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.
10 thoughts on “Storied Women by Natalie Weaver”
Wonderful post, on so many levels, Natalie. You’ve captured several important themes in a relatively short post. Thank you. Hildegard of Bingen used art and creativity as her expression of God. Hildegard referred to creativity as having the greening power of Viriditas. Our bodies and spirits are nourished by creativity, as if we were plants. Thank you for the reminder — I need to paint more too! Enjoy your summer.
I loved this essay. I too work in images because images often precede my words and I think (and dream) in images. As an intuitive sculpting a woman with holes in clay speaks more powerfully to me about women’s reality than anything I might have to say… and yet, I am finding trouble making the time to work with clay again. It’s on my agenda for the summer though! I really appreciate what you say about storied women – like Mary – “The manufactured magnitude of her grace and regality” oh how tearful and truthful. She’s so distanced -like the stars…I would very much like to see your depiction of her when it’s done!
Thanks, Natalie, I enjoyed the question you asked your kids, how old did they think Mary was? I’ve read Mary would be between 13 and 16 at the time of the Annunciation, because Jewish women married so young at that time.
On storied women, there is a strong theory that the Bible was written only by men, with one exception and that’s the Book of Ruth, and which a good number of commentators believe was written by a woman. Miki Raver in her book, LISTEN TO HER VOICE (p.147), states the following: “The Book of Ruth is an exquisite tale about the bond between women. The narrative is unique in Scripture because it centers around a female family struggling for survival in a man’s world. It is a story of women’s culture and women’s values. It is about absolute commitment, embracing connection, and love as a spiritual path.”
I love your phrase “definitional temptresses of biblical history” and how we need to re-frame their stories. I see Bathsheba as a rape victim who made the best she could of her marriage to the rapist, and Jezebel as a supportive wife who stayed true to her own deity in a multi-cultural court. Who else?
Beautiful! I love your conversation with your kids. I am working on a post for FAR about another storied woman. Will reference this post.
The line from a childhood poem came back to me: “Mother Mary, sweet and mild…” I think the whole idea is to convince women that, if even “the mother of god” can be docile and obedient, then who are we to complain!
I think of Mary as dark skinned, a Jewish Mother fighting like a lioness for her family under the oppression of Roman occupation and Temple betrayal. There is some suggestion by some writers that she too was a rape victim of one of the Roman soldiers. Your picture brings that to mind, along with what it might have felt like to be in that situation.
I think we are in need of a totally renewed interpretation of the Gospel stories.
Very interesting! What we usually see, of course, are the famous Renaissance paintings in which Mary is a blonde, European woman. Or the medieval paintings in which she’s a typical medieval woman. Or the black virgins. I think all of these images say more about the artists and their worlds than they do about the BVM.
Yes, I’ve often thought of her as a teenage mother who was assaulted by someone invisible. It will be interesting to see your entire series.
Reblogged this on English Lit Geek and commented:
A challenge to women writers: women’s voices, real or imagined, are often unheard.
Marvelous post full of ideas that need to be realized. It is difficult to learn lessons from sanitized versions of stories about women. I look forward to reading more about your project.