A few years ago I signed up for a class in seminary on theopoetics. I had absolutely no idea what that word meant, but it sounded fascinating. During my time in that course, I felt that I was finally discovering my theological home. The ways of conceiving of the Divine and experiencing the world with equal measures of both uncertainty and hope that come from a theopoetic sensibility resonated with me. Yes, labels can be superfluous, but in theopoetics I found a name for a way of participating, reflecting, and exploring faith that was life affirming.
Yet, theopoetics is little known in the faith world that all too often clings to dogmatic systems and traditions in order to preserve the status quos of theology, church hierarchy, and worship practices. And while the theopoetic is an idea best lived in practice, grasping what it embodies is a helpful necessity for those who spend their time thinking about the ways faith looks in our world. To that end, I was very excited to be offered free for review purposes from Wipf & Stock a copy of Callid Keefe-Perry’s new book, Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer.
Callid has probably done more than anyone to spread awareness of theopoetics and to spark both academic and practical discussions about what it encompasses. His book serves as a resource providing a brief yet thorough introduction to theopoetics. He provides an academic overview of the history of theopoetics and offers a summary of the main thinkers and writers in the movement. He then turns to an exploration of what an integration of theopoetics in worship, sermons, pastoral care, and church outreach might look like. Then, after acknowledging the fault in talking about theopoetics instead of doing theopoetics, he concludes the book with a series of meditations that express the idea of theopoetics through story and metaphor. This offering is a valuable resource that I hope will help expand the conversation about theopoetics and allow it to integrate more into our everyday approaches to and conceptions of faith.
At the core of theopoetics is the idea that how we articulate our experiences of the Divine can alter our experience of the Divine. While provocative in the idea that we in some way make God (theo=God, poesis=making), theopoetics simply acknowledges the common sense idea that how we choose to encounter things determines what things we encounter. It is a given that we can never speak with certainty about God (to know God with absolute certainty would make us God). But instead of assuming that uncertainty and doubt destroy faith, theopoetics embraces the uncertainty of how we speak of and understand God never being sufficient, and suggests why we might still talk about God anyway. As Callid writes, the defining mark of theopoetics is “an acceptance of a cognitive uncertainty regarding the Divine, an unwillingness to attempt to unduly banish that uncertainty, and an emphasis on action and creative articulation in spite of it all” (111).
Theopoetics instead opens space to discover the myriad of ways God might be encountered and felt in the world, even if that encounter is simply with the rumor or hope of the Divine. It is not a rejection of all that has come before, but does insist that “God is not so insignificant as to be invisible except in that which has come before” (7). Even beyond opening up the avenues in which we accept that the Divine can be encountered, theopoetics clears space for perspectives that have been ignored in the past. As Callid comments, while “formalized and institutionally centered doctrinal certainty tends to support status quo systems of social power, and thus, to the extent that current systems and structures appear to be in collusion with unjust forces, attempts at challenging the mode of discourse might allow for the encouragement of voices that might not otherwise be given space” (117) Theopoetics is not a new theology or a mere application of the poetic to theology, it is an invitation to encounter the vast array of metaphorical, incarnational, and experiential aspects of faith. It is an engage with the embodied world and the possibilities it holds.
Where I most resonate with theopoetics as a movement is in the ways in which it creates space to hear our truths spoken to us in our everyday lives. From the beauty of the world, to the pain of illness, to the stories of our favorite films and books, to the rich conversations we hold as we break bread and drink wine with friends—we are surrounded with theopoetic articulations of the Divine. There is no sacred secular divide here, nor an outdated mind body dualism. All is accepted as icon that draws us in, engages us, and transforms us. To be the church is to encounter these stories, name continually anew the ways the divine is moving in the world, and be moved to action to love, serve, and realize the potential of all.
Our stories, our bodies, our conversations, our pains are charged with meaning. Theopoetics grants us space to find the Divine already there.
Stop at any major intersection in Austin and you will see someone with a sign asking for money, food, or a job. It is a given in this city. Some of the people standing there have chosen that as their lifestyle often because of fear of the government and subsequent desire to live off that radar. Most though have fallen on hard times through one factor or another. We like to pretend we know those reasons and use our imagined reasons to justify our judgment and dismissal of them, but that is just about us and has nothing to do with who they are.
