WATER Teleconference January 8, 2014 Follow-Up Notes
WATER thanks Erin Lane, editor, and Robyn Henderson Espinoza, author, for their insightful teleconference on the new book, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith, edited by Erin S. Lane and Enuma C. Okoro, Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2013.
The audio is available on the WATER website, www.waterwomensalliance.org. These notes are meant to be used with the audio. They are not a transcript of the conversation.
Erin Lane started the discussion by outlining how the book came about. It includes forty women authors under the age of forty who come from the Christian tradition. It is part of a series of books entitled I SPEAK FOR MYSELF that includes volumes on Muslim American women, Muslim American men, and young voices from the Arab Revolutions, with a forthcoming volume to focus on Christian men and fathering issues. Erin recalled wanting to do a book with U.S. Christian women, but realizing that there were many such books, she and her co-editor Enuma C. Okoro decided to find a unique hook. Taboos were it.
They asked prospective writers what they wished their churches were taking about, how they got the courage to talk about things that are considered taboo, and what were the many topics considered off-limits in their circles. The editors were surprised and delighted by the diversity of responses they received from women from a variety of racial/ethnic groups, sexual identities/orientations, as well from across the progressive-conservative spectrum. The challenge was to relinquish control of what the editors thought the writers would want to say and simply let the writers go ahead on their own. The book unfolded accordingly.
One of the writers is Robyn Henderson-Espinoza. She spoke about her chapter entitled “Tattooing My Faith,” in which she describes her faith/doubt journey and why she has inked it on her body. She was not confident when she was asked to write the piece that her sharing would be received respectfully.
As a queer Baptist who went to seminary and is now finishing a doctorate in ethics, she struggles to believe. So her taboo is as much doubt as tattoos. Her tattoos reflect the various stages, up until now, in her “journey with doubt.” She suggested that doubt is a common theme that many people simply do not want to talk about, a good definition of taboo.
She seeks to retain a bodily memory of her life’s journey. In an age of instant communication, she said it is good to reflect on what happens to us, to slow down and see its impact. Making permanent marks on her body (she has several tattoos of the Greek word for fish, of Chi/Rho --“Christ My Shepherd,” etc.) that she cannot get away from reminds her of the various stages in her life. She spoke of the anxiety of exposing body parts (ankles, arms, etc.) with tattoos to a wider public. Robyn counseled relaxing and appreciating the impact of life on our bodies. As a queer person, her tattoos also make her recognizable to others as one who does not fit the mold.
Erin Lane wrote a chapter entitled “Married without Children” in which she describes her decision with her husband not to have biological children in a society that assumes that most people will. She affirmed that adult life begins when one can truly say, “I am not the child/woman/Christian you had in mind” to those who might seek to pigeonhole individuals.
The decision not to have children flies in the face of much Christian teaching about being fruitful and multiplying. Erin said that she never heard a sermon about not having children. She believes that all adults are called to be spiritual guides regardless of biology. The Catholic Church’s rhetoric about heterosexual marriage being “open to the transmission of new life” has many interpretations. A person or couple without children might well be more available to others than parents. Choosing to be without children, and coming to peace with the decision especially in a church context is not just a lifestyle question but also a vocational call. It requires giving up some things. The choice is a way to call attention to what one prefers, and also an indication of something larger that is of God.
Mary E. Hunt, in reflecting about the volume, commented that she was surprised by the fact that so many young women still deal the same issues that their mothers and grandmothers struggled with generations ago. Of course this is a product of Catholic and Protestant conservatism, among other things. She was struck by how much work remains to be done. She mentioned the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South led by the incomparable Jeanette Stokes that was involved with this book project, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus that Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and others have led for decades, as well as WATER’s work as examples of efforts to help women break out of the expected structures of their lives. She also pointed out the connections between lack of inclusive language for the divine and the persistence of women’s concerns about their bodies. These seem to be deeply related: if women do not image the divine how can they have good self-esteem about their many shaped bodies? Mary was struck by high expectations women have of ourselves. One woman who wrote in the book expressed concern that as a mother with toddlers she was not doing enough volunteer work. We are simply too hard on ourselves!
Question and discussion followed:
1. One participant asked Robyn if she had read the work of Nadia Bolz-Weber, especially her book Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013).
Robyn affirmed that she knew her and the story of her tattoos. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor
whose popular writing and provocative speaking have made her a well-known religious leader who happens to have the whole church calendar tattooed on her body. Robyn said that Nadia is high church while Robyn is low church, among other differences in their approaches.
2. A colleague who described herself as being “on the other end of life,” i.e., older than the writers praised the young women for their work. She said that rather than relax, she has much to do in what remains of her earthly life. She agreed with Erin about the need to need to sacramentalize the many ways in which people who are not parents pass on new life, especially by changing structures and systems that put women down. She affirmed the idea of hospitality and helping others as ways of passing on new life.
Erin concurred. She described some of her own work on spaces, stressing that where we meet often determines whether we feel safe to speak. She talked about planning retreats for people of faith who want to summon the courage to act out their life’s callings. This book she hopes will be a conversation starter.
3. The moderator mentioned K.D. Byers’ essay in Talking Taboo in which she writes, “The church suffers from an overabundance of answers…” (p. 102). The challenge is how to get people to value the questions and not simply look for answers. Who gets to decide what is taboo? What are some of the cultural institutions beyond religion that inform us? Maybe Madison Avenue and Hollywood are just as effective as churches.
Robyn replied that the business world is a place where people are pushing back against norms, a move that she hopes will spill over into the churches. Erin cited academia as one arena of many taboos. Expertise, for example, is highly structured so in order to prove the validity of an idea one must quote someone else who is already considered an authority. After graduate school, she had to relearn to trust her own voice. Erin said that some feminist organizations have their own taboos. She contrasted those with the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, a space where she said women feel free to be who they are, where their diversity is respected.
4. Another participant asked the authors how they got the self-concept to break taboos.
Robyn said she wants to break from the binary of normalized ideological centered living that results in some always being on the margins. Instead, she chooses to live a taboo life (being queer, gender non-conforming, a non-confessional theologian, etc.). This taboo life creates a new norm, new contours that destabilize the ideological center. It results in a more fluid, perhaps messy situation where binaries are erased. Her self-confidence comes in living the life of taboo, not breaking taboos. She wants live in such a way as to disrupt both margin and center and thus help create a new horizon where all flourish.
Erin spoke of a sense of identity growing stronger to speak in public. She said there is some acceptance of the fact that we are contradictory people. Few of us fit perfectly into anyone’s idea of who we are expected to be. She chooses not to be an audience member but an actor. Even though she has a hard time getting used to the culture in the south, she has no need to wait for people to give her permission to be who she is.
5. One caller simply offered her thanks as a “Jesus and Mary loving trouble maker” for the book.
6. Another questioner asked if there had been much response from men, and if so, to which chapters/issues.
Erin said that at a reading of the book some men had felt squeamish about the chapter by Patience Perry entitled “Crafting Bonds of Blood,” in which the author describes the use of menstrual blood as fertilizer.
While the women are focused on their taboos, Erin reported that some men are working on a similar volume dealing with fatherhood in American culture.
WATER’s next teleconference will be “Talking Taboo, Part Two” with Grace Biskie, Gina Messina-Dysert, Tara Woodard-Lehman, and Katey Zeh on February 5th at 1:00PM EST when we will pick up this good conversation. All are welcome to participate. See www.waterwomensalliance.org for more information.