Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest


Biblical Studies in an Age of Unhooded White Supremacy

Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Invited lecture in response to white nationalist marches in Charlottesville.

I, or rather my title, have misled you—if you were led at all: “Biblical Studies in an Age of Unhooded Racism.” White supremacy in biblical studies, like its get, racism, has never been hooded. Racism in the US has never been hooded. Racism in the West has never been hooded. Racism has been thinly obscured by the tawdry yet seductive negligee of privilege-purchased naïveté. Or, racism has been obscured by willful ignorance, but again, not completely—the will not to see. (I am a very different Wil.) All the while racism has taken its place on the pages and at the podiums of biblical studies, and in the seats of power in the institutions that promulgate it.  

            Those hoods have always been visible. Like their literal forbears, the hoods are least visible to their wearers, even though the hoods distort their vision, their wearers normalize their impaired vision. Ironically, the hoods should be more visible to wearers looking at other wearers. But to comment upon someone else’s hood is to comment upon your own, and the negligee of privilege purchased naïveté is so seductive. The metaphorical of hoods white supremacy are, of course, most visible to those whom they were originally intended to subjugate and terrorize. Titus Kaphar’s series, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, illustrates this poignantly for me. (The images are copyrighted, you may view them here. Scroll down for the third.)

            Unhooding, or rather drawing attention to the unhooded and naked white supremacist history of biblical studies and biblical interpretation, is a necessary part of a of an education in the text and its interpretation whether for classroom or congregation. Dismantling racism in the biblical guild, broader academy, and wider world is a reluctant vocation; that work most properly falls to its maintenance engineers—its original architects no longer accessible—and this work most properly belongs to those who have inherited the legacy of white supremacy. All too often that work is left to people of color. All too often I find myself addressing it. By all too often, I mean at all.

            I do this work and accept these engagements all too often I don’t hear my white colleagues address the white supremacy that is baked into foundations of the Western critical biblical enterprise, even when decrying the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism that are also its spawn. To be fair, some dominant culture colleagues have turned critical eyes to white supremacy and to other dominating structures and had done so in advance of this age of apocalyptic dissonance, which I read as having been inaugurated with the murder of Trayvon Martin. (That is a subject of contemplation for me in an on-going project.)

Recently, the tolerance for white supremacist rhetoric, slogans, and salutes in the public square and at the highest levels of government has made white supremacy more visible. The negligee has slipped off; its wearer fully exposed, under the glare of spotlights–not all of which are the harsh lights of hostile interrogations, some are the soft lights of romantic adoration…

The full talk (audio) is available here.

Live Your Theology Out Loud in Public

National Black Catholic Magnificat

Today is a commissioning service of sorts. [Hooding, conferral of academic hoods at Brite Divinity School, December 2017.] We confer degrees and the regalia that pertains to them to send you forth, forth across town, across the state, across an ocean, across the world, sometimes just around the corner, sometimes back to us for another go ‘round. We are sending you forth to a world that needs a wisdom we may not have imagined this time last year. It seems to me that this world which we inhabit, serve and with which we wrestle calls for a particular kind of wisdom. It is my hope, and I believe that of my colleagues of the faculty, administration, and staff, that we have nurtured and refined the wisdom that was already in you, perhaps adding something of our own. I am mindful that all of us are already navigating this world together with what wisdom we have; too often it seems insufficient. Part of what I believe distinguishes us at Brite is that we are a community that is deeply invested in the world around us and that does not begin or end with hooding. Yet hooding marks a moment of transition to living out our calling in new ways, whether in new contexts, jobs, yet another degree, or in a space in which nothing else has changed outwardly. You may not all have jobs when you leave this place, but you have a job in this world.

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

The preaching lectionary of the Episcopal Church turns to the vocational declaration in Isaiah 61 and to the Magnificat tomorrow to tell anew the story of Jesus. In that telling, the church tells its own story. It is a particular and particularly denominational Christian framing of these texts. And if we have taught and learned anything together then we have learned there is more than one way to tell the story of the text.

            Hearing Isaiah through Jesus makes it easy to say to Jesus of the text, “That’s your job, your calling.” But Isaiah wasn’t written by, or even particularly for, Jesus. (We did teach that, right?) The speaker, a poet-prophet,[1] from the community or school of Isaiah who continued the great work begun earlier in his name, this very human prophet receives a vocational call that in fact does not require a god, god-man, or the offspring of a god to fulfill. It is a very human vocation, albeit a daunting one. It is a particularly fit job description for someone who has completed her theological education, [though it does not require one].

            It is also a contextual job description. The poet-prophet is called to serve in world in which there are deeply impoverished people,[2] a world in which the hearts and hopes of people have been shattered. She is called to serve in a world in which some people’s bodies are treated like they were property—that’s what it meant to be “taken captive” in the world of the text, to be used—usually sexually—as someone else saw fit. She is called to serve in a world in which some folk were imprisoned and foreclosed from the possibility of flourishing, locked away, rightly or wrongly, literally and metaphorically. She is called to serve in a world in which there was deep grief and aching losses leaving deficits that could only partially be addressed through reparations, even if paid by God. And she is called to serve in a world in which the vaunted institutions of her ancestors had failed, in which walls had failed to keep her people safe, in which the man who governed was the puppet of a foreign master. She is called to serve in a world in which the things she held dear had been set on fire, and perhaps, one in which there were other things which she wished to see set on fire.

            Maybe this job calls for a god-woman or god-man after all. But the poet-prophet is not on her own. She has the power of the Mother of Creation, She Who Was—flexing her winged embrace over the chaotic currents from which she birthed the world, and She who would pour herself into a virgin’s womb and create a life that would shake the heavens and the earth in another story, from another time, in another testament. The Matrix of Life anointed our poet-prophet, not with the oil of priests or kings, oil that would fade as those offices passed away or morphed into entirely different institutions—sometimes retaining the same names. Rather, Mama God anointed her prophet, infusing her and her words with an anointing that lingered through the first century when a holy child born of her Holy Spirit recited these words to articulate his contextual calling, and down through every age in which these words have been received as holy writ, including our own.

            A student of scripture in its earliest form, the poet-prophet looked to the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, and found, received and accepted her metaphorical hood and the calling that goes with it, and wrote herself (or perhaps himself) into the text that would become the double or triple book of Isaiah. Her holy boldness was not as transgressive as it may sound for she was one of the many (or few) who picked up the pen of Isaiah and continued his work. She did not come to this work on her own. God called her. So she penned the story of her calling, her commissioning, her hooding, to explain what God was up to in the world. She wrote: The spirit of God whose name is holy is upon me

The poet-prophet goes out into the world with more than the words on the page, the ink on the degree, or the books on the shelves. She goes with a clear sense of mission having been prepared for the world that is hers. Its needs are many and great but she is ready. She has all she needs to do the work at hand. She has her voice, her words, her pen, her poetry, her preaching. She has her congregation beyond the walls of any sanctuary or sanctum for study; her people are the broken and dispossessed, the disenfranchised, convicts, felons, and those on death row. She is called to preach wholeness and liberation and she is called to preach God’s favor and God’s recompense. She is called to preach life and love. She is called to take a stand, to acknowledge that everything isn’t all relative in the sight of God. There are things that her provoke to action because there are things that provoke God to action on behalf of her people.

            Now, because she went to a good, fully accredited divinity school, she has more than one skill set. Good thing because folk also need care for their souls. Her call is to the souls the diseased, the dis-eased, the dying, and the grieving. She is called to offer more than words and above all to avoid cheap theological platitudes and t-shirt slogans. She will need to draw on the wealth of pastoral theology she has learned, integrated, and embodies to do grief work with her community corporately and individually. She can’t do that work without knowledge of their history or an understanding of her own spirituality. She can be confident of her preparation because life in the Isaiah school was one long supervised ministry practicum.