The popularity of this recent video revealed some of our assumptions. As an experiment a youtuber gave a homeless man $100 and then secretly followed him to film what he did. The homeless man went to a liquor store and come out with several bags. He then went to a local park where he passed out food he had just bought. The filmmaker then approached him and spent the time to learn his story. It is a touching story about the kindness of one man, but that is not the reason it went viral. The video was made because the assumption was that a homeless person would spend money on something inappropriate like liquor. It was only the fact that he did not live up to our preconceived judgments about him that made the story so popular.
It’s our dirty little habit this judging of people. Assuming that we know them and know what they should and should not be doing with any assistance they are given. Who cares how much money we might spend on alcohol (especially if its money given to us for blow money in college or if we are on the company dime), we insist we know how best the homeless should use charity they are given. Or we see a woman with a smartphone and nice haircut use food stamps and ten rant about people who abuse the system. She doesn’t look “poor” (which we assume must mean dirty and unkempt) so we judge, forgetting that a smartphone and good appearance is the only way she is able to seek a job to improve her situation. Our idea of how we want the world to work dictates how we care for the struggling in our midst.
But our self-centered charity does not stop there.
This struck me yesterday as I was stopped at an intersection and saw a man there holding a sign. As he walked down the line of idling cars, I noticed that he was wearing a hoodie with the Jack Daniels logo on it and carrying a sign that read – “Cuss me out for a dollar.” I had to laugh at his ingenuity. He knows that most people assume the homeless are drunks who need a lecture about their poor life choices. And he called us on that. Go ahead and be the self-righteous jerk who judges the homeless, but stop hiding behind your façade. All he is asking for is a dollar to let you be in public who you truly are in private. Brilliant, I thought, and gave him a dollar wishing him a good day.
I don’t regret that, but it struck me that I rarely give to simply give. I pack bags of food with my kids and we distribute them to the homeless, in part so my kids can learn about those in need. I give money to those at the intersections whose signs I find interesting (like the guy yesterday). “Family abducted by aliens. Need ransom money.” “You might live in a $200,000 house, but I live under a $2million bridge.” I was momentarily entertained by their signs, so I rewarded them. Similarily the guys that stand at the intersection juggling or who offer to wash windshields seem to get more responses. They did something for us, so therefore they deserve our charity.
It happens all the time. Charity auctions raise far more money than straight asks for money. Why? We get something out of it, even if it is just the opportunity to dress up and attend an event. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure. As Derrida philosophized, there can never be such a thing as an unselfish gift. We are always looking for something in return, even if it is merely a “thank you.” But it is something we must always be aware of. Too often we do unto others because it is best for us. We get some sort of reward, even if that reward is the ability to judge and impose our ideas of how others should live their lives onto them. Perhaps this can never be fully escaped, but we can at least start being aware of that fact and begin to explore what it might look like to do unto others as they would have done unto them.
Since Elliot Rodger went on his rampage this past weekend after writing a manifesto detailing how since a “pretty blonde girl” in middle school bullied and mocked him (wouldn’t go out with him) he hates women and sought violent revenge on them, the media has been abuzz with commentary about the rampant misogyny in our culture. Story after story of women who have been sexually violated by men in one way or another flooded the internet reminding the world that women have ample cause to fear men because so many men see women simply as bodies they can use for their own pleasure. Rape culture is alive and well and this most recent (deadly) temper-tantrum of this boy who didn’t get to play with all the toys he thought he was entitled to is just one more scene in that ongoing narrative.
I’m appreciative that the pervasive misogyny of our culture is being called out. Women are speaking out that their bodies are their own and that is a good thing. But as I’ve watched this story unfold, I can’t help but think that what is being addressed here are symptoms not causes. We can raise our voices, perhaps get better laws protecting women from assault, but all of that simply scratches the surface. There is an entire cultural narrative at work here shoring up the systemic violence against women and until we change the very way we think about things, little will actually change.
So basically we need to be talking about sex.
How we conceive of sex is broken and results in acts of violence. Sometimes that violence is physical, but much more frequently it simply appears in the form of violating the humanity of a person by turning them into a commodity. And I’m not talking about casual visual objectification or even using porn here. That’s a scapegoat. The root of this is much deeper and pervasive in our culture.
