(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A variety of writers and political activists influenced the thinking of Cornel West. Growing up in Oklahoma during the Civil Rights movement, he admired the work of liberal leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., while he was also impressed by the militancy of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. As a student at Harvard University, he was particularly influenced by Professor Richard Rorty’s pragmatic philosophy. As a leftist with a strong commitment to African American Christianity, West naturally was attracted to the emerging currents of liberation theology, particularly James Cone’s Afrocentric perspective. His doctoral dissertation, later revised for a book, was an analysis of the ethical aspects of Marxism. During his early career at Union Theological Seminary, he published Prophesy Deliverance! at the age of twenty-nine.

Emphasizing morality and secular liberation, West writes that the most basic message of prophetic Christianity is “that every individual regardless of class, country, caste, race, or sex should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potentialities.” He makes a distinction between “penultimate liberation” and “ultimate salvation.” The first category involves the “betterment of humankind,” including an expansion of human freedom and democracy. West makes only a few passing statements about the nature of ultimate salvation, describing it as the “transcendence of history,” which presumably involves an end to human evil and suffering. Criticizing the traditional emphasis on “the salvation of individual souls in heaven,” he declares that prophetic Christians must “insist upon both this-worldly liberation and otherworldly salvation as the proper loci of Christianity.”

West devotes a large percentage of Prophesy Deliverance! to summarizing the history of philosophical and theological ideas. He presents admirable summaries of the enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the romantic movement of the next century, and the various strands of Marxism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. When analyzing the African American intellectual tradition, he...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cowan, Rosemary. Cornel West and the Politics of Redemption. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2002. A critical but sympathetic analysis, suggesting that liberation theology is the key to understanding West’s writings and political activities.

Johnson, Clarence. Cornel West and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2002. A comprehensive examination of West’s philosophical writings, including his views of pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, religion, ethics, and social justice.

Morrison, John. Cornel West. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. An admiring, relatively short account, written primarily for young readers.

West, Cornel. The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2000. An anthology of West’s writings. Contains an autobiographical sketch and several revealing interviews.

Wood, Mark David. Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. A left-wing critique of West’s shift in position from an earlier commitment to revolutionary socialism to one of progressive reformism.

Yancy, George, ed. Cornel West: A Critical Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. An interesting collection of scholarly essays about all aspects of West’s life and thought.