I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Thursday, May 13, 2010

New website!

Check out my new website:



I did it! Phew, what a journey...

Monday, September 21, 2009


With my move to Lafayette, I am officially an online learner. It's really lonely. It's hard to stay motivated. I need to get better at a schedule.

I have several papers I need to post from work over the summer... I'll get to them eventually.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Wobbly, Distorted Bridge Between Inside and Out

This was my final project for "Spirituality and the Body." The introduction echoes my theology of the body, but moves in a new direction. I examined several artist self-portraits, but I didn't want to post the images here because of copyright trouble, so I gave you links. My final version of this project was turned in as an artist's book. Wish I could convey that through the blogosphere somehow...


I stand in the bathroom, naked. I look down and see my feet, my legs, my belly, my breasts. I look in the mirror and I see my face. I hold my hand up to my face and run my fingers over my bones, my eye sockets, my cheeks, my jaw. I hold my hand out in front of my face for examination. I see my palm directly in front of me and the back of my hand in the mirror. I again hold my hand to my face. I look at my eyes and lips, my nose. I realize I will never gaze directly upon my face. I will only know it through reflection. I will live my entire life without the ability to actually see my own face.

I look out and see the world. I see the faces of others. I gaze upon the face of my beloved and my beloved gazes upon my face. I am known by my face. In so many ways I am my face. Yet, I will never truly see my face. This inability—this lack—is disturbing. It is an irresolvable unknowing akin only to the perpetual unknowing I feel in relation to God. I am not like Hagar who asked, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?” (Gen 16:13) or Jacob who said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen 32:30) or Moses who’s face used to shine after speaking face to face with God (Ex 33 and Ex 34). Unlike these three, I have not seen God. I feel more truth in the contradictory verse, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). I cannot see God’s face or I will die. I cannot see my face because it’s a physical impossibility. My lack is amplified. I am unable to fully know myself. I am unable to fully know God.

In order to experience the reality of my existence, however, I must respond in some way to this unknowing. If I don’t respond, I run the risk of disappearing—of losing myself. So I hold dearly to the fact that there is something I know. I know I am an embodied human being. In the first few passages of Genesis there is a discussion regarding the creation of human beings: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’…So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them” (Gen 1:26-27). There are also specific details in the story about how human bodies were created: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). God caused a deep sleep to come over this living being and removed a rib from the sleeping flesh. “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman” (Gen 2:22a). This story is the work of someone from thousands of years ago. Someone who wrestled with the same questions I’m wrestling with today. The conclusion this person came to—that of a God breathing into the dust and raising up a being in the likeness of God—is overwhelmingly beautiful. I am happy to imagine myself as a combination of dust and bone and holy breath. I also appreciate the possibility that through the exploration of my image, I might come closer to an understanding of God’s image. Through the exploration of myself, I might meet God.

So where do I look? How do I begin my exploration? Certainly every time I make statements such as “I am a woman / I am married / I am an artist / I am religious” I am striving for self-knowing, for self-identification. But can any of these statements or even a combination of them explain who I truly am? How do I go deeper, beyond superfluous descriptions? How do I reach my internal self? I’m not sure I can, but I know how to try. Just like the writer of Genesis, I have to think about creation and I have to be creative. Throughout the span of human existence, human beings have worked to understand the mystery of being through acts of creation. Human beings write autobiographies, draw, paint, sculpt and photograph themselves. We record images of our bodies moving and the sound of our voices speaking. We take pencils in our hands and make marks on pieces of paper in an attempt to make our inner thoughts become external visual reality. We stare at the reflection of parts of our bodies in the mirror; we can never see ourselves in entirety. We touch our skin and watch our muscles move. We try to figure out who we are. We strive to unite our internal and external selves—our fragmented self.

Through the creation of self-portraits, humans are given an opportunity to ask questions of themselves and then to work at expressing something of what they learn internally to the external world. Self portraiture is a form of communication. We communicate with ourselves throughout the act of creating and we communicate with others as they view our creation. We work at achieving the impossible—the unification of our internal and external selves. We look at our finished product, whether written or painted or something else, and know that we have failed. But hopefully we feel closer. Hopefully we can recognize that we have gained something from the search, that we have built a wobbly, distorted bridge between inside and out. Then we decide how to react to our creation—our bridge to better self knowledge. Are we like God in the book of Genesis who over and over again paused to notice goodness? God called the creation good. This recognition indicates the possibility that it could have been otherwise. After the creation of humanity, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 2:31a).

Six Self-Portraits Examined:
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) The Man of Sorrows, 1522

In this portrait Durer shows a vulnerability usually absent in his self-
portraits. I am more familiar with the forward facing, beautifully draped
body with focused eyes that he painted in 1500. In this metal point
drawing, I am able to see thinning hair, slouching shoulders, downcast
eyes and bare skin. I see something of the way Durer understood
himself at the age of 51, five year before he died. His mouth is slightly
ajar; his belly is relaxed. His eyes don’t attempt contact with the viewer
but they are clearly focused. His brows furrow in a way that
communicate deep concentration. But what is he thinking? This is
where the bridge that he built for himself through the creation of this
work falls apart for me. I cannot cross it. The drawing is for him. I am
left on the outside, unable to understand anything more than glimpses of
the internal world of Durer. I wonder what he learned through the
making of it? Did the dreams of the man from 1500 come true for the
man in 1522?

