Episode 2: a textured gospel
In this episode of Thursdays At the Table, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling explores the importance of a variety of theological perspectives with guests the Rev. Drs. Shively Smith, an Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Theology, and Theresa Thames, Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University. Theology or “God-talk” is not situated in one culture, people or time. Rather, all of creation extols the glory and represents aspects of the Divine and therefore needs to speak into this conversation. To privilege one group over another de-centers those whose voices are often excluded and attempts to wrongly make one experience, culture or worldview normative and limits our understanding of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Easterling and her guests delve into “the radical boldness of saying yes,” and the importance of “possibility models,” and interrogating the text. Together, they explore overcoming biblical illiteracy and moving beyond a fairy-tale faith to capture the truth and implications of the Gospel message through the lived life of Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Shively Smith is a lifelong student of sacred texts and dedicated to the life of the mind and the journey of the spirit. She is a renowned scholar, teacher, author, and preacher, currently serving as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology and Affiliate faculty for the PhD Concentration in Homiletics. She is also Resident Scholar and an itinerant elder at the historic Metropolitan AME Church of Washington D.C. She is currently researching the work of theologian Howard Thurman and her ministry often focuses on providing life-transforming answers to the question “What bridges am I building and crossing for future generations today?”
The Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames has a passion for things at the intersections of theology, gender, organizational development, and social justice. An Elder in The United Methodist Church, she is the Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University in New Jersey. A sought after teacher and preacher, she is also the founder of Soul Joy Coaching & Yoga, LLC, an in-person and online gathering that invites women of color to honor their whole divine selves and tap into radical joy. Before moving to Princeton, she served as a pastor in Washington, D.C. for nine years. Thames “prioritizes self-care and believes that freedom is not optional, rest is her strength, and radical joy is her resistance.” Learn more.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling: Beloved of God, I am so excited to welcome two guests to Thursdays at the Table. Today, we're going to explore the importance of having diversity of theological perspectives, and I know our guests will be able to help us unpack the whole truth from their experience.
Let us welcome Rev. Dr. Shively Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology. She's a sought-after scholar, teacher, preacher, and writer who's dedicated to the service of academic theological studies and ecumenical conversations across multiple arenas.
We have our own, the Rev. Dr. Theresa Thames. She is the Associate Dean of Religious Life and Chapel at Princeton University. She is passionate about the intersections of theology, gender, organizational development, and social justice. Also, a dynamic preacher, and teacher, and scholar in her own right, and might I say again, for us here in this Baltimore-Washington Conference, a homegirl.
We're just excited to be able to welcome both of you to the table today. Hello.
Rev. Dr. Shively Smith: Hello, thanks.
Rev. Dr. Theresa Thames: Hi. Welcome.
Bishop Easterling: Good. It's so good to have you here. It's important that we start out with a question that I ask all guests that helps ground us. Coffee or tea?
Dr. Shively: I'm going to say coffee. [laughs]
Bishop Easterling: All right.
Dr. Theresa: I'll say water.
Bishop Easterling: Okay, very good. Now, Dr. Shively, for coffee, is that decaf or regular?
Dr. Shively: No, regular and straight up.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Straight up.
Bishop Easterling: Straight up, no chaser. Amen, amen. I appreciate that. Often, I will share the coffee mug that I have as a part of the kitchen table. Today, I want to read to you what this mug says because I think it's important for our conversation today. "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism." You might recognize those words. Those were words written by Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, and so this is the mug that is on the table with us this morning as we're having this conversation.
Let's jump right in to some of the deepest things we know.
First, I want to say to Dr. Shively Smith, you just received an Excellence in Mentoring Award at the American Academy of Religion. What was it like to be recognized by your colleagues?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Yes. I actually received it from the Forum for Theological Exploration, so from FTE. It just occurred at the reception at AAR, American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. To receive it from FTE for me was- and it was just a couple of days after Dr. Delores Williams had passed, was, totally unexpected. The funny story is I was talking to someone, and hugging on somebody, saying, "So good to see you," and encouraging, and they said my name multiple times, and I turned around, Bishop, and said, "What? I'm busy. I'm trying to be helpful."
It was unexpected, but then on the flip side, it's very humbling to-- to care about the village, to care about the vocational paths of the communities that are around us, I don't see that as something that needs to be rewarded. I see that as something that we are supposed to do. We are supposed to care about each other coming into the fullness of who we are called to be; what Thurman would talk about, that we are making sure that we are helping each other come alive. That, that is work that is a requirement of who we are and what we should be doing.
