One of my goals for the summer is to paint more. I find I can often say or think by a picture something that I am trying to work through in a formal, discursive way. Art functions as a methodological tool for my theology insofar as it helps me to articulate in one language something that I am trying to say in another. As my teaching career has lengthened, I’ve become more confident using images I have created to communicate my ideas. This no doubt has something to do with the liberty one gains in teaching as a performance exercise, combined with avoidance of repetition, and the desire to engage as well as to be entertained in one’s own right. Even more than just working out an idea, sometimes I also find making images to be a therapeutic tool. I can laugh, mourn, gripe, or celebrate through an image, and sometimes, I can even protest by one.
One area in which I feel inclined to protest is in those figures I describe as “storied women.” To me, this term refers to those outstanding figures in history or myth whose lives are rendered into legend, usually for a didactic or moral purpose. While occasionally such rendering is heroic, as in the cases of Esther or Joan of Arc, the story-ing is usually typological and flat. The woman(en) is used as a secondary element in a story, often for the purposes of advancing a primary narrative about men. Tamar, for example, is treated as a figure in and around whose body the action, succession, and political positioning of David’s sons are enacted. Bathsheba is also an exemplar of the storied women in the poet-king’s court, standing as one of the definitional temptresses of biblical history.
The storied women are problematic for a myriad of well-researched and oft-discussed reasons: women are treated as moral levers and props; women are cast into stereotypical roles; ordinary women are not represented in the hyperbolic failings and achievements of women of lore; women’s voices, real or imagined, are often unheard. I myself find that I am challenged unfavorably by both: 1) the dislocation of female characters from their actual lives (if they are historical figures) and 2) the concretization of imagery of storied women in art and song (which further reinforces the distortion of dislocation). The mind is trained to see or even hear an image in a specific way, and that image when repeated long enough, especially with heuristic attributes and cues, becomes the truth of something.
One such figure, of course, is Mary. Like Jesus, Marian iconography is unmistakable. While, of course, there are many competing constructions, standard Mary is an iconic beauty, demure, pristine, and wrapped in heaven. The manufactured magnitude of her grace and regality belies what most surely would have been the truth of a pregnant child betrothed to an older man in the ancient Mediterranean. I always think of the Annunciation as a story of dread, perhaps awe, but definitely dread. For, surely, the Angel comes bearing ominous tidings.
In thinking about Mary’s typical depictions, I found myself protesting, not just because I think it’s inaccurate to portray her so cleanly, but also because the grit of her story is whitewashed under that ermine, silk, and gold embroidered cloak. How much more compelling is she as a character, how much greater is her faith, and how much riskier are the stakes if we can see her, by some creative effort, as a poor, vulnerable, pregnant kid?
And, thus, in my nascent work on a series of storied women of the bible, I began conceptual work on an Annunciation. I envisaged a teen pregnancy, a hint of comfort, a substantial quantity of the absurd, and generally something a little terrifying. As I have been working out my ideas, I am fascinated by once again the reaction of the most honest art critics I know – my kids.
The oldest commented, “Well, that’s not Mary.”
“How do you know,” I asked.
“That’s not what she looks like.”
“What, then, does she look like?” I replied.
“She doesn’t wear jeans. Her skin is wrong.”
I pressed, “How do we know what she looked like? How old do you think she is?”
“Maybe in her thirties.”
“Ah,” I noted, “ I think she was much younger… closer to your age, like the girls at your school.”
This caused him to ponder in some obvious discomfort.
To the youngest, I asked, “What do you think?”
“I like it, but why is there a scary angel in the mirror?”
The oldest, now catching on, replied to his younger brother, “Yeah, but wouldn’t you be scared if an angel showed up and told you that you were having a baby.”
Nate looked at his itty-bitty, seven-year-old, boy stomach and said, “That’s impossible.”
To this, I thought, that’s got to be a fairly common reaction to pregnancy tests furtively peed on in school stalls and shopping mall restrooms – that is, “this cannot be happening.”
My Annunciation is in progress, but even in its present form, I am intrigued by what it has revealed to me: 1) the already reified conceptions my children are sucking in with the culture and 2) the disruptive quality of pushing back against the truth of those reifications. So, art as a theological language, comes to be seen as not just a methodological tool, a therapeutic protest tool, or a constructive teaching tool, but something of a discipline-specific obligation. For in its productions across all media, one discovers the inevitably constructed nature of religious idioms as well as the power to change them.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.