            Above all she is called to do transformational work, facilitating the healing and recovery of her people. And then they, a people who have been transformed because one person translated her theological education into her own poetry, they reimagined and rebuilt their world, together. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took generations, centuries to rebuild Jerusalem and its institutions, and even its walls. But walls cannot stop change and they fall down. Curiously the text doesn’t call for rebuilding walls; perhaps the Holy Muse, or better Holy Nudge, was trying to nudge folk away from structures that divide.

            The walls would fall again and again and one collaborator would be replaced by another and no matter how much changed between our two texts or between us and them, the world still needs folk to live their theology out loud, in public, in partnership with the God who shakes up the world and its hierarchies and binaries, institutions, occupations, and oppressions. And so we turn to another prophetic poetic voice, and as is the case with so many women in scripture, we aren’t quite sure who she is because some manuscripts say Mariam or Maria, Mary, and others say Elisabet, Elisabel, and Elisabeth.[3]

She is another poet who wrote of what God was and is up to in the world, in her very intimate world, the intimate spaces of her body, and beyond, in the wider world. Her poetry proclaims an unparalleled intimate relationship with God but with none of the smug sanctimony of those who construct a personal salvation apart from the beloved community. She professes faith in a God whose mercy transcends time and is not limited to her and those who see the world exactly as she sees it. She proclaims a God who is partial to the plight of the poor and is a terror to the tyrant.

The Magnificat recalls an ancestral promise and she bears witness, in her very body, to a God of promise. Today I call you to proclaim the faithful promises of a faithful God to this world and its people. And when the originating context of the promise impinges on it so that it is too narrow for this world that is our context of ministry, take up the pen of the poet-prophet and extend the promise. Sometimes you will have to use your sanctified imagination to draw forth the words. Other times you will simply have to go back to the text for a close reading to remind yourself and those with whom you read that a promise made to Abraham and his descendants is a promise to the Muslim and Christian descendants of Hagar and Keturah as well as the Jewish and Christian descendants of Isaac.

The end of the Magnificat speaks of a memorial to God’s mercy in the text. That memorial was not a monument of stone, but the love of God poured into human flesh, woman-flesh, scandalously passing through scandalized flesh. Today I call you to be scandalous. Scandalously accept, love, serve, and nurture human beings in and not in spite of their bodies, their flesh, particularly those whose flesh the world disdains.

Above all the Magnificat is political. It speaks directly to and against those enthroned in power. I call you to be political. Speak to those who can and will hear you and speak against those who hoard power and resources while others hunger and hurt.

May God continue to write her story of promise in and through you for the hope and healing of the world. Amen.

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Holy God is upon me,
because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberation to the captives,
and opening up, release, to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Holy One’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who grieve;
3 to pay reparations those who grieve in Zion—
to give to them a glorious garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of grieving,
the mantle of praise instead of a diminished spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of God, for God to display God’s own glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former devastations they shall raise up;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of untold generations.

Luke 1:46 Miriam, Mary, said,
“My soul magnifies the Holy One,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
a memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Translations by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

[1] For the speaker as a prophet, see the Targum of Is 61:1, The prophet said… On the role of women prophets in Isaiah, see my Daughters of Miriam, 103-107.

[2] The “humble-poor,” ענוים.

[3] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, 365.

Blogging In The Closet

CL_racism_in_church_small_648351767The world is on fire. Black women and men are being slaughtered in the street, in jail and in church. Some of the country is talking about race out loud and in meaningful ways. Some mainline denominations are following suit – not leading. Eavesdropping on a couple of these conversations brought me back to the beginning of my teaching career at a predominantly white and segregated seminary (black folk dominated the evening courses which were often less rigorous and more often taught by adjuncts) in one of the whitest denominations in America.

I blogged in the closet, anonymously, because I didn’t have tenure to save my sanity in the face of micro aggressions like students calling me by my first name while calling my colleagues by their titles – I shut it down. And macro aggressions like being called a nigger in chapel and having white faculty and administration white-splain that the way the student used the term wasn’t the same as calling me a nigger. I paid for my defiance and insistence by being forced to apologize to a white woman who was offended that what I was saying reflected poorly on her partner’s leadership.

I didn’t have tenure. I did what I was told. And I blogged. Anonymously. A few, very few, knew who and where I was.

As I look at conversations in that church and others this summer I have decided to exhume some of my original blogs. I think it doesn’t matter whether I wrote them 2 or 12 years ago, nothing has changed.



Here’s some of what I blogged to keep myself sane:

I. There is nothing so dangerous as person who thinks that their progressive social and political values make them bias-free. There is no racism like liberal racism and no sexism like progressive sexism.


II. As important as is racial, ethnic, gender, orientation and ability diversity – and it is crucialideological diversity seems to be rarely invoked. I have noticed that some communities are happy with visual diversity as long as there is no theological, philosophical or ideological diversity. You are welcome as long as you think like the dominant culture (even if you don’t look like them). Physical diversity has become for some an opportunity for self-congratulation, proof of liberal/progressive identity and/or fetishism. Frequently the basis for accepting visibly different bodies into a community is the degree to which they accede to the values and beliefs of the majority culture.

I do not suggest that communities – particularly believing and worshiping communities – have no right to theological, philosophical or ideological boundaries. I do wonder how much space there is – and ought be – between confessional communal identity and individual theological convictions.

My experience has shown me that my black woman’s body is acceptable when it performs, preaches, teaches and worships in the image of whatever community I’m in, even if it is my own. Tension, rejection and rebuke arise when my theological commitments, perspectives, beliefs and practices are divergent.

How hollow is that diversity which is only as thin as a photograph of variably colored people!


III. When I teach about privilege – white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied – I also teach about peril. I’m careful to point out that privilege and peril regularly coexist in individuals and communities to avoid setting up an “oppression olympics.” For example, the peril I experience as a black person and as a woman coexists with the privilege I experience from my socioeconomic status and the privilege I experience from my hierarchical standing as a professor and as a priest.

Apparently, that’s just me. I have been watching other folk who also enjoy privilege while living with peril who have no interest in articulating or acknowledging their own privilege. In this case it is white privilege. I have been watching and listening as some white gay men dominate the equality movement articulate gay identity over and apart from black identity, build on and steal from the Civil Rights Movement and proclaim that black liberation is “over.”

I have also observed white women who are deeply concerned about the status of women in the academy and the church invest in, nurture and support white women and only white women. For these women, women of color are not women – unless we want to support the white women’s agenda. Support for women of color is called divisive, shifting the focus from gender to race and ethnicity.

Neither group, white gay men nor white women in these contexts acknowledge the power they have from their white privilege. But they use it. It is a peculiar thing to see white privilege wrapped in a mantle imperiled victimhood.

It seems to me the movements for women’s equality and LGBTQ equality when divorced from any concern about the status of women of color or queer colored folk is not really about civil or human rights. On one level these culture wars are about the fury white folk feel when their white privilege is not universally acclaimed and honored. As a result, some white gay men have no problem using sexism or racism in their campaigns for – not equal rights – but the restoration of their privilege. And, some white women cannot identify or partner with women of color in achieving equity for all women because their womanhood is intrinsically linked with their whiteness, rendering women of color unrecognizable as women.

Unarticulated privilege is still privilege. White privilege is nearly inescapable.


IV. I am a woman.

I am a man.

I am a person.

I am human.

I am somebody.

These ancestral affirmations refuted the twisted logic of the American slavocracy, Jane and Jim Crow and polite northern racism.

Their time has not yet passed.

The accomplishments of Barack Obama directly benefit him, his family, his children, his friends and his inner circle.

For the rest of us it has opened up a new and unimaginable experience:

We are told that our experiences of discrimination no longer matter, or are no longer even real because of his success.

The Black Church has been the bulwark of black peoples since the Candace’s servant was baptized on the road to Damascus.

The Black Church is also, ironically and unfortunately, a bulwark of sexism and heterosexism.

