Symposium Introduction

Though its use as an English word goes back to the 1960s and the work of Stanley Hopper and Amos Wilder, the last decade has seen a substantial uptick in published conversation around theopoetics. In the past five years alone, work engaging the topic has been published in the fields of continental philosophy,1 homiletics,2 theology,3 biblical studies,4 and poetry.5 In response to this rising interest, The Association of Theopoetics Research and Exploration was formed to gather together resources, archive relevant theses and dissertations, offer working group sessions at the American Academy of Religion, make work available via the online journal THEOPOETICS, and—for the first time this March—host a day-long event in Boston. This all serves to raise the question, “What exactly is theopoetics?”

As ATRE uses the term, theopoetics is shorthand for “an emphasis, style, and positive concern for the intersection of theology with the imagination, aesthetics, and the arts, especially as it takes shape in ways that engender community affirming dialogue that is embodied in nature and transformative in consequence.” It is not an alternative to theology as such, but an orientation to the doing of theology that gives greater attention to form, genre, and the methods of theological reflection, particularly the ways in which certain theological voices are given authority and others are marginalized. Significant questions remain, however: Does “theopoetics” accomplish anything not already addressed in the discourses connected to “theological aesthetics” or “theology and art”? If so, what is it that it contributes? Isn’t the imagination always already a part of theological work? The essays in this symposium were composed with these questions in the foreground. Each of the contributors and respondents is a scholar and/or artist who decided they have use for theopoetics in their work. Here they offer their varying rationales and convictions.

Patrick Reyes reflects on the influence of Brazilian theologian and educator Rubem Alves and the resonances of theopoetics with lo cotidiano, the stuff of daily life and the ways that God is named there. He considers the utility of the theopoetics for his work with Chican@ communities that are dually informed by Catholic perspectives and the indigeneous gods likely to be spoken of in English, yes, but also Spanish, Nahuatl, Mixtec, and Triqui. Ashley Theuring considers the ways in which her work with survivors of domestic abuse is tied directly to her capacity to hope and imagine the future as other than the present. Affirming the work of Rebecca Chopp and Shelly Rambo, Theuring sees theopoetics as a way to challenge modern theology’s privileging of rational epistemologies, a vital part of any scholarship that intends to address the fractures that exist in the wake of trauma.

In an essay composed as a dialogue, poet Dave Harrity and I reflect on the ways in which form can shape both the content of theological reflection and the practice of contemporary poetry. We also reflect on how streams of liberation theology, critical pedagogy, and the importance of bodies all wend their way through our engagement with theopoetics. Kate Common also reflects the importance of bodies, marking her essay with a personal narrative relating the need to marry the poetic with the logical and the challenges of doing that in the theological academy. She tells a story of loss and grief and the ways in which the only way forward seemed to be ones that allowed her to blur the borders of rationality and creativity. This blur carries over into James Hill Jr.’s closing essay in which he asks why it is that the populist and cultural power of hip-hop is so rarely acknowledged as carrying theological authority. He too articulates a personal narrative, his view flowing into a vision of theopoetics that is decolonizing and emancipatory.

Taken together, this collection of essays serves as a kind of “State of the Conversation” for theopoetics scholarship. It certainly is not complete—for example, there is a significant absence of any of the theopoetic thinkers from an explicitly process-relational perspective—but it still manages to chart some of the contours of the contemporary conversation. Though it has been nearly fifty years since Hopper and Wilder began to extoll its meaning and value, theopoetics has once again begun to enter into theological conversation. Whether or not it will be around for another century is as yet unclear, but in the meantime there seem to be a rising number of people who find some solace or power in the argument that the form of theological reflection can shape its content, and that sometimes theology is done best in gasps and cries rather than academic prose.


  1. John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, 2013; Gabriel Vahanian’s Theopoetics of the Word: A New Beginning of Word and World, 2014.⁠

  2. Paul Scott Wilson’s Preaching as Poetry: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in Every Sermon, 2014.

  3. Roland Faber & Jeremy Fackenthal’s Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness, 2013; Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, 2014; L. Callid Keefe-Perry’s Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer, 2014.

  4. Sandra Schneiders’s “Biblical Spirituality” in The Bible and Spirituality: Exploratory Essays in Reading Scripture Spiritually.

  5. Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace, 2013.

Response

Theopoetics as sic et . . .

IF THEOPOETICS IS A genre concerned with bodies, it must also be concerned with where the bodies of those who are defining, playing, and exploring the contours of the discipline exist. One may track the works of Amos Wilder, Stanley Hopper, Rubem Alves, Melanie May, Mayra Rivera, and Callid Keefe-Perry to gain a better sense of the field writ large. That is not to my task here. Rather, I want to address the questions of Theopoetics and its unique contribution to conversations that are sometimes parallel to theological aesthetic discourse or theology and art. Simply, what can I (you) accomplish within Theopoetics that we collectively could not accomplish in another field?

I begin to answer this question by first turning to Rubem Alves, whose passing in 2014 has left a void in the field. For Latin@ theologians, his contribution to theology, education, and pedagogy in Latin America and beyond are widely known. He opened a space for us to do theological thinking differently with an open invitation to explore the contours of theological knowing and imagining. Whether through metaphor, education for children, play, or deep theological prose that is interrupted by poetry and short stories that continue for pages, Alves taught that there was beauty in allowing both the space for our theological imagination to breathe and there is magic in the mundane. In The Poet, the Warrior, and the Prophet (1992), he gave several metaphors and definitions that are most helpful. To do theology Theopoetically, one must “peer over the void” and to “unlearn” those things that tether us to our learned, dogmatic, and systematic thinking about God. He claims we must be birds without cages, free to fly. He offers stories about prophets and how to tell the story of Jesus within a community, and how that story disappeared when scholars layered a hermeneutic of “truth” on top of the lived experience of the community. These images and metaphors were coated with writings from Lao Tzu, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, and references to other theological texts.

He then would turn to physical bodies, describing the contours of the flesh. Whether in I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body (1986), Transparencies of Eternity (2010), or his earlier works like A Theology of Human Hope (1971) or Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (1972), his language about the body was largely illustrative, but done so the words became tactile. Other theologians that followed him found new ways to explore the body poetically. Take Mayra Rivera’s Poetics of the Flesh (2015). Rivera engages thinkers who underscore the importance of the body in knowing, such as Michel Foucault, Franz Fanon, and Judith Butler. She reads them alongside biblical texts like John. Further, she follows Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (2006), in that poetics is an exploration of “not only styles of writing, but also modes of knowing, being and acting in the world” (Rivera 2015). Like Alves, bodies are leaping off the text and the reader is confronted with the “poetics” of interpreting that raw reality. And when the reader is confronted in such a way with bodies, she is ultimately confronted with two questions: What bodies? And what does the experience of these bodies say about God? The answer to such questions, as I’ve come to address them in my work, comes from the narratives of my origin.

I come from a Latin@ community, specifically Mexican-American and Chican@ identifying people in California. For my community, poetry, poetics, storytelling, and the practices of our ancestors are essential for survival. I remember sitting on the front porch with my Grandpa who immigrated from the heart of Mexico and listening to stories about his Mexican father and stories he heard about his indigenous mother, who had her own theological and religious background. These stories largely consisted of day-to-day realities and struggles that teased in their own local religious and theological histories throughout his narrative. Likewise, my Grandma told stories of our family and its deep ties to the love and compassion of Jesus, and how his story mirrored our experience of suffering on a day-to-day level. Interspersed throughout their house were the statuettes and figurines of saints, images of our ancestors, and bottles of balms and panaceas with the power to cure ailments ranging from the common cold to adolescent acne. Stories included deep Catholic theology and vignettes of theological insights from an indigenous past, and they reverberated from within the very walls of the house.

These lessons of lived theology were amplified in the surrounding community. At local community centers, elders told stories and provided training on indigenous practices that sought to recover lost religious and cultural practices. As I have published elsewhere, these practices are what I call a decolonial Theopoetics, but for the purposes of this piece, are simply the Theopoetic expression of a colonized people attempting to wrestle with modern day political, social, economic, and ethnic oppression experienced by Latin@s in the United States.

While attempting to finish my bachelors and masters degrees, I worked in the packing sheds cutting broccoli, bending over all day in the fields, or working construction. After one of these long days of labor, I was organizing with a group of women. They told me to “get out of here . . . we need an educator or a priest.” At this meeting was a Methodist minister, who told me about her seminary where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once walked the campus. She told me that I could live into this legacy. So I answered the call of my community and that minister, and went in search of this seminary. There, I experienced a great disconnect between what I experienced each day in my community, and what I was learning in class. What did a white and privileged theological curriculum have to say to my everyday reality?

When I asked this question of place and of context in my writing, I was labeled a bad student, “asking the wrong questions.” Granted, I may have been better off if I took the time to learn the necessary skill of code switching, how and when to tell the stories of my community, to learn how to read dominant culture and to use the master’s tools as Audrey Lorde reminds us. It wasn’t until I was nearly done with my education at seminary that I met professors who came from similar communities and taught in contextual theological fields such as Latin@ and liberation theologies. Even in these theological spaces, they were still created to serve a predominately white academy. There was no word that I was aware of, theologically speaking, for what was happening in my reality.

Enter—Theopoetics. Simply, this method and field of study builds a space for the words of my community to echo within theological discourse. My later research was to return to my place of origin, and investigate the lived realities—lo cotidiano—of those people who I worked alongside in the fields and packing sheds. I would go to where they worked and where they gathered to explore the divine. I asked a simple question as I observed groups and interviewed individuals: what sustains our community in the midst of intense labor and hardship? What I asked for and observed came back as a beautiful mix—more complex and varied than the instruction received in seminary.

These groups survive in the same space where eighty years ago John Steinbeck wrote many books on the torturous practices to the laborers in the Salinas Valley and where more than fifty years ago César Chavez went on strike with the UFW to better the local conditions. These same tortures continue, and deep communal trauma lingers, as this space is one of the most violent communities in the country due to gang violence. Couple this violence with the hundreds of years of colonial violence on both the indigenous and migrant communities, home and community practices are not the dogmatic theologies one finds in church. The sustaining response to my inquiries uncovered poets, activists, new worship spaces, a mix of indigenous and Catholic/Christian/Charismatic practices, young people worshipping multiple gods including my own, speaking in English, Spanish, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Triqui, along with a handful of other languages I neither speak nor could identify. People gathered together to heal their wounds performing rituals of passage, plays, dramas, performed poetry in the Mayan style, honored our ancestors, and the local Tlamatinime passed on the wisdom of our ancestors. We are like the salsa my Grandma would make—a fragrant blend of ingredients gathered into a mortar stone and ground together to be consumed in community.