It was humbling in a way of saying, wow, I didn't even know people were paying attention. I'm not doing it for people to pay attention, but I do hope it encourages other people to remember that one of our first works should be caring about supporting each other in ways that are life-giving, so I'm thankful.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I appreciate, and I'm not surprised to hear you say that you don't do your work for recognition or accolades, and yet, we need to celebrate that which we want to see more of. In the lifting of the gracious way in which you go about your mission in ministry, the way you live your life; hopefully, it will encourage others to do so as well. Again, congratulations.
I want to talk to both of you about what it's like to be an African American woman in the academy. Because I remember from my days in seminary, lo, those many years ago, I didn't see that many individuals who looked like me. What is that experience for you to be in the academy?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Dr. Thames, I'll let you take this.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: I want to start by saying that I am here because of Dr. Shively Smith. She was my DMin advisor and believed in my gifts and pushed me along. Janet Mock, who is a nationally known, black, transgender woman, talks about the importance of having a possibility model, and Dr. Smith was a possibility model for me.
In my work here at Princeton, I think about being a possibility model; of showing up, being very clear about who I am, being unapologetic about being black. Also, thinking about how I represent possibilities for not just other black and brown students, but for everyone here. Having a foundation of seeing other women before me, like Dr. Smith, like you, Dr. Easterling, the gift of being able to do that here at an Ivy League university. There are challenges, but is to show up unapologetic.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I'm going to come back to that possibility in a moment, but Dr. Shively Smith, allow you to also speak to what it's like for you to be in the academy.
Rev. Dr. Shively: One of the things that is important for me as sort of living in the academy is thinking about what it means to be a part of a great cloud of witnesses. Even now within these academic spaces, African American women, women of color, minoritized women, we continue to be that in terms of the numbers, but to recognize that we are participating in and contributing to and are beneficiaries of great clouds of witnesses, some who have gone on before us and yet are here in spirit, others who are still here, who are the aunties in the field, right?
Bishop Easterling: Yes.
Rev. Dr. Shively: In some ways, recognize that you have sisters and so forth. I think there's a real opportunity. One of the things that I love about being a black woman in the academy is looking for the ways in which I have moments of a reminder that I am participating in, I am a part of, I am connected to all these other women, past, present, and then contributing to the future, who are also deep-seeking and are deep-thinkers, writers, teachers, administrators, and leaders. That gives me joy and purpose. That's anchoring for me to see myself as a part of that.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I love the way you talked about the aunties, because that is language that's well-known in the black community, especially the black female community, having mothers and godmothers and aunties and sheroes and all of those people who do help form our great cloud of witnesses. That's powerful.
This notion of a possibility model. Again, one of the things that I try to do in this engagement of Thursdays at the Table is to get to the whole truth, to really talk about, to not be afraid to name and talk about important things. I want to say that when I was attending, you're at my alma mater, Dr. Smith. I did get my Master of Divinity from BU School of Theology and graduated summa cum laude from that institution, which as a second career person who was a mother and a wife, and for two of the years that I was there, also pastoring, that was no small feat. I just want to say that. Okay, I'm just going to say that. It was no small feat.
Rev. Dr. Shively: Not at all.
Bishop Easterling: And yet, I want you to hear, not one professor talked to me about going on to doctoral studies. Now, maybe that was because I had come out of the AME church where I had been associate pastor or assistant pastor in some places, so perhaps there was a presumption that I was going to remain in the church.
This notion of a possibility model, isn't it important for us to not only see one another, and so I'm so glad the two of you were there, but isn't it also important for us to be able to speak into one another's hearing, "Have you thought about continuing on in the academy? Have you thought about contributing your voice to the theological stream?" I just wonder what both of your thoughts are about that.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: Absolutely. It's just the whole idea of being prophetic in each other's lives, offering the invitation too, and also resourcing. I just do not believe that when it comes to black women, when it comes to black and brown students, that we think about the possibilities beyond what is right there. Because the language is sometimes about just getting through; that, that language of just getting through leads to survival more than thriving.
If someone would've come to you, and not just talk to you about surviving and making it through the degree, but helping you to vision what's possible afterwards, that's why it's so important for us, for people who look like us and beyond, to really begin to plant seeds and ask people, to inquire. People don't even know that there are different possibilities out there, especially when it comes to theological education. The trajectory is usually straight to a local church, not anything beyond that.