Arthur Cho’s brilliant response to the shooting pointed out the failings of this mentality. When guys think that by being strong, rich, or powerful or even by being the sweet supportive friend they are doing things to earn or win the right to sex with a woman they are promoting the idea that women (and sex) are commodities. Seeing that pattern it becomes easy to call out the guy who calls girls bullies and bitches because they won’t have sex with him. He thinks he is entitled to sex and gets pissed off when his actions don’t earn him what he wants. Women don’t want to feel like a conquest or a whore to be bought, but having already been cast as such a commodity in the eyes of the guy, that he then resorts to whatever means necessary to get what he thinks he deserves is not all that surprising.
That aspect of rape culture is easy to spot. But we rarely go further and see that the idea of women (and sex) as commodities is pervasive in our culture. For most of Western history, women were blatantly stated to be the property of a man. They belonged to their father who then arranged a deal to transfer that ownership to her husband in exchange for power, influence, or simply hard cash. Women and their sexuality were therefore something to be guarded and used as bargaining chips in this economic exchange of goods. Fathers and husbands owned the woman, and so treated her sexuality especially as an investment to be preserved until it was possessed by her new owner. In the Western world today, this exchange is perhaps not so overtly economic, but nevertheless remains in different guises. Relationships are still arranged through State controlled legal contracts or else they are seen as incomplete or even sinful. The father often still gives the man permission to marry (or date) his daughter and then gives her away to him in front of witnesses as the contract is signed. Girls are taught to preserve their virginity above all else as their most precious commodity to be preserved for “the one.” Some girls are even encouraged to pledge their virginity to their fathers until the time when it can be transferred to their husband. It is a romanticized version of the historical buying and selling of a woman’s sexuality, but it is a commodity exchange nonetheless.
At the core of this commodification of sex, is the notion that sex itself is a necessary evil which therefore must be regulated and highly controlled. That such an idea pervades Western culture is not that surprising given our roots in Greek Platonic thought that bifurcated the mind and body disparaging the base natural functions of the flesh. That the early Christians threw out Jewish notions of holistic selves and bought fully into the Greek view ensured that sex be cast as evil and therefore have such strange economic regulations applied to it. It was begrudgingly admitted that men might have sexual needs that should be met (erections can be difficult to hide…), so women were bought and sold to meet that need, but it was still cast as a source of shame.
The problem here is that we can rail against the objectification or commoditization of women in rape culture all we want, but what is really at issue here are our cultural attitudes toward the body and sex that created (and preserve) the system in the first place. What if instead of letting our fear of those who see sex as an entitlement cause us to continue to cast sex as a corrupting force of evil that we must transcend, we (like Maslow) embrace our bodies and admit that sex is a basic physiological human need. It is a need all people (yes, even women) have that is not shameful and that we should not be embarrassed to desire to have met. Not that anyone is responsible to meet that need for us, nor that we are entitled to use others for our needs, but that we simply start to admit that our sexuality is an integral part of ourselves.
This is a far cry from the culture of shame that held well into the 20th century that women were not even capable of having orgasms and that at times insisted that a woman be sent to prison for witchcraft or to a hospital to be treated for hysteria if she showed signs of sexual arousal. If women are mere objects of economic exchange that men win or earn to meet the man’s needs, of course any sign of pleasure on the woman’s part is dangerous. Far better to teach her to be ashamed of her sexuality, to preserve her virginity at all costs, and to limit her physical activities to only the man with the right to own her (and slut-shame her if she dares to meet her own needs as she will). Keep yourself pure, preserve and conserve, conceal don’t feel, are the mantras thrown at women to keep them in their place. Let them get riled up about people finding pleasure in the human form and rage about how that objectifies women as long as they remain blind to the fact that their very lives (and especially their attitude of disgust toward the erotic) are the result of their complete and total objectification and commodification.
Thing is, it’s a lot more complicated to let people embrace their bodies and their sexuality. Instead of being a source of shame that turns sex into an economic exchange where there are winners and losers leading to attitudes of entitlement and resentment, people come to know their personal needs, desires, and boundaries. Sex can be celebrated and given not only for one’s own pleasure but as a gift to another. No one has a right to anyone else, but no one can also force someone to shut down or hide their sexuality so that they can horde that commodity for themselves. Each person having his or her own boundaries and expression of sexuality is of course far more complicated than one-size fits all shame-based regulations, but it is also far healthier than the rape culture of objectification that we currently have.
