A feminist closet? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadEvery now and again, a budding systematic theologian comes to my office and wants to talk about how to avoid being pegged as a feminist, and therewith avoid not being taken seriously as a theologian. Sometimes the students are feminists, but don’t want that aspect of their work to dominate or perhaps even to be visible for a time; in other cases, the students aren’t feminist – or didn’t start out that way – but are having experiences as they enter the guild that are raising these concerns for them in a new way. Perhaps professors are assuming that they are feminist simply because they are female, or perhaps male students are dominating in class and the professor is doing nothing to rein them in.

These students seek me out knowing that I am an avowed feminist and an avowedly feminist theologian. But they are concerned about the effects being or appearing feminist might have on their future careers. After all, they want to join the theological conversation in order to shape it – and their ambitions are right and justified. Continue reading “A feminist closet? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Feminist Theology, and Finitude by Linn Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn David Kelsey’s theological anthropology, Eccentric Existence, he emphasizes that finitude renders creation vulnerable, but he still insists on the goodness of what he terms the “quotidian proximate contexts” in which human life is lived: our ordinary, everyday lives. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels bring together a multitude of characters – ethnically, religiously, and otherwise diverse – in the chaotic yet lively city of Ankh-Morpork (a fictionalized London). The Discworld offers what I see as a theology of everyday flourishing that fits with both Kelsey’s analysis of finitude and with significant feminist theological claims.

The books focus on the men and not-men (women, werewolves, vampires, trolls, a six-foot tall dwarf named Carrot, and a Nobby Nobbs) who populate the city and bring it to life. The characters of Pratchett’s city offer a vivid imaginative rendering of the vulnerabilities and possibilities of life in everyday finite contexts that bring together diverse creatures in the service of the goal of common flourishing. Although all theologies outline a social imaginary, whether implicitly or explicitly, the dry and technical character of much theological reflection can make it difficult for the reader to imagine what life would be or could be like given the proposals advanced by a particular author. Pratchett is a consummate observer of the everyday, and his world brings to life what a theology of the everyday would look like. Continue reading “Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Feminist Theology, and Finitude by Linn Tonstad”

Anti-sex feminism? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadLori Gottlieb’s article in the February 9 New York Times magazine, “The Egalitarian-Marriage Conundrum,” was yet another tired entry in the New York Times’s annual clickbait misogyny Olympics. Who doesn’t remember the supposed opt-out revolution, and the sadness of the decade-later follow-up demonstrating every single consequence that any feminist could have predicted? Or the weekly gender terrorism spewed by Maureen Dowd, who somehow gets people to believe that constant belittling and feminizing male Democratic politicians counts as incisive, progressive political commentary? To name just a few of the most memorable, and most infuriating, examples.  

Gottlieb’s article rehashed the studies – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read about them in one version or another – that suggest that equality in household labor leads to decreased frequency of intercourse among married heterosexual couples. The most revolting lines in the article – among many contenders – start with a quote from Julie Brines, the author of the study in question: ‘”The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.” It is possible that Brines may be quoted out of context, or that what she intended to say was something quite different, but as the quotation stands, it implicitly suggests that so-called “traditional” gender differentiation is necessary for sexually satisfying heterosexual relationships. (For, of course, there are plenty of other ways in which gender differentiation might be present in heterosexual relationships. Gender differentiation is here being equated with a very particular set of decisions about ‘housework’, a notion that arguably exists only to render some parts of women’s work invisible.) That’s before getting into the implications of the word “neutered” used in the second sentence. Why would egalitarian distribution of household labor be considered “gender-neutral” to begin with? Continue reading “Anti-sex feminism? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Remember the Sabbath Day: The Cost of Difference by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadI grew up Seventh-day Adventist and was educated at Seventh-day Adventist schools all the way through college. I can tell endless quirky stories about growing up – about the time my parents gave me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read at the age of seven and I was certain, certain, that they had no idea what devilish literature they had given me (all those horrible hags and werewolves), so I promised myself never to tell them because they would feel so bad for having led me astray. (I figured it out when I reread the story at the age of nine.) About my joy in meeting missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the train station on my way to and from school, so that we could proof text against each other. I was always certain that my marked Bible (marked with Sabbath texts, carefully traced with different colored pens, based on a pamphlet I had picked up somewhere) would eventually lead someone to the truth. (Again, I was nine.) As I entered adolescence, I became increasingly worried about the early Adventist dictum that the degree of responsibility you have as a believer is proportional to the degree of light you have been given – after all, I had a lot of light! In fact, I knew the truth.