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) Self Portrait, 1652

Rembrandt created over 70 self portraits. He drew them, he etched
them, he painted them. They span decades of his life. What was he
searching for as he repeatedly studied his own face? After taking a 7-
year hiatus from self portraits, Rembrandt painted this one in 1652. His
face glows out from the picture plane and his eyes look directly at the
viewer. His hands are on his hips and he is dressed casually; one would
guess he’s wearing his everyday working clothes. I get the sense that I’ve
just interrupted him and that he is waiting somewhat impatiently for an
explanation regarding my intrusion. He seems to be daring me to speak.
But maybe he’s not looking at the viewer at all. Maybe he’s staring down
his own reflection and calling himself back into the internal conversation
he’d been ignoring for seven years. He looks confident and inquisitive,
but worn down. What prompted him to return to himself as subject?
What is he asking himself through his searching, tired eyes?

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Self Portrait With Arm Twisted Above Head, 1910

Following the call of Emily Dickenson, I believe that Egon Schiele tells
the truth, but tells it slant. Here he presents his body distorted, with
bones larger than life. The combination of his massive back and
protruding lower ribs suggest that his entire torso is rocking. His face
and elbow, portrayed here as roughly the same size, line up on either
side of his lengthened, straight arm. His fingers are stretched; his body
is elongated. He was 20-years old when he painted this image of himself.
Who did he imagine himself to be? His eyes look straight out, but at
what the viewer has no way of knowing. He looks angry, but also slightly
in pain. He is somehow simultaneously emaciated and exaggerated. Did
he feel both confidence and insecurity? This self portrait offers clues
about Schiele’s self perception. But on a much deeper level, it helps me
to understand my own self perception. Don’t I also have confidence and
insecurity? Don’t I also feel both emaciation and exaggeration in my life?
Through his self exploration, Schiele prompts me towards my own.

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) Self Portrait, 1938

Kathe Kollwitz is someone who spent years documenting human
suffering in a way that showed how keen her attention was. Kollwitz
truly saw the suffering. This self portrait, painted seven years before her
death, emphasizes the weight of this knowledge within her body. She is
standing, looking at the world in front of her, a world that is not
available to the viewer. Her hands are clasped behind her back and it
seems as though she has just exhaled. Her posture is casual; she looks
content in the moment. Yet the entire image exudes heaviness. Her face
is shaded, the light source is at her back. Her body melts into itself,
there are only a few shadows that separate her arm from her torso.
Everything about her form is soft, her belly and neck, even her eyebrow.
This portrait seems to accomplish the impossible—to expose the internal
externally. Sitting with this image of Kollwitz, I begin to breath more
slowly and to feel heavier. I am saddened, but not made anxious. Her
image communicates knowing and acceptance. She has seen what she
has seen and offered what she could. For this self portrait she turned
her awareness inward and stands before the viewer completely exposed.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1959) Self-Portrait with Loose Hair, 1947

Frida Kahlo painted several self portraits. She spent her lifetime
wrestling with questions of identity. In this painting she combines the
visual image with the written word. It seems she didn’t want to leave any
unanswered questions. She tells us that she used a mirror to get her
likeness, her age, the date and her location. She elaborates on where
she is, explaining that this is the city of her birth. Kahlo is clearly trying
to communicate something specific with this work. Yet her eyes are
oddly detached. She seems sucked inward, unaware of anything going
on around her. It’s as if she needs the lettered sign in order to
communicate with a passerby, as if she fears she wouldn’t notice them.
The painting is a contradiction. On one hand she says here I am, plain
as day. But as the viewer tries to look, tries to see, they realize she’s
gone. All she actually offers is a dazed stare. The exploration and
communication is happening internally. The external world is only
given a few distractions, a few obvious descriptions.

Kiki Smith (b. 1954) Free Fall, 1994

This print invites the viewer to participate. In fact, we have no choice.
By opening the book and unfolding the print, the viewer “drops” the
artist. We participate in her fall. Her eyes are closed; she doesn’t seem
fearful. But what should our reaction be? Can we catch her, keep her in
perpetual free fall or should we fold her back up and not worry about
her any longer? Kiki Smith refuses to allow the viewer a simple window
into herself. She’s making a bargain with her audience. She’s willing to
expose herself, to explore creation through her body. But the audience
is not allowed to simply become voyeurs on her journey. We are forced
to react and respond. Will we keep the book closed?

My self-portrait:
Myself in Pieces, 2009 (abbreviated)


Here I stand on the other side of looking; on the other side of a wobbly, distorted bridge between inside and out. I know that I am fragmented. I cannot look completely upon my own body, yet I cannot escape my body. I’ve learned that my inner and outer lives are more connected than I am always able to feel. But I also know that I can separate myself into parts. Here are my toes; here is my stomach. Here is my joy and pain. Here is what you see. But here is what you don’t see. My guts hold more knowledge than I have ever given them credit for. I tend to give my mind all the credit. Science has taught me that the brain controls most (or is it all?) of my functioning and so I ignore the other pieces of myself. If I think I am my brain, shouldn’t I also think that I am my knee? But I could survive without a knee, couldn’t I? But would I be the same? The mystery of my being grows larger. I am learning that I will understand far less of myself than I will ever know. But—and here’s the rub—mystery would mean nothing if it didn’t contain at least something that can be grabbed. The more I look at and try to understand the reality of existence, the more I realize the importance of these little moments of knowing, these handles. Every time I find a handle—the feeling of truth in my guts—I have the urge to follow the instructions given to Moses in the book of Exodus: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground (Ex 3:5). Of course, I have to remember that before Moses was told to take off his shoes, he was told “Come no closer!” (Ex 3:5). In other words, I may find handles, but I won’t find definitive answers. So I take fragments of knowledge when they come and I bless them. According to the imagination of an ancient writer I am dust and bones and holy breath. I am made in the image of a God who said, “I Am Who I Am” (Ex 3:14). I know myself to be an embodied being fully alive and capable of contemplating mystery. In the image of the God of Exodus, I too can say, I am who I am.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Foundational Theology of the Body