The question is, how much do we really want to change the way things are? Is eliminating rape culture worth rethinking the entire culture of shame our society is built upon? Or is tweaking the status quo and feeling like we have done something good enough? Change takes time and effort and is resisted at every turn. And as we have seen so often in this country, such equal distributions of wealth, agency and power challenge the hegemony of the rich and the powerful who want to keep it all for themselves and so they call equality evil and parade out various harmless scapegoats to be attacked instead. Will we let that happen yet again in this country? With our very bodies? Or will we stage the cultural revolution necessary to put an end to rape culture?
This post is part of a blog tour for the book Never Pray Again by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. I received a copy of the book as a participant in this blog tour.
Prayer can hurt. All too often it serves as the easy way to meet one’s spiritual quota for the day. Pray before meals thanking God for the food while ignoring the plight of the impoverished workers who labored unseen to bring you the food, send up prayers for stuff you need much like you would wish upon a star, pray that the people/sinners you don’t like will become more like you and check, you’ve done your duty for the day. This is called being close to God. This is the extent of many Christians’ daily spiritual practices. While it may seem benign this sort of praying can often do more harm than good.
As Never Pray Again delves into, prayer often misses the point of what it means to be a Christian. Instead of following the way of Jesus and living into one’s faith, prayer is used as means to look spiritual but not actually do anything. But prayer is not a substitute for action – for actually living out one’s faith. We can hurt ourselves by restricting ourselves from fully embracing our faith when we merely rely on perfunctory prayers, but we also fail to do God’s work in the world. We are God’s hands and feet in this world, it does no good to ask God to fix something in this world unless we are willing to function as such. We let hurt and suffering in this world thrive when all we do is pray. Faith is about going and doing, not simply making a wish and feeling like we’ve been let off the hook.
It is in the chapter titled “Heal!” that the book explores some of the ways prayer can be the most harmful. It is common in churches to pray for the healing of people – from people with cancer, to those with mobility issues, to even those with mental illnesses. And while it may sound extreme the prayers to ‘pray the gay away,’ or that a man or women would live into their God-ordained gender roles, or even that calamity might befall a person in order to stop them from the ‘sinful path’ they might be on are far more common than we would like to believe. I personally have been told by people that they would pray for me because of my belief that women could be pastors. That I shouldn’t take medicine to help with my anxiety issues but that I just needed to cast my cares on God in prayer and I would be just fine. I even grew up being told in church that if I just prayed enough God would heal my arm (I was born missing my left arm below the elbow). And conference after conference I attend think they are being inclusive of disability when they invite people who work with the disabled (and not the actual disabled) to speak about how they serve (seek to heal) those who are different.
The problem with these sorts of prayers and perspectives, as the chapter points out, is that they assume there is some default way of being in this world and that if you don’t measure up to the default you are deficient in some way and so therefore must be healed to be made whole. People who diverge from the default mold are broken and must be fixed. From gays and lesbians, to independent women, to the obese, to the disabled, to the mentally ill – these are signs of not abiding by a culture norm and so must be things people need healing from. These people are lesser than the default model and so must be changed in order to become whole according to whatever the culture currently happens to be defining that as.
Yes, there are some illnesses that people want to heal from so their suffering ends. Others find that using a wheelchair or prosthetic limb or taking an antidepressant helps them function with more ease in the world. There are steps of healing that are necessary and good and that help people become their full selves. But therein lies the distinction. They do not need healing so that they can be more like the default norm, they seek healing and aid because they want to be fully themselves. There is brokenness all around us and in us that prevents us from being whole or loving others into wholeness. But often it is the very implication that one must be healed (become more like the default norm) that causes the most hurt and pain. When families are kicked out of churches because the church can’t deal with their kid with autism, or a person in a wheelchair is effectively shunned because no one is comfortable interacting with a person they know will never be ‘whole’ like them, or someone prays that you would be healed of something that you consider an integral part of your identity, it is hard not to come to believe that one can never be whole and accepted as they are. They accept their place as broken and inferior and come to despise their very selves for being something other than the culture’s default norm. This is not healing; this is the creation of brokenness.
So as the chapter explores, our perspective of what healing means needs to shift. To heal is not to become like the cultural norm, it is to embrace all people for who they are and to communally help us all to live into wholeness. Being with, truly with, someone in a way that shows you love them for who they are is far more difficult than condescendingly sending up a prayer that people not like you need to be healed, but it is the only way to live into both your and their wholeness.