Rev. Dr. Shively: My own personal story is this in a real way. I went to an HBCU and went to Fisk University with a Math, Computer Science major, planning to finish with undergrad and get a job. I was taking an Introduction to the Bible course, because I'd already started preaching at 16 in Baptist and Pentecostal circles, and so for me that made sense to take an Introduction to Bible course, but it was my black women professors. One who actually, Karen Collier, Ordained Elder of the UMC church, who was over the Religious and Philosophical Studies program, who actually said to me, in her very authoritative, older-auntie voice, "What are you doing? You're supposed to be in religion and philosophy. You're supposed to get a PhD in Bible."
I responded to her, and then to my other professor, Dr. Bracks, by saying, "I don't even know what that is." I had no vision of that, so they called that out in a very definitive way, and then had to describe for me what that was and the steps that I had to take. I am a biblical scholar now not because that's something that came up that was of my own doing or knowledge. It was because there were these two black women in place who saw it and named it for me and gave me the steps to take to do it.
I want to say one piece, one side of that, Bishop Easterling, that I think is very important. They gave me the steps that I had to be willing to take. I had to be humble enough and teachable enough to receive not only their affirmations, but also their critiques when it wasn't good enough, that my first draft of my brilliant writing actually wasn't that brilliant yet.
There is both a give and take, I think, in that directing relationship that we have to name that sometimes, I think, people miss. To receive the guidance is one thing, but to receive the guidance that is both affirmation and critique, it is both easy at times and it is both stretching other times, is another part of that equation that we have to hold up.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: Yes.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. I very much appreciate that. It's always a both/and. In that thinking about being able to, again, be mentored, being able to hear the yin and the yang, the positive and the push to be stretched, I also recall in seminary, there were some, and it was, I will say, a couple of my African American classmates, who were dismayed that seminary wasn't a glorified Bible study. This notion of interrogating the text, they found off-putting. Some of them began to say, [mimics] "This is what they warned us about before we came to seminary. We were going to lose Jesus when we came to seminary."
Talk to us about what happens when we do fail to interrogate the texts from several different standpoints. What do we lose?
Rev. Dr. Theresa: I'm over here like just-- Because I'm from Mississippi. I am from Biloxi, Mississippi. I grew up in a Bapticostal church, where when I got to Duke and they said Eucharist, I was like, "What is that?" We say, "Lord Supper." All of this high liturgical language, it just wasn't a part of my vernacular, it wasn't part of my practice. I knew nothing about a liturgical calendar. I knew nothing. Even in undergrad, I was a Biochemistry major. My major and my background was not in religion.
I say that to say when I got to the academy, it was just like, "This is not what black people do. We just trust the spirit and we go along with it." I say that going to seminary was like I'd gone to a play that I'd seen before and the lights had been turned on, that I was able to see the costume and the robing that put it into context for me.
What we see is a lot of very trendy eisegesis of the text, very problematic theology, without having this wholeness of how we can bring our people along in an important way. What is it for us to close the chasm between being scholars and pastors, but know that both can exist in the same way and have integrity around that? That it's not against God for us to go to school and study, but it really truly does enliven what we already know.
What is the phrase that we say? Practice beats natural talent when natural talent won't practice.
Bishop Easterling: All right, all right.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: What happens is that we have a lot of natural talent, natural Bible-ability that we've gotten from church and Bible study and community, but if we don't put that into practice, if we don't put that into a theological education, if we don't ground that into some real good academic soil, it doesn't flourish.
Bishop Easterling: I want you to unpack just briefly, before Dr. Smith also weighs in on that, you used the term eisegesis. I'm familiar with that. I want you to unpack that for a moment, and then if you could use that over against exegesis.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: Eisegesis is, I am reading the text and just finding a way to connect the dots-
Rev. Dr. Theresa: -and I think that I got to understand all of this, but it really is reading into the text what I want the text to say. Exegesis is really looking at the background, the narrative, the correct context for the text, and that's hard to do. That's also a reason, Bishop Easterling and Dr. Smith, why I preach lectionary. I am a lectionary preacher because it forces me, it pushes me, it challenges me to really wrestle with the text instead of preaching the Bible passage that I know best, that I know I can hoop on and get an amen on.