I recently participated in a conversation with scores of black women, most of whom are pastors or preachers, who uncovered the widespread practice of male clergy regularly inviting them to preach and forgetting to pay them, sometimes for months, if ever.

The irony is apparent.

Many of these male preachers are lions of the Civil Rights movement who marched around in signs saying, “I AM A MAN.”

For some of them, male identity was more important than human identity.

The silent Civil Rights protestors who marched in signs proclaiming, “I AM A MAN” were denying the dehumanizing agenda of white supremacist society with every breath.

They were demanding simple human (humane) recognition, which turns out not to be so simple after all.

Recognizing the full humanity of other persons requires full recognition of all of their rights, abilities, gifts and possibilities.

The male hegemony of the Black Church is not alone in seeking the power and privilege of white, male, hetero-patriarchal society for themselves. They are not alone in seeking a few more chairs to be added to the table of exclusion for their benefit, or even seeking to replace a few chair-holders.

There are white feminists who seek a place at the table for white women, no others need apply.

There are white gay men who believe that theirs is the only expression of Queer identity that exists or matters and the movement must be guided by them to achieve their goals, and theirs alone.

I am a woman.

I am because we/you are.





Ask A Womanist Biblical Scholar

It was my pleasure to be interviewed for Rachel Held Evans’ Ask A… series. Please visit her site for the conversation.

Statement on Non-Indictment


I am proud to have co-authored this statement with my colleague Dr. Keri Day on behalf of the Black Church Studies program and Faculty of Brite Divinity School:

The Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School, along with administrators and members of the faculty, lament the recent decision by the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown.  We believe that a trial jury should determine whether the facts of the case warrant a murder conviction.  We mourn Mike Brown’s death and believe that racism is subverting the due process of justice in the Ferguson Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office.  The ongoing criminalization of Mike Brown hinders compassion, care, and fairness not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but across our nation.  The cry of Job 34:17 – “Shall one who hates justice govern?” – is an apt warning to America, insofar as racism erodes the legitimacy of our law enforcement.

We at Brite Divinity School stand with the Mike Browns of America.  We demand that public institutions be held accountable for their chronic, oppressive, and often violent bias against African Americans.  “Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  African Americans are routinely desecrated by America’s law enforcement and justice system.  We feel outraged by such inhuman practices and trace their roots to a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the sacredness of black bodies.  We deplore the widespread criminalization of African Americans, we denounce the structural racism that corrodes our society, and we join those who embody justice, compassion, and respect for all people.  Let us work together toward equality and fairness in our social, political, and judicial systems.

Turning Tables Teach-In Christian Responses to Racialized Violence


J. K. Gayle’s response to my address interweaving my (much) earlier work on translation theory as it pertains to the scriptures from a black feminist perspective.

Live recording from 22 Sept 2014 including my talk: Turning Tables and Snatching Wigs: A Biblical Response to Ferguson and Forney

Hildegard: Life-Giving Language for Liturgy

A Liturgy and brief homily in honor of the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, 17 September


Collect: O Fire of Love by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

*Sirach 43:1 The beauty of the higher realms and the pure vault of the sky,
the frame of the heavens manifests their majesty.
2 The sun shining as it rises illumines all below;
a wondrous instrument, the work of the Most High.
6 And more, the moon marks the changing seasons,
ruler of the ends of times, an everlasting sign.
7 To it belongs the appointed festivals and from it come the holy feasts;
and now it delights in its course.
9 The beauty of the heavens and the majesty of stars
is a sparkling witness in the heights of God.
10 At the word of the Holy One it stands as a statute,
never relaxing in its watch.
11 Look at the rainbow, and bless the One who made it,
for its splendor is glorious.
12 It encircles the sky with its glory
and the hand of God has stretched it out in might.
27 We could say more but could never say enough;
let the final word be: “God is the all.”
28 Where can we find the strength to praise God?
For God is greater than all God’s works.

*Verses 1-2, 6-7, 9-12 translated from the (Hebrew) Masada manuscript, MasSir.
Verses 27-28 translated from the (Greek) Septuagint.

*Psalm 104
25 This is the sea, great and wide;
creeping things beyond numbering are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, this one that you formed to play in it.
27 All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.
28 You give to them and they gather it up;
you open your hand and they are filled with good things.
29 You hide your face and they are dismayed;
you take away your Spirit,
they die and return to their dust.
30 You send forth your Spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Creator endure forever;
may God rejoice in God’s own works:
32 The One who looks on the earth and it trembles,
touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Eternal One as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I endure.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to God,
for I, I rejoice in the Majestic One.

*Translated from the (Hebrew) Masoretic Text corrected against Dead Sea scroll manuscript IIQPsa.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world for the (sole) purpose of judging the world, but in order the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not judged; but those who do not believe are judged already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and humanity loved darkness more than light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do base things hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be scrutinized. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, in order that their works may be known to be done in God.”

Translated from the traditional Nesle-Aland (Greek) text consulting the (Syriac) Peshitta.

This Holy Eucharist will conducted as Rite II (beginning on p 355), shaped by the language of Hildegard of Bingen (in italics) who we celebrate today. You are welcome to pray the traditional language found in our prayerbook or to expand it following the example of Hildegard.

The Word of God

The people standing, the Celebrant says:

Blessed be God: Creator, Christ, and Compassion.


And blessed be [God’s dominion], now and for ever. Amen.

The Celebrant may say

Omnipotent God, incomprehensible in majesty and inestimable in mysteries, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

On other occasions the following is used The Celebrant says to the people

Holy God,

Holy and Mighty,

Holy Immortal One,

Have mercy upon us.

The Collect of the Day


The Celebrant says to the people

The Living Light be with you.


And also with you.


Let us pray.

O Fire of Love by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Lessons 

The Homily

In the name of God: Majesty, Mercy and Mystery. Amen. In 1098, the One Who poured the good and sweet intelligence into humanity (as she would one day write), midwifed Hildegard – later of Bingen – into the world. Eight years later she began her education at a monastery. Ten years later she became a nun. Another decade, another vocation; at 28 she became the abbess. For four years she received a series of visions. Out of those visions she wrote 72 songs, 70 poems, nine books – including a commentary on the Gospels and one on the Athanasian Creed—and a play.

Her writings combined science, art and religion. She was a preacher, traveling to France, Germany and Switzerland to proclaim the Gospel. She was a social critic and reformer of the church, writing popes and emperors to correct and guide them. Her exhortations were full of her concerns that the downtrodden be freed from crushing poverty and that every human being, made in the image of God, had the opportunity to develop and use the talents that God has given her to realize her God-given potential. She also knew something of architecture and engineering, when she moved her nuns to their own monastery, one without an attached men’s monastery, she ordered pipes to bring pumped water into the facility, a rather newfangled idea at the time. A Doctor of the Church, she joins Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux among the male worthies.

I celebrate her for the language she found and crafted to communicate her visions. In her honor I sought to translate the scriptures and the rubrics of prayer in language worthy of her. Inspired by her scholarship I employed my own, discovering the oldest manuscript of our Sirach lesson was the Dead Sea scroll from Masada, so naturally I translated that. Hildegard’s glorious visions bear witness to both the inadequacy of human language to describe the God Who rules the whole world with celestial divinity in the brilliance of unfading serenity and the unplumbed potential of our language to translate something of the mystery of the Celestial Majesty. Like Sirach and the Psalmist before her, Hildegard saw in nature a lexicon for the Divine. And though she often used male pronouns and masculine imagery like the scriptures, like the scriptures she did not limit herself to them.

Yet all too often the language by which we name God in the church and in our prayerbooks is limited by and to a gender God does not possess and to a poverty of images – beloved though they are – reduced from the vast wealth of the scriptures, often abandoning nature’s witness. Hildegard of Bingen teaches us that it is the finest doctrinal work of the church to name God in ways that employ a myriad of images:

Let us attend to her lesson:

O comforting fire of Spirit,
Life, within the very Life of all Creation.
Holy you are in giving life to All.

