Book review: Lady Midrash

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the voices and stories of women are not always told in the Bible, and even when they are, they reflect a male perspective, and, presumably, mostly male authorship. There are many women in the biblical text, from Eve, Sarah, and Rachel to Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth. But we do not always hear very much about them or learn their stories, thoughts, and experiences. In Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, 2016), Elisabeth Mehl Greene asks the question, “What if?” What if these women’s stories had been told in the text, or what if they had been the ones telling the stories? Who is missing or unnamed in the text, and what might they have had to say about the stories depicted in the Bible?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene

Greene is engaging in a form of midrash, a Jewish tradition of wrestling with the text: asking questions of the text, and letting the text question us. This not only occurs through logic, through questions that can be answered, but by writing in the form of poetry, Greene is able to express and open up in the reader “informed imagination” (xi). Her poems are well researched and she clearly understands the context of the Ancient Near East and Judea under Roman rule in first century Palestine, but she also engages in playful creativity, irony and critique, expansive and prophetic truth-seeking alongside the mundane tasks performed in the everyday lives of the depicted women.

Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.
Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.

Engaging in a “hermeneutic of remembrance” (a quote from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Greene, xviii), Greene invites us along on a journey of imagination, bringing to our awareness the stories of women who are “unnamed, unexplored, or even erased” (xii). She explores through poetry the stories and perspectives of 60 biblical personages, some named in the text (Eve, Ruth, Hannah), some unnamed (Jephthah’s daughter, the lover of Solomon, the sister of Jesus), and some presumably present but not mentioned (the women at Mt. Sinai, wise travelers from the East).

What if we heard their voices? What if their interactions with and understanding of God were also recorded? What more might we know of God, and of humanity’s relationship with God, if we were open to hearing from God through all present? This begs the question, who are the unheard ones in our midst today? Whose voices are we missing, and what might we hear and know of God if we listened more deeply to those around us today? How might we record and pass along such stories to those who come after us in such a way that a well-rounded perspective of the creative dance between God and humanity can be known?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene and co-presenter, Mitra Motlagh, give workshop on Lady Midrash at Christian Feminism Today conference, June 2016. Photo credit: Jann Aldredge Clanton.

I had the privilege of meeting Elisabeth Mehl Greene last summer at a Christian Feminism Today conference, where she led a workshop on this text. She invited us to sit with a text about a woman from scripture and ask questions of the text. What do we learn about the woman from the text? What do we not know of her story? What might she add to the story if we could hear her voice? Greene invited us to write some reflections, and even to try our hand at midrashic poetry, pursuing some of the questions and wisdom God might have to offer as we explore these stories using our informed imagination. I found this to be a challenging and fun way to engage with these texts that can often become sort of dry, and in some cases painful and sad, when seen again and again at face value.

Greene and Kendra Weddle Irons (who wrote the Foreword) acknowledge that some may worry about applying this poetic license to the scriptural text. Irons says, “It is much safer to believe God never changes and therefore the Bible reflects a similar inflexibility. But such intransigence fails to take seriously the teaching method Jesus used. His parables with their twists and turns never provided easy or tidy answers…. Similarly, midrash requires active listening so that questions rather than statements are cultivated and considered” (xi).

I enjoyed reading these poems slowly, letting these female characters come alive in my imagination. No longer two-dimensional figures offering a backdrop to (male) heroes, these poems offered a window into the human beings behind the biblical depictions. I wonder what it would be like to read Lady Midrash with a women’s Bible study group, reading the biblical texts from whence these poems arise, asking questions, and seeking after God through new entry points into ancient stories. I would also recommend assigning these poems in Bible classes, providing a different way of approaching biblical texts, and encouraging students to take note of the women in the text, as well as to recognize the humanity of biblical authors and other characters within the biblical narrative. This book might be especially apropos for courses such as Women in the Bible, or feminist explorations of the Bible.

In Lady Midrash, Greene simultaneously upholds the importance of the scriptural stories in continuing to offer meaning to spiritual seekers today, as well as a willingness to question, dig deep, seek after and find God, and grow in one’s faith through tenacity, hope, creativity, birth, prophecy, grace, wisdom, and friendship. By bringing these women’s stories to life, we are better able to see ourselves represented in the text, in all our failures and successes, loves and broken heartedness: in short, in all the glory and tragedy that makes us human.

Here is one poem that is speaking to me particularly today:

Nebiyah*
(The prophetess who bore Isaiah’s children)

Hear me, you heavens!
Listen to me, earth!
For God has spoken,
spoken through me.
God spoke to Isaiah also,
but I birthed God’s messages
in my body,
burning coal on my lips,
words in my mouth,
children in my arms.
Know this.

Therefore the Lord
will give you a sign:
a prophetess will conceive
and give birth
and will call the child Immanuel,
which means God With Us.
I did as I was told.

Take a great scroll
and write on it
with a woman’s hand:
Go to the prophet,
conceive and bear
“the remnant,” and “the plunder.”
They will answer to these names
and in the echo
you will hear deafening wing claps.
Here am I, send me.

