A Brief Response

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .

The Women’s Center-sponsored performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues that capped the week’s (February 9-13) events, and which raised approximately $1,800 for the Center for Women and Families and for the V-Day organization’s 2009 spotlight campaign, received a number of favorable comments from members of the 200-person audience. It also drew a bit of criticism, in the form of a March 3 article in the Presbyterian Layman online.

The article, as I read it, invites dismay at the Louisville Seminary’s association with the performance. In light of that, it seems worth pointing out that The Women’s Center at LPTS, which sponsored the week of events and the performance of Ensler’s work, does not receive ongoing support from the denomination (PCUSA). The Center does receive in-kind support from the Seminary, like our space — WE LOVE IT! — and the benefits of some (gratefully appreciated!) Seminary services. The Center, in turn, apprises the administration of the Seminary about its activities, which we believe are beneficial to and supportive of the overall educational mission of the Seminary. However, the Seminary is not responsible for, and does not necessarily endorse, the program of the Women’s Center.

Leaving aside a couple of other points, I’ll admit I was a little sad that some of my own remarks about the church in relation to events taking place on the campus on Thursday, February 12 failed to appear in the Layman article; the full remarks are available in Toya Richards Hill’s article “Acknowledging the church’s hurtful depictions of women is focus of worship and panel discussion”. That article reports on the events of one day during the week, which focused particular attention on the church’s role in the problem of violence against women.

While I’m reasonably sure that there are a number of matters on which the Presbyterian Layman and the Women’s Center at LPTS are unlikely to see eye to eye, I’m also reasonably sure that readers of the Layman would agree that

. . . the church also stands in a tradition of Scripture, story, and relationship with God, who is known as liberator, doer of justice, savior of the oppressed, comforter, compassionate one, and we could go on. The tradition of the community of faith, precisely for this reason, is also what can empower people to call for an end to violence. It is the church that can encourage survival after violence, bind up and heal wounds, proclaim the injustice of violence, and work for a world in which violence is no more.


Worship in the Words of the Tradition

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .

Thursday, February 12, turned out to be a day of examining the ambiguous legacy and role of the church in relation to violence against women.

The V-Week Planning Group had planned from its earliest meetings to include a lunch-hour faculty panel on this day, and had early identified “The Role of the Church in Violence Against Women” as the desired topic. The idea was to find a way to consider the positive contributions of the Christian tradition alongside its complicity in patterns of violence against women. We wanted to celebrate the way themes of, e.g., human worth and dignity, equality before God, love and belovedness, healing, “setting the captives free,” empower women who have been touched by violence, remind them that this violence is wrong and is not the last word on them and their lives, and give them the strength and healing to persevere, survive, overcome, experience resurrection. At the same time, we wanted to be especially cognizant of the undeniable negative contributions of the Christian tradition, especially in its historic role as western cultural hegemon. (Sometimes difficult to remember in these post-Constantinian, post-Protestant-consensus, post-etc. times is that Christianity was an integral part of the dominant cultural paradigm in Europe for 14 or 15 centuries — at least, according to the last western civ text I checked). We wanted to hold those two legacies in tension, consider what that dual legacy might mean for members of the church today, what we might need to be critical of or re-evaluate, what we need or might need to repent of, what action it might call us to, and so on.

With this in mind, it was a short step to a decision to plan an opening worship service for the day that made this ambiguous legacy explicit, and that called attention to some of the connections between what we say we worship, how we say it, what we counsel members of the church, what we require of women and men within the body of the church . . . and the violence that women suffer in many forms all around the world.

Sad fact: It didn’t take long to bring together texts from scripture that have historically been used against women, statements from the Church Fathers that reinforced attitudes that women ought to submit to, and may well deserve, violent treatment on the part of husbands and other authorities, and militant or self-sacrificial metaphors that contribute to a normalization and acceptance of violence. (Here is a draft of the order of service.)

