Last week I shared a flurry of Pickwick titles I’ve worked on in this new publishing year. Today I’d like to call attention to a recently published Cascade book:
I Found God in Me is the first womanist biblical hermeneutics reader. In it readers have access, in one volume, to articles on womanist interpretative theories and theology as well as cutting-edge womanist readings of biblical texts by womanist biblical scholars. This book is an excellent resource for women of color, pastors, and seminarians interested in relevant readings of the biblical text, as well as scholars and teachers teaching courses in womanist biblical hermeneutics, feminist interpretation, African American hermeneutics, and biblical courses that value diversity and dialogue as crucial to excellent pedagogy.
I first worked with Mitzi J. Smith in 2011 to publish a revision of her dissertation, The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women. In the first part of this new book, she and other womanist interpreters pull back from the text a bit to take a look at womanist interpretative theory more broadly, using Alice Walker’s short essay, “Womanist,” as a springboard. Beginning with Walker’s essay, the chapters in the first half of the book then include:
- Womanist Interpretations of the New Testament: The Quest for Holistic and Inclusive Translation and Interpretation by Clarice J. Martin
- Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible by Renita J. Weems
- Womanist Interpretation and Preaching in the Black Church by Katie Geneva Cannon
- An African Methodology for South African Biblical Sciences: Revisiting the Bosadi (Womanhood) Approach by Madipoane J. Masenya
- Marginalized People, Liberating Perspectives: A Womanist Approach to Biblical Interpretation by Kelly Brown Douglas
- Our Mothers’ Gardens: Discrete Sources of Reflection on the Cross in Womanist Christology by JoAnne Marie Terrell
- “This Little Light of Mine”: The Womanist Biblical Scholar as Prophetess, Iconoclast, and Activist by Mitzi J. Smith
In the second half of the book, Smith and others look more closely at biblical passages, characters, and books.
- A Womanist Midrash on Zipporah by Wil Gafney
- Fashioning Our Own Souls: A Womanist Reading of the Virgin-Whore Binary in Matthew and Revelation by Mitzi J. Smith
- A Womanist-Postcolonial Reading of the Samaritan Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb by Lynne St. Clair Darden
- Minjung, the Black Masses, and the Global Imperative: A Womanist Reading of Luke’s Soteriological Hermeneutical Circle by Mitzi J. Smith
- Wisdom in the Garden: The Woman of Genesis 3 and Alice Walker’s Sophia by Kimberly Dawn Russaw
- “Knowing More than is Good for One”: A Womanist Interrogation of the Matthean Great Commission by Mitzi J. Smith
- Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth by Yolanda Norton
- “Give Them What You Have”: A Womanist Reading of the Matthean Feeding Miracle (Matt 14:13–21) by Mitzi J. Smith
- Acts 9:36–43: The Many Faces of Tabitha, a Womanist Reading by Febbie C. Dickerson
The result of this structure is a fascinating collection that introduces readers to both theory and practice of womanist biblical interpretation. Thomas B. Slater of the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, Macon, GA says,
It is good reading for pastor and academician alike: for pastors to see the many implications of a growing movement for fellowship in the black church; for academicians to engage in a continuing activity that is not dissipating but growing, a movement which has significant implications for the interpretation of Scripture and the development of Christian theology and ethics in the future. The church and the academy are indebted to Smith for this significant, stimulating study.
Ever since my graduate school days I’ve been interested in models outside of hermeneutics and biblical studies that can inform our understanding of how we—that is readers of biblical texts, generally, and Christians of their sacred texts, more specifically—read, understand, and interpret scripture. So things like Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics and pragmatism (though, later in life Peirce insisted on his ideas as “pragmaticism,” so as to distinguish them from the growing popularity of William James’s pragmatic theory), or J. L. Austin‘s speech acts (John R. Searle was influential in bringing speech acts more fully into philosophical discussion, but I tend to side with Stephen Fowl in seeing Searle as the systematizer of Austin’s looser thoughts), or Nancey Murphy’s ideas about supervenience and nonreducibility (and also her work, along with many others, on body and soul) have opened my eyes to the complexities of reading texts and getting at their meaning(s). Even after muddling my way through a dissertation that danced around these hermeneutical questions with two capable dance partners, I don’t feel any closer to being settled than I did 15+ years ago when the questions first rose to the surface for me. Still, I’m on the lookout for theories, models, analogies, examples, etc. that help us think about these things constructively. Earlier this week Alexis C. Madrigal published an article available online at The Atlantic entitled, “Things You Cannot Unsee (and What That Says About Your Brain.” I started to read the article first because the internet meme it references fascinates me. I can’t look at a two-pronged coat hook the same again! But Madrigal digs a little deeper into the cannot-unsee phenomenon by talking to psychologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and others. I began to think that many of the things Madrigal was discussing could just as well find currency in hermeneutical conversations. Take for example a few snippets from the article and consider them in the context of interpreting texts:
- “What’s interesting is that the visual stimulus (the picture) doesn’t change, but once your mind knows what kind of organization to impose, it’s obvious…”
- “…perception is not the result of simply processing stimulus cues. It also importantly involves fitting prior knowledge to the current situation to create a meaningful interpretation.”
- “You’re not only seeing what is actually before you; you’re seeing what your brain is telling you is there. Specifically, the cortex is sending a cascade of predictions about what should be seen at all the different layers of complexity. So what travels back up from the eyes is not raw visuals of the environment, but how the world deviates from what the brain is expecting.”
- “Knowledge feeds perception and back again.”
- “Neural signals are related less to a stimulus per se than to its congruence with internal goals and predictions, calculated on the basis of previous input to the system.”
In a trite, but not untrue, way we rewire our brain when we see something we cannot unsee. I would guess that a certain amount of rewiring takes place when we read and understand a text differently for the first time. This makes the work of biblical interpretation all the more important, I think. And, if I may get a little pious, it makes the task of those who proclaim the gospel all the more significant. Indeed, they are not asking us to see a coat hook as a drunken octopus or Australia as the conjoined heads of a cat and dog… No, the gospel calls us to see the Messiah as a crucified messiah, the Gentile as a part of God’s people, the enemy as one to love, etc. That’s a lot of rewiring! But equally daunting is the rewiring of those who have read and lived with the biblical texts for a long time, those whose “previous input to the system” has so well established certain “internal goals and predictions” that finding the Dalmatian among the spots is next to impossible, metaphorically speaking (as seems appropriate here).
Click the image if you need help spotting the dog. (Pun intended!)