divinity of Jesus, the backlash from the conservative elements within the Presbyterian hierarchy outside of St. Andrews and the inquisitorial “trial” that resulted (which Jensen himself describes as “one of the most surreal afternoons of my life” (p33)), is fascinating. Secondly, Jensen’s admonishments to secularists who see no positive value to religion, and religionists holding similar views of the secular, provide each community with food for thought, as do his attempts to integrate these two modes of thought. Thirdly, Jensen applies his community-oriented “agnostic Christianity” to a wide range of contemporary problems (e.g., the economic collapse of 2008), and comes away with some startling conclusions, for instance, that on biblical grounds capitalism as it currently functions in American culture is deeply problematic, if not utterly bankrupt. Jensen’s claim here is not simply that social practices predicated upon domination contradict specific scriptural passages, but that they are in conflict with the broad vision of what it means to be a human being living in and contributing to a humane community that biblical traditions provide.
Finally, All My Bones Shake reminds us of some basic starting points for debate, action, and living together humanely: namely, that human knowledge of any kind will always remain incomplete, but still we are called to make the best decisions possible and act on them, which of course requires that we remain very amenable to the possibility (if not the likelihood) that we are mistaken in some way and must therefore adjust our perspective and path; and that communities do not need to be perfected collections of hyper-spiritualized saints in order to be far more humane than is currently the case.
I do have one criticism of All My Bones Shake, which in fairness reflects my own preferences more clearly than any obvious flaw in Jensen’s work. For my part, the most compelling sections of this book are the opening chapters, in which Jensen tells us stories, about his early encounter with religion, his visits at St. Andrews, and his struggles with the conservative church hierarchy. I would like to have heard a great deal more of these, and other related, narratives from his personal experience during these times. Perhaps, in their telling, an even more organic sense of how secular and biblical critiques, philosophies, and models of humane communities might intermingle and reinforce one another could have emerged. As it stands, All My Bones Shake seems bifurcated into very interesting stories on one hand, and extended accounts of social criticism on the other. While social criticism can provide clear sets of instructions, stories (to borrow from Harvard theologian Harvey Cox) can do even more; they can “stimulate shared imagination, spawning both visionaries and prophets.”(3) Perhaps Jensen’s next book, All My Bones Shake II, will go there more fully.