I really want to bring people along because most people sitting in our pews, listening to our sermons, are biblically illiterate, they truly are, and so how do we make good on our calling?
Bishop Easterling: Oh, tell the whole truth, biblically illiterate. I'm so glad that you lifted that. It's hard to hear, and yet it's true, yet it's true. Dr. Smith?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Yes. Then that biblical illiteracy walks into my Introduction to the New Testament course, and they're shocked that I know that there's stuff about Jesus that they don't know. It's important to say that biblical illiteracy is not just at the lay level. It actually is at the level of leadership. We have to pay attention to our ecumenical leadership, both in terms of the ways in which we are conversant with biblical texts and biblical histories that deal with context, but they also deal with interpretive history.
The ways in which the Bible and biblical texts have been received by different interpretive communities and then interpret it toward what end is very, very important. All interpretation is invested, it is doing something. It is creating particular behavior patterns, commitments, moral initiatives. While it is deconstructing, setting aside other arrangements and patterns and behaviors, it's doing something. People miss, I think, the fact of, the histories of, how the Bible has been used to do something.
Part of the work, I think, and going to seminary and theological education is not Bible study. You're learning about the textures and dimensions of the histories from which the biblical texts themselves derive, what they're able to presume, the symbolic worlds that gave birth to them that they are leveraging and recreating. You are paying attention to the centuries of interpretive communities all over the world that have received those texts and communities to do something as opposed to other things. Tracing those doings, tracing those deeds, to me, I find to be the most fascinating and the most important.
Then also, just quickly, is to say part of that history, part of that work is also to name how far biblical text goes before you have to use another resource to talk about a conversation. Part of exegesis and interpretation is not only naming what the biblical text means and does, but it is also being, I would say, not just courageous, but courageously honest enough to name when we have ventured into topics and issues that are fundamentally not conceived of in the biblical text, and now we have to resource other texts, other authorities, other conversations. Because the biblical text is from a world that doesn't conceive of that.
That tends to make students nervous, some of my students nervous, but that is important to say that the biblical text comes from a particular social location, a particular history, a particular language, a particular people with certain technologies and not other technologies, certain behavior and arrangements and social patterns and not others that it is speaking from, to and toward, that may not account for our current relational dynamics. I think education helps us to wrestle with those tensions that are very important as we encounter the world and our congregations and our people as we're interacting with them.
Bishop Easterling: I'm going to come back to that in just a moment. When you first began giving that answer, Dr. Smith, you said that it's important for your students to understand you know some things about Jesus that perhaps they have not yet thought about or explored or have not been offered to them. That dovetails into something I wanted us to discuss.
Recently, there was a meme on social media that depicts a Christmas tree upon a cross with a purple scarf laid across it, as you would normally see during the Lenten season. The individual who posted this, who herself was a scholar, was bemoaning how too many in the church today move from the manger to resurrection without giving any real notice to Christ's lived experience, Christ's real life, again as much of that life as we're exposed to in Scripture, realizing that we have 66 books. There were other books that were written that didn't make it in the canon, but not even willing to fully engage what we do have before us in the Gospels.
What would you consider the most important aspects of Christ's life for us to understand, as people situated in this point in time, and engaging and interacting with a world that-- again, as we look at diversity, inclusivity, as we look at this tension between Christian nationalism and supremacy, and all of those kinds of things, what do we need to understand about exactly who Christ was and should still be for those of us who call ourselves disciples, that so many myths when they do this jump from Christmas to resurrection?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Yes. My quick response is, we have to understand social location. The way which I frame this in class is I go, "Where do you have to go in Jesus's world, in Jesus's city? Where in the city, do you go to see Jesus," and as my grandmother says, "and Jesus' people?"
Rev. Dr. Shively: Are we going to the high real estate area? Do we go to city hall where all the power and decisions are made, or do we have to go somewhere else that might be a space that the larger dominant world, large dominant city says that's not the safest place. That's kind of a volatile place. That's not a place where you're going to have-- that might be a place that will be equivalent to where there might be food deserts. It doesn't have all of the trendy stores.
My first response to that is, the first step is to go to the right location in the so-called city where you can see Jesus and Jesus' people and realize who you're dealing with. You're talking about a figure who comes from a part of the world that the larger political space sees as volatile, views it as dangerous, has a very tense relationship with the powers that be in the world because the powers that be have tried to control Galilee and this area.
