Open Doors

It does not take a Ph.D. in public media to see that women have been at the forefront in our news and politics. (Let’s go ahead a give a giant shout-out to Wendy Davis!) Sen-Wendy-Davis-filibusterAside from the government attempting to (re)take control of the female body through draconian legislation and fear-mongering, not the least of which stems from ignorance and a lust for power, a phenomenal and well-orchestrated event transpired this past weekend. The FBI succeeded in their largest nation-wide bust on the sex-trafficking industry here in the US. Over one hundred individuals were freed from the tyranny of their pimps and trading routines with even more arrests made to secure the freedom of the innocent. The majority of those rescued were women, the youngest only 13. Unfortunately in this case, good news does not make the bad more palatable. Like the ubiquity of the sex-trade for one instance.

I preached a sermon this past week from the lectionary passage Luke 11:1-13. The “Parable of the Persistent Neighbor” is a quirky little pericope exploring the idea of charity and compassion. The protagonist needs a loaf of bread to entertain some unexpected guests. Unfortunately, he called upon his neighbor at midnight for the favor of sharing his bread. Inconvenienced by the late-night call the benefactor eventually shares of his resources–not because they are friends, but because the guy was so persistent in his asking. He was not going to leave until he got what he needed! The crux of the story comes when Jesus says that God is not the curmudgeon neighbor trying to cover his head with the pillow when our middle of the night door knocking won’t cease. Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. God is eager to share the gifts and goods that make for abundant living.

Except when we are still lost and the door is locked, right?

images-1

Are women across the globe not knocking loud enough? Have we not been knocking all night, so to speak? How dare our governments turn a deaf ear to our knocks. (Let’s give another shout out to Wendy Davis, our s-heroic persistent neighbor!) And what of the governments around the world who leave their female populations even more lost and wandering than America does?

God is a communal God. Jesus lived in community and spent his life compelling others to care about those who are left out in the cold night after night seeking food/security/shelter/equality/justice. God acts through God’s community of people. God continually shapes us into God’s fuller intentions for us. This means that we get to help God respond to those persistent and pesky knocks. The great doors of freedom and justice do not magically open on their own accord, especially with the winds of patriarchy and dominance bellowing to keep them shut! This means we have to react against the thrusts of looming legislation, entitled power-hungry, politically savvy men, and rise up ourselves in the middle of the darkness to usher in those whose rights are compromised.

images

The Women’s Center operates with an open door policy. (Well, not literally 24/7; I like to sleep in my own bed at night.) As we are formulating and growing our calendar of events for the coming academic year, we seek to be in partnership with the God who says, “Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” We long to see this promised reality now. We also seek to participate with other women and organizations in Louisville who are also about the business of sharing our resources with those who have need. Will you partner with us?

A few events for you to anticipate this Fall:
October 10th  Celebrating National Coming Out Day (10/11) in Chapel
October 13th Louisville AIDS Walk
November 17th  Transgender Awareness Memorial Service in Caldwell Chapel

Events TBA:
> A film showing of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” followed by a conversation with two women seeking ordination in the Catholic Women Priest Movement.
> Our Light + Lunches with special guests from the community

Finally, William Sloane Coffin, former senior minister of The Riverside Church in NYC and rhetorical genius extraordinaire prophetically claimed in a sermon about the subjugation of women during the 19th and 20th centuries that God will not be mocked. (Published in this book.) How so? Sloane Coffin instructs us to remember early suffragists. These women who were martyred for their work and who are today celebrated, emulated, and revered. They are in our history books, their work having paved the way for many of the liberties we to which we are privy. We have erected statues in their honor, in some cases in the very cities that outlawed and murdered them. 01302012_AP070523074824_600Women like Anne Hutchinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojouner Truth (just to name a few of the big ones) along with more contemporary names like Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie Townes, Sheryl WuDunn, Hillary Clinton and now Wendy Davis inspire and remind us to run with God to open wide the doors of oppression and truth.

What will our great-grandchildren celebrate in a few years because we kept our doors open with God today? Indeed when one who seeks is found and one who knocks is let in, God’s justice prevails. God will not be mocked!