But no stories like this will tell the truth of my relationship with the church. Yes, I grew up in ways that seem strange to many people: keeping Saturday holy starting Friday at sundown, without TV or movies until about the age of eleven, as a life-long vegetarian (although I became a pescetarian in my twenties), believing that Jesus Christ will return soon, having read the Bible cover to cover by the age of nine (do you see a pattern emerging?), and so on. Having spent the last decade plus outside Adventist institutions, I know much more than I did then about the ways in which my upbringing and beliefs were unusual by mainstream standards. Yet unlike many people who become theologians, and unlike many women who become feminist theologians, I never experienced the church as a particularly repressive site, even though the external forms of my life look very different now. I loved the church, and despite some unfortunate experiences with authority during my high school and college years, the church gave me gifts that I have valued ever since. Continue reading “Remember the Sabbath Day: The Cost of Difference by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Seeing Death and Resurrection by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadYesterday, I visited the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. In a grotto about a mile or so from the center of the modern city are found the preserved remains of about 2,000 people who paid the monks to preserve their bodies after death, dress them in their finest clothing, and put them on display. Each of them is placed in its own niche along the wall, held up by iron bands, and has a tag around its neck with its name and date of death. The bodies are not displayed in random order: they are sorted (to some extent) by sex, profession, and familial status. In one large recess, a number of children’s skeletons are on display, many of them in heartbreakingly tiny coffins. In another corridor, friar after friar hangs in his robes, some with cords around their necks signifying their adherence to a Franciscan order. Almost indistinguishable from the cords are the braids still hanging from the heads of some of the women’s bodies. Some families are arranged together; in another corridor doctors and lawyers are segregated and in yet another female virgins are gathered together. The oldest body I saw dated from 1599 – high on a wall hangs the body of a monk whose name was almost illegible but who hailed from the Umbrian hill town of Gubbio.

Some of the skeletons presented death’s heads; others had skin dried to a leathery tightness over remaining bony protuberances. Some of their outfits are well preserved; others have disintegrated under the relentless assault of the years. The practice became illegal around 1880, but until then, people chose – or perhaps their relatives chose for them – to be preserved in this seemingly macabre manner. Continue reading “Seeing Death and Resurrection by Linn Marie Tonstad”

God the Father or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn the second season of the television show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer [spoiler alert!], Buffy is faced with an agonizing dilemma. She is condemned to save the world “again.” Buffy’s former lover is the evil Angelus. Angelus – once the good Angel – has awoken a demon that will swallow up the whole world into an eternity of suffering.  In what follows, I read Buffy as God the Father. Angelus represents sinful humanity, Angel is Jesus, and the Spirit is the sword in Buffy’s hand. Buffy attempts to destroy Angelus. But at the moment that she is about to kill Angelus, his soul is returned to him. Unfortunately, only Angel’s blood will close the gaping mouth of the demon. The shift from Angelus to Angel gives a vivid representation of the shifting positions of the first and second Adam in the Christian narrative of redemption. Angelus is evil. Angel carries the weight of Angelus’s guilt without any of the responsibility belonging, strictly speaking, to him. Yet finally, the innocent Angel must bear the consequences of Angelus’s evil for the salvation of the world.

The gender dynamics of this scene complicate and illuminate traditional readings of the involvement of the Father in the crucifixion. Gender subordination and the subordination of the Son to the Father go together, and are ultimately justified by the same theological logic. Reading the Father as an 18-year old girl helps to mark the inadequacy of language to capture God. The evident implausibility, even absurdity, of the image, makes visible the theological truth that God is not a father among other fathers.   Continue reading “God the Father or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Rebranding Feminism by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadFeminism has a “brand”? A recent contest – still running, if you want to get in on it! – asks for suggestions about how to “rebrand feminism.” The contest has corporate sponsors. Saying that although feminism “has brought us the right to vote, drive and have our own bank accounts,” it is nonetheless the case that “Feminism has been given a bad rap, and gotten a bad rep.” Elle UK’s November issue does the same, claiming to rebrand “a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.”

I suspect that most readers here at Feminism and Religion will have similar reactions to this development: disgust and distaste. Why do feminists need to overcome the negative stereotypes and reactions that are used to dismiss them by anti-feminists? Most of us have heard the usual derisive responses, I suspect, and are tired of being instructed that it is our responsibility to overcome stereotypes we have done nothing to earn. I once wrote the words “feminist” and “Christian” on the board in an introductory theology class, and asked students what the first word that came to mind was in each case. Predictably, the first response for “feminist” was “femi-Nazi.” The student wasn’t intending to imply that such a designation was fair, but the immediacy of the reaction was telling. So why should feminists subordinate our political and social aims to corporate self-promotion? And is feminism really just about getting the vote, being able to drive, and having bank accounts? This list of issues brings together the trivial (when were women unable to drive in the UK or USA?), the liberal status quo (voting), and the assumption that feminism means the full ability to participate in the capitalist system. That’s not to suggest that these concerns are unimportant. But all of them involve acceding to an already-constituted public, financial, political, and social space. Is feminism simply about, as so many popular invocations have it these days, equality and giving women the same opportunities as men? Continue reading “Rebranding Feminism by Linn Marie Tonstad”

