Painting Lilith, Leaving Church by Angela Yarber


 Lilith has been a misunderstood, appropriated, and redeemed woman throughout the ages.  Many feminists claim her as an empowering figure in Jewish mythology, her story reclaimed by contemporary artists such as Sarah McLachlan, who created the all-women music tour, “Lilith Fair.”  Others have claimed that Lilith was a demon who seduced men and strangled children in the night.

Based almost entirely on Judith Plaskow’s beautiful Midrash, “The Coming of Lilith,” this new Holy Woman Icon with a folk feminist twist has empowered me to reject the sexism and heterosexism that was rendering me broken.  So, she joins Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, and Miriam as powerful women who have done holy and remarkable things.  First, her story.  Then—if I may—my own.

According to Plaskow’s Midrash, God created Adam and Lilith from the same earth.  Tired of Adam demanding that she be subservient to him, Lilith left the Garden of Eden.  She was later befriended by Eve and her legacy of empowering women continues today.

Plaskow’s powerful Midrash stems from a myth that has shifted over time.  There is no single Lilith story, but many different stories must be sifted and sorted to determine who Lilith truly is and was.  She appears explicitly only once in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 34:14) in a list of wild animals in desolate land.  She is not described, but named simply: “Lilith.”  Some scholars surmise that the Lilith myth was so well-known by Isaiah’s audience that there was no need to offer any explanatory words.

In Talmudic literature, Lilith is associated with the creation story in a manner similar to Plaskow’s Midrash.  Here she is also banished from the Garden.  In the Alphabet of Ben Sira (7th-11th centuries) Lilith is presented as Adam’s first wife.  When she refuses to lie with Adam during sex, she calls out the name of god and flies away to an evil place filled with demons.  By the end of the Talmudic period, the demonic and seductive elements of the Lilith myth were solidified.  So, in the writings of the Kabbalah, Lilith is primarily understood to be a seductress and child-killer.  Regarding this reputation, some feminist scholars assert that the vilification of Lilith intensifies over time because Lilith is perceived to be more and more powerful.  The more powerful Lilith is perceived to be, the more evil her portrayal.  What Plaskow’s Midrash creates, redeems, and affirms is that Lilith left what was hurting and oppressing her and lived into who she was called to be: one who empowered women.

Like many other clergywomen, I have faithfully served the church for nearly fourteen years.  After eleven years of ministry, I accepted a call to become Pastor for Preaching and Worship at a Baptist church after finishing my Ph.D.  Upon hiring me, we became the only Baptist church in the country with two out lesbians as head pastors.  My pulpit was free.  My calling to justice, inclusion, and radical hospitality affirmed.  I loved—and continue to love—the staff and the people who call this church home.  I loved—and continue to love—preaching.  But sexism and heterosexism have their way of creeping into the most unlikely of places.  And the inner-workings of power and privilege make dealing with these “isms” ever more difficult.

Though the church would nary tolerate overt and blatant sexism or homophobia from within the congregation—and spoke out against the blatant forms I receive in hate mail—microaggressive sexisms and heterosexisms continued to exist, flourishing in spaces we thought were safe, affirming, and progressive.  Microaggressions are everyday slights, insults, or invalidations directed at marginalized groups—persons of color, sexual minorities, women, etc—by individuals who typically have good intentions and are decent, moral, thoughtful persons who may not be fully aware of their privileged positions of power.  Psychologists who focus on cultural diversity issues claim that microaggressions build up over time, causing stress, pain, and anxiety for marginalized persons.

After months and months of trying to address these issues, my health continued to decline.  I reread Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church and I thought a lot about Lilith.  How did she garner the courage to leave the “safety” of the Garden for the great unknown?  I began to paint.

lilithThe colors of Eden filled my canvas, as a strong woman walked left, reaching out toward the unknown that lies beyond the Garden, the place she has called home.  Lilith’s heart cries out to us,

With Eden behind her,
She stood her ground,
Her heart beating
Freedom and dignity
For all women.