They're known. The area that Jesus is from is known for being places of revolt and rebellion because they are places that have been unattended. If they are attended, they're attended by military oversight and control. These are the people that society thinks needs to be controlled. Their land needs to be controlled, how they move needs to be controlled, their resources are taken.
That's very, very important because I suspect that for us to go to where Jesus and Jesus people is, is for many of us to go into spaces that we actually are--these are the neighborhoods that some of us are uncomfortable going into even now. That helps to humble us, I think, and put perspective in that, that says slow down before you get to the cross and the triumphalism and the victory and Jesus is the Risen King, and see where Jesus is really from. This is someone who couldn't even afford a crib, was born in the trough that animals eat out of. What level of poverty, what level of lack are we talking about? What communities are we, in fact, talking about that gave birth to Jesus?
Rev. Dr. Theresa: I love that. I often say that we have to give Jesus texture, we have to give the biblical narrative texture. Even for what you were saying, that illustration, that meme, Bishop Easterling, we have to go, even before we get to the Christmas tree, the story of Advent. That, in and of itself, is so full of complicated intersections of history and gender and socioeconomics. I say we love to skip over to Christmas is because Advent is so hard to wrestle with.
To really name the tensions at play, and that even that God was like, "I'm going to choose this woman, this one right here," all of the complications around that, I love Advent. I say that Christians lean more into Easter because the story of Advent is so messy, because it's so human, because it's so textured. We just like to get to the fairytale more so than it is dealing with the humanity. I think about texture of hair. I think about all the ways that we have to humanize and texturize, not like straightening it, but adding some context to it, the story.
Bishop Easterling: Oh, you did not open the door on hair. I don't know if we even have enough time to unpack
Rev. Dr. Theresa: We must, we must.
Bishop Easterling: -to unpack the hair. And again, the real person of Christ, and Dr. Shively Smith also, in taking us back to a real social location of where Christ comes from, but even Christ's visage. Again, the texture of the hair, how we have sanitized and created something that, again, reconciles with what has been privileged in our societies over against who Christ really was.
I think there's more freedom to image God because God is spirit, so there's more freedom to image God. We don't have a lot of freedom, or we should not take a lot of freedom, to image Christ in Christ's person because Christ really comes to us from a particular part of the world, from a particular community, with a particular visage. Yes, that hair wasn't Fabio-straight.
Rev. Dr. Shively: We're dealing with communities that--we're not talking about Paul here. We're talking about Jesus, and when we start talking about Jesus, we're also talking about a particular kind of agricultural society. People immediately want to get Jesus to Jerusalem, but Jesus is a person from the land. We're also dealing with regional identities. We're also dealing with the difference between the agricultural rural community versus city life. What happens when the rural community leader, Jesus, comes to the big city, right?
In a real way, these moves are really, really important to pay attention to in Advent and even going into our Christian calendar that really talks about crossing boundaries at the level of regional tendencies and the ways in which we understand ourselves. There's a real challenge in the gospel narratives to think honestly about our own social locations and interactions, and who we actually are aligned to in our behaviors and actions in the biblical text. I suspect that it's not always Jesus in these cases.
Bishop Easterling: It is not.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: Before we leave this, because we are women, I say that this whitewashing also starts with Jesus's mama. Jesus's mama wasn't this docile--she was the one that said yes, she was the one who took the risk. For black women, what does it mean for us to not see Mary as this virgin, whitewashed, demure figure, but the radical boldness of saying yes, the radical boldness of being the vessel? The story of whitewashing Jesus starts before Jesus' birth. It starts with his mama.
When we think about us, when we think about what it means for us to stand in spaces where we may be the only female black voice, how do we show up and bring forth a word? Because we said yes in these bodies, in these voices, with this hair. All of that is so important to the work that we do.
Rev. Dr. Shively: This is where I love Luke's story, a version of this so much. Because when I start thinking about Mary, I think about this woman knew, she said, "I need to go get me some help. Let me call my cousin Elizabeth."
Rev. Dr. Theresa: My cousin, my big cousin.