God Beyond Gender

An iconic interpretation of the concept of the triune God

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center advocates gender inclusive and expansive language as part of its mission. For us, then, this month’s decision by the United Churches of Christ to substitute “triune God” for “Heavenly Father” as part of a constitutional change was encouraging, despite the discouraging controversy it engendered. (See Peter Smith’s 7/16 Courier-Journal article.) We agree with Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw’s comment on the matter, that “there has to be real pastoral sensitivity around this issue” of language for God. As she notes, our language for God is the language of prayer, which is the language through which people intelligibly relate themselves to God. These God-words are theo-logy of the most fundamental kind.

That theology, or language, says much more about us than it says about God. What it says about us may not be easy or pleasant to recognize or accept. One of the functions of that needed pastoral sensitivity is to help people come face to face with the pervasive, unarticulated gender bias that is one of the deep wellsprings of resistance to expansive language for God, and to realize that it is permissible and desirable to challenge it.

Despite our determination not to make graven images of God, we tend to fall back on familiar clusters of meaning in our heads and hearts in our public and private rituals. While these meaning clusters are supported by Biblical language, their content comes largely from the world around us. It includes everything we know about various kinds of people — fathers, mothers, children, servants and so on — and their various relationships. It includes everything we know about which kinds of people can say or do what, to whom, when and where, and what all of that means — what conveys strength, e.g., or kindness, and whether the quality conveyed is positive or negative, good, bad, or indifferent.

Those clusters of meaning are awash with gender. It is commonplace for discussions about gendered language for God to appeal to God’s Spiritual genderlessness: God is famously “beyond gender.” But the human beings who make this claim are not. Whenever English-speaking people think of a personal, as opposed to an impersonal, reality, they are always already thinking of a gendered reality: him, or her. Thus, while we can honestly claim to believe in a God who is beyond gender, our ritual practice — particularly to the extent it invokes God as a personalistic reality — cannot support that belief articulately. We are driven over and over again to use gendered language, because it is the language we have available to us.

Because we do use gendered language, and have for millennia, we find that the challenge facing a person of faith in using new terms of reference for God is sharpened by the way gender plays a part in their clusters of meaning. To what extent can the new terms articulate or support the familiar understanding of God, the “same God,” that has been worshipped until now in other words? Or, if these new terms promote a change in the understanding of God, to what extent is that change experienced as a positive expansion of the possibilities attributable to God, or to what extent is it experienced as a denial or diminution in God’s positive attributes? It is at this point that we are liable to come face to face with one or more widespread, pervasive, normally unarticulated strands in our web of beliefs that have to do with gender.

Anyone can try this thought experiment:
First think of a familiar prayer that uses masculine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .) Then, try praying that prayer using feminine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Mother, who art in Heaven . . .) Pay attention to how this address to God feels. If it feels comfortable, try to put words to that comfort; “it feels good, because . . .” If it feels uncomfortable, try to put words to that discomfort; “it doesn’t feel right because . . . ” Finally: what does the feeling have to do with everything you know about the difference in meaning between the masculine term and the feminine term? That is: what does this experiment reveal about your own background assumptions about gender?

Very often, reasons for discomfort with this exercise take one or both of these forms: (1) I don’t feel I am addressing the same God when I use feminine language; or (2) I feel I am addressing God improperly — the word I am using doesn’t fit the God I am addressing, in a way that seems to take something away from God. Those feelings, in turn, give us clues about our understandings of these gendered terms. If I feel I am addressing a different God altogether, I may begin to realize the extent to which the image of God I cherish is, in fact, a distinctly masculine or patriarchal one, which cannot be supported by feminine language. If I find that I feel a feminine term is improper for God, that it takes something away from God, I may have to face the extent to which my own background assumptions about women include some form of inferiority, that makes those terms feel less than fully adequate to figure the divine. Either way, an exercise like this can face us with the extent to which we continue to hold a patriarchal understanding of God, which is held in place by our continued use of patriarchal language. As long as we never question our language practices, we can make statements like “My God is beyond gender,” fully believing them, while in practice worshipping and relating to a God we understand in distinctly masculine ways. Only when we begin to pay attention to our practices around language for God does this subtle form of idolatry come to awareness, and with it the limitation that imposes on our openness to encounter with the living God.