On Reading, Not Reading, and Disagreeing by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadThe theology blogosphere in all its glory has been alive in recent days with furor sparked by a blog post from Janice Rees at Women In Theology, where she discusses not reading Karl Barth, the heavyweight German 20th-century Protestant theologian, as an act of resistance against his dominance in the theological academy and his status as a litmus test for serious scholarship. Reminding myself repeatedly of the great xkcd comic, I’ve resisted my urge to comment on this and a number of other recent debates. (See here for a list of links if you wish to catch up on the discussion, however.) So this is not a post on whether to read Karl Barth.* Rather, the debate made me take a look at some of my own reading practices, and the visions of theological discussion that they encode. It also brought me back to the question of feminist disagreement, which continues to lurk in the back of my mind as I pursue disagreements with some prominent feminist theologians in my current book project.

I’ve written here before about reading authors that I disagree with, and indeed working on theologians I think are wrong about certain issues. On the simplest level, as a feminist and queer theologian, many of the theologians I work on would have questioned or outright resisted my participation in the discipline to begin with – although we cannot always know whether and how they would have done so today (since many of them are dead – yes, the dreaded dead white European males). But I often – not always – find projects that I sincerely disagree with utterly fascinating. From what perspective does the system being developed in such a project make sense? Where would one have to stand to see what that author sees? What do I come to understand about my current context, or the author’s context, from the perspective of the debates and decisions that the author finds pressing? One fairly trivial example: any interest I might once have had in historical Jesus debates was settled forever by reading Albert Schweitzer as an undergraduate. I simply do not find such debates compelling in themselves. (That does not mean I think they are valueless, of course!) But reading theologians who were engaged in such debates teaches me a great deal about how the commonsense assumptions many of us today operate with came to be. And seeing how such debates accompany disagreement over right social relations, over the nature of transmission of Christian traditions, and over what counts as scholarship in theology and religious studies is simply fascinating. Continue reading “On Reading, Not Reading, and Disagreeing by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadThe headlines blared, “Who am I to judge?” News outlet after news outlet led with the pope’s conciliatory stance toward gays, expressed during an interview aboard the pope-plane as he returned from Brazil. Among the several headers from Fox News (I encourage not clicking!), we find discussions of the pope’s “reaching out” to gays and even one that combines this development with his “urging” of a “greater role” for women. The New York Times story introduced the pope’s comments as follows: “For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as ‘an intrinsic moral evil,’ in the words of the previous pope.” Ignoring the astonishing comment that this has been the case “for generations,” as though homosexuality has historically been the kind of issue for the church it has become in the wake of radical queer movements – see Mark Jordan’s several books on this for the most helpful treatments – the story went on to say that the pope’s comments “resonated throughout the church.” Although the NYT article did a better job than some contextualizing and nuancing the pope’s comments, they were still termed “revolutionary” in an assessment better suited to an opinion page than to a news report. Better-informed commentators, such as James Martin, offered a measured response. Martin said that although the pope’s remarks didn’t really signal a significant change in policy, “in the church, style often proves substantial,” implying that the “pastoral” tone might have effects in the implementation of policy. More significantly, Martin praised the pope’s adherence to Jesus’ injunction not to judge as an instance, first and foremost, of the pope’s commitment to mercy as the hallmark of his pontificate.

My Facebook feed, predictably, lit up with links to and discussions of these comments. While most were thrilled, a few posts noted that, even if Pope Francis is in fact (which is not proven) walking back Benedict XVI’s language of “intrinsically disordered,” the church’s policy has not and will not change in any significant way. What was missing in all but a few instances was attention to the pope’s comments in the same interview on women, and the deep theological problems with the assumptions contained in those comments. And while I, as a queer theologian, would never wish to downplay the struggles of LGBTQI people in the Roman Catholic church, there are rather more women than queers in that church (as elsewhere!). What’s more, it is arguable that it is the sexism and heterosexism of what Marcella Althaus-Reid memorably termed “T-Theology” that underlies condemnation of homosexuality in Roman Catholic theology. Continue reading “Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Creating Ritual by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadLast time, we considered whether the creation of rituals, I mean habits, might serve as an antidote to depression, or as a way of managing depression. But the creation of ritual has had a much more significant role in feminist religious practice than such an approach might suggest. Currently, WATER – Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, a leading center for feminist religious thought – creates multiple rituals marking various seasons and events in the year, most recently for the summer solstice. These rituals can provide alternative ways of marking the year’s rhythms, and they can serve as ways to take control of liturgical spaces that have tended to exclude women or to allow women to serve only in various subordinate roles.