Rev. Dr. Shively: That's right, let me go to my cousin. Not only I'm I going to call you, I'm putting myself on a plane because I got to come lay on your couch because there's something happening. What I love, as I use the language of our aunties and our sister, what I love about Mary that we tend to, like you say, domesticate and calm down, but that's really deep when we think about our sisterhood in our work as black women in these spaces, is the need to call somebody and to get on the couch, and to get into spaces of collaboration, of sisterhood and kinship to process the vocational path, to process the callings, to process the babies that we are carrying that are supposed to outlive and do more than what we can even imagine, with others, and to be on that journey together.
There's so much that the Advent and that the infancy stories invite us to consider about what it means to hold proximity with each that I think we miss, that I want to lift up here.
Bishop Easterling: Amen and amen. The mental health that we offer to one another, the mental health care, not negating that we sometimes need to seek out professionals, but just being sisters to one another, yes, to be able to call up and say, "This is happening to me. I'm feeling it, it's moving within me. I need you to help me be able to talk about this, be able to understand why this is happening to me. Be a help, be a midwife for me, as I'm giving birth," that is so absolutely critical.
Both of you make me think about, again, the hypocrisy and how laughable, again, this song is, Mary Did You Know? Again, as if somebody--
Bishop Easterling: As if Mary didn't know. Thank you for talking about the boldness, the audacity of Mary and, getting back to this notion of political, how political it is for women who have not been, for people who have not been at the center of a narrative, how political and subversive it is for us to not only say yes, but to keep saying yes, and to keep showing up every single day in the spaces and places to which we have been called. That, in and of itself, is a bold move.
I also want to talk about-- I hear so often from folks in the conferences that I'm privileged to serve, "You should stop talking about these things because that's too political. Jesus wasn't political. That's not what we are supposed to come to church to talk about and hear about." Yet, I've heard both of you talking about the politics, social location, the politics of who's given the privilege even, again, in terms of the way they look and the way they show up to have a voice, to give voice to things. I'm hearing it, both in terms of the city, the polis, but also in terms of the personal.
Talk to me, again, about this real Jesus who I think was very much political and very much engaging the powers that be in his day. Can you talk to us about that?
Rev. Dr. Theresa: I'm going to pass it over to our New Testament scholar, but I do say that they did not assassinate, murder, lynch Jesus because he was handing out cookies and giving people water. It was a political act. It is political. Justice and freedom are radically political, and so everything about is political. Even when I think about the three of us, I don't know you all's personal story. I know Dr. Shively Smith's a little bit, but being a black girl from the projects of Mississippi, here at an Ivy League university, and I realize that my embodiment is resistance.
That in this space, this chapel that was built for people who did not look like me, people who they had no clue that a person like me would be in this space as a leader, that for each of us, for you to stand up as bishop, for you to stand up at Boston, what does it mean for our embodiment to be political, our very flesh? Yes, Jesus wasn't on that cross for being the good guy. It was all political.
Rev. Dr. Shively: It's all political, and politics had its say, which is why they put him on the cross. I think the historical recalibration that has to happen is the ease at which now, in contemporary context, we can so quickly separate religion and politics as if they're two separate things. Which to me, I actually don't think they're two separate things, but at least in our context, we can say that's a religious space, that's a political space; that's a religious conversation, that's a political conversation. The two don't need to meet is what I'm hearing some of the tension, coming back to you, Bishop Easterling.
In the biblical text, and I'm going to stay in my lane of the New Testament, to talk religion is to talk politics. That those were two sides of the same coin, that the political is the religious and the religious is the political. They didn't divide those up into separate conversations and separate spheres. They are both-- I mean, literally, what do you think they're talking about when you have them say- when you see Jesus, in Mark 1, say, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand"?
What is kingdom language? To talk about a kingdom and a king is politics. Whether your kingdom and king is God and God's kingdom, or that kingdom and king is Augustus, that's politics in religious discourse and religious talk, but it is politics. To read the biblical text and the Gospels in this conversation is to read a political story. There's no way around it.
Kingdom language, God language, all of that is talking about how we relate to each other. The arrangement of power, the proximity and interactions of human beings, neighborhoods, regions, where the power lies, where the powerless are located. Jesus stands, in Luke, with the scroll and says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because--" All of that are religious statements that are talking politics. How do we interact with each other? How do we treat each other? What is the social imperatives and commitments? All of that.
I tend to want to say, Bishop Easterling, that, are you sure that you're not dealing-- I would push back and say, well, that sounds like a bit of that biblical illiteracy to me for people to say that. Because the Bible is religious and political, especially in the New Testament.