What is the word for this work of naming the creative spirit at work? Even in contextual theologies, where bodies are primary, this openness to the divine encounter in its full complexity is not necessarily embraced. Latin@ catholic or protestant theologies reflect back the popular practices of the community either as a popular and local Christian expression, or as I recently saw, Christians offer heartbreaking colonial prayers, such as, “Pray that the Nahuatl people will be freed from the terrible fear of evil spirits and come to know the true God who calls them out of their darkness and into his wonderful light.” This is not true to the words expressed to me by the people of my community, nor the spirit at work in this place. I tried to reflect back all of what is written in the book of life and in this community. But, as a Christian theologian I couldn’t just report back my research as if I was observing something from the outside as a modernist ethnographer might have. The spirit was clearly at work in this community. There was something deeply moving and theological trembling the earth underneath my feet. I tried to capture it in an image that was local and known. The Salinas River ran through our valley, but it largely is an underground river. A fitting metaphor:

Subterranean spirits are birthed here.

The river flows. It is the life beat of the community.

Colonial religion and systems of oppression push it below the surface.

            What makes it rise? Those who teach . . . the elders push the water along.

Like Chalchiuhtlicue, the water gives birth to something buried deep.

For a Christian theologian, I touch the water and I remember my baptism.

                                                            For the community, they are baptized in . . .

It is old and ancient and it is Holy. It is wholly other to me, and yet,

It also pumps in my veins and is my lifeblood.

Alves gave me my first inlet to languaging the ineffable. A paradox I know, but he tells us we have to unlearn what we have been taught about the divine in order to experience its overflowing, and for my context to join it below the surface. Alves continues reflecting on John 1, by suggesting the “words [were] spoken to those who had it written on their bodies: its home” (Alves 1990, 43). I later wrote of this experience of reading my community:

This is the story of particular words, written onto bodies in a particular home . . . The context in which theopoetics is emerging in this community is a theopoetics from the Deep, from the Void, but here, in the beginning there was not just the Christian God. Instead, the poetics found in this community are expressions of theological musings and visions of the divine, reflecting the Chican@ heritage, the suppressed knowledges and the disregarded theopoetic contributions of our Nahautl speaking brothers and sisters. (Reyes 2012)

Based on the Nahuatl definition of the divine and the role poetics plays in the Mexican community to reflect theologically, I define Theopoetics as “the creative language of a community and its members to express what is above and what is beyond.” This definition is borrowed from Keefe-Perry who writes that “theopoetics is a means of making God, or shaping experience of the divine, and the study of the ways in which people come to know the Spirit” (Keefe-Perry 2009, 579–80). It also borrowed from both my experience at home and in the community centers, where they teach what Miguel León-Portilla mentioned of the Central Mexican people that they “explored the possibilities of a new way of saying ‘true words’ about what ‘is above us, what is beyond.’ The adequate formulation of the theory they developed concerning metaphysical knowledge also found expression in their poetry” (León-Portilla 1990, 74).

This practice of making words about God(s), tracking the spirit of the community, and building theological models to wrestle with the day-to-day struggle of the community, has been actively embraced by the association and the discipline. Granted, the field has a long history of white men thinking through poetry, theology, preaching, and liturgy as a means of relativizing and contextualizing God (see http://theopoetics.net/what-is-theopoetics/definitions). That is not say this trajectory of Theopoetics is necessarily gone or not useful, but the field itself, at least as it is coming to be explored by the Association for Theopoetic Research and Exploration, is far more diverse and inclusive than ever before.

In the same way that Theopoetics, as a means for defining the “creative language of a community and its members to express what is above and what is beyond,” has created a space for my community to flourish in theological discourse, the contours of that space are not yet defined. Theopoetic researchers are gesturing towards its application in new arenas such as hip-hop as named by James Hill (2016) and Jon Gill; sites of public tragedy by Ashley Theuring (2015); implications of poetics and the flesh (Rivera 2015); and trauma and theology (Rambo 2010; Walsh). Theopoetics also performs differently than other disciplines. In Latin@ theology, we have a term teologia en conjunto. So many times, this is practiced as Latin@ theologians gathering together to do theology or talking about our home communities who gather together to do theology. Theopoetics is about recognizing that theology is done in community, but it looks, smells, feels, tastes, sounds different across all of our communities, and that it is through the cacophony of contexts that the divine emerges. It is listening to the dissonance and the silence, and waiting for the divine to emerge. Theopoetics is about the creative spirit that moves in our communities, and creating spaces for that spirit to emerge.

The answer for me to the question, why Theopoetics as opposed to theology and the arts, theological aesthetics, religion and the arts, poetry and liturgy, and the list goes on, is simple. Theopoetics cultivates the imagination and says yes and . . . yes and . . . yes and. . . . It is the field and method of theological discourse that neither limits God(s) or God’s beloved’s imagination. It is not fitting then that I should end with a period, but rather, prompt the reader’s imagination. Yes, Theopoetics is as I described above, and it is also . . .

Suggested Bibliography and Works Cited

Alves, Rubem. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. Norwich: SCM Press, 2002.

———. Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009.

———. Transparencies of Eternity. Translated by Jovelino Ramos and Joan Ramos. Miami: Convivium, 2010.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza / La Frontera. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2007.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1994.

Barnes, M. Craig. The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Caputo, John, and Catherine Keller. “Theopoetic/Theopolitic.“ CrossCurrents 56 (2007) 105–11.

Chopp, Rebecca. “Theology and the Poetics of Testimony.“ In Converging on Culture: Theologians in Dialogue with Cultural Analysis and Criticism, edited by Delwin Brown et al., 56–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Faber, Roland, and Jeremy Fackenthal. Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. Translated by Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Hill, James. “The Tunes Written in Our Flesh: Theopoetics from an Ontologically Hip-Hop Perspective.” In review, forthcoming.

Isasi-Díaz, Ada María, and Eduardo Mendieta. Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

Keefe-Perry, Callid. “Flesh to Mind: Whetstone of Thought.” CrossCurrents 64 (2014) 489–95.

———. “Theopoetics: Process and Perspective.” Christianity and Literature 58 (2009) 579–601.

———. Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014.

May, Melanie. A Body Knows: A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Moraga, Cherríe L. Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Pasó Sus Labios. Cambridge: South End, 2000.

Rendón, Laura. Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice, and Liberation. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Reyes, Patrick B. “Alisal: Theopoetics and Emancipatory Politics.” Theopoetics 2 (forthcoming).

Rivera, Mayra. Poetics of the Flesh. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Roberto, Goizueta. “U.S. Hispanic Popular Catholicism as Theopoetics.” In Hispanic/Latino Theology: Challenge and Promise, edited by Ada-María Isasi-Díaz, 261–88. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Theuring, Ashley. “Holding Hope and Doubt: Interreligious Theopoetic Response to Public Tragedies.” CrossCurrents 64 (2014) 549–65.

Walton, Heather. “Poetics.” In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, edited by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. Malden: Blackwell, 2012.

Wilder, Amos Niven. Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.

  • Claudio Carvalhaes

    Claudio Carvalhaes

    Reply

    …Non

    Querido Patrick, or better, Dr. Reyes!!!

    I wish I could write this text to you as a letter. A letter sent to you in the old-fashioned way, by mail, and let it travel, holding with it the changes and intensifications and forgetfulness that every letter carries.

    You have written a beautiful and very compelling piece, one that gives us so much to think about. Thank you! I will mention three things very briefly. First, the way you see theopoetics as this opened-ended “event,” almost like Heidegger’s “opening,” giving/making/allowing/offering space for that which comes, came, and is always coming. You affirm theopoetics as this ongoing “yes” that begs for another yes. There is always something else that might come after your last word. Yes! However, for the sake of our conversation, your yes is also a point of contention for me, especially because of where we come from.

    With homes in places of utter hardship and injustice, can we only say yes to things? How can we say only “sic et,” “yes and,” while we are being swallowed up by this system? It sounds too naïve, my brother, as if you are living in a world that is too kind, too nice, almost too good to be true. This method might work for some things, but not necessarily for theology, or even for theo-poetics. Why?

    We must say “no” in order to live! No to a certain kind of God, the God of the rich; no to a certain kind of community, the community that does not live in solidarity; no to certain cultural forms of oppression and to the ways in which our class society is organized. I don’t need to keep telling you this, since you know it all too well. The cuts of your hands, the scars on your skin, the sweat of your tíos and tías, all of these memories of the brutality of the God of this world. I wonder where your anger is, anger that allows us to say both yes AND no! We must say, “NO!” to that oppression made ineffable and that continues to rob our people of a life lived under good conditions.

    Here I remember Barth’s “Nein!” to Emil Brunner, and their plight concerning nature and grace. Somewhere Barth said, “Someone who forcefully says ‘yes’ also needs to say ‘no’ with the same vigor. I took delight in the matter that I represented.” Oh delight! Delight in the no! We can go on now about this matter and you can remind me of Tillich’s rebuke of Barth’s “Nein!”, saying that Barth’s “Nein!” was dialectical. Barth himself said that his yes/no was not dialectical, but was instead dialogical. Let me tell you that I am a Tillichian theologian way more prone to dialects instead of dialogical structures. So help me here: how do we deal, theologically and theopoetically, with yes and the necessity of no in a world of competition, where the affirmation of saying yes is often the privilege of the rich, and the no is equivalent to the constant negation of the poor’s humanity?

    To be clear: can theopoetics be dialectical with sounding nos? Trying to make a case for the need of no, I can cite the declarations of Barmen and Accra as ways of saying “No!” to current social situations yet still being dialectical! Jesus was quite clear with his nos as well, wasn’t he? Or do you think he was all yes? And I think our precious liberation theology from Latin America is quite dialectical while saying that God has a preference for the poor, which is a clear yes to the poor that hinges, even if not stating it clearly, upon a NO to the rich!