Yet the terminology is odd. What does it mean to create a ritual? If I think of the rituals of my childhood, what presented itself to me as ritual was connected either with religious practice, or with seasons of exception. Indeed, the most stylized rituals of the year were areligious (as I understood religion). They took place on Christmas Eve. First, during the distribution of presents, my father would put on a terrifying, horrifying, grotesque Santa mask. It was intended, clearly, to be a friendly Santa, which was why its leering was so fundamentally disturbing. My sister and I would try to run away, emotionally and sometimes physically petrified by the transformation of our father into this monster. Second, after Christmas dinner, we would eat cold rice porridge with cream and try to get an almond – “mandel i grøten” in Norwegian tradition. Getting the almond, which is blanched and hidden in the porridge, is considered an auspicious omen for the new year, and requires that the finder be given a gift – traditionally, a marzipan pig. Continue reading “Creating Ritual by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Public Depression and Feminist Spirituality by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn her recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich examines the experience of depression through the genre of memoir as well as by the construction of an archive of depression. Her archive includes sources ranging from John Cassian’s discussion of the way monks experience acedia to analyses of depression as the result of racism and colonialism, to suggestions for spiritual practices of transcendence – daily habituated actions of repetition and physical wellbeing – that might contribute to rendering depression manageable if not curable. The book, part of the Public Feelings project, is fascinating for the scholar of religion on multiple levels.

First, in terms of teaching and mentoring, Cvetkovich’s analysis of depression as reflective of real states of affairs in the world, rather than as a (mere) biological fact, speaks to an experience that I, and no doubt many others, have every year. At some point, an activist student (usually but not always female) will either email me or ask for an appointment to talk about struggles she’s been having. These students are usually heavily engaged in struggles for queer causes, in learning about intersectionality, reading critical race theory or Karl Marx for the first time, or discovering feminist theology, and trying to live into such modes of analysis in their personal relationships as well as in their ‘public’ lives as activists, members of churches, future clergy members, or the like. And unsurprisingly – and very familiarly – such students get to a point where they ask questions about how to remain engaged in such struggles when the opposition – personal and structural – feels so overwhelming. What do I do when I’m at a party and one of my friends says something heterosexist? How do I remain committed to the cause to which I’ve devoted my energies when I see so many other causes needing support? I’m worried that I’m alienating my family by the ways in which I’m changing. How ought I to relate to parishioners who think that opening a soup kitchen constitutes the pinnacle of meaningful service to God and neighbor? Continue reading “Public Depression and Feminist Spirituality by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Lust in the Heart by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadLove the sinner, hate the sin. We are all familiar with the bludgeon this statement represents in Christian circles. It functions as a way to maintain one’s goodness and Christlikeness (supposedly!), while simultaneously condemning and persecuting those who find themselves drawn to live lives outside the constraints of heteronormativity in all its variations. The statement hardly needs to be deconstructed – it proves its own emptiness in relation to the way sexuality is understood as identity in the contemporary context. (There are Foucaultian reasons to be unhappy with this understanding of sexuality – one of the disciplinary functions of power on his account is the desire to find a name that will express one’s true identity – but we’ll save that for another day.)

Instead, I think we should consider a much more fundamental contradiction in the way Christian churches today speak and think about sexuality. In many mainline congregations in the US-European context, the debate has been framed around celibacy versus “practice” for persons identifying as gay and lesbian. Excluding the fringe ex-gay movement and its horrors, there are three typical positions that churches take up. One, celibate gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Two, married and monogamous gays and lesbians may participate fully in church life. Three, neither marriage nor monogamy are required for gays and lesbians (or anyone else) – the latter is perhaps not a frequent position for churches to take, at least officially, other than in the MCC. For most mainline denominations, the fault line lies between those who assert the ‘vocation’ of celibacy for gay and lesbian persons, and those who permit marriage. Continue reading “Lust in the Heart by Linn Marie Tonstad”

Orientations: Body, Space, Authority by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn her book Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed investigates how we orient ourselves in space with respect to tables – the tables around which we sit, at which we eat with friends and families of choice and birth, and at which we write. She describes moving into a new place and arranging the furniture. “After the kitchen, the room I hope to inhabit is always the study. Or the place that I have decided is the place where I will write. There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. It is here that I will write, and even write about writing. … Making a place feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table. I think fondly of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. How important it is, especially for women, to claim that space, to take up that space through what one does with one’s body. And so when I am at my table, I am also claiming that space, I am becoming a writer by taking up that space.” (11) Ahmed goes on to discuss how certain possibilities are opened up, and others foreclosed, by the way we orient ourselves (or find ourselves oriented) to others and to objects. She describes the bodily postures that result from orienting oneself to the writing table – the way one might hunch over one’s computer, or find oneself with ink-stained fingers.