Not knowing what lies beyond the place I’ve called “home” for nearly fourteen years, I resigned from my position in a coveted, progressive Baptist pulpit.  I will proclaim the Word in that pulpit one last time tomorrow morning, preaching with my voice firmly set on freedom, insisting that all humanity be treated with dignity, equality, compassion, and beauty, knowing that my calling is to justice.  No exceptions.

Since I offered my resignation many have asked me if I think the church—any church—can exist without sexism and heterosexism.  Called, ordained, degreed, and with over a decade dedicated to working to overcome it, I’m afraid my answer is a faint, but hopeful, “I don’t know.”  The Garden—the church—can be a beautiful place.  Like Lilith, I must climb over the Garden’s walls and find out what’s on the other side.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of three books: Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s ReligionsThe Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today.  She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999.  For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

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Categories: Art, Christianity, Female Saints, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Spirituality

Tags: , , , , ,

29 replies

  1. This makes me so sad. Very few people know the inner struggles so many women have had while presenting a brave face to the world and trying not to let everyday sexism, heterosexism, racism, and just plain meanness get us down. Angela, I wish you a healing journey and strong vision and voice as you emerge from the darkness where rebirth and transformation occur.

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  2. Angela, you are a brave and courageous woman. The truth of your voice will set you free.
    Peace and healing!

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  3. Angela, you were and are called to be more than the entitlement/privilege we see going on all around us, every single day. I pray – and believe – that you will find a warm welcome in another place (it may not be a church as such) where you can unfold your wings – finally – and let yourself be free. To live in confined places with body language, words and taunts that accuse (without the accuser being conscious of their righteousness) is a prison. So, I hope that Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite will be your companions on the yellow brick road to wholeness. Blessings!

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  4. I’m back here because I am so sorry about Angela’s experience. I notice the words “their righteousness” in Annette’s response. What is it that produces a sense of “self-righteousness” among white Protestants–that is not found in the same way among Jews and Catholics?

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  5. I wish you luck in your future endeavours, & I hope Lilith stays strong in your heart.

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  6. Heart with you on your brave journey. May it lead you to joy.

    My first novel, that I began writing in my senior year of college, is called The Wild Mother. It is a contemporary fairytale about Adam, Eve, and Lilith (she at the story’s heart). Judith Plaskow’s midrash was a catalyst. Before I began the novel I had intended to go to seminary to train for the Episcopal priesthood, even though/because at that time the ordination of women had not yet been approved by the general convention. Writing that novel opened another path. Your powerful, beautiful painting does, too, for yourself and others.

    The Wild Mother is now out of print, though there are copies on amazon. I would love to send you a signed copy as a gift. If you would like one, you can email me through my website: http://www.elizabethcunninghamwrites.com.

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  7. Angela,

    Thank you for giving me a brief introduction to Lilith. I had not heard of her in any context before, and I’m enriched on this Saturday morning. As others have already said, I’m so sorry you had this experience, and as you heal, I hope those who hurt you heal, too. Also, I appreciate your acknowledging that those who hurt you may be “unaware of their privileged positions of power.” It’s hard to acknowledge what others don’t know when we’re hurting. I do hope you find a welcoming place–that remains welcoming–to do what you love.

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  8. Angela: To paraphrase the Navajo “Beauty Way” prayer, “With courage may you walk. With courage before you, may you walk. With courage behind you, may you walk. With courage to the right and left…above and beneath…may you walk.” It’s not easy to leave familiar paths. I know this. I feel this. As a Roman Catholic nun friend of mine said years ago as she left the convent, “Sometimes the only way out is through.” Many thanks for your example of a courageous, creative woman in word, art, and life, and many, many blessings as you walk.

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  9. Courage to you, my friend. And thank you for sharing your story. Perhaps your destiny is to be one of the wise people who climbs the wall to view Paradise, then decides not to drop over, but to come back for the rest of us.

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  10. What remarkably kind words. Thank you all for your encouragement and support. FAR reminds me a community of mutual love, reciprocity, challenge, and encouragement can and does exist. Thank you for this.