Once again, it is important to recognize that this exercise doesn’t pretend to tell us much about God, but about our own, usually implicit and unthinking, accepted and taken for granted, assumptions about gender. We can get at those assumptions by paying attention to the way we use and respond to language — its denotations and connotations, its emotional resonances — because language is our tool for communicating meaning. That’s also why the words we use for God shape and contain what we mean about God and what God means to us and for us.

For some, the problem with changed language for God is that the new language will not support an understanding of God that supports arrangements of power and privilege from which those people benefit. But for most, the even more profound challenge is that it opens up an avenue for fresh encounter with God, beyond accustomed and comfortable language and understanding. That opening is profoundly uncomfortable, and the intimation of an imminent uncomfort it announces ultimately has little to do with gender. It is rather the unsettling, frightening and yet fascinating awareness that the God we might really encounter is One who exceeds our categories and transcends our settled understandings so radically that no knowledge we already possess or imagine to be satisfactory is going to withstand that revelation.

Bracing the community of faith for that transformative encounter will really call for pastoral sensitivity.

updated 07/26/11

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

Help fund the Women’s Center’s ongoing programs during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

“for the building of community . . .”

The doctrine of the Trinity represents the effort to approach God as community in the depths of the divine being

Fourth in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally.”

What does it mean to work for the building of community locally, nationally and globally, and why would this task of building community be important — so important that it is one of the missions of the Women’s Center? How would we even begin to go about that mission?

“Community” is a word with many and contested meanings; sociologists, who presumably know something about what communities are, reportedly have over 90 different uses of the term. The difficulty seems to arise around what dimensions are critical for identifying “community.” Everyone knows it has something to do with a group of people, but does that group of people need to (1) occupy a shared space, like a village, a city, or a country; (2) share interests and ideas; (3) work and live together, in specific ways – for instance, cooperate on projects, with or without a specific “communal” quality of interaction; (4) have a sense of “belonging” to one another, a shared identity? Those are some of the more common identifiers of community. They may combine in various ways in real live groupings of people, giving rise to the question of whether any particular group constitutes a community.

Without being too doctrinaire, or identifying ourselves too closely with one or another sociological school, we might note that most of the activities of the Women’s Center have a community-building component, almost by definition, and usually by design. It has something to do with the fact that the programs and activities of the Women’s Center are built around assembling, gathering, communicating, often involving concerted action, or sharing food. Those are all fundamental community-creating activities, as we understand it.

So, the Women’s Center as a space provides a focal point for the building of a community that can identify itself by its relationship to that space: Friends of the Women’s Center, the people who have come to know themselves and one another in and through gathering, interacting, and working in that space, in the direction of a mission that we have come to understand better in the course of working for it.

As an educational space and program, the Women’s Center articulates and disseminates ideas, and identifies and cultivates interests — both in the sense of what people come to care about, and in the sense of what is beneficial or necessary for people. That is, we understand that it is in seminarians’ best interest to become more interested in gender issues, and to have opportunities to explore that developing interest. So building a community of interest focused on gender issues grows out of the other elements of the Women’s Center’s mission. And as an educational space and program focused on gender, it almost goes without saying, those gender-focused efforts tend to cultivate the community of interest, in both senses, that builds on shared experiences of gendered embodiment in our shared social contexts. We hope they also cultivate the wider community of interest that can build on shared awareness of and care for those experiences, however different our gendered embodiments.

As a collaborative organization, which accomplishes its activities by organizing planning groups and mobilizing wider participation in the execution of its activities and programs, the Women’s Center’s work tends towards the development of a community in the sense of a group of people who work together. Over time, the growing group of people drawn together by the experiences of having once worked on such projects, at different times, with different goals, becomes an inter-generational community as well. Members of that community may not have worked on the same project in the same year, but can recognize themselves as collaborators in a larger effort that reaches across the years.

