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Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible

"With her scholarly expertise, Fentress-Williams invites us to reimagine all the 'others' – the women, minorities, poor, powerless, disenfranchised and those not necessarily connected to the power structure – the 'outsiders' with whom we can engage in conversation with the books of the Bible."

Judy Fentress-Williams
Abingdon Press, 384 pages
Published March 16, 2021

Judy Fentress-Williams, a professor of Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary and the author of Holy Imagination: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Whole Bible is a seasoned scholar and gifted preacher whose eloquent writing makes the biblical text come alive. 

I first encountered Fentress-Williams’ book as part of the Lent 2021 Bible study series “If it wasn’t for the Women” (with renowned Old Testament scholar Renita J. Weems and pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church Gina M. Stewart). I was able to hear her share her work and respond to questions, and I was quickly convinced that this book was a must-sread. 

Fentress-Williams categorizes the Bible by genre (history, Gospel, letters, etc.) and then discusses the literary qualities and theological insights of each. For example, she identifies Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs as Hebrew poetry and then explains how to understand them by describing the genre and discussing metaphors, parallelism and their functions. This both challenges us and offers clues for how to examine the Bible with “eyes and ears” to explore the sacred text in a new way. 

When preachers in the African American preaching tradition refer to their “sanctified imagination,” it invites the congregation to see themselves in the stories of the Bible. This also provides the hearer of the Word with space to engage the text with a “holy imagination,” applying the story to their own contemporary circumstances. Preachers encourage and equip listeners “with a knowledge … facilitated by a text that is imaginatively written.” Fentress-Williams becomes a part of this tradition, and I was drawn in by the opportunity to utilize my own story as a part of this process. 

With her scholarly expertise, Fentress-Williams invites us to reimagine all the “others” – the women, minorities, poor, powerless, disenfranchised and those not necessarily connected to the power structure – the “outsiders” with whom we can engage in conversation with the books of the Bible. She acknowledges that “language is complicated” and “words can mean more than one thing.” Various interpretations are influenced by different languages, time, context and cultures, so there are layers with potential for various understandings. This allows us to question the text and be ready to discover something new. She also points out places in the Bible where the outsiders are lifted up. For example, she focuses on Luke, whose Gospel provides more content about women than any other, reminding me of my own experiences creating a liturgical dance production of the Passion. While utilizing Scripture to announce “the women at the grave” segment of the program, Luke’s focus on women became clear.

Fentress-Williams’ inquisitive interrogation of Scripture will grab the attention of preachers, teachers, and Bible study classes, as well as, I believe, interested congregants. This book is truly written for students, professors and theologians; however, because it is so clearly and accessibly written, this knowledge can be shared with a variety of audiences. I recommend this to inquisitive readers looking for challenge, imaginative engagement or simply to be enlightened, once again.

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