In a very different context, the queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid describes a scene from her childhood in Argentina. She kneels in front of a priest for confession. But instead of kneeling to the side, aslant, as she ‘ought’ to have done, being a girl, she kneels directly in front of the priest, as if she were a boy. Kneeling here too is a form of orientation, a form of direction, a bodily habit of becoming. “Kneeling is troublesome and it has a theological referent in the church’s also troubled waters of sexuality and power. A whole symbolic sexual order is obviously manifested in kneelings as positions of subordination and sites of possible homo- and hetero- seductions, because these are theologically distributed around the axis of the priesthood’s male genitalia. The priest’s penis carries the sacred connotations of the phallus as a transcendental signifier of the theological discourses to everyday Christianity, and kneeling is a liturgical positing designed to centralise and highlight this.” (The Queer God, 11) To kneel in the right (gendered) position in relation to the priest is also to kneel in the right relation to God. Continue reading “Orientations: Body, Space, Authority by Linn Marie Tonstad”

When Feminists Disagree by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadA while back I gave a talk on feminist trinitarian theology to an audience of mostly progressive academics, including feminist and womanist scholars of religion. In the course of analyzing what I called the ‘trinitarian imaginary’ in Christianity and its often-patriarchal and masculinist forms, I suggested that transforming that imaginary might require recognizing the hypothetical character of theological statements until the eschaton, a theme that has been developed in depth by a German theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now, Pannenberg is decidedly neither a feminist nor a progressive theologian. To name just one example: in his three-volume Systematic Theology, his few explicit references to feminist or female theologians include a brief mention of Mary Daly (volume 1, p. 262) in connection with a critique of feminist theologians for projecting (!) masculinity into God in their readings of divine fatherhood, and a critique of Valerie Saiving and Susan Nelson Dunfee’s positions on the traditional Christian doctrine of sin as pride (volume 2, p. 243). So when I mentioned Pannenberg as a resource in my talk, one of the feminist scholars in the audience audibly gasped and flinched – it became clear in the Q&A that she had significant concerns about whether I could count as a feminist at all. After all, to mine someone like Pannenberg for constructive feminist theological work might imply an endorsement of his other positions, or might entail taking over aspects of his system that would taint my own project in anti-feminist directions – all legitimate concerns.  Continue reading “When Feminists Disagree by Linn Marie Tonstad”

What It’s Like To Be A Woman In The Academy: Mentoring Edition by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadIn my first post, I promised to return to the topic of mentoring. Mentoring is a survival strategy for feminists inside hostile or difficult-to-navigate environments; in its best possibilities, mentoring is a strategy for flourishing, not just surviving. But when a mentoring relationship goes wrong, it is so destructive an experience that it may even be characterized as traumatic. Mentoring is also a practice rife with possibilities for abuse: the recent Yale study of gender bias in the sciences shows the extent to which gender alone serves as a significant variable for scientists assessing the possible rewards of mentoring a student.

I have given a lot of thought to mentoring in recent months – as I transition into new mentoring roles in a new institution, as I negotiate changing relationships with current and former mentors, as I reflect on successful and unsuccessful mentoring relationships I’ve been involved in, and as I seek to develop policies and practices that will serve me (and more importantly, my mentees) well.  Continue reading “What It’s Like To Be A Woman In The Academy: Mentoring Edition by Linn Marie Tonstad”

What It’s Like to Be a Woman in the Academy by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadLast fall, I was asked to sit in on the women’s pre-doctoral colloquium at the divinity school where I teach. In the course of a wide-ranging lunchtime conversation, the central question to which the students wanted an answer was: “what is it like to be a woman in the academy?” The question took me by surprise at the time – mostly because I’d expected to be asked more nitty-gritty questions about applying to graduate school, writing samples, and personal statements – but it has stayed with me in the weeks since the lunch as I’ve found myself trying out answers from different directions.

The first answer, and perhaps the most obvious one, is this: there is no such thing as being “a [generic] woman” in the academy (or anywhere else). Continue reading “What It’s Like to Be a Woman in the Academy by Linn Marie Tonstad”

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