    So perhaps my concern might be with the God that comes out of this “yes and” when doing theopoetics. If theopoetics starts from the bodies of our people, as you write so beautifully, what kind of God does it imagine? A Yes God all the time like Caputos’s God? Perhaps? I tend to agree with that, but then, wasn’t colonialism also a yes God shoved into people’s throats? What do we do when capitalism is the God of our world, as Walter Benjamin reminded us? This God is so alive, killing the very bodies of our people! Can we say only sic et… to this God which has inadvertently become the subject of most of the cozy ramblings of theologians who have no commitment whatsoever with the poor, but only to the propagation of dogmatic voices through a play of mirrors? To this God I’d say, “No! No! Hell No!” No attempts at dialectics here! No attempt to understand this God and his theologians! No yes to them! Until they convert. But perhaps I might be way too much of a historic materialist and not ineffable enough here…

    I’ll be pointed in my wondering: is imagination a sacred thing always saying yes to everything, as if it is beyond the concept of any no? Is theopoetics beyond the realm of ethics? Is the language of the ineffable always a yes? What will happen to your/our people if the Salinas River, with its underground water, is taken by agribusiness and stops running through the valley where your/our people live? Will we say sic et…?

    If theopoetics is indeed about bodies, my precious brother, and I truly believe it is, the wounded, oppressed, exploited bodies of our people, the poor people, then we might need more nos! Nos that will actually protect, save, rearrange powers, restore what was lost and actually hold on to the beauty of the bodies of our people. Rubem Alves’ work is a witness to that.

    I had a second and a third point to make, but I don’t have any more space left. I will send you a letter. Please know that to you I will always say sí sí sí!!

    With much love and immense admiration!

    Un abrazo,
    Cláudio

     

    • Ashley Theuring

      Ashley Theuring

      Reply

      The theopoetic norm?

      Patrick, this was a beautiful piece. Also, Claudio, thank you for your thoughtful response and engagement with the piece. You both have started the week off with a great dialogue. This piece and its response embodies the heart of the theopoetic conversation and what is at stake.

      I am very interested to see what Patrick’s response will be to the critique that this call to “yes and…” is “too naïve […] as if [Patrick is] living in a world that is too kind, too nice, almost too good to be true.” In reading both pieces, their tension makes me wonder if this is a conversation about two different types of “yes’s” and “no’s.” Clearly, Patrick is far from naïve. Having shared some of his life experience in this piece, the reader is given a glimpse into Patrick’s worldview and I did not come away thinking Patrick saw the world through rose-colored glasses. So what does Patrick mean be “yes and…?”

      I see the question as one of ethical norms and more importantly if theopoetics has any? For Patrick, a scholar who has engaged postmodern thought on a deep level, does this “yes and…” represent his own cutting ethical norm? Is it less a vulnerable, open acceptance of all and every poetic/literary expression, and actually rooted in an ethics of multiplicity. Using “yes and…” as both a positive and negative norm it can act as source of inspiration and a critical lens. If something is harming, oppressing, and isolating peoples and bodies, it is not a “yes and…” and their for can be critiqued or even be rejected by a theopoetic of “yes and…”

      Patrick, I wonder along side Claudio’s response, where is theopoetics ethical critique in the “yes and…?” But I also wonder, Claudio, can “yes and…” provide that critique? Or must it come in the form of a strict “no,” which draws lines between what is accepted into theopoetics and what is not?

      Thank you again and great pieces, both of you!

    • L. Callid Keefe-Perry

      L. Callid Keefe-Perry

      Reply

      Two Thoughts

      Great stuff. I’ll jump right in. The first bit is convoluted. The second not.


       

      First, as I read Cláudio’s response I couldn’t help but think about how strange it was that his critique seemed so on point and how confused that left me given that I know Patrick’s work often says the very things he was (rightly) being critiqued on. I think that in some way, Ashley’s comment is right on point:

      In reading both pieces, their tension makes me wonder if this is a conversation about two different types of “yes’s” and “no’s.”

      If I’ll be forgiven the detour, this makes me think of a great love of mine where “Yes, and…” is repeated frequently: improv theater.  Actually, perhaps this is especially apt given that I know both Claudio and Patrick practice and teach some theater as well….

      In improv a beginning student is often taught to “Yes, and…” her partner. A quick little googling brought up this piece by Scott McDowell which is quite indicative of early improv lessons:

      No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it, belittling it, or disagreeing with it, your job is to say, “Yes, and…” Accept the scenario as it’s presented to you (regardless of where you wanted it to go), and then to add to it. Volley back with something your fellow players can respond to. Most of us say “No” a lot. We have to. Our energy is limited. In order to get things done, we have to be choosy about how best to utilize our time. But, after the class, I became curious about what would happen if I applied “Yes, and…” to everything. How would it change my work? How would it change my relationships?

      McDowell is right on. This is exactly the kind of thing that is taught when you’re starting. But along the course of improvising for more than a decade I’ve learned  that “Yes and…”-ing can sometimes mean saying “NO!”

      That is, you eventually learn that you don’t always need to actually say “yes” aloud and verbally agree to everything your scene partner says. Sometimes the “yes” of the scene demands a “no” if you’re to play true to life and run with the fact that comedy demands truth. So if my scene partner says “You don’t mind if I steal your car, right?” I can certainly say, “yes,” and I’ll get a fast laugh but then possibly be a bit at a loss. There’s a lot of comedy that is like this, fast, punchy, and absurd. But there’s also another way.

      I can say “Hell no!,” trusting that my partner can accept that what I’m “saying yes” to is staying true to life. I’m not saying “What!?! What’s a car!?!” That would be negating the scenario as presented to me. Instead, I accept the scenario wholly (someone wants to steal my car) and respond from the truth.

      I think Patrick sees things this way.

      Yes, racism is rampant!
      Yes, sexism runs roughshod over women!
      Yes, heteronormativity drives too many of us Queer folk into depression and death!
      Yes, yes, yes!
      Yes, I see you and you cannot hide!

      Not a yes of affirmation and endorsement, but a yes of recognition. Of seeing and naming and not allowing things to hide. A negation of those powers and wickednesses in high places not by his word “no” but by performing the kind of life that makes those things lessen their grip on their world.


      Second, in terms of the ethic of theopoetics that seems to be the underlying thing here, I thought I’d just toss out some things:

      1. I’ve done some very rough thinking about that issue in a piece, “A Heraldic Ethic: Critical Resistance, Theopoetic Embodiment, and Dialogical Impulses.”
      2. I’d also point to Goizuata’s “US Hispanic Popular Catholocism as Theopoetics,” where he’s very clear about the ethical mandate of bodies and aesthetics.
      3. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out to the soon-to-be published issue of THEOPOETICS that will contain work by Jordan Miller and Jake Erickson, both of whom grapple with this topic. The former in terms of post-secular political activism and the latter in regards to eco-theological concerns.
Ashley Theuring

Response

Imagination as a Theological Resource

A Theopoetics-Informed Trauma Theology

IMAGINATION AND OUR ABILITY to imagine novelty is a key part of responding to the theological questions trauma theology poses. All human hope is rooted in imagination, specifically imagining that the future can be different. In my work with domestic violence survivors, hope plays an important role in the survivors’ healing work. In conducting a pilot study with several female domestic violence survivors after their stay in the House of Peace domestic violence shelter, I found that the theme of hope came up throughout the interviews.

The House of Peace is a unique domestic violence shelter in a number of ways. First, the surrounding community and therefore the shelter clients are predominantly Hispanic immigrants. The shared culture of the survivors plays a role to create a unique shelter atmosphere. Second, the shelter functions as an intentional living community, with the clients sharing a communal meal, chores, child rearing duties, and other parts of daily life. Another unique part of this shelter is the extended timeframe the women live at the House of Peace, with most staying between six and nine months. The median maximum length of stay for most shelters is two months.1 Finally, the House of Peace is unique in the range of care and services provided to these survivors, with body work classes for adults and children, weekly support group meetings, career building opportunities, and nutrition and parenting classes. During my time and observations with the House of Peace, I came to see that not only was the House of Peace providing the space, time, and resources to allow these women to heal from their trauma, but it was also creating community in ways that were connected to the women’s healing.

As explained above, hope, rooted in the ability to imagine a different future, is an important part of healing for survivors of trauma. For domestic violence survivors to move forward, they need to believe and act as though it is possible to live in a world where they are not abused. Hope in a future where they can flourish and be in relationships free from abuse is a central part to the healing process for survivors of abuse. When asked about their sources of hope, several of the former clients of the House of Peace mentioned the effect the children in the house had on the women’s healing process. Many of the women mentioned their own children, as well as the children of other women at the house, as sources of unconditional love, inspiring affection and transformation for the women.

When speaking with the director of the house about what gave her hope, she said that “[the children] inspire their moms. They give them a reason to look at themselves differently. So the children give me a lot of hope”2 One survivor described her children as a source of hope in her life. Clarifying her statement, she said, “My kids have been keeping me together, because they are constantly giving me new challenges. They keep me alert, you know? They are giving me a challenge and I can focus on them. That keeps me going and gives me a sense of purpose.”3 This sense of purpose and vision into the future is an important part of how the children inspire hope in their mothers and the other women in the house. The children help the women to trust and love again, allowing them to practice healthy relationships and imagine a future in which these relationships can continue.

What the interviews from the House of Peace uncover about children as a significant source of hope and flourishing for domestic violence survivors is important to consider. Through a theopoetic lens they take on another layer of meaning. The survivor’s ability to imagine a different future, through their relationship to a child, opened up their capacity to hope. Because the children at the House of Peace embodied such great examples of resiliency after trauma, they became an important part of their entire family’s healing process. This is not to say that the burden of recovery should be placed on those with the least amount of agency in the situation, but theologians can look to the imaginative and hopeful practices that children take on for resources of healing for all survivors of trauma. Adult-child relationships are sites of flourishing for domestic violence survivors and have the possibility to lead to theological insight.

Theopoetics Shaping Theological Methodologies

I would not argue that theopoetics is unique in providing theologians with a methodology to reach poetic resources, but rather that the conversation and energy that has gathered around theopoetics as a theological method is. More than “mere aestheticism,” theopoetics and theopoets strive towards profound action that is founded in a vision formed by rigorous thought.4 Also more than simply connecting the fields of theology and art, theopoetics turns to artistic expression as an equal partner in constructing and practicing theology.