What we had not anticipated was the way this worship service would make people feel. As liturgists Brianne Jurs, Marie McCanless and Christine Coy-Fohr read, and as the congregation responded in song — led by Mary Beth McCandless — the sense of shock and speechlessness was almost palpable. As Mary Beth remarked after the service ended, “it makes you realize how much translating you’ve been doing all along.” Usually these messages — a constantly available strand of the tradition — are diffused in the context of other worship. In this service, brought together as they were, there was little opportunity to ignore or deny the insistent message of the unwholesomeness of women, and the acceptability of violence in the right cause.

One clear conclusion from that painful experience is that many of the church’s habitual tropes, images, and slogans deserve considerably more thought and qualification than we usually give them, and that some — if they survive scrutiny at all — call for frankly critical analysis and far more judicious deployment in the life of the worshipping community.

As the service progressed, members of the congregation wrote down some of the things we’ve learned about women and girls from our participation in this tradition and posted them around the worship space, an action that concretized this day’s worship and prepared for that of the next. The deep pink cards constituted visible reminders that the space in which we worship is not empty. It always already contains — for us, and our neighbors — many echoing voices, words, messages, many indelible images, unforgettable experiences. Not all of those invite, welcome, affirm . . .

Sometimes, indeed, as we saw and felt on this morning, it takes courage and determination simply to enter a worship space and to pursue what is vital and nourishing there, while fending off and blocking out what is poisonous.

It should take less. Remembering and speaking the words of the tradition that make worship hospitable to women is one of the concrete things the church and its members can do in the effort to end violence against women.

Why a Venite Café?

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .

Lis Valle at the Venite Café

Lis Valle at the Venite Café

Wednesday night, February 11, saw the Winn Center dining rooms turned into an almost magical Venite Café, complete with cozy lounge furniture, soft lighting and other appropriate decor (art decoration provided by the ever-resourceful Marie McCanless), as well as instrumentals and stage, refreshments provided by Ted Burke’s Dining Services, and a special feature centerpiece cake detailed by Gail Monsma and Johanna Bos. The talented seminary performers who took advantage of the open mike format, too numerous to mention by name for fear of slighting any!, outdid themselves, aided and abetted by emcees Brennan Pearson and Megan Case.

So, some readers may ask, why? What is the purpose of a . . . we might be tempted to call it . . . festivity in the middle of a week of events focused on a serious subject like violence against women and girls?

A part of the answer is that the Venite Café was not simply a “festivity”, but featured serious offerings of talent as well: from song to poetry to personal monologues, the subject matter of the evening continued to touch on the subject matter of the week: the presence and persistence of violence against women. The content highlighted the connections of this violence to perceptions of women as sexual objects rather than sexual subjects, as part of the environment of things rather than as members of the world of human beings.

A part of the answer is that the Venite Café provided a venue for the creative energies of a wider group than the cast of the Women’s Center’s production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. This was, indeed, one of the initial purposes of the event. “Some people will want to write their own monologues!” “Some people will want to share their own stories!” Since that sharing isn’t something that can be accommodated within the frame of the registered performance, we created a venue in which it could be accommodated, and could provide an occasion for building community and enjoying each other’s talents and gifts.

But after being there, listening to the many talented and thoughtful and ribald and personable seminary performers, sharing the evening with all of these folks, many of whom are preparing to minister to the church, all of whom play some role in their various communities of faith, at least one other reason suggests itself.

V-Day contains a significant subtext having to do with women’s embodied lives and the role of physical pleasure in the context of those lives. That is a complex subject — historically, women’s allegedly insatiable sexual appetites provided a rationale for the exclusion of women from positions of responsibility and the imputation of inferiority to women. From approximately the Victorian period on, however, women’s alleged sexual reserve, innocence, even disinterest provided a rationale for the confinement of women to domestic environments in which they could — so the ideology went — be protected from harsh external pressures and could devote themselves to maternal and domestic occupations suited to their temperaments and gentle desires. (There is a distinct flavor of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” to this story.) On the whole, however, women themselves have had little opportunity and less language to give accounts of their own experiences, describe their own preferences, and affirm the importance of pleasure in the context of their lives.

It is not a coincidence that people whose pleasure is a matter of no importance are also people whose pain is, still too often, a matter of no concern.