In my last blog post, “Giving Up or Growing Up?” I wrote “I love the idea of the church. A group of people who in gathering around a shared meal of bread and wine commit to being one body—one family devoted to the disciplines of love and forgiveness and the commitment to make the ways of the realm of God present on earth as in heaven. I will always be part of that community” even as I declared that I am done with participating in religious structures that harm others. Interestingly, a common response I received to that post was “So, you’re giving up going to church?”
I get that in our culture the term “church” refers to a place or at best an event. I get that trying to hold fast to the idea that the term ecclesia refers to the people – gathered or called together for a purpose (mattering not if they are physically together in any particular place at any given time) – can be a losing battle these days. But this is one of those things I have to hold fast to. We do not go to, get together for, or do church, we are the church.
Oh, it is trendy to talk about being the church, but such discussions quickly dissolve into how we do church. There must be rules and schedules and planned activities and (most importantly) codes of hierarchies and etiquette that must be observed. It’s like being roommates with Sheldon Cooper. It’s not about community, but about staying within the bounds of predetermined appropriate patterns of behavior.
With such responses to my post fresh in my mind, I then read (and got really annoyed by) Preston Yancey’s post “When if the Eucharist is just a symbol, to hell with it.” It hit me that we do to church what we have done to the Eucharist. The historical shift in Christianity from the Body of Christ being the people for whom the bread and the wine were a blessing, to the Body becoming the actual elements removed agency and identity from the people. Adding pseudo-magical ideas like transubstantiation and consubstantiation to theologically back-up that shift (yes, I know I just pissed off most of Christendom…) further distanced people from an identify as being the church to those who do church. Now there can be people arguing that if the elements of the Eucharist are just a symbol of who we are and not something mystical in and of itself, then to hell with it.
We have obviously lost ourselves along the way.
But the critique and the confusion got me thinking. If we are the church that lives in community and choose to demonstrate that we are part of this family together by breaking bread and sharing wine together, then maybe we need a third way between mystical elements and mere symbol to think about that act. Something that moves beyond the lists of rules that set strict boundaries for who we permit to share our bread but which also helps us be and not just do church.
(And this is where I let my nerd show.)
Linguists talk about the power of certain forms of language to perform in their utterance that which they mean. Referred to as speech acts, the idea is that by saying something, we do something, as when in saying “I promise” I actually am making a promise or when a minister joins two people in marriage saying, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” We have mystically applied this idea to Eucharist (by saying the elements are blessed they become so), but what if Communion (and yes I used this term deliberately) was seen as being like an actual speech act. In breaking bread and drinking wine together (in whatever form that actually takes) we are performing the act of being a community, a family, the Body of Christ. It isn’t the symbolism of or the rules around the ritual, but the fact that bread and wine are shared that matters.
Communion is more than a symbol because eating with each other is a vital part of life. And it is not something mystically transformed and delivered by only the one invested with the power to say the right incantation over it. It is far more powerful and active than that. We are a community when we commune with each other and since we are human, that is almost always around food. In the church I used to serve, we called this being foodal (a riff on missional). We did life together over food. We were the church when we were being a community around a table. Over the years, I’ve affirmed my identity as part of the body of Christ by sharing Doritos and Mountain Dew with teens in a youth group. I’ve affirmed this identity by raiding a diaper bag and sharing juice boxes and animal crackers. I’ve affirmed this identity at potlucks, in taking meals to families with newborns, and having dinner with friends. I remember the ways of Christ through such communion, but live it directly in simply being in community. And yes, sadly, I’ve had people refuse to commune with me because the bread wasn’t of the correct type, because the food didn’t pass through the hands of an ordained priest, and because I lacked a penis and therefore could not offer them the food of our shared table. But more often than not I’ve broken bread and shared the cup in joyous ways with my brothers and sisters.
I am not giving up on being the church. I will continue to break bread and share wine as an act of community with those who have chosen to follow in the way of Jesus and live out the dreams of God on earth (or who simply want to join in the community of those who do). For in eating that bread and drinking that wine with whoever so desires to share the table I live into my identity as part of the body of Christ – I am the church.
Some might call it resignation or failure; I prefer to see it as maturity.
In a recent conversation with a seminary friend, we both expressed how tired we were with churches that continue to give lip service to being welcoming and inclusive of the gifts of all, but which in reality never seem to actually do anything. The conversation was specifically about women in ministry. Both of us have spent years in Christian circles that are still uneasy accepting women as equal participants in the work of the church. In theory they might say it’s okay for women to preach or be ordained and perhaps they might even speak out against the groups that obviously restrict women, but when it comes down to the practical reality of it all, women are never allowed any real voice. So we’ve served as advocates, trying to bring attention to the voices of women, encouraging leaders to open their eyes to their latent sexism, and hoping we can be a source of change from within the realms we participate in. And yet have seen little change.