Bishop Easterling: Absolutely. Again, when Jesus was talking about breaking the social mores of who can be at the table, right?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Absolutely.
Bishop Easterling: Of even those in the temple, how they were supposed to be treating those on the margins. All of that very much was political conversation and discourse, and trying to reimagine the relationships, the connections. Again, I think that those of us who are in the pulpit are responsible for a lack of teaching, a lack of expanding these scriptures so that they do have real meaning and import for us today.
To that end then, I want to talk about this notion of other voices being brought into the theological conversation. You mentioned, when we began, Dr. Smith, Delores Williams, who we know, a great woman and scholar has transitioned. I'm thinking about womanist theology, feminist, Mujerista, Asian, indigenous, queer theologies, we're hearing more about those and seeing those on the scholarly landscape.
Why is it important for these voices to be included not just in the academy, but also in the church and in the communities in which the church is supposed to be in relationship?
Rev. Dr. Theresa: The way that the academy is structured, the way that pedagogy works is that there's a voice that has power and everyone else underneath it trickles down, but we come from a people who agree to tell stories and their experiences matter. My great-great-grandmother never went to anybody's school, but she was a theologian. She understood God, she understood the Spirit. What does it mean for us to marry the two?
Pastors, preachers, we have a prime-time audience. People who pay for Superbowl commercials, they would be blown away if they had an opportunity to spend as much time as we have teaching people, preaching to people. It is a way of indoctrination, and it's a way that we are painting the picture of the world.
If our theology that we preach from the pulpit, if it is only Barth, if it's only Niebuhr, if it is only the white males, cisgender theologians, our God, our Jesus will look a certain way, our lens of ministry will look a certain way, and that is not faithful. It is not faithful to what it means for us to be part of a world where people have experiences that informs, just like Dr. Smith says, how we read the text, how we understand the text. The both/and are important.
Rev. Dr. Shively: I agree. I affirm all of that. I'll build on that by saying this is part of our biblical inheritance. One of the things that you see, particularly, again, if I pay attention to the textures of Christian history and formation and emergence that you see taking place in the New Testament, is the ongoing testimony and witness of these cross-location, cross-allegiances conversations that take place.
I'll give you two. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, is one of my places that I tend to go to say-- When you look at all the people that are in the room in the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts, yes, you have Peter and Paul there, which tends to be where everybody's like, "Oh, Peter and Paul is there," James is there too. He actually exercises quite a lot of power, and people tend to read over. Peter and Paul, and particularly Peter, they're reporting to James and the larger council.
If you keep reading and pay attention to who all else is in the room, you have pharisaic believers. Who are there. You have regional believers that are from different regions. They named regions of believers who were from there. All of them bring their own cultural stories and allegiances and formations and configurations of how this Christ belief that they're trying to wrestle with plays out in their local communities, their home communities. The Council is a space where they bring all of that into the room, and they begin to reason together about the next steps of, in this case, inclusion.
What do we do with the non-Jewish believers among us who we clearly are seeing having authentic relationships? They're not who we imagined would know this Christ or God, let alone claim him, but how do we incorporate them into our community? The notion of the many coming together and wrestling with how the vision of our belief may actually be bigger than what we imagined, and that makes a demand on us to figure out not how to contract our community, but to expand it, is a part of our biblical inheritance.
One other place that I will point you to, where a similar phenomenon is taking place, though Paul is up to some other things. That's a different podcast, Bishop-
Bishop Easterling: Amen, amen.
Rev. Dr. Shively: -I'm not going to do that now, but I am going to point to it, is 1 Corinthians 1, when Paul says, it comes back to me that some of you are saying that you are of Apollo. Some of you are saying you're of Cephas, or Peter. Some of you are saying you're of Jesus, you're of me. What he's pointing to there is these are not just different names. These names and figures represent different interpretations and iterations of this Christian belief. They're not just allegiances to a figure. We're talking about how you understand your Christian faith and belief.
Again, what you see Paul pointing to is that they are all in the room wrestling with these diversity of locations and perspectives. I say it is an authentic and true representation of our Christian belief when we embody and embrace the messiness and the necessary conversations that come with us being believers that are a part of the many and not the singular or the few. That is a fundamental part of our faith, and what it means for us to wrestle in faith together as a community of interpreters, as a community of believers, as a community of worshipers. That is fundamental to what it means to be a people of faith.
