Saturday, April 16, 2011

Narrative, Womanist Theology and the Human Experience

On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I find myself mired in final paper projects which will occupy the bulk of this month and into the next. As fun as writing this blog can be, the margin of return diminishes sharply when most of my productive hours are spent typing in front of a computer screen. So, in order to avoid a month-long blogger strike, I will be issuing weekly excerpts from my current paper projects as posts. I'll try to provide a little bit of context for each to make them somewhat intelligible. Sorry for using 'thus' and other pretentious words too much.

The first follows the recent flow of our discussions of "othering," discrimination and related (counter)practices. I describe how Womanist theologians utilize the sharing of personal stories (testimony) and theological anthropology (religious understandings of what it means to be human) to counter prejudice and provide insights relevant to the realization of true human freedom by all. Personal stories of struggle are linked to biblical stories, bringing comfort and hope while challenging all of us to "image God" in our particular circumstances, whether of privilege or disadvantage.

The first portion focuses on a study of the use of testimony in black churches in Atlanta by Anne Wimberly, the second on Womanist commentary on the power of personal narrative, and the third on an excellent book about theological anthropology by Shawn Copeland called Enfleshing Freedom. Enjoy!

Anne Wimberly demonstrates how the liturgical practice of testimony continues to transform the personal narratives of black women, men and children into authoritative sacred stories as the practice evolves to meet the moral and spiritual needs of the contemporary church.

Ritual narrative performance “recaptures the rich African-American oral tradition that has its roots in African ancestry and the historical situation of slavery,” connecting the individual’s story to “the communal and larger societal narratives.” “The experience of re-membering, then, signifies that narrative takes on vital and transformative qualities when it becomes part of a dynamic process of story sharing and story linking.”

Through this experience, the communicant addresses God explicitly and/or implicitly and receives spiritual resources “‘to resolve situations incompatible with the happiness of the reign of God and its growth in our midst.’” Linking the personal narrative with scriptural narratives places the latter within the larger Christian story, fusing transcendent belief that one has “already” been saved through God’s Grace with eschatological hope in the “not yet” achieved perfection, liberation and divine unification.

Thus, the storyteller re-members and identifies with the community’s collective past, mediates the Holy Spirit to the congregation in the present, and orients the faithful toward the divine promises of the future. Her address to the community of memory “is a call waiting for a response and a response to God’s call.”

Wimberly’s discussion of the power of narrative in the formation of hopeful belief in Christian education highlights the supernatural efficaciousness of grounding narrative identity in a theological framework. This framework sacralizes the individual’s story with a prophetic power to convict and exhort the community (including the storyteller) to “struggle together with how to act in ways that reflect God’s reign in the midst of chaotic circumstances.”

This prophetic power is necessary to pursue the practice of counter-hegemony cultural radicalism. It is both ontologically and teleologically Divine, as its prophets are “blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless sense of justice that can only come from a rock-steady God [emphasis mine].”

Thus, the individual is empowered to move beyond contributing to the formation of the community of memory to engage the whole society. The theological framework enables Womanist theologians to boldly proclaim their hold on “the standard and normative measure for true liberation” from “all forms of oppression for all people.”

The “mundane” personal narrative is powerfully transformed into a sacred story through theological anthropology. The tension of recognition—each individual as both fully equal and unique—is resolved through the cherishing of each individual as an imago Dei, a unique manifestation of the Divine. Thus, all of God’s children are invested with prophetic power to defend human dignity and particularity in the face of external oppressive powers which seek to dominate them.

Furthermore, the understanding of imaging God as a “daily ethical endeavor” directs this formative prophetic power back toward the individual through an ongoing dialogue with God. As Emilie Townes recognizes, “we must live our lives not always comforted by the holy, but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life.”

Divine Truth and Power are thus mediated through embodied experience which dialectically negotiates the nuance of particularity and the infinity of the Ultimate. From this foundation of theological anthropology, “radical subjectivity” transcends the relativistic impotence of expressive individualism as proactive manifestations of Divine power or “emergent spiritual acts”: “testifying, telling the truth, and shaming the devil; making ritual space and doing holy acts; confronting evil forces with supernatural power; drawing on ancestral properties; and radically transforming oneself into the image of God.”

Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom is such an “emergent spiritual act;” heart-wrenching and inspiring narratives of black women’s and men’s struggles under slavery and segregation are sacralized through linking with the subversive story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection within a compelling theological anthropological framework. Copeland frames the project in terms of “culturally radical” individual empowerment: “to place their black broken bodies beside his crucified broken body is a condition for a theological anthropology that grasps the sacramentality of the body in the concrete as an expression of the freedom of the human subject.”

Yet her theological anthropological framework enables--indeed, compels--her to convict all peoples of conscious bias and include all human subjects within her project of liberation. Indeed, Copeland specifically rejects narrow identity politics in favor of a more inclusive proactive mission of human solidarity:

“In our agitation for social justice, whether in church or in society, we cannot surrender to the temptation to secure ‘gains’ only for ‘our’ specific group...Solidarity enfolds us, rather than dismiss ‘others,’ we act in love; rather than refuse ‘others,’ we respond in acts of self-sacrifice--commiting ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom.”

Nonetheless, Copeland maintains the Womanist commitment to privileging the experiences of women of color as their realization of their sanctity as imago Dei “holds foundational, even universal relevance” concerning “authentic meanings of human flourishing and liberation, progress and salvation.” Within this compelling theological anthropological framework, black women’s narratives serve as a source of personal empowerment for Copeland and other women of color in the face of oppression and further human understanding of what it means to fulfill the “ethical task of imaging God.”

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