The greater goal of all of this community-building activity is precisely the formation of a community in the sense of mutual belonging, of shared identification — with the mission, the purposes, of the Women’s Center, which is to say, with the mission, the purpose, of justice for all people, and an understanding of justice as a project that requires attention to gender and the elimination of injustices based on gender. And while we believe that one day this community ought to be co-terminous with the Christian community, which ought to be fully committed to the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the reign of heaven to the world, and then with the inter-faith community, which ought to be fully committed to global justice and peace, we recognize that the building of a community that shares this belief about what justice entails — respect for and celebration of women’s divinely-created humanity and a divinely-created humanity’s gendered diversity — is an indispensable step in that direction.

All of which helps to indicate why this mission is important. Community is that embodied form of life together that cultivates the goods of human life, and the recognition and appreciation of those goods, specifically in their location in one another and our relationships one to another. Community, then, is something more than expedient relations of exchange, or co-existence in space, such as might characterize anonymous transactional relations in our society. Community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people, with individuated gifts and strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities, stories and aspirations. For us, community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people whose lives are equally the work of a God who is always already community in the depths of the divine being, and who has created us to be, become, and display the image of that community in our own lives.

So as we walk across the 2nd Street bridge in the Louisville AIDS Walk, as we communicate with friends in Wisconsin or Odessa, as we raise money and contribute to the healing of victims of violence in Kinshasa, as we gather to share conversation around a shared lunch or breakfast table in the shared space that is the Women’s Center, and come to share one another’s concerns, questions, stories, triumphs and dreams in the process, we are building community, and living towards the encompassing community for whose arrival we long, which is the real missio Dei.

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

We hope members of the extended community cultivated in and by the Women’s Center will contribute to the community-building work of the Women’s Center during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

“to work for dignity . . .”

. . . kindness that is justice in the face of such dignity.

Second in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

“The Women’s Center at LPTS exists to work for the equality and dignity of all people, including in religious professions . . .”

The Women’s Center’s mission explicitly includes work for the dignity of all people. At first reading, this commitment seems straightforward and innocuous, if not somewhat banal. We contemporary readers are likely to skim over a word like dignity on our way to something juicier. We register its positive valence. We gather a vague impression that it evokes an amicable relation between well-behaved people who treat one another with respect. Our heads nod in easy agreement. All well and good, let’s move on.

Let’s not. As Giorgio Agamben has shown in Remnants of Auschwitz, “dignity” is a problematic concept. Worse, his critique of dignity, and of an ethics based on that concept, indicates that it ought to be an especially problematic notion for a Women’s Center. This mission of working for the dignity of all people calls for more thought.

Agamben’s critique of dignity begins with the history of the idea in Roman law and western philosophy. That history persists in dictionary definitions of “dignity” as “a high rank, title or office, especially in the church,” “one who holds high rank or position, a dignitary,” and “persons of high rank, collectively” (i.e., “the dignity,” a usage similar to that of “the clergy” or “the aristocracy”). Dignity in antiquity was an office or title, therefore something bestowed upon a person, separate from that person, and requiring a deference distinct from anything due to the person apart from the person’s dignity (office).

Much later, as the offices that were dignities passed into antiquity, the “stateliness and nobility of manner, serenity of demeanor, gravity” that had been required of their human bearers came to be valued for its own sake, and to be cultivated as a moral good. Aristocrats no longer in possession of economic or political power who made much of a dignity that took the form of refined manners, tastes and speech make a good example of this understanding of dignity. The notion of a dignity that takes the form of cleanliness, sobriety, discipline in work and rejection of unearned charity that 19th century progressives lauded as the virtue of the laboring class, which had never been in possession of economic or political power in the first place, makes another good example. Dignity in these cases is a way of appearing and behaving as respectable, despite lacking the cultural substance that commands respect.

Agamben’s problem with the traditional notion of dignity is precisely its dependance on a separation and distance between “life and norm.” This irreducible distance requires living people to shape themselves according to that norm in order to have dignity. That is, a life that coincides with its physical, embodied, biological processes must take on and keep up something additional, a specific form, to possess dignity as understood in this way.