Bishop Easterling: Amen, amen. What you've just spoken is so important for us as, I think, this dynamic of social media has allowed us to narrow and narrow those that we're in conversation with, those that we're relating to, and so all we're doing is co-signing one another's beliefs, understandings, instead of standing in a much larger space with greater diversity and being challenged.
I actually don't want to just be in conversation with or even relationship with or in a denomination with folks who think like me, who interpret everything in the same way that I do. I need to be challenged, and I don't take offense at that. There's something lost and missing when I don't have to wrestle with, "Why do you see it that way?" Or, "Wow, you teased that out of that text. I would have never thought of it that way." Again, we're losing something, we're missing something when we don't have that engagement. I very much appreciate that.
I want to shift for a moment, and you're right. We could do two or three more podcasts. Ladies, I'm going to have to have you back because this is phenomenal conversation.
Bishop Easterling: Before we bring our time to a close, I do want to give both of you an opportunity to talk about what struggles remain for women of color in the academy, in scholarship, even in the church. What struggles remain for us? Even as both of you now are where you are in positions of prominence and power, again, Ivy League institutions. You're at elite places, but what struggles remain?
Rev. Dr. Theresa: I would say, it is radical inclusivity. It is letting go of this space of the scarcity mentality, that there's not enough; there's not enough, there's not enough room, there's not enough resources. As I think about where I am positioned in this academy, it's like the people who are looking for God, it ain't draped in the Methodism, Catholicism. It's not draped in all these different flavors of Baskin-Robbins. They are looking for a community, inclusive community, radically inclusive community, whether it is socioeconomic, whether it's sexual identity, whether it is the ways of worship.
Our biggest struggle right now is scarcity, that we just do not think that there's enough that God's grace, that God's love can encompass, "Everybody means everybody? Everybody, everybody, everybody?" That scarcity is what's holding us back in every way that you can imagine. Our lack of holy imagination. Judy Fentress-Williams talks about our lack of holy imagination, that God can do something else. That on the other side of this, God can do something else. Just because we don't see it, doesn't mean that God can’t do it.
There's so much all-encompassing in that, but those are the things that I would say: scarcity, and lack of holy imagination. You cannot imagine wildly if you're scared. You cannot imagine wildly if you think that there's not enough. You cannot even think of God in a broader sense if you're holding on to what you think is all that there is of God.
Bishop Easterling: That's profound. Dr. Smith?
Rev. Dr. Shively: Yes. I think very concretely about how our numbers still are small in these spaces, and the demand that it makes on those of us that are in these spaces. In some ways, you're covering so many different locations. Like you said, Dr. Thames, we're operating with the scarcity model, so you're trying to provide coverage and space for flourishing and thriving and people coming alive, even as you're keeping yourself alive.
I don't want to miss the fact that we're still looking at these institutional spaces and recognizing the fact that more of us need to be in these spaces. Those of us that are, the way in which we need to see ourselves is supporting each other. This space right now for me is so life-giving because it is a reminder to us that we are out here doing this work and we have support. We have other people who are actors and adjacent to us who we could have an Elizabeth and Mary encounter, and that we need to stage those encounters more intentionally.
I think that that's the work that we need to do. We need to pay attention to expanding our numbers in these spaces. We need to think about what it means to take care of each other as we move in and out of these spaces. Then we need to expand exactly that inclusive model, the model of what it means to be inclusive as we do this work together.
Bishop Easterling: Amen, amen. "Together," I love that. In terms of lack of imagination, neither one of you suffer from that. I would encourage those who are hearing or watching this podcast to please Google my guest names, and just read the breadth and depth of what they are offering to the world. It will be refreshment for your soul and your spirit. We didn't even have a chance, Dr. Shively Smith, to talk about your work with Howard Thurman, and your work of deep contemplation, and some of the images that you use to help us have more imagination to wrest us from, again, what Dr. Thames has talked about with this lack of imagination.
Again, thank you so much, Dr. Shively Smith and Dr. Theresa Thames, for being with us, giving us so much to think and to talk about, helping to challenge us to really understand who Christ is, Christ's witness and model for us, what that can mean for us in how we engage faith, in the ways that we expand the table, in the ways that we invite more people to our tables. I hope this sparks more conversation for those who are listening to us. Thank you both, and God bless you.
Rev. Dr. Theresa: Thank you.
Rev. Dr. Shively: Thank you.
Comments are closed.