Our beloved Faculty Liaison, Rev. Dr. Johanna Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible here at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has spent the past five weeks of her Fall semester sabbatical in Europe.
While we’ve been in touch by e-mail for urgent matters, we’ve tried to keep those to a bare minimum. Last Friday, however, we received a welcome dispatch from France, titled “Reflections of a Feminist in France, October 2008.” Particularly welcome, as Johanna says she will be returning “with zeal and enthusiasm to our work” in the Women’s Center (hooray!!). Her route to that concluding affirmation takes her from recollections of experiences from her journey to Montpellier in 1989, through her observations of the changes — and in some cases, absence of change — on this trip some 18 years later, with side trips into Hebrew word studies, exegesis of the book of Ruth, and vignettes of seminary graduates living and working across Europe.
The “Reflections” open:
As I write this, my husband and I are in France, to be precise in Montpellier, the deep dusty South, where the temperatures still rise to the low eighties during the day, the skies are blue, and we can plan a trip to the beach in late October. I lived here for almost a year, eighteen years ago, while teaching a course at the Protestant Seminary, a school with which my Seminary in the United States has a relationship. At the time, my presence whould have been noticeable especially because the Montpellier faculty had few women on its staff. I believe the only other female professor taught Greek as an adjunct. (1 — To be fair, the faculty in Paris, which with Montpellier constitutes one Seminary, did and does have women professors, albeit as a minority.) For all that the fact of a woman professor in their midst was unique, moreover one who had come from elsewhere, I might as well not have existed, so little did the rest of the faculty acknowledge my presence. It was fairly easy to pretend I was not there because the French do not have the almost automatic eagerness to meet the foreigner in their midst as is common in the United States. (2 — I do not mean to say here that the French are not at all hospitable or friendly, for we have experienced both kindness and welcome here both then and now, but that there is a different sort of hospitalty. As a foreigner in both cultures I have had very different experiences in the two countries and both have something to be said to their advantage.) To an extent I became invisible. Creating a kind of invisibility for the stranger is one way to deal with her or his presence; by ignoring them, one does not have to take account of their difference, their claim on human intercourse, above all of their needs. As I happened to be different in two significant ways from the rest of my colleagues, it was far simpler to ignore not only my difference, but my entire person.
As irony would have it, I had chosen for my course the subject of “Hospitality to the Stranger,” in the main a review of the biblical ethic proper to the covenant community in both Testaments. The students in the class, all forty-two of them, were for more than fifty percent from the so-called Francophone world, that is to say from former French colonies: Haiti, New Caledonia, Madagascar, Cameroun, Zaire, etc. There were also a handful of students from Switzerland and Germany, mostly women, and a very frew from Canada and the U.S. A diverse group of many colors, ethnic backgrounds and native languages awaited me every time I stepped into my class room. I soon felt at home with my students. We were after all strangers together; my Dutch-American accent in French hardly remarkable among the different accents that prevailed in class. At the opening of each session we recited together in Hebrew the text from Exodus: “A stranger you must not oppress; you yourselves know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exod. 23:9) at the outset I had challenged the students to find ways of singing these words and quite soon a student from Madagascar composed his own simple melody in the singing of which he first directed students from his country and eventually the entire class. Each time we met we rose to our feet and sang our “anthem.” “A stranger you must not oppress.” (3 — I owe a great debt to this class and its many participants as the teaching of the course laid the foundation for what was later to become Making Wise the Simple.)
At the time I left Louisville we had just begun to plan the Women’s Center at the Seminary and personally I was engaged in writing Reformed and Feminist. . . . “
Don’t miss the full text of “Reflections of a Feminist in France” by Rev. Dr. Johanna Bos!