But dignified upkeep is not always possible. In certain extreme situations no separation or distance between life and its norm, its “what must be done,” obtains. Recall that Agamben develops his critique in the context of a reflection on the catastrophic extremity of the Nazi death camps. He notes, however, that in the very different, every day extremity of the relations of lovers, dignity also becomes untenable. The maintenance of dignity as distance and decorum is incompatible with that physical, biological, incarnate love that is inseparable from its abandon in and to the beloved.

In fact, a dignity measured as distance from what Agamben calls bare life is arguably least available in the very situations in which the protection that it might afford is most sorely needed. If people who aim to be good must aim for dignity, those people suffering the worst indignities of injustice and violence are precisely those most excluded from the consolation of goodness; and if dignity in that sense is held to be the condition for deferential treatment, that holding leaves the most abused lives the most exposed to further abuse.

Further, the distance from physical, embodied, biological processes wrapped up in this sense of dignity has been particularly denied to women, along with others identified by their embodiment, by the long tradition of western thought. The identification of “woman” at every point with an intrusively female body, the paradigmatic site of undignified sexuality, animal reproduction, and vulnerability to victimization, long made “woman” a pregnant symbol of the opposite of dignity. Real live women could only pursue the social goods that accrued to such dignity by “rising above” their womanly station in the direction of man’s [sic] invulnerable spirituality. Feminists, in opposition to this disastrous denigration of women’s embodied lives, have sought to reappraise precisely these physical, biological processes that take place as flesh-and-blood women.

Dignity as distance, then, cannot be what the Women’s Center exists and calls its friends to work for. That notion, which a cursory reading would leave unchallenged, must be rejected in favor of a more possible and promising understanding of dignity.

That more possible and promising understanding begins with the sense of dignity as “the state or quality of being excellent, worthy, or honorable,” along with a clear understanding that this state or quality cannot rest on anything that would be separable from life, whatever its circumstances. Instead, this state or quality must be understood to coincide with that life, as created by God, embodying the image of God, and beloved of God. Dignity understood in this way does not depend on an irreducible distance between life and life’s conformity to a particular dignified standard. It is, rather, a life’s innate and intrinsic claim to deferential regard, to honor in the face of its constitutive excellence and worth. This dignity is not something that can be gained or lost. Its presence is no protection or guarantee. It can be ignored or recognized, violated or respected. It is, however, the ineluctable posing of a choice, against or for the radical kindness that constitutes justice in the face of such dignity.

The Women’s Center exists to work for this dignity for all people — women as well as men, alternatively as well as customarily gendered, of whatever specific qualities and qualifiers. That mission is, in actuality, our most radical, and religious, commitment.

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

Please consider making a contribution to the Women’s Center during Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

Pass the God Talk, Please

Busy cooking something up

A former student came by the Women’s Center recently, in the aftermath of the Festival of Theology and Reunion. One of the pleasures of being a Women’s Center at a seminary is when students return and tell us what they have been doing and how things are going in their current placements. One of the things that happens in these conversations is that we learn what has stayed with them “out there,” what has proved its worth in the world of daily encounters with parishioners and presbyteries and practical demands, and where the equipment has been less than adequate.

So I was happy to hear that she had shared [2009 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecturer] Kelly Brown Douglas’s book What’s Faith Got to Do With It? with one of the small groups in her congregation. The women had found it challenging, but also exhilarating, and liberating. To which our alumna added, “It just shows that there’s a hunger for theology out there” — in the congregations, in the world of lay people outside the seminaries.

From what I have seen in my own congregation, I’m willing to agree with this assessment. Just last week I listened to another member describe the discussion the Sr. High class had had about theories of atonement, avidly questioning and probing “satisfaction,” “demonstration,” “Christus victor,” and “non-violent atonement.” (Kelly Brown-Douglas would, I hope, be glad to hear the fourth alternative was on the agenda. I know I was.) The weekly groups that gather for Bible study and reflection routinely bring in outside theological reading, and profound questions. This line of thinking reminds me of another conversation reported to me by a professor, in which her conversation partner said “Why do you keep all the good stuff locked away in the seminary? Why don’t we get to hear any of that?”