Theopoetics, defined by David Miller, are “strategies of human signification in the absence of fixed and ultimate meaning accessible to knowledge or faith.”5 These strategies of poetics, imagination, and embodiment, help theologians and practitioners to explore their faith amidst life’s contradictions and mysteries. Another theopoet, Rubem Alves, argues in his work The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet that theology poses as a science with fixed answers, whereas theopoetics leaves questions open ended to continually grow in our knowledge and expression of the Divine. In poetic verse he writes:

Theology wants to be a science, a discourse without interstices . . .

It wants to have its birds in cages . . .

Theopoetics instead,

empty cages,

words which are uttered out of and before the void [. . .]6

These words and the conversation around theopoetics are reminiscent of mystical teachings throughout history in many different religious traditions. Theopoetics is not a novel conversation without theological roots, but it does help to bring many of these shared conversations about the nature of knowledge and knowing together in significant ways.

The theopoetic method questions modern theology’s privileging of rational epistemologies in similar ways as other methodologies shaped by critical theory (i.e. feminist, queer, or womanist theologies). But the theopoetic central focus on non-rational ways of knowing, such as poetics, embodiment, and imagination, does provide a unique lens for theologians. Rebecca Chopp argues that while poetics won’t “replace other modes of discourses in community,” they will “fund their richness and fullness in a communion of words which is multivocal and multiform, dense and rich, imagistic and creative.” In this way poetics “reforms all our other modes of discourse.”7

Theopoetics both shapes methodologies and influences theological construction. My research, focused on theological and spiritual questions arising from the experiences of domestic violence survivors, is most directly formed by feminist and trauma theologies. Both of these methodologies act as negative ethical norms for my theological research. If a theology does not contribute to the flourishing of women or make sense in light of the experience of trauma, it must be revisited. Theopoetics on the other hand acts as a positive norm for my research, providing a multiplicity of traditions, texts, and practices from which to draw while constructing theology. Theopoetics turns both feminist and trauma theologies into positive norms as well, asking theologians to pay attention when flourishing is experienced by women or survivors of trauma, pointing to these moments as sites of truth. These methods work together to give a theological investigation both an ethical norm and poetic resources with which to deconstruct and reconstruct theological responses.

A Theopoetic-Informed Trauma Theology8

Trauma theology is significant to research on domestic violence. An abuser uses various tactics which isolate, confuse, and scare survivors, in order to keep them trapped within an unhealthy relationship. A survivor’s world becomes unsafe and untrustworthy, taking away their agency. Living in a constant state of fear and panic inflicts marks on the body and mind of survivors, leaving them traumatized. Shelly Rambo defines trauma as an encounter with death that is not integrated in time.9 Survivors are left in limbo, unable to move forward in time and forever stuck within their experience of abuse.

Theopoetics provides resources for theologians engaging trauma, by opening up the conversation to include non-rational epistemologies. Trauma defies rationality, by removing survivors from their daily lives and making it impossible to narrate traumatic memories in the same linear way one would talk about other parts of life. “Traumatic memories are the unassimilated scrap of overwhelming experiences, which need to be integrated with existing mental schemes, and be transformed into narrative language.”10 Theopoetics is equipped to assist with this integration process, because of its ability to make meaning in the absence of rationality.

For example, trauma theologian Serene Jones turns to the imagination as a way of making meaning after large scale traumas. Part of her book, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, focuses on the toxic narratives told by the United States after 9/11 in order to make sense of the traumatic experience. Using the biblical example of Emmaus, Jones brings a different type of narrative reordering into the conversation. Jones argues that the disciples had to reorder their imaginations in order to reframe the cross and Jesus, giving it new significance. Unlike the narratives of patriotism, family values, and distracting comedy told in the wake of 9/11, Emmaus gives an example of a reordering that breaks the cycle of violence and trauma. Jones argues that the reality of grace that breaks in allows the disciples to imagine their story centered on the communion table instead of vengeance.11

Theopoetics helps theologians to reimagine practices after trauma, loosening the narrative structures of memory and spiritual practices in order to help survivors make meaning and begin to heal. Neuroscientists Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart have noted the importance of flexibility in memory and narratives. They write, “Memory is everything. Once flexibility is introduced, the traumatic memory starts losing its power over current experience. By imagining these alternative scenarios, many patients are able to soften the intrusive power or the original, unmitigated horror.”12 The poetic playing of memory and narrative allows survivors to integrate their past, while also looking towards the future and the possibilities that are uncovered through play. This renewed imagined future becomes the basis of hope and the foundation of healing.

The Power and Future of Theopoetics

Theopoetics provides theological resources and a particular lens towards the non-rational that is important for theologians working to engage our postmodern epistemologies. Novel thought, including theological insight, depends upon imagination, which the poetic helps to facilitate, as well as give it language to express itself. Theopoetics and scholars who converse in the field of theopoetics access an ancient and powerful side of theology through poetics, imagination, and embodiment, digging below the “exclusive, literal, and patriarchal”13 language that can trap our theological language and ideas.

As theopoetics and the conversation surrounding this method and its resources continue to grow and develop, it will be necessary to negotiate the importance of ethical norms for theological research. Unlike feminism or other liberation theologies, theopoetics does not have a clear ethical directive, which could result in naïve claims to relativism or universalism. Authors such as Richard Kearney have argued that imagination, as the basis for empathy, is the root of ethics,14 but this idea needs to be ruminated on and is not the same as a fully formed ethical imperative. Perhaps, it could be argued that theopoetics’ central claim that theological language is plural and must resist ossification and domination can act as an ethical norm. But that is left for another article, chapter, or book, and at this time, I prefer to couple theopoetics with other methodologies that have clearer ethical concerns, such as feminist and trauma theology.


  1. Eleanor Lyon, Shannon Lane, and Anne Menard, “Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences,” report prepared for the National
Institute
of
Justice, October 2008.

  2. Ana, structured, face-to-face interview by Ashley Theuring, House of Peace, spring 2014.

  3. Lucia, structured, face-to-face interview by Ashley Theuring, House of Peace, spring 2014.

  4. Amos Wilder, Theopoetic: Theology and Religious Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).

  5. David Miller, “Theopoetry or Theopoetics,” Cross Currents 60 (2010) 6–23.

  6. Rubem Alves, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (London: SCM), 99.

  7. Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 85.

  8. Because of the length of this piece, I will only engage how theopoetics can inform trauma theology and leave the feminist theological engagement for another time.

  9. Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

  10. Van der Kolk and van der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 176.

  11. Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 33–42.

  12. Van der Kolk and van der Hart, “Intrusive Past,” 178.

  13. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 33.

  14. Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

  • Mark Burrows

    Reply

    Assessing Imagination’s Role

    To point to the power of imagination as a tool for healing, as Ashley Theuring does in this essay, is a bold claim. And to bring such an approach into conversation with trauma theory is surely an important and demanding project. So much of our life “happens,” as it were, in the deep places of memory where ultimately, our fears and hurts, our joys and celebrations, dwell.

    How does imagination help us to constitute our world anew? How do we negotiate the scars (and scares) in this pool of remembering? Can we change our memories by reimagining what our experience has etched into our deep mind, the place where our “fight or flight” instinct resides? What kind of imagining helps us in such an inner movement, and what does theopoetics have to do with this?

    Such are the questions stirred up by reading this thoughtful essay. Yes, one needs “time, space, and resources” to move toward healing from traumatic experiences, and there is nothing automatic in this difficult journey—from the dark places of pain and terror toward what might often seem an absent light. Children can be a source of encouragement, as the author notes from her work in a shelter for women and children who have suffered from domestic violence. Children can be sources of “unconditional love,” and “inspire[e] affection and transformation” for the women in such circumstances, and it might be that children can be a solace for the women who have survived such violence by helping them “to believe and act as though it is possible to live in a world where they are not abused.” Of course, such children are often carrying deep wounds of their own, and they are not always capable of being “great examples of resiliency”—and, as Theuring notes, the “burden of recovery should [not] be placed on those with the least amount of agency in the situation.”

    What, then, is the role of imagination, of poetic imagination, and above all, an imagination that is, properly speaking, theopoetic? Here it is important to move from assumptions about a “rational” approach to healing. Put another way, trauma makes it very clear that rationality is of little use in living with memories that “scare” and “scar” us, since these rumble about in a deep part of the brain where the work of cogitation (rationality) has little influence and almost no capacity to engage. Yes, this has to do with “embodiment,” and Theuring is right in focusing on what it is that “contribute[s] to flourishing” of survivors caught in the grip of trauma from domestic violence. And, of course, this is a hugely complex question exceeding the limits of a short essay like this. The substance of the piece, then, focuses on sketching the outline of what she calls “a theopoetic-informed trauma theology.”

    Here, she points to Shelly Rambo’s work in Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, describing trauma as “an encounter with death that is not integrate in time.” The question is, how does such an integration happen? Is it possible, given the need for deep healing of this nature, to re-make such memories, or at least find an inner path to move toward what she calls – borrowing from van der Kolk and van der Hart – an “integration process” capable of assisting in the healing in ways that go deeper than “rational” therapeutic approaches are capable of doing?

    Herein lies the heart of this article, and moves us far from the starting point: what is needed, Theuring suggests – in conversation with Serene Jones – is the capacity to “reorder” the imagination, and get at a “different type of narrative re-ordering” that more rational approaches cannot offer. “Theopoetics,” she argues, is in a position to “hel[p] theologians to reimagine practices after trauma, loosening the narrative structures of memory and [pointing to] spiritual practices [that might] help survivors make meaning and begin to heal.” And here we find ourselves at the heart of the matter—and it is, as Theuring senses, a matter of the heart: how is it that such survivors negotiate, within themselves, this work of reshaping memory? Van der Kolk and van der Hart point to “flexibility” in this work of “imagining… alternative scenarios” that can soften the horror that traumatic experiences etch into deep memory. Here, Theuring suggests, the real healing depends upon “the poetic playing of memory and narrative” which can enable traumatized survivors to “integrate their past while also looking towards the future and the possibilities that are uncovered through play.”