Holy you are in anointing
those who are not whole;
Holy you are in cleansing
a festering wound.

O sacred breath,
O fire of love,
O sweetest taste in my breast
which fills my heart
with a fine aroma of virtues.

O most pure fountain
through whom it is known
that God has united strangers
and inquired after the lost.

O breastplate of life
and hope of uniting
all members as One,
O sword-belt of honor,
enfold those who offer blessing.

Care for those
who are imprisoned by the enemy
and dissolve the bonds of those
whom Divinity wishes to save.

O mightiest path which penetrates All,
from the height to every Earthly abyss,
you compose All, you unite All.

Through you clouds stream, ether flies,
stones gain moisture,
waters become streams,
and the earth exudes Life.

You always draw out knowledge,
bringing joy through Wisdom’s inspiration.

Therefore, praise be to you
who are the sound of praise
and the greatest prize of Life,
who are hope and richest honor
bequeathing the reward of Light.

It frustrates me to no end that a medieval woman and Iron Age scriptures are more expansive and inclusive in their language for God than my own church and prayerbook. May we finally learn the lesson Hildegard offers, that our God is…the living God, ruling over all things, shining bright in goodness and with wondrous things in God’s works, whose immeasurable brightness in the depths of God’s mystery no single person can gaze at perfectly.

In the name of God: Divine Love, the Eternal Beloved and the Faithful Lover. Amen.


The Prayers of the People

Form II, p 385

Confession of Sin, p 360

The Deacon or Celebrant says

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Silence may be kept.

Minister and People

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The Bishop, when present, or the Priest, stands and says

Almighty God the Just Judge have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Redeemer Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

The Peace

All stand. The Celebrant says to the people

The peace of the Gentle One be always with you.


And also with you.

The Holy Communion

Eucharistic Prayer B, p 367

Offer yourselves and your gifts to God who is holy, giving gifts to all.

Set table

The people remain standing. The Celebrant, whether bishop or priest, faces them and says

The Living God be with you.


And also with you.


Lift up your hearts.


We lift them to the [Lord].


Let us give thanks to the Eternal One our God.


It is right to give [him] thanks and praise.

Then, facing the Holy Table, the Celebrant proceeds

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty and Ineffable God, Who was before all ages and had no beginning and will not cease to be when all ages are ended.

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Celebrant and People

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The people stand or kneel.

Then the Celebrant continues

We give thanks to you, God Who is true Love, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, the sacred matrix, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

At the following words concerning the bread, the Celebrant is to hold it, or to lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrated.

On the night before he died for us, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, the Great Word of God dressed in flesh, took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Therefore, according to his command, O Shepherd of souls,

Celebrant and People

We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory;

The Celebrant continues

And we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to you, O God the Ruler of all; presenting to you, from your creation, this bread and this wine.

We pray you, Living Fountain, to send your Living Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with [Hildegard and] all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your daughters and sons; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.

By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Sacred Spirit all honor and glory is yours, O Wondrous Wonder, now and for ever. AMEN.

And now, as our Savior

Christ has taught us,

we are bold to say,

Our Supernal Creator and our Father…

The Breaking of the Bread

The Celebrant breaks the consecrated Bread.

A period of silence is kept.

Then may be sung or said

[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.]

Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

and may add

Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people.

The Bread and the Cup are given to the communicants with these words

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. [Amen.]

The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. [Amen.]

After Communion, the Celebrant says

Let us pray using the form on p 366.

Celebrant and People

Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

The Deacon, or the Celebrant, dismisses them with these words

Let us go forth in the name of God, the magnificent, glorious, and incomprehensible.


Thanks be to God.


Adaptation of the Eucharistic Liturgy and translations of the Holy Scriptures by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible, Brite Divinity School and Diocese of Pennsylvania, The Episcopal Church

Research Assistance provided by Zachary Poppen

Lessons From Passover: A Farewell Sermon

Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the word we would hear and the word we would not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to those whom it is easy to love and those who it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts to the stranger when it is convenient and when it is not. Open the doors of our hearts. Open the doors of our hearts wider than the fears that limit us. Open the doors of our hearts. Amen.

 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching pour like the rain and may my word go forth like the dew.

Exodus invites us to imagine that someday someone will ask you about why you do what you do. In order for someone to ask the question, they have to see you doing something provocative. In the text, telling the story of liberation to the next generation is an act of living liturgy.

The story of Passover and its ritual instructions are not directly applicable to Christians and other Gentiles. But there are lessons to be learned here. It’s easy to focus on the story of the exit – as my dictation program typed instead of Exodus, a story of liberation – and then talk about all the ways in which we have been liberated and are seeking liberation for ourselves and for others. We may move easily into conversations about liberation of slaves here in America in the previous century and, here in America and around the world in this century.

But what about the command to tell the story? What about the liturgy of the telling? We have our own capital S story as Christians and individual stories. An important part of our faith is telling the story; that is the heart of evangelism. It is important, some would say crucial, for Christians to be able to tell the story of Jesus. But that’s not the kind of telling the text is talking about. The text calls for the Israelites to become living texts, to tell their stories with their actions and then when asked with their words. The living comes before the telling.

The text about telling comes with an expectation that the descendants of Israel will live the story in a particular way. The text foresees the future in which the daily lives and routine of people will be framed, not interrupted, but shaped by the liturgy they live. As cultural religions, Judaism and its ancient Israelite ancestor shape and shaped the daily lives and seasonal lives of the people born to them and those who choose them. While there are daily and seasonal Christian observances, they don’t shape the daily lives of its followers in the same way. Yet here in this time, when our living liturgies of the Three Days intersect with the living liturgy of Passover is an opportune time to ask how these liturgies affect our daily living. And looking beyond these days, what are the stories our lives tell?

Today is 14 Nissan 5774, Erev Pesach. Tomorrow is the first day of Passover (in our time zone). Jews all over the world engage in the liturgy of story telling at table in their homes, some tonight, some tomorrow night. Some unknown number of Gentiles like me will sojourn at those tables and share in telling that story.

Today, I would like you to focus on what if anything you do in your daily or seasonal life that tells the story of your faith. What are your living liturgical practices? What is it that you do that someone might see you do ask why do you do that? What does it mean? How do you mark the seasons of our collective story in your home? What do you do to tell your story when you’re not at church?

Today we are going to talk to our neighbors about our stories. In groups of two tell your story using these questions:

1-    When was the last time someone asked you about your faith based on something they saw you do?

2-    Are their ways you live out your faith in your home (other than Advent, Christmas and Easter decorations)?

3-    How/where/when do you share your story outside of your home?

Talk to a neighbor and Dr. Krentz will play us back together at the end of our time. (6 min)

So, what’s your story? The stories of Israel and the church are interrelated. Each is a study of a people who move from oppressed to oppressor. Each used their theology to justify dominating those with different theologies. And they continue to tell their stories. But the people who watched them didn’t always tell the same stories. The Canaanites didn’t tell the story of Israelite presence in the land the way Israel did. And folk on the bottom of the Church’s power curves don’t tell the same stories as those on top. Women and men, people of color and white folk, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk and heterosexual and cisgender folk tell different stories. But we’re part of the same great story. Privilege is seductive and the memories of marginalization loom large justifying using privilege to protect privilege.

You are telling a story with your life and when they ask you why do you do the things you do, what will you say about the story you have already told with your commitments, actions and inactions when they contradict the story you tell with your words? We are writing and being written as the Church, the story of God. Can anyone see Jesus in or story? That poor, Jewish, brown-skinned, non-gender compliant, establishment-critical, Hebrew Bible reading and preaching Jesus? What about that infuriating violence provoking Jesus? Anybody get mad when you preach? Anybody care when you preach?