I admitted in that conversation though that I was tired of that role. How long was I willing to stay within a broken system helping it slowing become more of a life-giving place of welcome when in reality all I was doing was lending a little extra life-support to a system that doesn’t appear to be getting better. So I mused that sometimes we just have to let things simply die off so that that which is healthy has room to thrive.
Hence why some may accuse me of giving up on the church as we know it.
I prefer to think I’m growing up.
It’s not like the church hasn’t been able to do the dignified death thing before. Yes, most change in the church is a long arduous process often plagued with schism and violence. But not always. For example -Following the ban as set forth by Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century women who were menstruating were not allowed to participate in the sacraments or approach the alter. Except for a brief challenge to this rule by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 (for did not Jesus permit the bleeding woman to touch his cloak?) this ban was near-unanimously agreed upon for most of Christian history. Although the ban naturally did not apply in anti-sacramental Protestant churches following the Reformation, it remained articulated (if not always followed) in Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic churches until the mid-twentieth century. And then it simply faded away. Most Christians these days have utterly forgotten that this ban ever existed. It died as more life-affirming practices naturally grew up to take its place.
You see, I love the idea of the church. A group of people who in gathering around a shared meal of bread and wine commit to being one body—one family devoted to the disciplines of love and forgiveness and the commitment to make the ways of the realm of God present on earth as in heaven. I will always be part of that community.
I’m just too tired to waste my energy defending structures that do harm in this world, that teach the inferiority of some, that silence the voices of others, that preach selfishness instead of compassion, that don’t bother to welcome and include all, or that care more for trappings of a building, or altar, or style of worship than they do about living as the family that calls itself the body of Christ. I’m fine with participating in the beautiful and cherishing the depth of tradition, but never when it has such high costs.
Maturity for me right now means letting go of that which needs to die and pursuing that which allows life to thrive. I need to grow up.
“Where a story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of the silence. … Who then tells a finer story than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page.” – Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page”
As I contemplated the emptiness of the silence in my life, I was reminded of a story that has haunted me ever since I first read it some years ago in college. Isak Dinesen’s short story “The Blank Page,” although well-crafted and seeped in rich language appears simple enough as a story, but it is the silence of the blank page it offers that remains with the reader. I hate to summarize such a poignant (and truly very short) tale, so I highly encourage you to read it in full here. But it is a tale of an old story-teller who tells of an old order of Carmelite nuns in Portugal who spun the finest linen in all the land. So fine that it was used for the bridal sheets of the daughters of the noble families of the land. The bridal sheet that would only be used once and then the morning after hung out on the balcony to proclaim to the world that the bride had indeed been a virgin. The nuns would then receive back the central part of the sheet, a dark stain upon snow white linen, and hang it in a gilded frame in the convent’s main hall. Visitors would come to gaze upon these “marks of honor” and find their own meanings in the markings. But of course, there is one sheet that differs from the others, one that within its golden frame remains snow-white from corner to corner – a blank page. And as Dinesen writes, “It is in front of this piece of pure, white linen that the old princesses of Portugal—worldly wise, dutiful, long-suffering queens, wives and mothers—and their noble old playmates, bridesmaids and maids-of-honor have most often stood still. It is in front of the blank page that old and young nuns, with the Mother Abbess herself, sink into deepest thought.”
There is more meaning in the untold stories, the what-ifs, the dreams, and the unexpected turns of life than in the seemingly perfectly constructed tales. The depths of questions, of pain, and of pleasure in the silences are their own stories. The silence is sometimes deep.
I’m ready to plumb those depths.
It’s been quiet here on this blog of late. It’s been hard to write. Hence the silence.
I feel like my life has been buffering – in such a constant state of transition that nothing ever seems to be fully resolving. Ideas that bounce around in my head of all the intriguing topics I want to explore in writing remain locked away inside there. When life just seems to be one giant emotional quandary that I can’t (for a variety of reasons) write about here, it somehow seemed false to prattle on about theology, and culture, and faith, and all those things that felt so far outside myself. And so I inevitably became silent, even as I ruminated in my own silence. Yet the longer I kept my thoughts inside and kept my voice silent, the more filled with silence my own mind became. Because I felt I couldn’t speak, I lost the ability to have anything to say.