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  11. Please know that you would be welcome in almost any pagan, witchy, or Wiccan circle. Most of us don’t think women need to be under men. Most of us celebrate Lilith, and we’ll celebrate you, too! Outside the garden is a good place. (And take Elizabeth up on her offer of a copy of The Wild Mother. I have all her books–signed copies–and love them.)

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  12. Cream ALWAYS rises to the top…wait and watch and see what good things our living God has for you Angela…Advent came early this year and we are here praying for you and yes, watching and waiting with you . ghc.

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  13. Angela, you have been empowered with a desire to envision and experience holy living beyond the restrictive walls, and I have no doubt but that you will fly, as did Lilit, to the garden of your soul. When you are able to breathe after your move, please get in touch so we can talk art, maybe even create some together.

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  14. Thank you for sharing a bit about Lilith. I have a postcard in my altar area of a woman I believe is Lillith, dressed in red and holding an egg.

    It takes incredible courage to leave the known for the unknown. It can be so much easier to stay in the misery of the hell you know.

    Congratulations on taking your life into your own hands and daring to find a new path. As someone who has done that more than once, I know that it is possible, and brings more joy to your life.

    Also, thank you for introducing me to the concept of microaggression.

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  15. Angela, I hurt for you but believe in my heart that your creative spirit is best served outside of “organized religion”. Life experience has taught me that the deepest hurt can come when we think we are loved and validated only to discover that we are neither. It seems that small minds are bi-coastal and it’s very sad. In contrast, your Lilith icon is bursting with color, life and joy. You are on a healing path! Sending hugs……..

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  16. Thank you for your courage and authenticity. I love your framing of Lilith.

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  17. Welcome to the other side!

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  18. I’ve finally found other women writing about Lililth and her role in empowering women! Through her work with women she helps empower the Dawn of a New Day; the the Star of the morning calls us out of darkness and into the Light of Divine Wholeness; the re-birth of the Feminine soul. Thank you!

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  19. Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light and commented:
    I just LOVE this emerging point-of-view so so much!!! Thank you for this, Angela! ;)

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  20. This is a beautiful post Angela as are the paintings and I wish you so well as you walk a new path and continue to grow.
    I too have written about Lilith as she is important to be seen in a contemporary and psychological – of the psyche – way. Her star is rising as more become aware of the significance of the Dark Feminine and the necessity of not ignoring her and bringing her out of the shadows. The book – available as an e book is called “In Praise of Lilith, Eve & the Serpent in the Garden of Eden & other stories”. I have blogged as well about her – on http://www.gardenofedenblog.com.
    All best wishes.

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  21. Thank you all again. It is truly meaningful and empowering to read these kind words from a virtual community and from many amazing women (and former congregants) who have been in communities from my past. Thank you.
    This morning I preached at WFBC for the last time and was overwhelmed with gratitude, yellow flowers, vegan cake, and the tears of many beloved people who–in some way or another–are climbing this wall with me. Much gratitude for you all.

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  22. Dearest Angela… My heart breaks for you & Elizabeth for what you are going through at this time. I know that you are here, at this time, for a reason. You are such an inspiration for me & my family. Jake & Emma will be visiting me this week. They remember & LOVE you so much. Your “west coast” family is here for you ALWAYS. You are brave & a role model for all women. Even us older generation. WE LOVE YOU…

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  23. Dear Angela,

    I did not ask to be born a white male, heterosexual Christian, but that’s the way things turned out. For many years I have wondered why and how those who are not heterosexual can work within a church structure which harasses rather than affirms them.

    Still don’t have the answer.

    Over the past year I have remained in awe after reading about your many gifts – painting, dancing, preaching, etc.

    Your courage to relinquish the security of your former position is laudable; me thinks you will grow and be healed for having done so.

    Best wishes always,

    JOHN A. BARTELLONI
    Fairfax City VA

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  24. Blessings on your journey, Angela. I know you have the strength to complete it. I love your words
    “With Eden behind her,
    She stood her ground,
    Her heart beating
    Freedom and dignity
    For all women.”

    Like

Trackbacks

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