In our first lesson, a portion of the Torah portion for the first day of Pesach, Passover, God tells Israel to tell their story and more than that, to live their story. Live the story you tell. And let it be the story of God. The story of redemption and transformation, the story of blending fellow travelers escaping the same slavery into a new people.

Our second lesson, a portion of the haftarah, the prophets portion for the first day of Pesach shows the Israelites telling their story of salvation in the living liturgy they had been given. There will be no record of Israel keeping the Passover in the bible again until the prophet Huldah canonizes the Torah scroll brought to her in the reign of Josiah, some six hundred years later, a reminder that if you neglect to tell your story, it will not die. It will wait for those who know its power to tell it again.

What’s your story? This place has a story, and old story and now you are writing new lines. What will you say when they ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing?

My time here has added new lines to my story. One is the certainty that the hijacking of the term evangelism by those who have redefined it by their example as religious intolerance, harassment, arrogance and bible bashing conversion drive-bys is a story that does not lead to liberation or even invite conversation.

When they ask me why I tweet, blog and insist on reading hearing and preaching from God’s word in God’s mother tongue, I have a story, one in which I hope my words reflect my actions, compelling, inviting, engaging, challenging and convicting, probing and prophetic. As we have lived our stories together, I have learned to tell my story in the public square in a way I couldn’t imagine, as drag-inspired womanist midrash, including vampire theology and critical analysis of race and its representations in popular culture, from the Masoretic Text to the movie theatre. That’s the story of this theological dominatrix. What’s yours? As we go our separate ways will the story you live be the story you tell? Will the story you tell be the story you live? The library is open.


Women of the Word: Women Prophets

2014 Susan Draper White Lectures at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN. The talk is based on my book Daughters of Miriam and previews the approach in my forthcoming book Womanist Midrash.


New-Old Ways of Teaching: Rabbis & Rabbits

My first experience with hevruta, a companion in learning with whom to study Hebrew and Aramaic biblical and rabbinic texts was in graduate school. When I joined the faculty at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia I was delighted to be able introduce my students to the concept and be able to partner with Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and Melissa Heller of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College to offer a co-taught hevruta class between the two seminaries paring Jewish and Christian seminarians. I write about that class and its continuing impact on my teaching for the Wabash Center’s teaching blog here. All of out students were greatly enriched, the LTSP community is especially grateful for the lessons learned from rabbis – classical and traditional – and rabbits, rabbis-in-training.

When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith

[The image is courtesy of Karen Whitehill, a digital collage in which she superimposes the heads of vintage stars over the Last Supper by Juanes. Many thanks for her gracious permission.]

Jesus told a parable like this (in Luke 13:6-9): A woman had a fig tree planted in her vineyard; and she came looking for fruit on it and found none. So she said to her gardener, ‘Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Mistress, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

Let us pray for the times “When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith”:

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (Link to audio available here.)


[NB: The RGT is my name for my translation of the scriptures, the Revised Gafney Translation. I generally translate all the lessons when I preach.]


Job ends his response to God’s interrogation by saying:

I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)

I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes. (JPS)

I disparaged myself and wasted away, and I regard myself as dust and ashes. (LXX)

I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes. (RGT)

Why are all of those translations of Job 42:6 so different? And which one is right? The second question is easier. The RGT is right. The JPS is right too. They are both right even though they don’t say the same thing. The LXX is also a faithful translation – of a different Hebrew text translated to and preserved in Greek. The NRSV, RSV, KJV, ESV, Wycliffe, Geneva, Bishop and Douay Bibles are all less right, much less right because they insist on making Job repent even though the verb shuv, “turn,” “repent” isn’t actually in the text. They need Job to conform to their theology, their embedded theology, so they corrected the text to say what they thought it should say to mean what they knew it meant. As for others, the NIV just isn’t worth opening and as a paraphrase the Message isn’t even a translation of the bible. The bible was a whole lot simpler before we all got to seminary – in whatever century (ahem) we attended.

The bible was so much simpler because for most, there was only one with a single table of contents, passed down in a straight line from ancient texts written by men – and I mean men and not people – men who heard from God and wrote what “He” said. Biblical faith was bumper-sticker simple: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. At least mine was once upon a time. Now there are different bibles for Protestants and Catholics and we Episcopalians and Anglicans and, among the Orthodox there are more bibles still with the Ethiopians not bothering to print bibles anymore officially, but if they did, there’d be more books in theirs than any other under heaven – except for some of the Church’s early bibles with the Odes of Solomon and Sibylline Oracles and Epistles of Barnabus and Clement and Shepherd of Hermas. Maybe it wasn’t all so simple back then.

Now we know there are Hebrew manuscript families and Greek manuscript families and Aramaic manuscript families and, for each family sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts for both Testaments. And if we trust that God guided canon-shapers and collectors to preserve the “right” text – if there even is such a thing – then we have to wrestle with so many translations. It was so much easier when we had the translation of our childhood faith, our youthful devotion, our pastor’s teaching, our grandmother’s sacred trust. Now we’ve learned aleph-bet and alpha-beta and how to use software and the internet to find the root of words and it’s not so simple anymore. The words of scripture are beloved and treasured and strange and slippery all at the same time while remaining authoritative and compelling.

And it’s not just bible. Seminary messes with your theology and you didn’t even know that you had a theology, let alone that it was embedded. You knew what you believed and that was just the way it was. There was no interpretation. Faith was simple, not simple-minded. We had questions. Some of us were blessed with pastors and counselors and family and friends who honored and encouraged our questions whether they understood or shared them or not or even knew where to begin to answer them. For others of us our questions marked us as different, malcontent, uppity. Neither we nor our questions were welcome in places that should have been safe for us. Now our questions beget more questions like “why do you ask that?” And when we find answers they are satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time. As God’s mind-blowing response was for Job.

The book of Job is the story of a man who has questions for God; he seeks to face God face to face and so he summons God, he subpoenas God, he sues God. Job’s questions are the questions of all the world: Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Why did my children have to die? His friends have answers but they don’t answer the questions in his soul. His friends’ theology is the theology of good religious folk. It is simple theology. It is that he must have done something wrong because God’s folk are blessed and highly favored and favor ain’t fair. Their understanding of God has been shaped by their cultural contexts, social locations and families of origin, shaped and limited, like our understanding of God. Because God is more. Job is hungry for that more. He needs God to be more.

So Job goes in search of that more. He goes in search of God, to serve his papers; his complaint – the text describes Job’s beef with God in the language of litigation, his legal pleading is based on his belief in a God who is fundamentally just and imposes order on chaos. He knows that if he can just get to God, all the horror he has experienced will somehow make sense. He is certain that there is justice with God, but he’s going to need a little help; he’s going to need an advocate to take his case, and if necessary, to bail him out from under the jail that the God in the whirlwind might just drop on him like Dorothy’s house. That’s what a goel, a redeeming relative is, the kin who will help you save your skin, the relative whom the Torah would say was required to come to your rescue. Job was looking for someone to stand with him as he stood up to God in that famous verse that everybody makes about Jesus. But Job’s redeemer wasn’t Jesus. (At least not yet.) I know that messes with somebody’s simple faith. Whether or not anyone else went with him, Job was going to find God.

And while he was on his way, God found him. I like to think of that whirlwind as seminary – you all are looking less blown away than when you first got here; your hair isn’t all standing up on end, there are no leaves stuck to you but you are in the whirlwind. However, unlike you all, Job didn’t know he was enrolling. Seminary isn’t just an academic program. It is from its Latin epistemological roots a place of formation and transformation. It’s a place where seeds are nurtured and cultivated, seeds of faith, seeds of self-expression, seeds of vocation, seeds of public theology, seeds of squiggles that will yield a harvest of biblical literacy and a place where critical seed questions sprout, blossom and bloom. Job took his precious handful of seeds to God and God – there’s no delicate way to say this – God shits on him. Yes, that’s what the gospel teaches us. Only Jesus calls it manure in the parable of the fig tree. It was as I said once in a children’s sermon, a “stinky and sticky mess.” But Job’s life isn’t a parable to him and the crap that’s raining down on him isn’t manure to him; it’s not obvious to him that his faith and theology are being fertilized. Because the God he encounters is not the God he expects, the God of his once simple but now questioning faith.