In my Spirituality and the Body class we have been reading theologies written from an embodied perspective. We are now attempting to write our own. Over the second half of the semester we will add sections on sexuality and healing. Here is my attempt at a beginning:

I stand in the bathroom, naked. I look down and see my feet, my legs, my belly, my breasts. I look in the mirror and I see my face. I hold my hand up to my face and run my fingers over my bones, my eye sockets, my cheeks, my jaw. I hold my hand out in front of my face and examine my palm closely. I can see my palm directly and the reflection of the top of my hand in the mirror. I again hold my hand to my face. I look at the reflection of my eyes and lips, my nose. I realize, I will never gaze directly upon my face. I will only know it through reflection. I will live my entire life without the ability to actually see my own face.

I look out and see the world. I see the faces of others. I gaze upon the face of my beloved and my beloved gazes upon my face. I am known by my face. In so many ways I am my face. Yet, I will never truly see my face. This inability—this lack—is disturbing. It is an irresolvable unknowing akin only to the perpetual unknowing I feel in relation to God. Unlike Hagar who asked, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?” (Gen 16:13) or Jacob who said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen 32:30) or Moses who’s face used to shine after speaking face to face with God (Ex 33 and Ex 34)—I have not seen God. I feel more truth in the contradictory verse, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). I cannot see God or I will die. I cannot see my face because it’s a physical impossibility. My lack is amplified. I am unable to fully know myself. I am unable to fully know God. This unknowing leads to disbelief. Because I am unable to see God, to fully know God, I am unable to fully believe in God. I must, however, believe in myself even without the benefit of being able to see myself in full. I cannot see my face, yet I look out from my face. I live my life—my embodied life—able to see the face of another, able to see in them, what they will never see in themselves. This is how I know that all of life is connected. We must help fill the lack for each other. We must help each other make the irresolvable unknowing more bearable. We must gaze upon each other’s faces and help to fill in the unknowable gaps, even though we will never succeed. We must spend our lives doing something we will never be able to do. We must try and help the Other see their own face. We must try to see our own face with the help of an Other.

This attempt to help each other bear what we cannot know is what it means to be faithful. Life itself is an unknowing. Why do we live? What do our lives mean? Why must we die? These are the unanswerable questions that humanity has struggled with since the first life was mysteriously, miraculously lived. The hugeness of this unknowing reminds me that my life—my existence—is but one small piece in the fantastically large story of humanity. My body is but one small unit in a vast cosmos. This smallness, my smallness, serves as a constant reminder that I can only know what my body can see, feel, smell, touch, and hear . The story of my life is the story of my body. I only know life through my body. My life began when my body was born and it will end when my body dies. If I lose my leg, I won’t be able to walk. If I lose my hand, I won’t be able to grab. If my heart stops beating, my life ends. I am my body—I will only ever know an embodied life.

The Christian church teaches that there is more, that life will continue after my body dies. I’ve tried in vain to believe this. Like so many people I don’t want to accept my own mortality. Death—the death of my body, of myself—is terrifying. I don’t understand it and I want to stop it from happening. I’ve seen the bodies of my great-grandparents grow small and weak. I’ve seen them lose control over their basic bodily functions. I’ve witnessed their minds slip away from them. I gazed upon their lifeless bodies once death had overtaken them. I don’t know what death means or what happens to people as they die. What do our bodies feel in the exact moment of death—are we even aware of it? St. Paul struggled desperately with these same questions in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. He realized something about embodiment. He knew that life is embodied and he could not imagine it any other way: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:50-51). He continues, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:52-53). Once this change—the putting of imperishability and immortality onto our bodies—is accomplished, Paul can ask triumphantly, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He then reminds us that because of the victory over death given through Christ, our labor is not in vain. Paul believed that we could beat death.

I applaud Paul’s wrestling; I adore Paul’s poetry. I appreciate that he recognized that we are flesh and blood and that he imagined victory over death to mean that we would somehow remain embodied. But I cannot see what he saw. I cannot believe what he believed. I have not witnessed any human ability to beat death. I do, however, agree with Paul that our labor is not in vain. We disagree on why this is so, but we agree that it is. Because I can’t know that there is anything more to life than my current, relatively short-lived embodied existence, I value every last minute. This is all that I have, all that I can be positive of ever having. Therefore, I must do my best to make sure my life is well lived. And I must work hard in this lifetime to ensure that everyone else around me—who I see in the faces of others—are also able to live their embodied lives well. I follow the request of Paul to the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8-9)

This one embodied life matters. It should by this point be clear that I am somewhat of a pragmatist, a realist. Like doubting Thomas, I doubt. I need to touch; I need to stick my hands in incarnation in order to know what is real. But if I ended this description of myself here, I would be guilty of flattening reality. For while I desperately need to see and feel and hear and smell and taste, I believe this need for tangible reality only masks the root of a painful irresolvable lack deep within myself. My embodiment reminds me every day that I am weak. Because my body is fragile, my life is fragile—I am fragile. And I admit that I, like Paul, desperately want more. I too want strength; I too want life everlasting.

