Saturday, January 10, 2009

3.2 Faith Expressed in Women's Lives

The Magdalene Gospel may be an example of a collection of such stories. Written by Mary Ellen Ashcroft, a professor of English who focuses on women’s stories and the wife of an Episcopalian priest, the book portrays fictional first person accounts of the women of the gospel. Ashcroft includes references to Biblical text and scholarship to compose historical context that illuminates the significance of Jesus’ relationships with these women. More significant to me, she gives visibility and voice to women I didn’t learn about while growing up in the evangelical Christian church, although they were there in the text. As if to reinforce the point, Ashcroft deftly places the reader inside the character’s experience of rejection transformed into visibility through Jesus. But these women are not just acted upon by the mercy and magnanimity of Jesus. They also exercise their own agency. Mary, the mother of Jesus says, “It seemed to me overwhelming that I should have said ‘yes’ to having such a child.” (Ashcroft, 1989, p. 81) Each one said, “yes” to following Jesus and chose the risk to their safety and status.

Through the women’s point of view we see Jesus newly too. In several stories we observe him defying the religious conventions of proximity to women and ritual cleanliness for the sake of healing a woman. In these stories, the gospel message is not a promise of paradise in the hereafter but has immediate implications for individual and social life. The reader can feel that significance of that in the stories of women whose lives were changed even as their spirits were. In one story, after healing a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus defends the act calling her a “daughter of Abraham” who deserved to be freed of her ailment. His words, as much as the action, shock and offend the religious leaders and establish a pattern of Jesus overturning the established meanings to release “essentially something different.” (Weil, 1951, p. 81)

In her poignant retellings Ashcroft too embedded challenges to contemporary conventions. For example, she depicted the healing of the woman who bled as “an act of ritual cleansing, washing from womanhood the fear and degradation with which religions have fouled it for centuries.” (Ashcroft, 1989, p. 21) I don’t know if I believe the interpretations Ashcroft indicates, even with the endnotes she provides referencing her stories. But hearing the gospel in women’s lives calls me into the faith anticipating relevance and connection. It tells me that this story is about me too, generating a sense of continuity and having a place to occupy and from which to grow.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by Sue Monk Kidd, a writer of books for Christian women and wife of a Southern Baptist pastor, describes Kidd’s awakening to and grappling with the patriarchy of Christianity in a years long process. Through reflection, study, and new experiences she finds what she calls the Sacred Feminine. (Kidd, 1996) Reading another evangelical Christian woman’s expression of emotions and questions that echoed my own encouraged me in my search for a spirituality that included women’s lives and honored the feminine.

Early in the book Kidd describes a familiar experience. While the deacons are being ordained in church one Sunday her young daughter asks, with excitement, when it will be time for the women. After telling her daughter that they don’t ordain women, only men, the confusion and disappointment on her daughter’s face reminds Kidd of being a little girl and learning that men, and no women, were the leaders of the church. It had felt like being told that women were in some way less than men; less than she’d expected herself to be. In another church service she recognized that all of the language in the service, in hymns and in scripture, was masculine. After years of accepting that it meant her too, Kidd didn’t really feel included anymore.

For me it was only later in my life, after I participated in services where women were expressly included, that I knew what included really meant in a religious community. Observing women sharing leadership and worship roles, and hearing women identified through inclusive language, made me immediately part of the service. It called for my attention like my mother using my full name. As much as I was included in the worship the faith we expressed grew in me.

Kidd identifies a consequence for the years of participating in a woman’s role in a man centered religion, “Steeped in a faith tradition that men had named, shaped, and directed, I had no alliance with what might be called the Sacred Feminine. I had lost my connection to feminine soul.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 20.) She further defines feminine soul as “a woman’s inner repository of the Divine Feminine, her deep source, her natural instinct, guiding wisdom, and power.” Here her writing moved from familiar experiences of awakening to the creative work of composing new understanding. The idea of the “Divine Feminine” gave me more language for identifying and working with my own exploration. It still cooperated with the evangelical Christian assumption that male and female are different. But it added a new element to hold what women have to dwell in, grow from, and offer to their faith community.

It’s difficult to describe the challenges of exploring this new realm of faith and language. It felt like shedding the identity and the circle of rules that say, “I am saved and safe and God’s own.” It tests faith – do I really believe that truth will be there and catch me? And yet, “it alters something inside a woman when she begins to turn also to women, to see women, and therefore herself, as namers of reality… Was it such a wild thought that women might start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 38) Wild… like a madwoman.

The vivid and personal essays in Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens fostered such a vibrant awakening for me that sections of the book, a paragraph or a sentence, grew into fully developed concepts. In these stories women “start naming God, sacred reality, and their own lives themselves.” (Kidd, 1996, p. 38) Returning to the text, I searched for the section about rice as a metaphor for Christ and found it to be a passing mention. Absent from the book entirely is the story that I’ve always remembered about a woman who tore out pages of the Bible that she didn’t agree with. Through the power of my imagination and inaccurate memory, the book continues to challenge and influence me.

The essays prompted questions about where theology comes from and who does it. What does it mean to grow theology in the soil of one’s own experience? What are the implications of theology developed by experiences, worldviews, and cultures so unlike one’s own? Chung Hyun Kyung, in an essay about her mothers’ (birth and adoptive) different experiences at the intersection of Christianity, Confucianism, and traditional Korean religion introduced me to an approach to theology that suggested agency and creativity.
Since women were excluded from the public process of determining the meaning of religion, they were free to carve out a religion of their own, without the constraints of orthodoxy. Their ‘imposed freedom’ allowed them to develop in private a religious organic whole that enabled them to survive and liberated them in the midst of their struggle for full humanity. The heart of their spirituality was the life power that sustains and liberated them. ‘Life-giving power is the final criterion by which the validity of any religion is judged. (Cannon, Isasi-Diaz, Pui-lan, & Russell, 1988, p. 67)

Despite the cultural differences between women in Korea and women in the US, her statement could have been made about evangelical Christian women. Both groups live in intersections of beliefs. Both groups are not included in the authorized story telling. If evangelical Christian women chose “life-giving power” as the criterion, what might be created? Would it be theology?

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