Upon reflection, it seems the Women’s Center may have been as guilty of keeping theology sequestered as anyone else. Theological reflection is part of what goes on in the Women’s Center, informs what the Women’s Center undertakes, and infuses the Women’s Center’s mission. The purpose of working “for the equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and the building of community locally, nationally and globally” is deeply informed by a vision of God, the Holy One of Israel and of the Risen Savior Jesus Christ, as the One who made humanity in God’s image male and female, who demands justice and compassion in our dealings with one another, and who calls people into communion with Godself through community with one another. But how many people — even people who are familiar with the Women’s Center and support the work it does — could say that?

We may have been more reticent about saying that kind of thing out loud than we need to be. That reticence certainly does not stem from a shortage of material. One thing people learn in seminary — at least, at this seminary — is that theology is a hidden dimension of everything we encounter in life. Part of seminary training involves learning to make the connections between Biblical categories and concepts, theological vision and insights, and the situations that surround us in our world, or worlds. The fact that people have to be trained to do this indicates that making those connections is not automatic. But the fact that people can be trained to do this indicates that the connections are there to be made. And the fact that we do train people to do this affirms that making these connections, and making them explicit, is worthwhile.

So, as our student reminded us on Thursday, there is a wealth of potential connection-making to be done around the things the Women’s Center does. She would have liked to see even more theological conversation around things like the production of The Vagina Monologues, addressing the need for the production (in the context of life in bodies made by God that are capable of giving and receiving pleasure, and that are so much the vehicle of the life of the spirit that we cannot imagine a spiritual experience or insight that occurs separate from our bodies), and the challenges to our ethical imagination and our daily practice that work raises. And, on reflection, the same could probably be said for most of the elements of the Women’s Center’s program, from the Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture to our participation in the annual Louisville AIDS Walk to our recurrent emphasis on violence against women — and the need for our communities to recognize it, acknowledge it, challenge it, repent of the all-too-familiar and -comfortable arrangements and attitudes that nurture it, and end it — to our participation in the Transgender Day of Remembrance and our celebratory gatherings like Tuesday’s breakfast. We could keep talking for a long time.

Maybe that is part of the problem. Maybe our reticence, to the extent we have been reticent, stems from a fear that not everyone is hungry for theology, especially for theology that intentionally incorporates commitments to taking women and their experiences and insights completely seriously as a source of questions and an index of adequacy. Other words for that might be “feminist” or “womanist” or “mujerista” theology. Maybe we have worried that getting a whiff of theological conversation, far from drawing people to the feast, will instead send many scurrying for the exits. From what I have seen in my own congregation, that response happens, too. There seem to be places, times, audiences, for these theological conversations and engagements. But that highlights the point that there are places, times, and audiences for these theological conversations. Those places and times ache to be filled, not left empty, and those audiences all too often wait eagerly for a curtain that rises too infrequently.

The blog of the Women’s Center seems like it could be one such place. In recognition, then, of that ongoing hunger, and of that waiting audience, we will work at dishing up more God talk along with the standard fare of announcements and discussion of what we are planning and doing. If our hungrier readers have a taste for something in particular, I hope they will let us know!

Inside The Art of Presence

what is the boundary between life and art?


from Johanna Bos

1/11/11 Snow day; Seminary closed, but we continue with class because Cheryl will have to leave after two weeks. The second day of class with Cheryl and a report on our activities is be in order. I am part of the class to create close encounters with the biblical text in a group of nine participants. We begin the day with warm-up exercise and checking in on our state of body and soul. We then move to sit around tables for our discussion of the Sarah/Abraham/Hagar cycle in Genesis (Gen.11:27-23:20), beginning with the lineage of Terah in Ur, and ending with the death of Sarah in Canaan.