The silence became an empty silence.
On my trip to England and Wales this past December I visited the ruins of Caerphilly Castle in Southern Wales. My visit fell on a weekday in the off-season on a near-freezing and drizzling day. Needless to say I was the only person touring the castle that afternoon. At first I was secretly delighted to have the crumbling archways, damp corridors, and blustery towers to myself. But I wanted more than just the silence of the ruins. I wanted to know its stories or at least to populate its grand hall with tales of conquering knights and court intrigue. But devoid of listening ears, the emptiness of its silence pervaded instead. More than that the stories weren’t being told, it felt like they had drifted away over time as the silence retook the crumbling stones.
It reminded me of that thoroughly Welsh poet R.S. Thomas’ poem “In Church”
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
Sometimes it takes encountering the emptiness and asking questions into the silence before one realizes that the shadows have advanced on an inanimate body. Sometimes to embrace that silence in the darkness is a needed respite. But sometimes it slowly takes possession until the moment one realizes the walls no longer tell stories and that inanimate body in shock realizes that it is half-sick of shadows and wonders if it is possible for dry bones to live once again.
So 2013 has been quite a year. I’m sure I could write any number of retrospectives that would be meaningful to no one but me. But as I do every year, I thought I’d post the list of books I read in the past year. It as much as anything is a record of where I have been and what has been shaping me. It always fascinates me to hear what others are reading as I see that as one of the biggest insights into who they are, so this is a slice of me from this past year. Feel free to comment of the list or make suggestions for what I should read next year!
- Silence: A Chistian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
- The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
- Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World by Tsh Oxenreider
- The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps by John Caputo
- After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature by Kester Brewin
- Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones
- Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism by Diane M. Kennedy and Rebecca S. Banks
- Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology by Johann Baptist Metz
- Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic by Alexander Irwin
- God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality by David Jensen
- The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox
- The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi
- 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy edited by Martha J. Simmons and Frank A. Thomas
- New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views edited by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu
- Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline edited by Virginia Burns and Catherine Keller
- Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
- Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton
- Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts edited by Christopher Bell
- The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation by Peter Berger
- God’s Democracy: American Religion after September 11 by Emilio Gentile
- Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God by Carter Heyward
- Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart
- The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion by Richard Kearney
- On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva by Richard Kearney
- Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 by Bruce Lincoln
- Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless by William Lynch
- Origins of the Theology of Hope by Douglas Meeks
- The Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology after Postmodernism by Anselm Kyongsuk Min
- In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann
- The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation by Jurgen Moltmann
- Body Theology by James B. Nelson
- Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture by Sherry B. Ortner
- Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology by Rosemary Radford Ruether
- Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post-9/11 America by Stacy Takacs
- Toward a New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology Edited by Thomas J.J. Altizer
- Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications by Paul Tillich
- Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood: On the Emancipation of Women in Church and Society by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel
- Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Brock
- Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn
- Autumn Bones: Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
- Allegiant by Veronica Roth
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
- Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
I am very excited to announce the official publication of Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith. This collection of essays from a diverse group of Christian women addresses the issues women face that are often taboo topics in the church. And so we are talking about them.
My chapter, “On Being a Strong Woman,” addresses cultural conceptions of strength and the difficulty of defining strength from both a feminist and Beatitude-affirming Christian perspective. And because it’s me, it’s also about superheroes.
Here’s the official description of Talking Taboo from the amazing editors Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro–
What happens when young, American women speak the unspeakable about our experiences of faith? This collection of essays unearths the taboos that have stifled us, divided us, and prevented us from feeling at home in our Christian communities.
We are Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro, and we are ridiculously excited to be working on a new anthology for the I Speak For Myself series. Our book is called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith and is set to publish in October of 2013 from White Cloud Press. But Talking Taboo is not just a book – it’s a collection of essays that can start a movement of people getting frank about faith across the globe and risking the scrutiny of showing up as their imperfect selves in the world.
But perhaps the coolest part of this book – this whole series, really – is that you get to hear women speak for themselves. This takes the pressure off having to agree with them or even “tolerate” them, and instead you get to bear witness to the people who are living in your neighborhoods, communities, churches, and home. Pour a cup of tea. Pull up a chair. Get to know us. Maybe you’ll get to know something of God a little better, too, in the process.
