Book review: Introducing James H. Cone

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Anthony Reddie, Introducing James H. Cone: A personal exploration (London: SCM Press, 2022)

reviewed by James Butler, Church Mission Society

This is Anthony Reddie on top form. It might seem unusual to talk about a theology book as a page turner, but this certainly was for me. Reddie’s passion for James Cone, Black theology and racial justice come through clearly and powerfully. This book is not a simple introduction to either the person of Cone or his work but, as the subtitle expresses, it is a very personal exploration for the author, and one which benefits from this autobiographical approach. It is no easy task, but Reddie somehow manages to tell his own story in a way which draws you in to his love and appreciation of Cone. This is a world that Reddie knows intimately and he deftly weaves history, personal stories, Cone’s writings and life, and a wealth of other writings into a coherent and engaging read. It is a book written for its time, with references to Covid-19, Trump and of course George Floyd, who was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis in May 2020, meaning it is also a rich cultural commentary with a strong challenge to turns words to action.

The book is made up of two parts, the first part exploring Cone’s work through the theological themes of God, Jesus Christ, the Church and anthropology (Black people and Black power), and the second introducing key texts of Cone as chosen by Reddie. In the first part Reddie begins with an introduction to Cone’s “theological persona”, looking at the challenges of being a Black person in academic theology and the way Cone has navigated that world. Each of the following chapters pick up the key themes bringing challenges and insights that disrupt the status quo, confront dominant assumptions present in theology, churches and society, and draw out the liberative themes present in Cone’s theology. This book is deeply rooted in Cone’s work but does not provide a systematic account of Cone’s arguments, rather it weaves together stories, theological accounts and contemporary events to show how Cone’s Black liberation theology works. For this reason I would actually recommend this as a very good introduction to Black theology as a whole, not just the work of Cone. Reddie draws from a wealth of voices and accounts and on reaching the end of the book I had a growing list of authors I wanted to explore further.

Part two takes a deeper dive into key texts, maintaining the story-telling style and continuing to locate Cone within a broader landscape of Black theology and academic theology as a whole. This is certainly no hagiography and Reddie is balanced with his account, taking critical voices seriously and developing his own critiques of Cone. The chapter focused on Cone’s book The God of the Oppressed was a particularly powerful chapter that laid bare the problem with “whiteness” as a way of viewing the world and the prophetic challenge Cone offers.

There are a lot of things this book does not do: it is not an in-depth biography of Cone, and it is not a systematic account of his theology, but it is pretty clear that Reddie never intended it to be so. It is a passion project, which I think draws the reader into the world of Cone and his significance for today in a way that a more straightforward biographical or theological account could not. I highly recommend this book on multiple levels: as an introduction to Cone, to Black theology and to Reddie’s own life and work. It is a challenging read due to the way Reddie calls those of us with privilege, particularly those who benefit from “whiteness”, to recognise that privilege and to confront systemic injustice which we have been conditioned to not see. As one would expect from Reddie, he does not pull his punches. He presents a clear and direct critique of whiteness in theology and church through the work of Cone, and yet remains generous, welcoming everyone to participate in the world in a more liberative and just way.

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