And so I create. I use my body to enlarge myself and my small place within the universe through the act of creation. I paint pictures and grow tomatoes. I paint in order to pay attention. The physical act of putting paint on a canvas requires the physical act of looking. In order to know what to paint, I must constantly pay attention to the world around me—both its ugliness and its beauty. I grow tomatoes, as well as tulips, to better comprehend the cyclical aspect of my existence. The metaphor is overused and obvious, but real. Watching seeds and bulbs transform into vegetables and flowers that will both thrive and die teaches me the cycle of my own life. I too want life everlasting, and so I horde. I fill my memory banks with images, sounds and sensations. I desperately try to gain more and more knowledge of what it means to be alive, to breath and to think. I use my nose to smell the saltiness of the ocean. I use my hands to feel the skin of my beloved. I use my mind to memorize important places and events. I remember what life has meant before I came into existence and I dream about what life will mean after I am gone. I too want life everlasting, and so I make sure that I am real. I need the attention and validation of others. I need people in my life who can do what I will never be able to do—actually see my face. I impose my life on them and take of their lives. In other words, I need to know that my life matters in the life of an Other. I need to share words with them; I need to give to them and receive from them touch, protection and support. I need to share with them what we all experience, the perpetual lack caused by irresolvable unknowing. I too want life everlasting, and so I remember to never let the mysterious, miraculous fact of existence—with all its ambiguity and unknowing—move too far from my daily awareness. I practice the spiritual disciplines of paying attention and being grateful. I work at focusing not on death, but on life.

The limited knowledge I am allowed as an embodied person makes me a practical doubter—yes. But it also constantly reminds me of the miracle that I am. Exodus 3:14 reads, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Read in the light of the mystery of existence, this verse answers so many questions. I AM—I AM. This is True. I have no choice but to reconcile with the fact of my weakness and death. But I must equally learn to reconcile the fact of my actuality. I am real, my body is real. My body is mortal and mysterious, I am mortal and mysterious. I am a miracle, my body is a miracle. I am a real, mysterious, dying miracle. I AM.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Part of my many scholarship applications...trying to get my 3rd year covered!

Summer Cushman
Thomas J. Mullen Scholarship Application
Essay #2:
An essay of not less than 1250 words in which the applicant reflects upon her or his personal spiritual formation during their time at ESR.

I came to Earlham School of Religion confused and skeptical. I admit this is probably out of the ordinary and I also admit that I wasn’t able to express these feelings at the time. Throughout my first year, specifically in classes like Spiritual Preparation for Ministry and Introduction to Theological Reflection, I came to understand that I carried more baggage from my first few years of Christianity then I realized. You see, I came to religion late. I joined a Christian church as a newlywed at the age of twenty-three having had no prior experience in the world of organized religion. So while attending and participating in a Christian church was a significant decision for me, the fact that it was a fundamentalist, non-denominational church had little significance. At the time, I wasn’t aware that there were thousands of varying churches I could have chosen from and instead joined one simply because it was close to my house—one that unfortunately didn’t believe women had much more to offer than serving their husbands and caring for children. Eight years later I am much more aware of the factors that drew me to that church and the factors that eventually convinced me it was time to leave. These elements are wrapped up in my personal history, of course, but they are not the subject of this essay and so I will move on. I raise them simply to highlight that it has been the first half of my seminary education that has helped me to understand them.

After leaving the fundamentalist church, moving back to the city of my birth, becoming a Quaker, graduating college, working with homeless women for two years, traveling through Europe for four months, and living in intentional community in inner-city Chicago, I decided to come to seminary. “Why seminary,” is a question new students are asked often, one I certainly struggled to answer. Yet now, after completing half my program, I’m confident I came to do the work I have been asked to do at seminary—to look deep and hard into myself, to take a realistic look at what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at and to figure out how best to be of use. Seminary, it seems to me, is a few years set apart to investigate and contemplate questions, some more answerable than others.

In Spiritual Preparation for Ministry I was asked to think about my spiritual life. How did I practice it, discuss it, understand it? Why and exactly how does religion matter? I began to think honestly about my relationship to the whole enterprise. These were questions which allowed me recognize the reality that part of me had come to seminary in order to give religion up altogether. I was in the middle of a spiritual crisis that made my first year of seminary difficult and sometimes painful. The spiritual friend I had been assigned in the class was going through her own—albeit very different—crisis and we began meeting weekly to look together at the unanswerable yet important questions. This friendship cemented my belief in the need for companionship along the rocky road of religion. I now meet with a local Spiritual Director once a month and have taken up a new spiritual friendship through correspondence with someone from my home Meeting.

In Introduction to Theological Reflection I was asked to read systematic, liberation and feminist theologies, among others. I was asked to read closely and understand what each theologian was trying to say and the implications of what they had put on paper. I could disagree with them, but not before I understood them. I read hard, argued hard and learned a lot. My identity as a pacifist, as an American and as a Quaker were challenged in the pages I was reading. I walked into that class already angry with Christianity, confused about my place within it, and unsure how to voice my concerns. By the end, however, I discovered theologians that not only seemed to share my apprehension, but also helped me better understand, explore and voice what troubled me. I wrote a paper about the problems that are created when salvation is based on the suffering and murder of one man. And I began to wonder, with a kind of excited openness, where this seminary adventure would lead me.