Part of the meaning of violence against women and girls is given, made intelligible, by the possibilities for creativity, enjoyment, celebration, and conviviality that flourish in places and spaces where violence is, even temporarily, banished. Part of the meaning of violence against women and girls is given by the song, laughter, exuberance, delight, joy that we witness in places and spaces like the Venite Café, all of which is missing from the scenes of violence against women, the faces and lives of those it touches.

Joy may be one of the fruits of the Spirit — available in a context of love and peace — but it’s realized in the body: in the human body, and — ideally — in the body of the community that is called to make cultivating that fruit, and that context, its mission in the world.

V is for Venite Images

Some beautiful and atmospheric photos of the cast and performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in Hundley Hall on Friday, February 13 are available at http://michaelwhitman.shutterfly.com.

Thank you, Michael, for taking these and making them more widely available!

Worship in a Woman’s Voice

Still thinking about V is for Venite . . .


The events of V is for Venite included a significant element of worship — intentionally. The LPTS community, and wider community of faith of which it is a part, is a worshipping community. Worship within the community of faith is a central practice, one in which, in the course of honoring God — at least, so we hope, given that our narrow understandings of God and the words and ideas we bring into worship also always run the risk of dishonoring God — we bring before God our deep concerns, wounds, trials, failures, regrets, our fears and hopes, doubts and faith, frustrations and joys, our anger, love, need and desire, not least our desire for and delight in God, Godself. A week designed to focus this community’s attention on the problem of violence against women, and the need to mobilize theological and ecclesial resources to end it, had worship as a central element from the very beginning.

Worship on Wednesday, February 11, gave us the privilege of listening to the senior sermon of Clemette Haskins, in the context of a worship service that addressed the intersection of gender and race particularly, and that brought the words of the scriptural tradition to bear in reflecting on the role of women’s embodiment, erotic power and agency. Haskins’ text was Song of Songs 1:2-6, a text that provides an occasion for hearing “the Word of God” in the accents of a passionate woman, a woman “black and beautiful,” a woman who has been assigned the role of a spokes-model for The People or The Church by generations of commentators, a woman whose role as a prophet with the word of the Holy One in her mouth and on her lips and tongue has not been taken sufficiently seriously.

The need to take seriously and pay attention to the fluidity of the frankly erotic images of the Song of Songs, to the way the frankly gendered images of the Song alternate and respond to one another, merge into one another, and upset attempts to make them conform to rigidly allegorical one-to-one correspondences was one arresting message from this worship. The same is true for the imagery of color and race, as was underscored by the prayer composed for the occasion by Courtney J. Hoekstra, riffing on themes in Psalm 139 to overturn conventional uses of light and dark, white and black and bring the images of brightness – warmth – creativity – divinity – knowledge – God – blackness into alignment in the center of prayer for illumination. This honoring of God in prayer, praise, and proclamation reminded us that our categories contain more possibilities and promises than we normally explore, that we limit our understanding when we try to impose a single standard of perfection, aesthetic or otherwise, on the wealth of the riches and wisdom in the reality created by God.

And this was aesthetically rich worship, incorporating music led by Angela Smith-Peeples and Jeremy Franklin on piano, and also original art and its interpretation by the Preacher.

Cultural tradition, with its complex legacy of patriarchy, racism, colonialism, has made the image of a beautiful, passionate, erotic, assured woman, a black woman, a powerful woman, into an ambiguous one, and one we often don’t immediately associate with “God.” Our diffidence here is not supported by the text. It’s not The Book, but our imaginations and their limits, schooled as they have been by rigid racial and gender systems, that make “woman” and “black” predicates in which we all too often don’t envisage the image of God.

And it’s those limited imaginations that can make us dare, in our short-sightedness, to violate that image in the persons of those we too often fail to see as embodying the spirit and the power of the living God.

This rich and enriching worship service worked to liberate narrow imaginations from those limits. We are thankful to Clemette Haskins, Courtney Hoekstra, and others for making it part of the events of V is for Venite.

[site for the image: Wikimedia Commons – shin-dot]

[Please note: this entry was edited 3/11/09 to remove the beautiful image by Anna Ruth Henriques, “Song of Songs Verse III”, which we regrettably included here without the permission of the artist, or the owner of the work, the Art Museum of the Americas. We encourage Wimminwise readers to visit the Museum’s online exhibit, “New Possessions”, to view that work.]