    What remains to be seen is what distinctive theopoetic resources might be called upon in this work. Serene Jones turns to biblical narrative to help with this work. Are there other resources in traditions of worship and devotion, particularly in the case of women whose religious imagination might have been shaped by the varied faith practices of Roman Catholicism. Might this be so for women like those predominantly Latina women in the shelter referred to here? Are there imaginative (read: theopoetic) resources here, such as the sustained imaginative work that constitutes the Ignatian “spiritual exercises”? Theuring points in another direction when she suggests the importance of “novel thought, including theological insight,” that might bring a kind of imagination to bear on this re-integrating inner work. Whatever the strategy—and here the work of re-imagining requires accompaniment by someone (mentor, therapist, friend) who can bring the kind of patient presence and disciplined direction needed for such a journey.

    Is it possible to find “light” in the midst of such darkness? This is where an approach that is truly theopoetic is urgently needed, since the work of finding resources of hope that are “rooted in imagination, specifically, imagining that the future can be different” than the past, depends upon traditions that have transformative power within them. The suggestion is an important one: the present, as Augustine already suggested, swings between the past in which the present “is no more” and the future in which an imagined present which “is not yet.” But for those living with trauma the past continues to be disruptively present, and the terror and horror it continues to carry may well seem “more” alive than the actual present. How do we find resources for this transformative journey amid traumatic memories that are “the unassimilated scrap of overwhelming experiences?” Theuring points at the close to methodologies (feminist and trauma theology) rooted in ethical concerns. If so, they will need to draw on resources that focus on how the memories of persons living with trauma might be guided to move in two directions, helping such survivors learn to trust imagining a new future while also helping them re-make the past, their past, as “different” than they might have remembered it. Here, the scraps might be woven into a larger “whole,” rooted in communities of play, in traditions of prayer, in narratives of hope. In such ways, perhaps, such persons might find glimpses of light in the midst of the darkness that seems (and often is) overwhelming. And such a re/membering reminds us that such “novelty” might have ancient and shared roots in narratives, liturgies, and practices that carry a longer and deeper memory than a rational strategy, theological or other, might convey.

L. Callid Keefe-Perry & Dave Harrity

Response

A Series of Nows

A Dialogue between L. Callid Keefe-Perry and Dave Harrity

Callid: Well, I suppose the thing to start with is that I kind of wish that instead of this being a dialogue it was in the form of a one-act play or something that you and I were characters in. Something where time passing mattered and bodies were on display as well as thoughts.

Actually, that might not be particularly fitting now that I think of it.

Folks who read a theology-focused periodical might not be interested in talking about my in-law’s empty new house and the winter bite of Northern California fog. Too twee or precious or something.

Dave: I don’t know, I think dialogue can be what you want it to be, Callid; a performance where the speakers are characters and those characters have lives and motivations and meanings, especially to people left out of the dialogue. I know what you mean, though, that you want it shown and not told. Seems to me that perhaps this kind of awareness is exactly the kind of engagement that should fixate a theologian and an artist both: the essential and consequential performance of a series of nows. And “wheres” too.

You noted that (y)our specific context in this moment is connected to what we’re doing in this moment. It’s not precious, I don’t think, for just this reason. What’s the scene look like where you are?

Outside, the soft light of my kitchen illuminates the grass while the rest of the house sleeps. The house is silent, and the storm outside the kitchen window is nearly so—pecking, icy rain, the yard silvered with small beads of water. All week the weather has been like this, bobbing its erratic little dance: sleeting and dower, then bright and cold.

To talk about hearth and home and wind and weather can be precious, but it can also be valuable, with the right measure. I think that’s because writing about such small things helps us render our reality, not simply objectify it for our use in other places.

The weather is expendable in many ways, but that isn’t a liability, it’s a release, as long as we don’t exploit it simply to claim a moment but to manifest, train ourselves, rehearse the importance of sight.

Callid: Since you asked, this morning I’m writing away from home. Resting in the corner of an old couch, I had to first heavily medicate myself with Zyrtec because there’s still cat-ness all over this place even though she died two months ago.

I’m sitting here having just written a piece talking about how a unifying commitment in Latin American Liberation Theology is the idea that the Church must materially manifest as signs of the presence of Christ as liberator. In turn, I’m thinking about how that resonates with Rubem Alves’ work.

I’ve been thinking about how it isn’t usually acknowledged that he was one of the first liberation theologians, writing about it before even Guttierez. There’s a heavy dose of his version of “Christ as liberator” in my own fascination with theopoetics: the theological content of an argument isn’t just in the meaning of a text, but the feel of a text, the life of the author of it, the ways in which it comes into life in the world. How it is displayed, not just as possible prototype and theory—though that is important—but also “in the field” as it were.

Dave: Alves has been important to me as well. Over and over in his work, we see an attention to minutiae, to the momentary ecstasy of being, a prodigal abandon traversing the edge of the sentimental. It’s partially a South American poetic sensibility, but also a spiritual posture. It’s his inner tension I’m fascinated with, the times when he wants an orthodoxy, but not at the expense of his humanity. I think this is his rare kind of theopoetics.

His obsession with our capacity for seeing joins with a word you used before: “display.” I think it points to some questions I have. It’s gazes like Alves’s that I’m interested in, ones that shape both our reality and our experience of that reality but not at the commodification of it. I wonder how you would take to the idea that art-making and theologizing—these acts of rendering the unseen—are unavoidable acts of objectification. And, if so, what does that say about the nature of rendering in its entirety?

Is something like this—that is, a discussion—an exhausted form to display to the public? A journal, magazine, or publication a self-contained gesture away from the truth by its very nature of existing in this way? Are we contributing to that malaise? If so, what are the other ways to contribute without causing more illness, ways which allow us to reach others who feel the same but resist objectification for authenticity?

Callid: So you’re saying that it isn’t enough just for “theologians to be more into the Arts” and vice versa. That that kind of awareness is beneficial on its own terms, both for theologians and artists, but that for you and I awareness by itself is insufficient. That works for me.

Recently I was at a lecture by Dr. Courtney Goto in which she talked about how academics often perform a kind of ventriloquism with the “subjects” of their research, taking their narratives and experiences as subjects and making them into the objects of a study. I think she’s spot on, but it isn’t just academics that do this: it is anyone who has the ability to produce things that interpret other people’s experiences. And problems emerge when people with power and privilege attempt to use other people’s narratives to their own ends.

As white guys, you and I are aware that—whether we want it or not—we have access to power and privilege as mediated by a racist society. With that advantage we can choose to use our position in society to advance the causes and values of equity and justice or not.

As much as I dislike bifurcating dualisms, I tend to think that Paulo Freire was right that education is either an education into the status quo or into the desire to subvert it. It isn’t just enough to notice ventriloquism: I think we need to stop doing it and pretending we’re not. Teachers need to be dismantling this objectification and theopoetics can help.

I think that it helps to resist some of the nastier bits of the status quo when we give greater theological validity to the role of bodies in theological reflection and to a broader variety of genres, authorial voices, and sources of authority. These are often areas policed by dominant authority in a way was maintains the marginalization of voices . . .

Dave: Yes! That’s the overlap! And that’s what a teacher does, on his or her best day. It’s certainly what I hope I do.

I struggle to come up with any way other than theopoetics. It offers a way for me (us) to coherently exist in the world, and we do this by reordering our objectification and oppression into some higher form, or Form. Creativity (theopoesis) in my mind, is one of the only things that’s postured and equipped to help remedy these grievances through our collective awareness.

There are lines from a T. Crunk poem:

[EXT]What we mistook for flight

was only the long struggle

to surface.[/EXT]

I love those.

Art making means fidelity to the self as it exists in the world. Theology means discerning the existence of the self as it relates to the being that made the world, however fantastic or fluctuating that might be, or however our experience of being alters our relation to the self and what makes us. As I see it, God is the highest Form of existence in the universe.

Callid: Wait, do you think God is separate from the universe? I . . .

Dave: [Interrupts laughing] Binaries don’t quite concern me so much as they do you. When I care about binaries I care about them as they are abused to create inequality, both tangible and intangible. I think there is a way to live with parsing peacefully, but it’s tough. I suppose I’m kinda Platonistic in this manner—Forms exist to me, and sort of need to if I’m going to be a poet; Forms force aspiration rather than nebulous meanderings where finding the orientation of myself is necessary. I do, however, think that there is a contemporary orientation towards Form while still a higher orientation is at work, like what Caroline Levine examines in her book Forms—like social arrangements built aside and upon previous renderings.

If art and theology become stale, placed into museums of strict observance, stiffly anthropological, self-aggrandizing, or flounced with self-indulgence or insincerity, then I think we’ve lost our way. For me, art is real. And its power is real as well.

Callid: [Laughing] You sound so serious!

Dave: [Joins in laughing] It’s funny because much of the work I make is not often overly “serious” in tone. And it certainly isn’t stopping any bullets or tanks.

Callid: And I’m joking, but it is interesting to me . . . I mean, I am generally on board with the thrust of what you just said—other than maybe a wee bit of fuzziness with the overlap between Platonic Forms and aesthetic form—and yet . . . there was a moment just then when I was kind of outside myself, listening to this conversation and I thought “Wow. These guys are riled up about nothing!” I was reflecting on myself too, you know? And I think that it is important to have that voice there—that my words can seem ridiculous and trite and nevertheless still be powerful. Humor via self-reflection is huge for me.

You know, in a recent interview bell hooks said that we cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor, and while I’m not sure that stands up historically, I still agree. And I think this is all still part of the form of conversation as it pertains to an emphasis on reading things in the context in which they’re intended. Romeo and Juliet is horrid as a comedy. And JDilla’s Donuts isn’t great as European classical music. But they are masterpieces on their own terms.

We have to remember context and recall that we’re shaping our words and thoughts for something. For a certain audience in a register directed to them. We craft and receive words in a place and time. From certain bodies and for certain bodies. It is when we think that what we are saying is supposed to be good across the board for all contexts and audiences that things start to feel wonky to me.

So yes, I guess in my own way form is important.

Dave: This is interesting because what “non-artists” often neglect to understand is that form isn’t restricting, it’s necessary to development. We don’t criticize gravity when we watch a ballet or street dancer; it’s pushing the boundaries of gravity that makes dance actual. Gravity makes amazement. I’m thinking of literary and literal subversions as well, like Roque Dalton’s attention to humor in the midst of his revolutionary sensibilities—a working against the monoliths of expectation.

This is why theopoetics is essential for me as a poet: it reintroduces the frame of Form into my theology. I think artists have less trouble with this idea than theologians and philosophers. Take the sonnet for an example.

