Saturday, January 10, 2009

4.2 Reflections and Revisioning

In a sense, even with our careful planning, we went along with the prevailing story. Our seminars fed right in to the existing debates, boldly articulating the other side of the argument. In the presentations we lost the personal story and personal relationships that gave our weekly meetings such power in our lives. In our small group that individual approach made the issues we discussed not just viable intellectual topics but a way to make sense of our real experience. We weren’t practicing sound bytes or proof texts or testing arguments. We were just making sense of daily life.

But there is a flaw inherent to the individual focus as well. The process of advocating for individual consciousness and authorizing a woman’s personal story also supports, if not prompts, a woman leaving the evangelical Christian church. I noted earlier that in our small group we supported each other in pursuing spiritual paths outside of the evangelical tradition. It was a search for something nourishing and it was a subtle act of rebellion. Ultimately, each of us left the evangelical Christian church for several years or more.

However, rebellion, rather than balancing authority reinforces it. Leaving the church is an individual’s way of reclaiming personal authority from that larger system. The trouble is that when women leave the evangelical Christian community we bring an underlying assumption with us. One of the elements that characterizes evangelical Christian faith is an emphasis is on the individual, even when that individual worships and is taught as a member of a faith community. Although women abandon the church for the sake of personal and spiritual authority, we are reinforcing the power of the models we are rejecting.

The evangelical Christian story espouses the value of individual souls, such that a believer experiences a personal conversion and relationship with the savior. Individuals can know the divine through prayer and Bible study without a priest serving as an intermediary. However, participation in the community requires that the individual conform to the dominant story. When the dominant story renders individual women “other” they leave the church. This cycle indicates a dynamic of the larger system manifested as a tension between the individual and the community.

As long as a woman remains solitary, and those who challenge the dominant story remain splintered from each other, the official story retains its influence and status. The proof of the hegemony is that we prize, personally, that we are separate, individual, divided, as if it were our own value. We have absorbed and claimed the very thing that prevents us from ever being more than on the margins. If we want women’s point of view to be included in the story of evangelical Christian faith we need to approach our participation in the system with a new point of view as well.

Due to the experience of otherness, women have a unique opportunity to perceive the polarity of individual versus community and conceive a response to it. We are prompted to leave the evangelical community because it does not fully include us in it, although we have much to contribute. We can see that the significance of the individual only goes so far. This suggests recognizing a new significance of the community. What if the community was perceived as a primary means of knowing God? What if the health of the community as a whole was regarded as an expression of Christ’s love to the world? Rather than conformity to one story, perhaps each person learning from the stories of others might become the norm. An understanding of community could emerge that nurtures and values the individual in new ways.

In small groups women can practice a model for the church community, while gaining immediate benefits that make it possible to remain in the church. Making sense of common experiences together provides a view of the pattern in the larger system. Sharing personal stories also offers a support for navigating the challenges. In these small circles women can develop the insights and meaning that they would share with the larger body. They develop confidence in articulating their point of view. By remaining they demonstrate the value of community to their faith. Furthermore, they are still connected to the larger body and that allows for the possibility that their information might feed back and foster change.

The challenge of the polarity between individual and community is also facing me in the story of the Madwoman in the Attic. As it stands, the tale clearly articulates one woman’s journey. I’ve neglected to include the community of women that supported me in articulating the story as well as the larger community that the story speaks about and could speak into. The story is an effective metaphor through which I approach my spirituality. But it offers no clues for being in community or how to be heard within a community. There is no way, in this version of the story, to bring the Madwoman out of the Attic that doesn’t just bind Her in my language and point of view. So the story must become more complex and dynamic again.

Bringing the Madwoman out of the Attic will engage small groups of women like those of us that gathered as undergraduates and the women faculty who did the same. Those circles are vital for the way in which controversial issues are engaged and understood in lived experiences in women’s lives rather than abstract arguments. Here, insights are found newly through another point of view – shared and supported by companions even though outside the authorized account. That personal quality offers a bridge not for an exodus of women from the church but a reunion of the evangelical Christian community and revision of our collective story.

In the years since my undergraduate experience with the women’s group I’ve learned other ways to use story. In groups and organizations story is employed to bridge different parts of an institution so that each component can understand the whole from different points of view. Their stories can be shared and together they construct a mutual more complete meaning that recognizes the varied insights of the different experiences of different members. This offers a hopeful vision of the future of women in the evangelical Christian community.

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