Another mother went to a prophet
and now her precious ones answer to
“without mercy”
and “not my people.”
O Lord, how long?

And after all of this,
angels and infants,
visions and promises,
I was never his wife.

No eagles bore me up,
but I ran, ignoring weariness,
I walked and did not faint.
I carried the messages.
God was with me.
Perhaps one day
my strength will be renewed.

(*Nebiyah is the transliteration for the female version of the Hebrew word for prophet. There is some uncertainty among scholars regarding whether this woman who bore Isaiah’s sons was his wife, a prophetess, or both. What is clear is that, although she bore the children of the prophecy through her body, we know very little about her. What is her story? What else did God say through her? How does God speak to you through this scrap of a reclaimed story?)

Re-storying and re-membering at the Christian Feminism Today Conference

Last week I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Christian Feminism Today conference in Indianapolis, IN. This was my first time at this gathering, which has been meeting every other year since the 1970s. I found the community welcoming and so supportive of a newbie to the group! The group included many wise and fun individuals, many of whom have spent their careers dealing with sexism and attempting to enact and embody an egalitarian paradigm in the church and the academy. Many of the people there have been wounded by the church, but refuse to give up, and instead have found this group and found the Spirit present there.

Glen & Fanny11232014_0000 (1)
My great-grandparents, Glen & Fanny (Nutting) Beebe

I personally shared on the topic of: “Christian Feminism for the 21st Century: a prophetic eco-praxis mash-up of tradition and culture that would cause my homesteader great-grandmother and earlier feminists to roll over in their graves.” I think I won the longest title award! I enjoyed sharing about my mom’s “Granny” and what I wish had been passed down through the generations of the knowledge and wisdom she held, and also my recognition that her homesteader lifestyle came at the cost of the livelihood and lives of those who had previously lived on the land. It also came at the cost of the ecosystems that were destroyed by tearing out sagebrush for monocropping and damming the river. I shared that we’re not going to make progress on feminist issues unless we work to make progress on ecological and racial issues at the same time, because they’re all connected to a culture of domination. I had previously written somewhat on this topic for Christian Feminism Today in the article entitled: “Scarcity vs. Abundance: Moving Beyond Dualism to ‘Enough.’

Other presenters included Austin Channing, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and Diana Butler Bass. I loved having the chance to learn from and meet these excellent speakers and writers. Kristen Kobes Du Mez wrote up an excellent review of the conference, especially connecting the talks of these three women and myself, on her blog on Patheos: “History, Memory, and Relevance: Reflections on Christian Feminism Today.” Go there and read her thoughts!

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

I am honored to be included in such company, and I was grateful to the Spirit for giving me words that fit in with the themes also presented by these other speakers. It felt like we were definitely on the same wavelength. I reviewed Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, back in January, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know her virtually since then. She teaches at the other Quaker seminary, Earlham School of Religion, and her understanding of the Spirit shows a definite Quaker influence! Or, at least, her understanding of the Spirit fits right in in Quaker circles, and she’s listening to the same Spirit I know and connect with as a Friend.

Diana Butler Bass

Surprisingly (to me), Diana Butler Bass‘s talk was also heavily influenced by Quakers. She shared about her newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. As she was doing research for that book, she learned about her Quaker ancestry. A Quaker myself, I was amazed by how much of an influence her Quaker heritage had on her self-identity, and how much it had impacted her upbringing even though she hadn’t previously known where that stream of her beliefs and being came from. I’m going to read Grounded soon and so I’ll return to this idea later, but I was really struck by the power of our tradition’s emphasis on contemplation and social justice action. We are a small denomination, but God’s Spirit has multiplied our efforts! Butler Bass reminded us that the Bible says a curse will last a few generations, but a blessing will last a thousand generations. May we as Friends continue to be a blessing!

Austin Channing

My own talk followed Austin Channing‘s prophetic message, and I appreciated how she spoke out of her context as an African American woman, both challenging and encouraging this mostly-white group of mostly-women to reach out to one another. She showed us the women in the pre-Exodus story: the midwives, the princess, Miriam, and the mother of Moses. They practiced civil disobedience at all levels of society. As Channing put it, Pharaoh was afraid of the men, but he miscalculated! She encouraged us to not let fear divide us, but to remember and tell the less presentable parts of our stories.

It’s my hope that my work to tell the story of Granny and my Quaker feminist ancestors did this idea justice, telling both the parts I’m proud of and the parts I’m not proud of, and attempting to live in a way that leads to justice for all the marginalized today.

“Jeong” in ecotheology

414gqwwwvql-_sy344_bo1204203200_My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, went live Monday on Christian Feminism Today. She writes well and covers a broad range of topics of interest to Christian theologians, but you’ll have to go to the review to find out more! For that review I focused more on the book’s contribution to the feminist theology conversation, but I also wanted to comment on its usefulness for ecotheology.