In Discernment of Calls and Gifts a miraculous thing happened. My skepticism and anger began to dissipate. I can’t name the exact moment it happened, but I slowly realized I wasn’t fighting with every author I was reading anymore. I started to understand that there isn’t a prescribed category I have to force myself into in order to participate in a life of faith. Under the advice of Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, I learned that it was o.k. to give myself permission to be an explorer on a journey without all the answers. I could step back and take stock of where I had been and recognize the answers that I did have. My first year of seminary taught me several things about myself and gave me the tools to understand what I needed to let go of and what I needed to foster. Now, half way through my second year I think of my first year as a painful, but necessary step in the formation of my spiritual life. Without all the work of my first year, I would never have been prepared for the eye-opening moment in Individual Spiritual Direction when I realized I was coming through a dark night experience, and that I was ready to begin the work of rebuilding everything that had been torn down.

So just what exactly am I building? It seems, I’m back to the questions I pondered in Spiritual Preparation for Ministry. How do I practice, discuss and understand my spiritual life? Why and how does religion matter to me? These are questions I still cannot yet fully answer, but I do have new ways of encountering them. And I have discovered one thing, religion does matter to me and I believe it matters to our world. I know that many of the ways it has been practiced throughout history have been dangerous and damaging, and I am well aware of the violence, sexism, slavery, etc., contained within the Bible. Now I have to decide what to do. How do I maintain traditions and remain faithful to stories that matter without continuing to cause harm through them? How can I remain faithful without whitewashing or denying the violent acts and words that have taken and continue to take place? How do I participate in something that so often oppresses and abuses as I try to stand against oppression and abuse of any kind? These are the questions I continue to wrestle with. These are the questions I continue to look deeply into. But even as I wrestle with them, I realize I have come to a place of commitment.

I desire a spiritual life and I am working hard to shape what that means in my daily actions. There are, of course, a few obvious goals—living life with simplicity, integrity, generosity and gratitude—that are often easier to discuss than practice. But there are even harder things such as understanding the notions of God and prayer. I have come to a place of contentment with the unknowable, however, and have chosen to seek divinity in simple things and to place value in whispered words, even if I don’t know whether or not they are heard. At this point, the very middle of my seminary study, I am hopeful of where I am being led and confident that more challenge awaits me.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Secular Bible Study

In my Women in the Old Testament class we had to design a Bible study. Here's what I came up with:

Bible Study Presentation

I want to do Bible studies where they are not usually done. I am interested in working towards increasing biblical literacy in our culture, both among religious and non-religious people. In terms of religious people, I mean denominations such as Liberal Quakers and Unitarian Universalists, groups that often ignore the Bible. In terms of non-religious people, I mean secular people who are interested in studying the Bible for any reason. These reasons could include, but are not limited to: interest in the Bible as literature, thinking more critically about what they do not believe in order to actually understand their secular identity, to better understand the cultural heritage they belong to, to better engage in contemporary discourse about religion, or in order to participate in contemporary “hot button” issues that involve religion such as abortion and gay marriage in a more informed manner. Another group could include social workers. I can imagine doing an in-service training to raise the biblical awareness of the employees of a domestic violence shelter, people dealing with the ramifications of dangerous biblical interpretation.

I would like to begin doing this work during my supervised ministry, in which I hope to do adult spiritual formation work within a large UU congregation. I envision offering Bible studies that last at least 4 weeks, but possibly longer. These studies could be focused around several topics: God as a biblical character, Jesus as a biblical character, violence and nonviolence in the Bible, women in the Bible, laws in the Bible, etc., etc..

Resources beyond class texts:
Berlinerblau, Jacques. "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously."
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brooks Thistlethwaite, Susan. “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation.” Russell, Letty M., Ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Possible layout for a 5-week study focused on Women in the First Testament:

Session 1:
Group discussion on the participants’ previous experience with and relationship to the Bible.

1. Under what circumstances have you encountered the Bible before?
2. Is there anything you like or appreciate about the Bible?
3. What is difficult for you in a discussion about the Bible?
4. Why have you decided to join in a study of the Bible at this point in your life?

Session 2:
I would have sent the participants home with a survey about women in the OT. We would discuss the answers that people came up with. (Please see the informational survey I took in preparation for designing this study below.)

1. Share any connections you have to a biblical woman.
2. Were you surprised at how many biblical women you could or couldn’t name?
3. Tell us the women on your list. Tell us about the woman you described in more detail.
4. Discussion about cultural traditions of biblical women vs. actual text:
a. Where or from whom did you learn the information about the woman you described?
b. Have you ever looked up this woman’s story in the text?
c. How does the story of this woman impact ideas of “womanhood” in our culture today? (We would probably have to have a discussion on what “womanhood” means. Is it a set of expected behaviors? Is it a philosophy on the way one leads their life? How are conceptions of womanhood learned and understood? What is “natural” and what is “nurtured?”)

Session 3:
I would have sent participants home with the assignment to look up the woman they described in the survey and compare their knowledge with the actual text.

1. Report the findings of your homework.
a. How did what you already know compare to what you found in the Bible?
b. How do you feel about what you found? Did it make you angry, happy, confused, etc.?
2. How have your feelings or perceptions changed about the biblical character you’ve been studying?
3. How do you feel about the way she is commonly portrayed in culture?
4. Would it matter if culture knew the actual text? (assuming there’s a wide difference.)

Session 4:
Interpretation matters! The beginning of this session would have a lecture (hopefully still participatory) highlighting different interpretations of the women we’d been looking at (HHH and WIS are great starting points to prepare for this). We would then have a discussion of how the stories of these women have been interpreted negatively and positively and which interpretations are found in the academy, the church, and mainstream (secular) culture.