V is for Va-Voom!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

The events of V-Week frankly overwhelmed us here at the Women’s Center — but in a wonderful way! And not least with the climax (if you will) of the week, with Friday’s performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

We were completely taken by surprise at the demand for tickets. We had to shut down online sales by Wednesday, for fear of double bookings, and were apologetically telling people we would be selling standing room long before the end of the week. (Our apologies to everyone who turned away in discouragement! Next time we’ll plan more performances.)

As it turned out, we were able to squeeze in everyone who turned out for the packed-house performance, and what a performance it was! Thanks go to the talented cast of students and faculty, and to our incomparable director Christine Coy-Fohr, who along with the talents of art director aaron guldenschuh, lighting director Daniel Stillwell, and sound director Sonja Williams created a visually rich backdrop for the varied tones and voices that narrated Ensler’s sampling of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder, as well as experiences of violence.

Over the course of the next few days or so, we hope to sort out some of the highlights and insights of the week. For now, however, this first observation: that the narratives of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder constitute a context for the narratives of experiences of violence.

As we know from exegesis class, context matters. Without it, the pericope floats, excised, in an abstract space of intellectual consideration, apart from the body of the text in which its fuller meaning becomes apparent.

People often consider “violence against women” in this decontextualized and recontextualized way — as something that shows up on a list (e.g., of “women’s issues” or “contemporary problems”) of things to think about or donate money to, as something “we’re against, obviously,” as something with its own awareness day and ribbon color and “focus on” Sunday. The sitz im leben of violence against women is not (or not only) the shelter, the flourescent agency lobby, the living room, the counseling session in the pastor’s study. It’s got to include women’s lives and experience, women’s embodied possibilities for pleasure, creative achievement, joy and exuberance.

That seems obvious enough. And it’s precisely a dramatization of [some of] those experiences, from women’s perspectives and in women’s words, that The Vagina Monologues presents. We will be reflecting on the new insight that’s given us all into the meaning of “violence against women” for some time, and trying to work out ways to respond to the renewed and even clearer call to end it.

/edited for content 2-18-09/

“Until the Violence Stops” Prompts Reflection and Dialogue

Come, days without violence!

Come, days without violence!

A group of LPTS students and staff met Tuesday in the basement of Schlegel Hall to watch the documentary film “Until the Violence Stops,” as part of the observance of V is for Venite.

The film dramatizes the experiences of five diverse communities around the work of V-Day — an international movement to end violence against women and girls — and in the process gives some of the background on the connections between Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and the V-Day movement. As the film notes, the dramatic form of live theatre helps concretize, make more vivid, and bring home the multi-dimensional meaning of violence against women, and the need to end it, in ways that talk or literature simply doesn’t.

The same could be said about the film. In its images of participants in performances around the world, in the testimonies and faces of individual survivors, the audience sees the face of violence against women — what it means in the lives of these women reminding, standing for, the much larger (almost overwhelmingly) reality.

It’s difficult to talk after seeing this film, especially for the first time. The enormity and variety of what needs to be faced, faced down, and brought to an end can leave a person speechless. The depth of pain and suffering, barely touched, can leave a person feeling completely overwhelmed. LPTS Dean of Students Kilen Gray noted one response to the film as a wish to share the understanding the film provides with a congregation in as dramatic, vivid and powerful way as possible. As others noted, bringing the reality, emotions, needs, and calls around violence against women into the life of worship is both particularly necessary, and particularly difficult. It meets the resistance of worship committees, maybe because people feel themselves incapable of doing or saying “the right thing.”

And yet, it’s clear that silence is not “the right thing.” As Gray also noted, it’s the atmosphere of taboo that surrounds every form of violence against women that permits it to go on, to thrive. Breaking that silence, naming violence as wrong, already constitutes support for women who have endured violence and a needed call to confession, repentance and (one hopes) healing for perpetrators. Breaking the silence also begins the needed change in the systems — which tragically include the church and its institutions — that enable and perpetuate violence.

At least one thing is clear: the church needs to be present and active not only in calling for an end to violence against women and girls, but in working for that end.