Although Embracing the Other does not purport to be ecotheology, Kim does work regarding care for the environment. She’ll be leading a workshop at Earlham School of Religion‘s spirituality gathering April 27, 2016, “Justice Lives in Relationship: The Poetry & Practice of Eco-Spirituality,” regarding COP21, stewardship, and climate justice. (This looks like a great event! If you’re near Richmond, IN, sign up and then tell me how it goes!) In Embracing the Other, Kim does not address ecotheology directly, but she does write about the importance of a sense of interconnectedness in theology. She focuses on pneumatology due to the Spirit’s inability to be pinned down or boxed up, themes of import in ecotheology, especially in the work of ecofeminist theologians such as Sallie McFague (who, in fact, Kim refers to in her discussion of the Spirit, pp. 129-130).

41y-asoj9zl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Kim introduced me to the work of W. Anne Joh, postcolonial feminist Korean American theologian, who speaks of the Korean terms han and jeong to describe the ideas of unjust suffering and sticky love, respectively. First of all, I appreciate how Kim explains the historical precedent for utilizing terms and concepts already present in another language as Christian theology begins to interact with that culture and its language. She shows how this can expand our understanding of theological concepts and our knowledge of God, which of course cannot fit into one language or metaphor. I have yet to read Joh’s book, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology, but it looks like she goes into depth on han and jeong as pertains to the crucifixion, soteriology, and Christology. I’ll need to learn more about these concepts from her work, though Kim gave a great overview of her thought.

Second, these terms could open up a helpful conceptual framework for ecotheology, which I don’t think has been done yet. In my recent work, I’ve been struggling to explain the concept of hope and the transformation that occurs through our meaning-making without reducing suffering to a pious asceticism or glorification of poverty, and I suspect that the concept of han may provide some in-roads. Even more useful is the term jeong, which Kim describes as a sticky love that recognizes the interconnectedness between people. This kind of love refuses to become an enemy of a loved one, even when that loved one is also in some ways an oppressor. In liberation theology, I think this kind of love is something that could really help the conversation, since it’s difficult to become conscientized to one’s role as oppressed and then to figure out how to love the oppressor anyway. It can feel dehumanizing, even though the whole goal is re-humanizing the “other” and ourselves. But how do we have this kind of love? Jeong is something many of us feel, I believe, when we love our spouses, kids, parents, and others despite their faults. It’s a choice we make to love the person even while holding strong boundaries about what we will allow as acceptable behavior towards ourselves. It’s a love that refuses to give up on someone, that keeps trying to love, even in the midst of pain and suffering. Jeong can keep marriages together, if both commit to it, or I can imagine that it would also open the space for divorce when one will not commit to jeong but repeatedly oversteps boundaries of safety and care to the point where one partner must leave in order to show true love.

In ecotheology, I see jeong as a helpful concept because it is the glue that holds everything together. Kim talks about jeong as the work of the Spirit, connecting us to one another, providing the life-force, and the “passion” part of compassion. It is grace and boundary-keeping both. It provides an interconnection so deep we cannot escape it, and a framework for a network of caring relationships with all creation, not just with people. That’s where I see it really helping in the conversation about Christians’ care for the Earth. Jeong allows us to be creatures-in-relation, to hold our place squarely in the midst of the interconnected web. Within conversations about the environment, it is difficult to value human life and at the same time to value the environment. Within a Western worldview where we think of “nature” as “everything on Earth that isn’t human,” we have a hard time conceiving of pristine nature that includes us. (For more on this, see Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics, and William Cronon’s essay “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature” in Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader.)

But jeong gives us a place to fit within the interconnected ecosystem of creation, “stuck” to the rest of creation through a relationship of love, care, and life-essence itself. Jeong allows us to acknowledge our vulnerable position within this network: we need the health of the whole ecosystem in order to survive and thrive ourselves. And this vulnerability allows us to live within the space of solidarity with all of creation: its people and its animals, its plants and its networks of ecosystem services. In our role as conscious stewards of this network, we can choose to live within the flow of the Spirit’s jeong-connectedness, or we can choose to increase han, the unjust suffering under which the whole creation groans. When we try to control “nature,” similarly to what happens when we attempt to control the Spirit and tell it through whom it has our permission to speak and move, we end up squeezing all the life out of the context we’re attempting to control. Through the open-handed vulnerability that is the sticky love of jeong, we live into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world. We become part of the God-created ecosystems, finding our place through care rather than control. We find that we can most be ourselves when we allow others to be wholly other, and wholly, inexplicably, unaccountably, graciously, and intimately loved with a tenacity that refuses to be broken or manipulated. It allows for reconciliation so that we do not have to be against those who live in ways with which we disagree, but we can be conscious of the han in which we are all bound up, and love them with the sticky love of jeong, the Spirit’s interconnecting and transformative, passionate power.

References

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” In Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader, edited by J.R. McNeill and Alan Roe. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Joh, Wonhee Anne. Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Kim, Grace Ji-Sun. Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love. Prophetic Christianity Series. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.