Session 5:
Final session.
1. How have your thoughts about biblical women been changed over the past month?
a. Do you respect/disrespect, appreciate/dislike, feel more/less connected to any of the female characters portrayed in the Bible? Which one’s and why?
b. Do you think any of them provide examples of a good female role model for modern day women? If so, who and why? If not, why not?
2. Have you noticed or heard anything in mainstream culture referencing a biblical woman that you wouldn’t have noticed before this study? (I would bring magazine ads we could discuss as a group in addition or just in case no one has anything to share.)
a. If so, how did it relate to the actual textual story?
b. How did you feel about the “interpretation”?
c. If it was possible to, did you respond to it? If so, how? If it wasn’t possible, how would you respond to it if you could?
3. Whether or not you’ve ever paid attention to the Bible, do you think the stories of biblical women and their multiple interpretations have effected cultural understandings of “womanhood”?
a. Share specific thoughts and examples…
4. How have your thoughts about the Bible changed over the course of this study?

Here are the Informational Survey responses from a mixed group of people:
You'll notice that the word religious is put in parenthesis when describing two of the participants. This is because I don't know to what extent they would refer to themselves as religious, but it is clear that they are involved in the religious world in a different way than the secular people.

These are the instructions I gave to the responders:
Please answer the questions without discussing them with anyone else, doing any prep-work or using any other materials. My goal is to get your raw data. The questions are broad on purpose, I’m trying not to influence your answers. It’s ok to answer “I don’t know.” Remember, this class is an Old Testament class, so try and keep your mind focused on the Jewish Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. Try to answer the questions in order without looking ahead.

Question #1
What is your relationship to/experience with the Bible?

Secular Woman #1
I was raised in a Roman Catholic family attending services and religious education classes weekly until about high school age. In college and afterwards I have had a rather academic relationship to religious texts, reading the Koran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, and Bhagavad Gita and the Old Testament out of simple curiosity of comparing origin stories, parables, and commandment type mandates.
Secular Woman #2
It’s interesting really. When I was younger, after traveling abroad and going on trips to DC with young people from around the world, experiencing the death of grandparents; there was a period when I was obsessed with the Holocaust specifically and questions about life and death in general. We had an old family Bible and I began reading it at night, thinking this unfamiliar territory would be a place to find answers. I got about half way through and stopped. It wasn’t that I found it particularly loathsome with all the begats and such, more that it didn’t seem to apply to me, nor answer my questions (many of which I hadn’t yet articulated at that time). In college I almost minored in religion, and especially found myself drawn to early Jewish history, using the Torah. I discovered that approaching the Bible/Old Testament as a historical document gave it new life and relevance to me. It opened doors for me to see the complicated web that lies at the heart of the complex web of relationships that exist between Jewish, Christian and Muslim people, giving so much in the way of context to the wars and other world history I had learned thus far. At this point in my life, I hunger for more of that historical context, having found it has enriched my understanding of the world – past, present and future. But without the luxury of a teacher in a classroom, I find the book itself a cold place to start on this journey of learning. The more I know about the Bible, the more I see how it permeates every aspect of our life and culture, whether people are aware of it or not.
Secular Woman #3
Although my family was not religious, I went to a Catholic school from 1st to 8th grade (Christ the King), and then a Jesuit highschool (Seattle Prep) and college (Seattle U). My mom sent me to Catholic school because she thought the education was better and she was scared of the bussing that was taking place at the public schools at the time. At CKS we had a religion period where we'd study the Bible and Catholic beliefs, and we'd go to mass on holidays. At Prep we continued learning about the Bible, but also learned about other religions. At SU I had to take a couple religion classes, but you didn't have to participate in the religious aspect of the school much at all if you didn't want to. At CKS, learning about the Bible at school (Religion class) seemed totally normal – just like any other class. You weren’t really pressured to believe it, and actually probably half of the students weren’t Catholic anyway. I enjoyed learning about it and pretty much believed everything I was taught. I didn’t really question it much, and my parents were very easygoing and open about different religions. I became very good friends with a Catholic girl in my class in 2nd grade, and started going to church with her family some Sundays. I really enjoyed it and felt like my family should be going to church too. In 4th grade I convinced my parents to join the Catholic church. My parents took the classes and we all got baptized and confirmed. In highschool I started questioning whether I really accepted the Catholic beliefs, and by college I convinced my self that I could stop going to church without fearing that I’d go to hell. Now I just believe there’s some being or energy that is much greater than us, that probably created Earth and the universe, but I don’t claim to have any further understanding than that. With all the different religions in the world, and everyone believing their religion is the right one, we can’t all be right, so I’ve concluded that we just don’t know. I’d like to know, and intend to work more on my spirituality in the future, but I am not convinced that I will ever truly believe in one theory or set of religious beliefs. I like to just leave it at this: we are the ants of the universe. Hah! Anyway, sorry, the Bible. I have issues separating what I learned of the Bible from the Catholic teachings. I sort of just viewed it as one of my textbooks. I never felt compelled to make myself read the whole thing, only what we were assigned to read and interpret for class. Since then, I have determined that I am extremely skeptical of the Bible. I think people take it too literally, and I don’t think we can believe that it comes from reliable sources. I’ve never been convinced that people didn’t just make it up for whatever reason.
Secular Woman #4
I went to Catholic gradeschool and Jesuit high school and college so the Bible was a keystone in my education growing up.
(Religious) Woman #1
I grew up in an unprogrammed meeting, and we definitely read parts of the Bible during Sunday school, though I don’t remember a lot.
(Religious) Woman #2
I was raised without any formal religious background, but attended a Jesuit college where one brief survey (“Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” I think) was required for my core humanities curriculum. In the fall of 2007, after some intriguing and challenging conversations with Christian friends, I began attending a Christian church, and soon after a small house church/bible study group on a weekly basis. Over the past year, I’ve read through the Old and New Testaments once, but still feel like I’m skimming the surface.
Secular Man #1
I was raised by fairly Universalist Quakers and I attended meeting and went to Sunday school begrudgingly until my parents got sick of fighting with me about it, which was about age 9, I think. My high school taught Genesis as literature, so that was probably the most seriously I have studied it. Other than that, I read the Cartoon History of the Universe a few times, which covered some of the aspects of the old and new testaments that have some basis in history. I'm dead serious.