When does a sonnet cease to be a sonnet? When the volta is removed? When there are less than fourteen lines? When iambic pentameter or rhyme are absent? All these things are “essential” to sonnet nature, but no artist would resist sacrificing one on the altar of continuity with historical rules that govern form or prosody because of the contemporary context. The artist bends the form—stretches, qualifies, manipulates, and shuffles form. The poem is still a sonnet, but a sonnet that matches the poet’s voice.

Artists can work classically, we just often choose not to; we can work to rid ourselves of traditional orientation, but never orientation itself, see the nature of Abstract art. The act of creating is itself orientation, both in the aesthetics of creativity and theology.

I wonder, how would you respond to this?

Callid: Well, I do notice in myself and among colleagues interested in theopoetics a shift that seems relevant to your question.

Increasingly, our understanding is that it isn’t our task to “give voice to the voiceless” but to help change whatever it is about the system that is suppressing voices in the first place.

Theopoetics isn’t an attempt to deny the logical flow of theological argumentation—which is an orientation of sorts in your terms—but to acknowledge that there are other things that influence understanding beyond the scope of rationality. Theopoetics is—as Catherine Keller writes—“supplemental” to theology in the way that Derrida means it. Similarly, Blake Huggins thinks about it the way Gilles Deleuze talks about “minor literatures” which help to shake things up and incite political exigency.

Dave: Interesting. I think you’re right about the overarching abilities of theology and creativity: not simply to reexamine but to empower.

I wonder if it is appropriate here to raise a question that could potentially frustrate the readers of a theology periodical, asking point-blank if people can truly be engaged in the rendering of God (however they may be engaged in that process) if they aren’t engaged in the pith of the matter of God’s self, which is (pro)creative? That is, perhaps the accumulation of ideas is a type of violation to the processes and manners in/by which we understand God?

In part, I wonder if this issue of Syndicate will be useful because readers don’t expect it. That’s what the best arts and theology do it seems to me: disrupt and redefine the normativity and staleness of the places we live and move and have our being, ultimately offering us a new vision of what we are, pulling us inward.

Callid: I’m rarely that forward myself, but I think with some qualifications, yes, I do think it is appropriate to ask that question. The matter of how to address what counts as “pith,” for example, would be a thorny thing to untangle, but I think something could be arranged. And—in my experience—theologians aren’t looking for a quick fix. I do, though, see what you’re saying about how some concepts of “theology” are about providing answers. That kind of work is something I resist. Many do. Theologians included.

I’m reminded of Freire’s line that the ontological vocation of humanity is what he calls, “o ser-mais,” which in English is something like “being-more-so.” I think this points to a realization that if we’re to develop a kind of deepening reflective inwardness with any authenticity—to become more—it must be done as yoked to the realization that we, our selves, are inextricably linked to the lives, labor, and love of others.

  • Brian Bantum

    Brian Bantum

    Reply

    Staying in the Room

    I read Callid and Dave’s dialogue three or four times and found myself smiling at the end each time. I had no idea how to respond, though. I would read through the exchange again, highlighting key ideas and scribble little notes in the margin. “Amen!” or “I’m not sure that distinction is…”

    But when I sat down to write my response I was stuck. How do I respond to a conversation? I was reading a dialogue, an exchange. This was not the artificial dialogue of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Anselm’s Why God Became Man. This was a genuine conversation that did not have an argument as much a centering relationship and questions about craft and calling. What Dave and Callid have provided is a testament that does not so much unfold. It spins.

    Reading their work has made me the happy observer of a deeply enriching conversation about why artists and theologians do the work they do, and what it means for us to imagine our work together. And like the person who can never quite get their thoughts together at the moment, I finally realized what I would have loved to say in the moment, while the conversation was happening. But this short afterthought will have to do.

    Dave and Callid’s conversation reminded me of a rather frustrating encounter I had recently with a book about writing.

    In The Writing Life Annie Dillard provides a profound introduction into the vocation – one might even say calling – of being a writer.

    “What is this writing life?” she asks. Her answer? “I was living alone in a house, and had set up a study on the first floor. A portable green Smith Corona typewriter sat on the table against the wall. I made the mistake, or dreamed I made the mistake of leaving the room.”1

    What kind of help was that? The room she was in, who she was with, what her typewriter looked like.

    I wanted distinct steps. She gave me a half-image of her study. I closed Dillard’s book and put it on the ottoman. I walked around the house and discovered a fresh zeal for a sink without dirty dishes. Then I decided to take a walk around the block. My feet moving, one in front of the other, seemed to kick up Dillard’s words from the dark pages still resting on my ottoman. Like dust they rose around me. “I made the mistake of leaving the room.”

    Of course, the form was the point. In the book she described several different rooms she had written in over the year. She wrote about chopping wood and watching airshows. She described sitting in a certain chair or boiling water. The writing life, being a writer, is about being in the room. And being in the room is to recognize yourself in that room, in that moment with all the fear and anxiety that seems to materialize when we try something as seemingly insignificant as putting words on a page with a vague belief that they can be more than lines and dots.

    Before reading Dillard’s book I audited a class on writing short fiction. After years of seeing snatches of paragraphs while I drove, I began to wonder if I had a story in me. So like a good student I thought I should take a class. I sat in this class of twenty undergraduates asking myself the whole time what in the world I was doing.

    The professor was providing the parameters of the assignment for the semester. The story needed to be a piece of literary fiction (not science fiction or young adult or fantasy), third person-limited in its point of view, and no longer than five thousand words.

    In my twenty years of writing theology I had never had to ask the question, “Who is speaking?” I have not been asked questions of genre, and had not reflected on the fact that this is different than method. When I wrote a theological essay I wrestled with histories or traditions or methodologies. But I did not have to ask who spoke and who remained silent. I did not have to wrestle with what the protagonist could not know and how that not knowing might uncover some truth about her or her world.

    These were questions of encounter. Who would encounter the reader, what world would the reader find themselves in? But even more, these questions of form were about limitations, accepting the dimensions of the room and the old couch in the corner. Form, genre, showing and not telling, setting, thick description, dialogue – these literary tools immerse the reader in a room, in a moment, in a body.

    Art makes sense of the world through a material process – some thing is the end result of the artistic act. Whether a story, a painting, a song, a rock sculpted to create a new form – there are not neat, easily delineated distinctions argued within discreet sections and paragraphs – a process of dissection and analysis. No, colors must be mixed and layered upon a canvas, the strings of the guitar must be struck and pressed, sometimes slapped to draw sounds – loud and quiet, smooth and sharp, from its body. The paradoxes and contrasts are bound up together through the manipulation and relationship to the materials in front of you, their limits and their possibilities, all intended to be received and interpreted by the totality of our senses.

    Dave and Callid’s conversation gave me a similar sense of creation, of some thing being made in a moment, in the history and relationship of these friends groping to articulate a way of confessing and making and being human in the world. Theopoetics was displayed to me.

    Trying to write fiction has unearthed in me a deep dissatisfaction with theology that is too quick to settle. I want a theology that gets kicked up when I walk, that makes my eyes itch and lets me taste its granules, that even when I am inside, I feel it rubbing underneath the tops of my socks. I do not want theology that is immovable or impenetrable. I want theology that is permeating and permeable. I want theology that is a dialogue that I am welcome to listen in on and join when I am ready. I want a theology that spins. But for this I cannot rely on only arguments and critiques. To join the conversation I need to listen, to hope, and create. I need to stay in the room.

     


    1. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990, p. 63.

Kate Common

Response

Death Design Theopoetics

Death

My dad and brother are dead. This phrase repeated in my mind. A feeling-less mantra repetitive and hollow. Rationally, logically I knew the truth of the words—James Christian Common and Richard Joseph Common were found dead in their beds September 15, 2005—but somehow I did not fully know. Full knowing stuck. An unprocessed trauma, a hard drive spinning caught in the edges.

My dad and brother are dead.

My dad and brother are dead.

My dad and brother are dead.

Of course.

A year of legal proceedings, toxicology reports, and insurance companies told me this.

They died on vacation. An annual fishing trip I took every year but that one because I moved to Boston. They caught fish like there was no tomorrow and shut the windows on the cold night. The angel of death crept in through the warm flame of a dirty burning Servel refrigerator, tucking them into their beds in a remote cabin in the Ontario woods. For three days they slept. On the third day they were found and did not rise again—but I would.

Design

I am an artist.

In high school my boyfriend (unconscious heterosexual decoy) was also an artist.

His paintings captivated me. They were opposite of mine. Thick, swollen strokes of acrylic black, red, blue and yellow. Giant-eyed self portraits, doors framing foreboding figures haunting. His paint bore the pain of the worst kind of childhood. Mine were tight pencil sketches. Immaculate replications of a hand or a face. Hours slaved over the intricate portraits of the friends I longed to be lovers. It was safe to gaze if I had a pencil in hand.

I was drawn to my boyfriend’s work but said I am a different kind of artist.

I cannot create from an emotional place.

So I went to art school and studied visual communication (graphic) design. Our side of the art building was filled with clean critique boards, crisp typography, dynamic layouts, design students with impeccable poise and style. The fine artists didn’t consider us real artists and we turned our nose to their dirty nails, oil-stained jeans, and mess. We were artists and we wouldn’t starve.

I became a polished designer with an impeccable portfolio and served eight years in the corporate world developing refined brands and sophisticated brochures. 

_____

 I sketch these two reflections—death and design—to illustrate a fundamental epistemological imbalance I embodied for much of my life. There was a fissure in my art building. On one side rational, logical designers skilled in typography and the principles of design and on the other, emotive, poetic fine artists skilled in bringing raw emotions to life. And the two did not connect. I was a designer, firmly nested in the rational, logical design side unidentified with the others.

Many factors in my development led to an identity formation that was disconnected from my body, emotions and intuitions. My experiences—as a white, cisgender woman, tomboy, closeted queer, Midwestern, athlete, with an ecumenical faith mix of Roman Catholicism paired with fundamentalist evangelicalism—contributed to a sense of knowing that if I wanted to survive I had to tough it out and be strong in the stereotypical masculine sense. There existed a generalized ethos that communicated do not question God or Authority. Children should be seen and not heard. Use your head. Do not cry. Do not show pain—tape your ankle and play the game anyway. And never under any circumstances reveal your true desires lest you literally be cast into hell. I taught myself a stiff upper lip to survive.