Talking Taboo is now available for purchase. But if you want to win a copy I invite you to share your personal response to the question – What taboos prevent you from feeling at home in Christian communities? Leave your response in the comments before 1PM Central on Friday Nov. 8 for a chance to win a free copy of the book.
I’m very curious what stories will be told and what perspectives on taboos will emerge. While I don’t want to stifle truth-telling here, I would add that I would appreciate these posts be about true taboos we face and not just complaints that a few people might disagree with you on a certain topic in particular churches. And this isn’t just about taboos women face or restricted to gendered issues either. Do you see taboos around race, economics, science, philosophy, liturgy? Share your story and be entered to win a copy of the book.
This post is part of a synchroblog for Doctor Who and Religion Day
In the Series 1 episode “The Doctor Dances,” the Doctor and his companions Rose Tyler and the newly joined Captain Jack Harkness find themselves cornered by hospital patients infected with alien technology. Captain Jack brags about his sonic blaster and asks what sort of weapon the Doctor is carrying. Jack is incredulous that the Doctor merely has a sonic screwdriver, quipping “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic?” Although said in a moment of humor, the answer is, of course, the Doctor. Instead of carrying a weapon that can threaten and destroy, he brandishes an implement of repair as his go-to device. As one who seeks to heal the wounds of the universe, he has no need of a blaster that could be used to coerce or manipulate others into doing his will. Instead he uses the sonic screwdriver as he works alongside others in order to heal what is broken.
The Doctor’s aversion to displays of strength and power, even to the point of rejecting weapons, echoes descriptions of a God who operates from a position of weakness. Unlike depictions of an all-powerful God who reigns above all things and can use fear of punishment to coerce followers to his will, a weak God operates out of compassion to heal the wounded. The Doctor’s choice to carry a tool of repair instead of a weapon of destruction models what it means to exchange the way of strength and power for the ways of weakness and love. This stance is what author John Caputo refers to as taking place in an “anarchic field of reversals and displacements” which appears “wherever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful are put on the defensive.” It echoes Mary’s Magnificat where the rulers are brought down from thrones and the lowly lifted up. When he is at his best, the Doctor mirrors the very description of the divine that scriptures offer up and the Church has largely ignored.
One sees an example of this in the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned”, as the Doctor displays his inclination to stand alongside the least and undesirable in even the ordinary moments of life. Having found himself on a luxury cruise spaceship, the Doctor is immediately drawn to a couple that seems out of place in the opulent settings. While most of the guests on the ship are thin, attractive, and impeccably dressed, this particular couple is rather overweight and dressed in garishly tacky clothes. They are in the process of gorging themselves on the ample free food when the Doctor joins them at their table. He soon discovers that unlike the rest of the guests on the cruise ship, this couple won the trip through a raffle and are enjoying a vacation they never dreamed they would have. Soon though it becomes apparent that a group of the other guests are making fun of this couple. Overhearing this mocking of the undesirables in their midst, the Doctor with humor in his eyes draws out his sonic screwdriver and uses it to pop the cork of a bottle of champagne at the table of the mockers. They are drenched in the resulting spray and the Doctor assumes an innocent look. It is a demonstration of that very reversal of roles where the powerful are brought down and the humble lifted up, done not maliciously but with well-timed humor. It is an affirmation of Walter Wink’s assertion that “The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.”
It is Amy Pond in her first trip out into the universe in the TARDIS in the episode “The Beast Below” who voices aloud the depth of compassion of the Doctor. Despite the Doctor’s protest that he just travels the universe to observe and not to interfere, she can’t help but notice that when he sees a small girl in pain he cannot but step in and help her out. As Amy points out to the Doctor, “You ‘never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets,’ unless there’s children crying.” From his position of weakness, the Doctor cannot help but notice the suffering of the innocent. He embodies the description of one who “fills the hungry with good things” and wipes away every tear.
It will be curious to see in “The Day of the Doctor” who the Doctor who is not the Doctor truly is. For when he stops extending infinite compassion, seeks power instead of leveling playing fields, and turns aside from his role as healer of the universe, he is most certainly no longer the Doctor. Throughout history, believers have tried to turn God into something God is not. Lust for power and an affinity for violence are not the traits of one who loves and heals. The Doctor serves as a reminder of what such a God should look like, and how utterly tragic it is when he does not.