Because this is a rich cycle we have selected six episodes for a closer look. We spend the first hour and a half or so taking notice of events, imagining a historical context, being mindful of the way plot develops, characters are set on the stage, how the stories say what they say. Today we considered Abram’s move to Canaan, and the story of Sarai having to pretend, on Abram’s direction, that she is Abram’s sister in Egypt. Questions that arose: was it normal, moral, O.K., for a man with greater power to kill another man and take possession of his wife? Did Abram plan the whole thing, i.e. did he know that Sarai would be taken into the harem of Pharaoh? Did Pharaoh have sex with Sarai? If not, why did God strike the Pharaonic household with plagues? (Cf.the parallel story in Gen.20 where the narrator explicitly states that Abimelek did not touch Sarah (vv.4 and 6). Why is there a duplicate story? We noted the prevalence of words for moving: walking/going/leaving/setting out/traveling/going down/coming close almost all with male subjects. The males in the story are also in charge of much “taking.” Terah “takes” his family, Abram “takes” Sarai and Lot, Pharaoh “takes” Sarai. In the prelude to the episode in Egypt, there is a description of God “appearing” to Abram and Abram engaging in altar construction. The word for “appear” is in the passive form from a root “to see,” and can also be translated “being seen.” We observed that Sarai does not speak, she does not reply to Abram, so we can only surmise that she agreed to the plan. She has not yet received voice in the story.

For the last hour of the morning we go into ensemble work. Throwing puppets in distinct patterns to each other while standing in a circle, walking through and around the wonderful space in Hundley Hall, which we have opened up for the purpose, to a count from very slow to very fast and everything in between. Cheryl gives us a count of three different speeds and tells us to stop and start at the same time. We get a long way toward stopping at the same time, and start all together as if pulled by a string. We stand in a circle again and sing “The soul loves the body, they are one, they are one; the soul loves the body, my body, my soul, my love.” Then we begin to tell our three-minute stories recounting an experience that moved us profoundly, one we will later connect with a biblical character who will provide material for a monologue. I am stunned by the stories; they leave me in awe of the honesty and trust, and the eloquence that comes forth from this group. I can’t wait to hear the monologues on the biblical characters! We also play some wonderful games, designed to help create a spirit of ensemble work among us. We play the “What Am I Doing” game and I for one shall never forget Jaeseok playing guitar. How fortunate we are to have Cheryl as our teacher in all these endeavors.

The Art of Presence Begins

The Art of Presence J-Term 2011Today is the day!

The day for the unveiling of “The Art of Presence: The Text, Theatre, and Theology,” that is, a long-awaited J-term course being taught by Rev. Cheryl Goodman-Morris, Women’s Center J-Term Artist-in-Residence, and Rev. Dr. Johanna Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament and Women’s Center Faculty and Financial Liaison. The course begins this morning at 9:00 a.m. in Hundley Hall, Gardencourt.

We are particularly happy to welcome Rev. Cheryl Goodman-Morris to campus as this year’s Artist-in-Residence. Goodman-Morris is a distinguished alum of Louisville Seminary (M.Div. ’77 ), a nationally recognized playwrite (“Puah’s Midwife Crisis”), founder and Artistic Director of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservancy, and Minister of Worship and Arts at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, California. We are fortunate to have the benefit of Goodman-Morris’s experience and knowledge of theatre and its resonances with textual interpretation and liturgical practice.

We look forward to this term’s exploration of the connections between textuality, interpretation, performance, and the various forms of inhabiting and coming to achieve familiarity with the scriptural text.

The themes addressed in The Art of Presence highlight the mission of the Artist-in-Residence program, which was conceived as a way to celebrate and cultivate “alternative intelligences,” adding to a curriculum that leans heavily on the linear, left-brain, analytical models that prevail in the academy. We are convinced that God’s intention for creation and humanity is diversity, and we observe that the wealth of diversity in our world is a gift we often fail to unwrap and take delight in. The aim of the Artist-in-Residence program is to encourage its participants to embrace that diversity through the medium of the arts, explore the novel insights a different approach to learning makes available, and then share those insights with the community in a relevant way. This year, that sharing will take the form of a final public theatrical performance, Friday, January 21, 8:00 p.m., in Hundley Hall, Gardencourt.

We wish the students and teachers of the Art of Presence well, and look forward to seeing and hearing the fruits of their exploration later this month!

In the meantime, members of the Seminary community are cordially invited to welcome Rev. Cheryl Goodman-Morris to campus at an informal reception in the Women’s Center, Friday, January 14, 4:00 p.m. We look forward to seeing many of our friends and neighbors there, and to sharing a pleasant time with our Artist-in-Residence.