Job encounters God in expected and unexpected ways. He encounters God in the soaring rhetoric of creation language:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow,

birthing them out of my own womb?

Job encounters God in explicitly feminine God-language, not just on the tongues of lefty-liberal, feminist and womanist faculty – of both genders – but from the mouth of God and for us, in the pages of scripture, hidden by generations of male translators but accessible to students of biblical languages and to software supported exegetes. God is more than Job thought or expected, but not necessarily the more that he was looking for.

Job seeks answers to his questions from the source of his questions and in return he gets more questions because God takes Job to school in a whirlwind intensive using Socratic pedagogy – teaching through questioning. God questions Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41, for one hundred and twenty nine verses. Now that Job has met God, his previous simple faith is still real but it is inadequate for the mystery he has experienced living his not-so-simple life. Job is learning about God in this stormy weather seminary but it doesn’t look or feel like what he thought it would.

And, as Job prepares to graduate, he finds all of his questions have not been answered. His most burning question is still with him: Why? But God doesn’t answer the question. And so Job utters perhaps the most enigmatic line credited to him. Job’s embedded theology is that even God is constrained by justice. So now Job looks into the face of the whirlwind that could have stripped the flesh off his bones but didn’t and says: I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes.

Job doesn’t drop out of seminary because he learns stuff he whishes he never knew, ideas and concepts that make it difficult to hold on to his simple faith from a much simpler time. He rejects something but what? God? No. They continue in their relationship after this lesson. Does he reject his questions, his theological awakening and try to go back to the time before his critical thinking and religious experience clashed? I don’t think so. So what does Job reject? Perhaps he rejects the expectation that God will answer all of his questions, that everything will make sense and will fit together in an orderly, systematic paradigm or flowchart. Maybe he rejects the notion that God has to make sense to his finite, limited, human understanding.

So Job takes a seat. More than that, he takes comfort in where he is, on, al (preposition), aphar v’epher (conjunction junction, what’s your function), dust and ashes. Dust and ashes is his immediate context, that’s the place of his public theology, field site and internship. Dust and ashes is the place of our ministry. It’s the place where hurting people gather and signal their pain with a formal liturgy of mourning. It is a place of embodied tweeting, ashen-faced rather than face-booked. The ash heap is where you let go trying to capture your God experience in the perfect theological formulation. Job takes a seat and takes comfort in the God of his scandalous theology.

The theology of Job is scandalous for many reasons: Job, a mere human being is blameless in the sight of God. And by the way, Job wasn’t even an Israelite. Then when he loses every thing he has including the skin he is in, it is because God gambles with his life and the lives of his children, consigning them to death to prove a point and win a bet with a character who is a satan but not the devil, (yet). And Job has the – I have to say it because the text calls for it – Job has the balls to sue God over what he knows was an injustice done to him, (the very ones God told him to gird up, tie down, like a man because God had a few questions for him and God was going to get all up in his face and his personal space and it was going to get rough). And if that were not scandalous enough, Job, who is not patient – James must have been reading the Testament of Job or one of the other extra-biblical Job stories – this impatient Job demands answers from God, holds God accountable to a standard of righteousness and sues God to answer to his questions. Job sued God. Shouted at God. And lived to tell about it. God even said he, Job, was right.

At the end of the story, Job takes comfort in his scandalous theology and the questions it generates because he has encountered a God who is big enough to be questioned, one who doesn’t wilt or fade under scrutiny, one who is not so insecure as to demand mindless, unthinking, unquestioning faith.

I found in seminary a safe and challenging place to examine and challenge my own faith and I discovered that the God of my faith, my simple, sincere, honest, faithful faith, was not God. Or rather, I like Job, encountered a God who was more than I imagined. I received a religious education that included, multiple perspectives, unanswered questions, doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity and conflicting text traditions which left me with a supple, flexible faith rather than a brittle, unyielding one. And I left with questions, more questions, different questions that frame an on-going conversation. I learned to take comfort in my questions and in the God who hears and honors them, welcomes them even, just as Job took comfort in dust and ashes.

So go to the ash heap and live your theology there. Take comfort there when prayer and liturgy and scripture and theology and history conflict with what you think you know about God. Be fulfilled in service to those still wounded on their ash heaps; engage their questions with more than the theological platitudes that failed to satisfy you. And when you rise from your ash heap, pray for those who tried to force you to fit in their simple theological paradigms. Job’s seminary experience was healing and transformational. And when Job died old, contented and full of days, he had a rich, complex, questioning faith and he was still unrepentant and God was still alright with that. Amen.

Dont Ask Me How I Am

Don’t ask me how I am if you don’t want to know. If you can’t handle it. If you will need me to help you understand. Just don’t ask. You know how I am. How we are.

I am not ok. We are not ok. I am not safe. We are not safe.

I am not safe as a woman. I am not safe in America. I am not safe because I am black. I am not safe because I have a Ph.D. because I am black. I am not safe because I am middle class or even upper middle class because I am a black woman. I am not safe because I am an American because I am black and a woman.

My Episcopal priest’s collar will not keep me safe. I am not safe in this liberal Christian institution. I have been called nigger in the chapel of one of these seminaries. And I have had white faculty and administration colleagues white-splain to me that just because the student used the word nigger in a sentence while talking to me didn’t mean that she was calling me a nigger. I didn’t understand. I remember being forced to apologize for calling that place a plantation because I hurt the feelings of a white lady. And I did. I didn’t have tenure. I have tenure now. And I am not safe because I have tenure because I am black and a woman in America.

Don’t ask me what you already know.

Just keep playing Strange Fruit and Mississippi Goddamn until you get it.

And then let’s make the world safe for our children.

Rape Culture, God and the Bible

Rape is at the forefront of our civil discourse in ways it has not been in my memory or experience: A young woman raped to the point of death in India has been the focus of international media. During the run up to the presidential election Rep. Todd Akin articulated his belief in legitimate and illegitimate rape as medical certainty proved by whether or not a woman conceived as evidence that women lie about being raped to get abortions. There were so many egregious GOP statements about rape that many conservative women and some men are horrified that their party has become lampooned as the "party of rape." But rape is not a Republican problem, an American problem, an Indian, Darfurian or Congolese problem. It is a human problem, and because many humans are religious, it is also a religious problem.

Rape is normative in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The texts in which women are raped are legion: Num 31:15-18; Deut 21:10-14Judg 19:22-26. Shockingly, for many religious readers, God, Moses and the Torah call for the rape of women (and killing of their infants) as a normative practice in war. (I present at some length on sanctioned rape in the scriptures here.) Perhaps most shocking of all is that the God of the text – who for many readers is their God – uses the language of rape normatively to describe his [in this case I yield to tradition] justified punishment of Israel, positioning himself as the rapist of his errant and deserving wife. Dr. Kate Blanchard expresses the horror of the unsuspecting reader:

Quick – which famous religious personality voiced this angry tirade: “Remove your veil, take off the skirt, uncover the thigh… Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance”? Or this: “It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you suffer violence… I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen”? Or this: “She did not give up her whorings… in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, for whom she lusted. They uncovered her nakedness… and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women”?

Yep, you guessed it: The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 13, and Ezekiel 23). The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I’m angry and you’re going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You’re a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women.

Dr. Blanchard's blog, Rape is God's Problem Too, points to the ways assumptions about the right of males (human and divine) to do whatever they want to the bodies of women – no feminine divines here – especially in the name of "love" is deeply embedded in our civil and religious cultures.