It took the inconceivable blunt force tackle of the traumatic CO2 poisoning deaths of my father and brother to jar loose my emotionally sealed identity.1 Through death I came to see that I did not fully live. Their deaths were a catalyzing gift for becoming that literally made it impossible to continue my life in its current pattern and heal from the traumatic injury of this loss. The two were mutually exclusive. I physically and emotionally could not heal without finding an integrative way to process the trauma left behind.

During the summer of 2007—almost two years after their deaths—the grief came. And by that I mean the intense raw emotions that for two years had spun themselves into an impossibly tight protective numbness began to unravel. For two years I went to work, went out with friends, led the church youth group and people marveled at how well I was doing. And I did too. But then one day in the middle of a talk I was giving at a church the room began to spin. Raw unprocessed emotions rose to the surface with such seismic force that the ensuing adrenaline ejected me into a room spinning panic. The Turkish rug and its concentric patterns spun into itself, turning, spiraling reality—and I thought I am losing it—and did not think reality would right itself again.

Through that experience I would learn first hand that one common symptom of a complicated traumatic grief can be intense anxiety and panic. That spiraling reality panic marked the first contraction of a grief so big that it took a plethora of midwives—my therapist, family, chaplain uncle, soul-sisters, pastor, grief books, grief support groups, meditation, and running—to help coax the log-jammed emotional trauma out of the limbic system and into integration and healing. However, even with the unwavering aid of this large support group I faced a fundamental problem. All my verbal, rational, logical skills that led me to talk therapy, support groups and books could not alone birth this emotional trauma from its limbic depths. I needed something more than the tools honed in my rationally dominated toolbox.

Through a process of serendipitous creativity,2 a new tool emerged. It began by paying attention to words. Particularly to a phrase that repeated, emotionless, over and over in my mind—my dad and brother are dead. One day I decided to write down part of it—my brother is dead—and carry it with me. Even though almost two years had passed it still felt unreal that my brother was dead. I thought writing it might get it out of my head and make it more real somehow. Sometime later, I paged through the New York Times and suddenly an image scratched out, hooked me by the temples and dragged me headlong into it. Time stopped. I found myself with a man from a different space and place, who was shrieking out over an open grave that held the partially wrapped body of his dead brother. A dead brother. This one killed by the shrapnel of a US bomb. But a dead brother. I heard this man’s desperate and contorted scream. And saw his face misshapen yielding to an inconsolable cry and in that moment realized it was my cry—the cry that had gotten caught on my stiff upper lip way of being.

This man modeled another way of grieving. One that my culture and the immediate people around me could not do. I could not scream over the open grave of brother or father. I did not know how. But miraculously through his pain and rage I found my own. This stranger on the other side of the world, I met only through a photograph, witnessed to me what lay caught deep inside. In an instant I found myself ripping his photo from the paper and pulling out the crisp white piece of paper with the sketched words—my brother is dead—and I pressed it over the screaming picture melding the two truths into one. And in this very act I saw before me a collage of blended realities that created a new knowing. My brother is dead and now I know what that feels like. And as garishly painful as it was it felt so damn good to be freed from the numb.

And then an insatiable desire to collage erupted. I sought out images, objects, words—anything that emoted any of the many words and phrases that began to gush out once the first phrase let go. From this assemblage I started making collages. This making required the permeation of boundaries and entrance into the venn overlap of things traditionally bifurcated—image/text, feeling/thinking, poetic/logical, intuition/rational. I practiced listening to a dialogue between my gathered objects, words, and images with the intuitive urges inside me and began to bring them together. My logical compositional side, already so heavily practiced, operated out of muscle memory and the collages produced were both emotionally rich and compositionally dynamic. I looked down and saw my best art. I looked down and saw the emotionally swollen canvases I once envied.

But this process of making created something much more than a series of grief-processing collages. As I practiced this process of making I myself was remade. The collage making modeled for me another way of being where the boundaries between the logical and poetic blurred and integrated. I learned that I could follow my intuition and still trust the logical to be there. I learned that it took more than words to access the depths of my being. Standing back from the depth and beauty I saw in each finished collage I learned to trust the process. And this trust reverberated into other aspects of my life. I began to apply the process to my relationships and in my decision-making processes. And as I began to fashion myself differently, God too began to reform.

She unfolded as the new Process—a unifying process that masterfully created through the interplay of objects, texts, images, feelings and intuitions. She was a magical creativity, seamlessly welding the most disparate parts together into stunning new wholes. Weaving together the Good Fridays, Holy Saturdays, and Easter Sundays into a new Collage, with rich darks balanced by white space, elements of repetition and surprise, diagonals and asymmetry that kept the eye on the page engaged, mesmerized—a calculated beauty in the chaos of things. God was the Collage maker, piecing the assemblages of my experiences into a meaning full newness. In my collage making I met Her. In my collage making I met Myself.

Theopoetics

This personal narrative marks why as a doctoral student in feminist practical theology at Boston University School of Theology, theopoetics is important to me. My engagement with theopoetics in part emerges because it is a space I feel honors the Divine image I met for the first time through my collage making and also in part because it helps me live out the commitment I made to myself to try and live into a more logical-poetic integrated life. I have found over the years that this commitment is difficult to keep. Especially within the status quo of the theological academy that still predominately privileges the theological in its forms of knowledge production. Residing in the margins of the academy as queer identified wo/man doing feminist theology, the temptation to fit in comes from both a deep-seated fear of survival and the desire to be heard. To overcompensate for my marginalization, the temptation is to wield the dominant tools with skill and perfection. But as I learned (and must constantly remind myself) the safety afforded by this strategy of institutional survival and voice cultivation leads to a bifurcated half-life which is not survival; it leads to a false voice that does not speak from the place of integrated beingness that Collage brought.

Theopoetics reminds me of my commitment to the Collage way. It opens up venues, dialogue partners and prompts to create differently. As a designer I enter into the theopoetic conversation differently than I have entered into other theological conversations. I do not need to explicitly unpack and rationalize why my design identity and practices are critical to my theological work and method. Folks typically at the theopoetic table have already attuned to this type of epistemological interdiscplinarity. As a feminist theologian theopoetics helps me to do to the imaginative work of reinterpreting symbols and reconstructing history towards the creation of a more flourishing present and future. Theopoetics cultivates a community of diverse people across disciplines, methods and practices that nudge me to keep doing and being in the ways I most deeply desire and affirms this in all its messy vulnerability.

I wrote this not only to talk about the (re)emergence of theopoetic interest, why it is important to me and what I think it has to offer but to let this essay unfold as a theopoetic piece that would speak to these things not only through words but by example. To create this piece, I needed to leave the safety of my academic theological voice and enter into the Collage process. And new knowledge has emerged. In writing it I learned what I learned through that grief collage process. For the first time I saw collage as Collage and articulated how my life and my understanding of the Divine were reshaped through that experience. What emerged through this way of doing was deeply personal and vulnerable and there has been much fear in writing it and submitting it. Especially as this essay will be the very first one I have published. It represents a coming out of sorts—a coming out to do the type of integrated work I committed to doing years ago. Doing so means working through the fears of creating something differently. More often than not I have gone to my safe, color-within-the-lines voice. But I want to do and be differently. And this desire means that I must pursue this way of creativity and trust what it turns up even if that means collaging deeply personal experiences and naming the Wisdom that emerged there. By doing so I hope that this essay I am providing creates an opening for others to do the same.


  1. My uncle Michael Common was also found dead with my dad and brother. And two days later, after learning about their deaths, Richard and Michael’s eldest brother, my uncle Frank Common, died of cancer. This made for four funerals within one week. Not quite a year later my cousin Erik Harris (Frank’s eldest grandson) was killed on Delta Comair Flight 5191 that crashed at the Kentucky Blue Grass airport, bringing to close a year that brought five major deaths to the Common family. Throughout this essay I will refer to the deaths of my dad and brother specifically because they were the ones that had the most impact on my immediate life, but the deaths of Michael, Frank and Erik also compounded and complicated the trauma and grief that I needed to work through. Their lives and deaths, though not specifically mentioned in the words of the essay, have been integral in shaping my journey.

  2. I am indebted to Gordon D. Kaufman for this concept.

  • Melanie Duguid-May

    Melanie Duguid-May

    Reply

    Going ahead to Galilee

     

    February 10, 2016

    Dear Kate,

    I have struggled to respond to your gut-socking essay, and finally am writing you a letter: the epistolary form being an ancient, venerable form of communication in the Christian tradition. For me, moreover, letter-writing is a way to honor the intimacy of your crie de Coeur: “My dad and brother are dead.” A discordant refrain. Desertion. On the third day they did not rise. Disbelief. Death.

    I blurred through the “design” bit, and your disconnectedness, although beautifully written. But I was bolted upright when I read your awakening: “Through death I came to see that I did not fully live.” I raced to retrieve a worn copy of book I wrote once… A Body Knows: A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection. You may know it – or not. In it I wrestled, as do you, with being “dead while we breathe: dead to feeling, to imagination, to truth telling.”1 I wrote to “awaken myself… to an awareness of death as integral to life, to awaken us to the joy of resurrection, that is, to new life abundant.”2 Yes, I struggle to respond, and yet I also read “Death Design Theopoetics” with deep respect dug from the quarry of experience.

    I am still unsettled: “Piecing the assemblages of [your] experiences into a meaningful newness,” you met God the Collage maker. You have learned to “follow [your] intuition and still trust the logical is there,” there “where the boundaries between logical and poetic blurred and integrated.” Making collages you remake yourself in the image of God, the Collage-Maker.

    I resonate with the way you write about creativity. Being human in the image of God is being creative and imaginative, generative and generous. And I believe the divine and human partnership in creating continues, “from grace to grace,” as Gregory of Nyssa said somewhere. God is “not God of the dead, but of the living,” declared Jesus in one of his disputes with the Sadducees.3

    And I recognize your move beyond “the safety of my academic theological voice.” Like you, while I was still in graduate school I kicked the traces of purely traditional theo-logical thinking. I actually felt affirmed when one of my doktor vaters read my dissertation and commented, “Very fine, but where’s the theology?”4 Similar questions were put to me when I wrote A Body Knows, which opens with H. R. Niebuhr: “Revelation is not a development of our religious ideas but their continuous conversion… It is revolutionary since it makes a new beginning and puts an end to the old development.”5

    “A new beginning.”

