Friday, June 13, 2008

Review: Feminist Theologies for a Postmodern Church

[Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd. Feminist Theologies for a Postmodern Church: Diversity, Community, and Scripture. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.]

This book continues my reading (from a non-Christian place) of material related to feminist theology. Unlike the first half dozen titles, the most recent series of books are directly relevant to the interview participant whose chapter I am currently writing. This one was written by a minister and theological educator in the United Church of Canada who has some concern for issues of gender and sexuality in the context of that church, all of which is also true of my interview participant (though I have no idea if they knew each other).

I don't think the book identifies itself in this way at any point, but it is pretty clear to me that this is an adaptation of a dissertation, probably the author's PhD thesis. I say this partly because of clues in the text and partly because of the structure of the book. The text examines in detail, one per chapter, the approaches of four feminist theologians who are in one way or another critical of liberal and modernist approaches to theology. The four are Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, whom MacKenzie Shepherd categorizes as a "critical modernist"; Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who is a poststructuralist; Kwok Pui-lan, who takes a postcolonial feminist approach; and Kathryn Tanner, who is identified as a "postliberal" feminist. She then uses these detailed and exhaustive readings of the works of these four women to analyze the ways in which the United Church of Canada has dealt with gender and particularly with sexuality in theological documents. She goes on to propose a new approach that weaves together elements from all four of her main sources.

I found most of the parts of this book to be useful to me, but I found the whole package to be a bit strange.

Unlike a month ago, at this stage of my writing I am not putting a lot of effort into general reading to expand my awareness of feminist theology. However, despite that, I did appreciate this as a way to get a condensed version of four important thinkers in the field without having to read all of their books. Of course that comes with the inevitable drawbacks of relying on somebody else's summation, especially when in at least some instances it is decades of work being summarized and shortened into a single chapter. I found places where I suspect my emphasis would have been quite different, which is hardly surprising given the different places that myself and MacKenzie Shepherd are approaching the subject from. In any case, I found interesting ideas in all four, though I particularly appreciated the chance to learn about Kwok Pui-lan's work, since none of the feminist theology I had read up to that point came from a postcolonial perspective and because it seemed to me that some of the ideas shared by all four writers were combined in the most politically insightful and practically useful way in her work.

The chapters dealing more specifically with the United Church were also useful to me. They weren't as comprehensive as I might have liked in providing a history of the Church's processes around gender and sexuality over the years, but then this is not a history book so I can hardly complain. Certainly the insight into the nature of the institution gained by the author's analysis of certain key documents is something that will be useful to me.

I am not sure what to make of the book as a whole, however. In large part that is probably because I am not its target audience. But then, it isn't entirely clear to me who its target audience is. On the one hand, she starts from a place of being highly critical of liberal approaches to theology and to the evolution of church doctrine based on her own experience: She found that during the height of the United Church debates about ordination of gay and lesbian ministers there was an emphasis on liberal inclusion and dialogue from the Church authorities, but that because hateful and bigoted voices were put on a par with those seeking fairness and acceptance, this ended up putting herself and other queer ministers and congregants in painful and even unsafe situations. So she is explicitly not approaching this book from a place of uncritical inclusion and "let's all get along-i-ness." However, there still seems to be a tension that I found hard to understand between her commitment to creating tools for feminists and other progressives within the church and a desire to be all-encompassing. It is not clear to me how useful the approach she outlines would be in situations -- presumably most of them, though I don't know church politics that well -- where conservative and reactionary elements within the church would just flatly refuse to accept the assumptions of her method despite the efforts at accommodating them, because it is obvious that they are intended to move the church in directions that conservatives and reactionaries would oppose. So why should they accept those starting points, regardless of whatever theological merits MacKenzie Shepherd happens to see in them? But it may be that her intended audience is really progressives with power within the church to make real changes happen, which in the case of the United Church of Canada has some potential to be a significant constituency -- it may be the largest Protestant denomination in the country, but it also has a long history of being the most progressive of the mainstream Christian groupings (though within definite limits, as the history of residential schools shows). If that is the case, the text makes a bit more sense to me, since it seems that she wants to further progressive change in ways that are less likely to lose conservative members completely while keeping the goals of that change intact, and to do so in ways that are less unsafe for members who experience the oppression(s) in question. Something still felt unresolved about it, though, and I'm not sure whether that was an intended and necessary tension or a product of not quite hitting what she was aiming at.

And though in this recent, new-to-me, theological reading I have often found more material that is useful for contexts that are not explicitly religious than I have expected, a lot of the institutional/political insights in this specific book are less generalizable than I might have wished. Her study, in the end, is not directly about processes of institutional change but about different ways of relating to authoritative texts (especially scripture) in the context of politically contentious issues within a liberal church. That is harder to apply to secular contexts, especially since I am not likely to put myself into secular left spaces that have that kind of reverence for a particular foundational text. However, I still found this a useful book in terms of my writing, and that is after all why I read it.

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