How and why does it matter that rape-language is used in the bible for God? (It's just metaphorical, right?) In Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson tells the story of a young woman, who when confronted with rape-narratives in her scriptures says, "This is the word of God. If it says slavery is okay, slavery is okay. If it says rape is okay, rape is okay." The authority of the bible – accorded and wielded – mean that biblical gender norms, however patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious are presumed to divinely articulated and intended and not the product of an Iron Age patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious society engaged in Stone Age theology.

What has helped me as a religious reader for whom these texts are scripture is understanding how and why this violent rhetoric was deployed. Seeing that language as a tool of persuasion and not a divine articulation of right relationships between women and men has been liberating for me. The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems' classic exposition of the rhetoric of rape in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets ably demonstrates how the Hebrew prophets took the normative violence against women and turned it against men in ancient Israel casting them in the role of the sex-crazed disobedient wife whose physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband (God) is justified.

While we as women and men decry rape and rape culture in civil society, we must not neglect its roots in our sacred texts and the ways in which it contributes to theologies of the human person, gender and God. It is clear to me that biblical tradents were not able to envision a world in which rape was not normative. Fortunately, I can.

(Also available on the Huffington Post)

Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk!

AAR/SBL Womanist In-Gathering 2012: Rituals of Wisdom and Healing

American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL

 Two Faces of RuPaul

I’ve learned a lot about being a woman and being a womanist from drag queens. So I’m going to share with you: Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk! (adapted from RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style, HarperCollins, 2010), an exegesis of Ru-isms/Truisms and drag as a template for womanist gender construction and performance in scholarly vocation.

I first became impressed by RuPaul’s intentional constructions and performances of gender on season one of her reality competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race; during one episode she said, “Wearing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason.” Drag, and particularly RuPal’s incarnation of it, construct and celebrate womanish gender performances that I experience as womanist, although we may not all see them the same way. However it is there that I’d like to start, with the many ways in which we all construct our varied performances of gender. However it is that you are a woman, however it is that you express and perform that gender publically and privately, however it is that you relate to womanism and feminism, these words are for you, especially if you are coming up in this womanist scholarly enterprise. Today, I will be exegeting a number of Ru-isms that I find to be truisms.

Ru-ism: Learn your craft and know thyself. (p 13)

This Ru-ism focuses on the ways in which we construct ourselves from the inside out. Many black women professionals, scholars, authors and graduate students suffer from imposter syndrome. Whether we have had nurturing parenting or not, affirming mentors or not, achieved at and beyond expectations every single time or not, we live in a world that pathologizes our very existence and begins with our black women’s bodies. So learn your craft. And know that you know it. And know that learning is not a static accomplishment. To know your craft you have to keep learning your craft, keep crafting your craft. Know yourself in relationship to your craft, and apart from it. You are not your hair. Neither are you your dissertation, book proposal, acceptance or rejection letter, tenure portfolio, promotion package, cover letter, title, letterhead, bio or abstract. Know who you are beyond your vocation even and especially when you have a spiritual and/or religious understanding of your calling.

Know your drag. Know how you construct and perform your public werk. Understand how your drag is perceived and experienced in your context. Be intentional about your drag whether is it Carol Duncan “always bet on black” fierceness, Tracy Hucks “Yoruba-divine Africana” fierceness or Wil Mickey Finning Gafney “gladiatrix in a suit – Olivia Pope ain’t got nothing on this” hotness with a l’il international flair. And if there’s a part of your body, face, hair, thighs, lips, nose, eyes or smile that you have been taught to despise then do as Pandora Boxx says and put some glitter on it! Love it and yourself fiercely.

Ru-ism: There is freedom outside the box. There is truth outside the box. And it was outside the box that I began to truly understand and develop my own sense of style. (p ix)

Carve out a niche for yourself in relationship to your discipline and peers. Find your space, place, voice and vision. The boundaries around our respective disciplines are becoming more and more porous. Some of us straddle multiple disciplines while others of us weave them together into new constructs that frighten and confuse those who thought they were the object and objective markers of objective truth. Give yourself permission to do what has never been done, write what has not been written, say what has not yet been spoken. The world doesn’t need you to mimic your peers or mentors or even the great womanist and feminist ancestors and icons that inspire us.

In order to find truth – and beauty – outside the box you have to get out of the box. Get out of your office, get off your campus, get out of your house, or alternatively go to your home space, get into your garden, go to the gym, go jump in a lake, take a hike, have a day at the beach, dance in the rain, enjoy a tequila sunrise and sleep it off. Nurture who you are outside that box and figure out how she is connected to who you are in your vocational framework – I won’t call it a box this time – so that you are a full and complete well integrated person.

I want to riff on Ru and say, “but don’t throw out the box.” Don’t throw out everything that everyone has done before you. Relate your new hotness to the tried and true and even the tired and trifling. Even if you are light years ahead of your colleagues, you are all in the same time stream and you share that universe with students and staff, administrators and alumni, funders and fundraisers, governing boards and a general public and sometimes congregations and communions who all have a stake in what you do and how you do it. You are accountable to many publics and they want to see that box. Some of them want to see you in it. Use your box as a teaching tool and stepping stone. But don’t let them pack you in it with the peanuts.

Ru-ism: All the colors of the rainbow are there for you to use… You must learn the rules first before you throw them out, and then by all means throw them out. (p xiv)

Learn the rules. Follow the rules. And when necessary, change the rules using the rules. Learn your faculty handbook. And learn the HR handbook that applies to all employees too. Learn your promotion and retention requirements. Learn your tenure requirements. Learn your benefits package. Learn your tax obligations – especially if you’re clergy, get a housing allowance, file as self-employed and/or get a lot extra checks that add up to a new tax bracket at the end of the year.

Learn the letter of the law, and the spirit. Learn how things really work in your department and institution in spite of what the rules say. Understand that they will apply both the written law and codified oral tradition to you, often combining the most injurious pieces of both – when they’re not just making –ish up.

Learn the rainbow warriors and watercolor muddlers. Figure out who is working for diversity of thought and bodily representation in your community. Figure out who wants just enough earth tones to make the brochures look pretty. Figure out who thinks melanin and everyone colored by it are a stain on the image and legacy of the institution. Learn how to navigate the written rules and the unspoken ones. And each time you survive a snare, expose that trap for those who follow behind you, and use the rules to change the rules to make that place more just for whoever is traveling behind you. Throw shade when you need to – and you will need to – but don’t be shady.

Ru-ism: I focus on projects that get me excited. (p 169)

Werk! Do the work. Do the work you love. Teach the texts and theories you love. Write the books you want to read, write the books that you wish someone had written for you. Work smart and work hard. If you’re in grad school, as much as possible make every paper in every class connect directly with your dissertation. Let your book reviews and conference papers emerge from your work or advance it. Use your research in your teaching. Be strategic about accepting invitations to publish. Rewrite, reuse and recycle. Reuse your own work; quote yourself. Don’t keep reinventing the wheel. Enjoy yourself. And if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. There has got to be some joy in this thing, because there’s not enough money to make anybody happy. Do what it takes to maintain your joy and don’t let anyone take it away form you.

Ru-ism: Rise up and be fearless! (p 4)

You are not alone. There are mothers and mentors, sisters and far-seers, healers and huggers, listeners and lovers, cousins and counselors in this community, and bound to this community in love and affinity.