Question #2
What is your opinion of the Bible?

Secular Woman #1
I think it is rather interesting as a social commentary, a snapshot in time. There’s a lot of content in the bible and I wish people would look at it holistically and not pick and choose which verses to adhere to and which to ignore.
Secular Woman #2
I think it was a book written by a group of men for mainly political and probably some religious (got to give them a little benefit of the doubt!) reasons. I think many of the events actually occurred and were worth documenting, but that what we have is just one version of reality, not the Truth. I also think it had some great practical applications in its day, especially in regards to rules for cleanliness – like don’t eat pork, not because it’s unholy, but because you could die. This of course, is quite the modern spin on my part. And I think it should be read with a modern spin. To say things like stoning women for adultery are ok punishments is ridiculous, as are many of the stories and passages, especially those that relate to women. I think it’s unfortunate that the Bible has been used as a weapon so often. Like the Torah and the Koran, it’s something that weak men can hide behind to justify their desires and goals. It has the potential to be both terrible and beautiful.
Secular Woman #3
I answered this one above.
Secular Woman #4
It is document capturing written stories of God and Jesus.
(Religious) Woman #1
That is an amazing and holy book. I would like to read more of the Old Testament.
(Religious) Woman #2
I’m still trying to figure that out. I believe it is true, and sacred, and that the question of whether to “take it literally” or “interpret it” is a false dichotomy. I’m troubled by many individual passages, but I’m not willing to reject the scriptures because of that. I know I have a lifetime of study ahead of me.
Secular Man #1
I think of it as allegory, along the lines of Beowulf, The Iliad or Huckleberry Finn. As literature, I think there is a certain "truth" to it, not factual truth, but truth in the sense of understanding human nature and morality. As literature, it provides a way of understanding the era during which it was written as well as those who wrote or translated it. I don't believe it is the Word of God and I'm a little frightened by anyone who views it as such. I consider myself a devout agnostic.

Question #3
Name as many Biblical women as you can.

Secular Woman #1
Sarah, Ruth, Esther, Hagar, Mary Magdelene and Mary, mother of Jesus. I don’t remember the names, but I recall a fair number of stories of prostitutes and a few about witches.
Secular Woman #2
Ruth, Mary, Jezebel, Eve, Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca – I know I know more, but can’t remember off the top of my head.
Secular Woman #3
Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Eve, and Jezebel. Oh dear, I can’t believe I’m not remembering more!
Secular Woman #4
Mary, Mary
(Religious) Woman #1
Abigail is the only one that is coming to mind.
(Religious) Woman #2
Eve, Rachel, Rebekah, Job’s wife J, Sarah, Hagar, Rizpah, Queen of Sheba, Ruth, Esther, Jezebel, Bathsheba,…
Secular Man #1
Eve, Sarah (Jacob's wife, Joseph's mother, I think), Rachel (one of Jacob's other wives, I think) Mary (Jesus' Mom), Bathsheeba, Delilah, Mary Magdelene (sp?). There are others I can't name, except by reference to the story they are in, Lot's wife and daughters, or the two women who were fighting over the baby, which Solomon cutting in half for example.

Question #4
Pick one woman from the list above and tell me as much as you can about her.

Secular Woman #1
Let’s see, how about Sarah. Is there an H? I can’t remember. I think Sarah was the wife of Abraham and through a blessing from the covenant with God, they conceived many children even though both were very old and past traditional child bearing age. I think this is the section of the bible where folks are living into hundreds of years…I recall most of the story really being about the children she bore. I think she might also be the mother of Isaac, who Abraham was asked to kill as a show of loyalty to God. I always wondered if she knew about what a close call that was and how it made her feel….
Secular Woman #2
Ruth, as I recall, was married off to an older man she didn’t know. All I seem to remember is that she suffered and was considered pious because of her good service to her husband. The stories about women seem to tend to be focused on punishments for immorality, like Jezebel. They also tend to be shorter and really, when you strip them down, about the men. Even when they’re the subject of a story, the women are still on the periphery.
Secular Woman #3
Mother Mary was the mother of Jesus. She had immaculate conception. Her husband was Joseph. She wore blue garments/veils/robes. Oh dear, that’s all I can remember.
Secular Woman #4
Not hard since I can't name many off hand. Mary (not Jesus' mother) was a prostitute that Jesus met at a well and befriended. It's not mentioned in the Bible but I have heard from other sources that perhaps Jesus and Mary were actually married.
(Religious) Woman #1
This is sad to me. My mother actually marked sections of the Old Testament that were about women and I haven’t gone back to it in years. Reading the Bible is not a part of my spiritual practice.
(Religious) Woman #2
David had Rizpah’s (don’t known if I’m spelling that right) sons put to death, and she camped out on the mountain, defending their bodies from scavengers. David heard of it, and had the bodies rightfully buried. I kind of think she was one of Saul’s wives, but I really don’t know.
Secular Man #1
Mary Magdelene was I believe one of Jesus' followers and confidants and I'm guessing she would have been considered a disciple by any modern standard. I seem to recall she had been a prostitute, or something to that effect, I think there is some evidence that she and Jesus liked each other "that way" and possibly even had a child together.

Question #5
In your opinion, how much of what you told me about the woman in question #4 is actually in the Bible? How much do you think is simply cultural tradition?

Secular Woman #1
I am not sure if that’s one of the stories that made it into pop culture. The Abraham/Isaac versions did, but I think only folks more acquainted with the text really know who she is.
Secular Woman #2
It’s funny, I suppose most people would have chosen Mary or Eve for question #4, but I didn’t specifically because what I remember about them isn’t from the Bible. Also my middle name is Ruth, so I’m drawn to her as a result. But in our Judeo Christian society, people are bound to have some thoughts and feelings and notions about characters from the Bible. Whether those thoughts, feelings and notions are based in what the Bible actually says is a different story entirely.
Secular Woman #3
I bet the Bible doesn’t specify that she wore blue garments/veils/robes.
Secular Woman #4
Half and half.
(Religious) Woman #1
Left it blank.
(Religious) Woman #2
I think most of that is in the Bible, and very little (if any) made it into the mainstream culture I’m familiar with.
Secular Man #1
Probably only the first part, at least in the version of the bible that became the standard. I think the Gospel of Thomas has some reference to the latter part and possibly some others that were left out of the official version of things.

Question #6
Do you have any particular connection with a biblical woman? If yes, how and why?

Secular Woman #1
Not particularly.
Secular Woman #2
As I said above, Ruth is my middle name. But I think of that as more of a family name, as I was named after my great grandmother. A more interesting connection is mine with Jezebel. My name is Jessica, and in my non-religious family, an early childhood nickname my grandfather started (Jessie-bell I believe. I had a habit of calling everything Jessie-something) morphed into me being called Jezebel. It was an endearing, nice thing to us. And I honestly felt like the bell of the ball, special, when it was used. But coming into contact with the Bible story as a young adult, and learning what a “jezebel” is, we stopped calling me that as a family. I’ve always been a little sad about it, like a loss of innocence. It’s a cliché, but what’s really in a name? And why does the Bible’s version of what that name entails trump years of family history and connotation?
Secular Woman #3
No, I wouldn’t say so.
Secular Woman #4
(Religious) Woman #1
Left it blank.
(Religious) Woman #2
In high school, I was in the play J.B., which was described as “a modern retelling of the Book of Job.” I was cast as Sarah, who was the Job (J.B.) character’s wife. My director told me that, in addition to my acting skill, he picked me because of “my pensive bone structure,” which gives you an idea of most of my role. I also said “Curse God and die” a few times. I don’t think the part I played has much connection with the Bible, but the fact that Job’s wife is barely in the Bible is interesting in itself.
Secular Man #1
I think that Mary Madgelene is the one I identify with, really even if I'm only identifying with the "heretical" version of her. She seems more human to me, a little rougher around the edges, more complicated and more independent minded.

Question #7
Under what circumstances would you be interested in participating in a Bible study about biblical women?

Secular Woman #1
I find I am not interested in being guided towards a preconceived conclusion about the bible or what it says. I enjoy exploring the narrative and discussing it in a literary fashion, and then drawing conclusions from the compelling dialogue presented.
Secular Woman #2
Well, I may be a bit odd, but I think I would jump at the chance for something that was set up like a book club, could be in person or virtual. A social gathering to discuss openly the roles of women in the Bible and what those roles have translated into in “real” life. By this I mean to say, where were we pigeon-holed and have we really broken out of those assigned roles? Even as CEOs and Presidential candidates aren’t we always viewed with the standards set out in the Bible in mind? “How dare she run for office (or be CEO) with all those children” “She’s too weak to make the tough decisions” or if not “she acts like a man”. Or "she played the gender card by crying so we would all feel sorry fo her". How much of our gender roles are a direct result of what the Bible has told us? Conversely “boys will be boys” but girls better be careful or “who will buy the cow?”. Last I checked, I’m not livestock, but in the Bible, I am the property of my father, uncle, brother, even son - just like the livestock. Is this really the message we want to send to our daughters? Honestly, it makes me angry. I think the key to my relationship with the Bible is in treating it like a historical document, not like sacred text. Within those parameters, everyone is welcome and the conversation can be more rich and multi-directional in my opinion. Starting out with the Truth makes it hard to go anywhere else.
Secular Woman #3
I suppose I’d be interested if the focus were something other than it just being a part of Sunday school or something. I suppose a Bible study about biblical women would be the most interesting focus for a Bible study that I can think of. I might do it if an outside party convinced me that it would be a good and fun use of my time, other than trying to convert me.
Secular Woman #4
Maybe if it was an activity I could share with my female friends.
(Religious) Woman #1
I would really enjoy participating in a Bible study about biblical women if everyone was open and excited to discuss what we read. I would probably prefer if it was all women. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be more helpful. It does sadden me that I identify as such a feminist but don’t know much about women in the Bible. It’s also an illustration of how the Bible has not been a central part of my religious upbringing. I’ve been saying for a while that I want to begin to read more. Maybe this will give me a kick in the pants to actually do it.
(Religious) Woman #2
Pretty much any circumstance. Could you come to Seattle? ☺
Secular Man #1
It could be interesting, but it isn't really something I'd seek out. I might do it with a girlfriend in exchange for getting to watch 8 hours of football on Sundays without complaint or to impress a girl I was interested in. Even then, I'd have to have reasonable assurance that the discussion wasn't being led by someone who would be using it as an opportunity to proselytize.