Finally let me tell you about my fierce drag, that it might be a mirror to you as you construct your own:

  •  I go to church every Sunday that I’m able. And when I’m not able; I don’t go. And I don’t sweat it.
  •  I celebrate the feminine divine in and around me. I designed my own vestments, incorporative the Divine Mother and Mother of God as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Tree of Life, עץ חיים היא, She is a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
  •  I plan to go to the gym 3-4 days a week and give myself full credit if I make it two. I don’t let it be none if I can help it.
  •  I have a good massage therapist.
  •  I go to the spa and to the beach and to the spa at the beach.
  •  I pamper my skin and beat my mug. Right now I’m on a Lush Cosmetics tip. I also worship at the altars of Nordstrom, Bobbi Brown, Sephora, Make-Up Forever, Smashbox and NARS.
  •  I believe in real jewelry, precious and semi-precious stones. I don’t put plastic in my hair.
  •  I rock heels as high as I can on my size 4’s except when I’m feeling low-down.
  •  I might have two or three Coach bags and accessories at any given time.
  •  I cluster my classes and teach longer days so that I can devote at least two days a week to writing. On my writing days I write in 1-2 2-4 hour blocks and if all I produce is 250 words that’s enough. If I can’t write, I rewrite, edit or research, but one of those two days will give birth to words even if I have to take them back later.
  •  I say no to my beloved colleagues when the projects they invite me to don’t fit my writing agenda or I have multiple contracts already. I can do that be cause I have already written with and for many of them and I have made space for them to write with and for me.
  •  And while I didn’t know it until I started watching Scandal, I am a gladiator in a suit. I always start the semester in a vicious suit and heels, so that when I decide to relax my look, I have already marked my territory and demonstrated my cultural and topical mastery.


Taking my own advice, I will share some of what I presented in 2008 when asked to present on “Surviving and Thriving in the Biblical Academy.” These are my Ten Commandments:

  • Thou shalt not allow anyone to divide thy person into the sum of its parts – ethnic, gender, orientation, religious affiliation or lack thereof.
  • Thou shalt not place collegiality or institutional loyalty above thine own career.
  • Thou shalt develop mentoring relationships with senior scholars on thy faculty.
  • Thou shalt develop trust-bearing relationships with scholars in and outside thy field of all ranks, genders and ethnicities outside of thy institution.
  • Thou shalt consult the elders before making stupid decisions because thou wilst not know that they are stupid until it is too late, but thine elders can see it coming.
  • Thou shalt manage thy time well and meet deadlines, developing strategies and/or schedules for when to write what.
  • Thou shalt pursue thine own research interests, while writing for projects requested by thy peers whether they interest you or not  – for one day thou wilst need those colleagues to write in thy projects, not to mention for thine retention, promotion and tenuring.
  • Thou shalt covet time with the one or ones thou lovest.
  • Thou shalt mentor junior scholars and graduate students.
  • Thou shalt observe a Sabbath – religious or not – a time of rest for thy body. Thou mayest attend the gymnasium or spa on thine Sabbath. Thou mayest travel on thine Sabbath to mountain bike, hike, snorkel or otherwise enjoy thy gift of thy flesh.

Ru-ism: May the fierce be with you! (p 23)


St. Publia the Confessor: a Patrona for Public Theology

The young widow Publia became a deaconess in Antioch in the fourth century. She was commended for raising her son John later Bishop of Antioch, in the faith. She was sainted for her own confession and defense of the faith. She was a public theologian who used the scriptures of the First Testament to articulate her faith. She and her sisters are said to have recited all or some of Pss 113-115 and 68 when Julian the apostate Roman emperor came to her community. Most commentators point to the language against idolatry in Ps 115 as the reason for Publia’s proclamation. Yet I find in those Psalms some of the most interesting feminine and dare I say feminist language in the scriptures.

Psalm 113 opens and closes with Hallelu Yah, using the short form of the divine Name, Yah which is actually a feminine form grammatically. It is used in some contemporary Jewish prayers as an explicitly feminine articulation of God. Psalm 113 is also one of the few that may have been outhored in whole or in part by a woman. Verses 7-9 quote Hannah’s prayer from 1 Sam 1:7-8 and may have functioned liturgically as a prayer for infertility. The canonization of Hannah’s prayer extends into the New Testament where it is adapted by the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Magnificat in Luke 1, particularly verses 52-53. Those themes are repeated in Ps 68:7-8. Ps 68 also includes a line translated as “the company of preachers” in Handel’s Messiah. However the preachers in the text are all women. The Hebrew verb b-s-r, “to proclaim good news” becomes euangelizo, “to preach the gospel” in Greek. And, these gospel preaching women are a great “army.” Using the word that describes God’s heavenly armies, tzavaoth, the women preachers are not jus a numerous “host” but a well-organized military formation.

Some time after Julian’s 362 visit, Saint Publia died of natural causes, perhaps hastened by the beating she took. The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoretus records:

I will now include in my history the noble story of a right excellent woman, for even women, armed with divine zeal, despised the mad fury of Julian. In those days there was a woman named Publia, of high reputation, and illustrious for deeds of virtue. For a short time she wore the yoke of marriage, and had offered its most goodly fruit to God, for from this fair soil sprang John, who for a long time was chief presbyter at Antioch, and was often elected to the apostolic see, but from time to time declined the dignity. She maintained a company of virgins vowed to virginity for life, and spent her time in praising God who had made and saved her. One day the emperor was passing by, and as they esteemed the Destroyer an object of contempt and derision, they struck up all the louder music, chiefly chanting those psalms which mock the helplessness of idols, and saying in the words of David   “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, the work of men’s hands,” and after describing their insensibility, they added “like them be they that make them and all those that trust in them.” Julian heard them, and was very angry, and told them to hold their peace while he was passing by. She did not however pay the least attention to his orders, but put still greater energy into their chant, and when the emperor passed by again told them to strike up “Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.” On this Julian in wrath ordered the choir mistress to be brought before him; and, though he saw that respect was due to her old age, he neither compassionated her gray hairs, nor respected her high character, but told some of his escort to box both her ears, and by their violence to make her cheeks red. She however took the outrage for honour, and returned home, where, as was her wont, she kept up her attack upon him with her spiritual songs, just as the composer and teacher of the song laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul. 

As we pray these psalms let us listen to their theology:



Psalm 113:1 Hallelu Yah!

Praise, you servants of the One God; praise the Name of the Living God.


2  May the Name of the Eternal God be blessed from this time on and forevermore. 

3  From the rising of the sun to its setting the Name of the Ageless God is to be praised. 

4  High above all nations is the Sovereign God, and above the heavens is God’s glory.


5 Who is like the Saving One our God, the one enthroned on high? 

6  Looking far down on the heavens and the earth? 

7  God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 

8  to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of God’s people. 

9  God sets the barren woman in a home, the joyous mother of children. Hallelu Yah!


Psalm 114:1 When Israel went out from Egypt,

the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, 

2  Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel God’s dominion.  

3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 

4  The mountains danced like rams, the hills like lambs.

5 Why sea, do you flee? Why Jordan, do you turn back? 

6  Why mountains do you dance like rams and hills, like lambs?


7 Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 

8  who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.


Psalm 68:1  Let God rise up, let God’s enemies be scattered;

let those who hate God flee before God. 


2 Just as smoke is dispersed, so disperse them;

as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. 

3 And let the righteous rejoice; let them exult in God’s presence; let them be jubilant with joy.


4 Sing to God, sing praises to God’s Name;

lift up a song to God who rides upon the clouds—

God’s Name is Too-Holy-to-be-Uttered—

Exult in God’s presence.

5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in God’s holy habitation. 

6  God provides a home for the lonely; God leads out the prisoners to prosperity.

But – ah! – the rebellious, they dwell in a parched land.


7 God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness  ~ Selah ~

8  the earth quaked, indeed the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God, 

the God of this Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 

9  You showered abundant rain God; when your inheritance languished you sustained it. 

10  Your creatures dwell in it; in your goodness you provided for the needy God. 


11 The commander gives an order; the preaching women are a great army.  


Let us pray:

Holy One of Old, you called your daughter Publia to the vocational life of a public theologian. Grant that we who remember her here today may find as she found, in the words of scripture words of proclamation, resistance, life and transformation. And may our readings of scripture empower those who follow. Amen.

Prophetic Resistance: A Conversation with Elaine Pagels

Revelations - Elaine Pagels

I interview Elaine Pagels on her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the book of Revelation for Religious Dispatches. You can find it here.