    “An end to the old development.”

    So does the lineage of the God of the patriarchs die out amid the assemblage gathered by the Collage-maker God? Does the Collage-maker God morph God’s mighty acts in salvation history into a cosmic drama? Or are these questions off the map of what matters at all?

    I am struck that the two persons who populate your story are not part of any theological or ecclesial in-crowd. A bold-stroked artist decoy-boyfriend, and a nameless man grieving over an open grave. Encounters with them jump-start your journey, and foretell your encounter with the Collage-maker God. In fact, they hint that you are moving out beyond ecclesial and theological definitions and dwelling places; following the risen Christ gone rogue, on the road, “going ahead… to Galilee”: place of subversive activities.6

    Is this the source of my unsettledness? In bones and marrow I sense but I cannot see: something is coming to be. Can I carry on, follow the finest impulse of my own early work? I see with you that concepts and doctrines, words and images conveyed by the theological tradition are unable to bear the weight of grief in a world where dads and brothers die untimely, tragic deaths, where wars are waged to no end, while women and children suffer unspeakably. There are people deemed disposable today. The earth itself is groaning, writhing in travail. And I wonder whether talk of a resurrected transformation of the old creation still makes sense? Can, or does, the drama of creation and redemption and new creation make it out of rehearsal these days?

    Your Collage-maker God – creating “in the interplay of objects, texts, images, feelings and intuitions” – shakes me awake to a world where everything is in play… Tillich’s foundations are not only shaking; they are crumbling. As are the infrastructures of church and society. Everything is in play… Unsettled as I am, I am awake, and ready to roll.

    But Kate, if everything is in play, is the Collage-maker God really part of “a unifying process… welding the most disparate parts together into stunning new wholes,” as you put it? Is there really any semblance of “stunning new wholes” amid the assemblage? Does “weaving together the Good Fridays, Holy Saturdays, and Easter Sundays into a new Collage” really yield “a calculated beauty in the chaos of things?”

    Or, perhaps, if I move, with you, out of “the safety of my academic theological voice,” if I follow the risen Christ “going ahead… to Galilee,” might we be called out beyond mapped terrains and traditions to set sail on an open sea? Where “objects, texts, images, feelings and intuitions” are at play amid possibility and impossibility endlessly? I sense but I cannot see! I am awake!

     


    1. A Body Knows: A Theopoetics of Death and Resurrection (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1995), 15.

    2. Ibid, 15, 109.

    3. Mark 12.27

    4. See Bonds of Unity: Women, Theology and the Worldwide Church. American Academy of Religion Academy Series no. 65 (Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1989); the doctor vater was Gordon D. Kaufman.

    5. A Body Knows, 13. See H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., and London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1974), 133. Originally published in 1941.  

    6. Mark 16.7

James Howard Hill Jr.

Response

God, Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery

My Journey into Hip Hop Theopoetics

You said a lot of great things during your sermon, James, but you must remember to deliver your message as if you are preaching at the Grand Ole Opry! No one will ever receive what you have to say if you put too much passion into it. Think of the Grand Ole Opry next time and you will be fine!

God, forgive me for my brash delivery. —Jay Z

THOUGH I WAS SURE my homiletics professor meant no harm by his statement, his words, nevertheless, added to the existential anguish already waging war deep within the catacombs of my racialized frame. Raised in the bosom of evangelical fundamentalism, I was taught from an early age that conservative Bible colleges were the only institutions that could “rightly” prepare me for a career in religious scholarship. Having already overcome a childhood plagued by many obstacles, I wasted no time heeding the advice of my elders and enrolled into my first North Texas Bible college in the fall of 2007. Unfortunately, it did not take me long to realize that this particular institution was not a place where Black creativity could flourish or be constructively cultivated and developed. With no one around to inform me of the potential opportunities available at HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and University’s), I would, regrettably, spend the next four years journeying through different evangelical colleges in North Texas, shedding a piece of my soul at every stop.

No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble
Not knowin it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you —2Pac

Very early in my undergraduate experience I began to notice that, while the conduct of students of color was policed at every turn, our white classmates, by in large, were allowed to project their disdain for the “ruin of America” upon our Black and Brown bodies with no fear of shame or recourse whatsoever. With no hope of administrative reprieve, we witnessed white students make chimp gestures as Black students walked towards their dormitories. We listened to chapel speakers joke about the “wondrous” possibility of (then Senators) Obama and Biden drowning in a nearby lake in order to “save America.” Stories traveled amongst the Black student body concerning how, on one particular occasion, a Black student-athlete had another student “prophesy” to him during a prayer meeting that he was demonically possessed, prompting many of the students in attendance to lay hands on him in an attempt to “exorcize the demonic forces of Darkness” out of him.

Needless to say, though I had always known that I was Black, I did not feel like a nigger until I entered Bible College in the American South during the Age of Obama.

I remember vividly what these streets did to me —Jay Z

I am convinced that, had I not gone through such a harrowing undergraduate experience, I would not be engaged with Hip Hop Theopoetics today. After I completed my undergraduate studies in the fall of 2013, I immediately enrolled into the Master of Theological Studies program at Southern Methodist University with very little hope in God or anything else in its God-relatedness. In my first two months of graduate studies, I contemplated dropping out no less than half a dozen times.

I was broke.

I refused to look my professors in their eyes.

I kept my head down as I walked across the campus.

Convinced that my first semester in seminary would be my last, I had resolved within my heart to make as few friends as possible, fail as admirably as I could, and keep things strictly academic in the process. Thankfully, all my plans fell miserably apart at the seams.

I grew up a fuckin screw up —Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace

Dr. Tamara Lewis, my Christian Heritage professor, noticed my fallen countenance and confronted me immediately. Recognizing that the passionate work I was presenting in my papers did not reflect the defeatism that ensnared me during class, Dr. Lewis requested that I schedule a time to meet with her during her office hours. During our meeting, I discussed my past experiences in my undergraduate program and how I was told repeatedly over a period of four years that my theology and epistemological constructs were inherently problematic and devoid of merit within the hallowed halls of academia. This, I relayed to her, was the reason I could not bring myself to speak in class and confidently articulate my views.

I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence —Kendrick Lamar

“You know that’s a lie from the Devil, right?” Dr. Lewis asked with unflinching conviction. “You know you are too brilliant to allow these folks to colonize your mind, do you? You know what? You’re not dropping out. I got you. Have you ever heard of the Forum for Theological Exploration?”

After informing her that I had never heard of the Forum for Theological Exploration, Dr. Lewis began to tell me how, all across the country, there were aspiring scholars of color like me who were grappling through many of the same issues. Right there in her office, Dr. Lewis logged on to the FTE website, found the contact information for an FTE staff member, and within a month, I was on a plane to Chicago to take part in my first FTE Leadership Discernment retreat.

We do what we gotta do
Yo we could break the cycle let nobody lie to you —Nas

Sure enough, at the FTE retreat, I encountered colleagues who were grappling with many of the same issues that ensnared me. As we talked, I realized that I kept referring back to Hip-Hop in order to describe my theo-logical thought-world. After a while, one colleague mentioned that I should try and link up with Callid Keefe-Perry, a doctoral student at Boston University, who was leading a workshop at the retreat and doing some significant work in the area of Theopoetics that might intersect with my own research interests. Though I had no idea what Theopoetics meant, I was intrigued enough to hunt Callid down and introduce myself during lunch. It took all of about thirty-five seconds for me to realize that Theopoetics was what I had been looking for during the past four years.

Having been fostered and cultivated within the womb of the Hip-Hop aesthetic, I vehemently opposed all theo-logical propositions that sought to deny or obfuscate the truth that existed in my body or, as Brazilian educator and writer Rubem Alves once put it, “The tunes written in our flesh.”

Early on in my academic career, my professors would introduce certain theological concepts that would immediately cause me to think of

An experience I had in my neighborhood

A song that sustained me for a season

or

A poem that gave me the courage to see just beyond my present circumstance.

However, most of my opinions and perspectives were disregarded by my instructors, not because they were not sound or insightful, but simply because they were foreign to them. I learned very early that many theologians will simply deem irrelevant anything they cannot control or subdue. As I sat across the table from Callid I realized, for the first time in my academic life, that my hardships in the academy were not rooted in my inability to engage in critical theological inquiry but, rather, in my failure to forsake my Hip-Hop epistemological imaginary. Here I was, a twenty-something-year-old Black man seeking to make fresh theological sounds from orthodox vinyls—and Massa wasn’t having it.

My mistake was not in seeking to be creative and honor the stories, sounds, and ideas playing through my flesh; my only mistake was thinking that the institutional church and the institutional academy would ever grant me permission to do so carte blanche. Why did I need a white male professor to co-sign my theological work in order for it to be deemed valid? Did Chuck D need Bing Crosby’s co-sign to write and perform Fight the Power? Ok then.

We’ve got to fight the powers that be —Chuck D

As I traveled back home to Dallas, I knew I had to begin the difficult, yet enlivening work of determining what Hip Hop Theopoetics meant for my work and my vocational future. Was I following some innocuous rabbit trail that would ultimately end in ecclesial and vocational futility? Was there a place for Hip Hop Theopoetics in the church and the academy? Were there other young scholars or congregants scattered throughout the country who, like me, were theologically quarantined from the tunes playing in their flesh? As I meditated on these questions, I began to explore my indefatigable love of Hip-Hop culture, from rapping to graffiti. What immediately began to stick out to me was my deep and abiding love for Hip-Hop producers. From Pete Rock to J Dilla to Kanye West, my favorite Hip-Hop producers are those who are able to take the great sounds of prior generations and reinvigorate them for new audiences and listeners through the art of sampling. I am left in awe when I think of how artists such as The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, and Sly and the Family Stone have all been sampled by Hip Hop artists. How can it be, then, that even though Hip Hop producers are regarded as being amongst the most gifted and eclectic samplers in the entire music industry, rap music as a whole is oftentimes excoriated as a blasphemous aberration of everything “true” music is to supposed to be?

How, Sway? —Kanye West

Similarly, I often wonder what would happen if Jean-Michel Basquiat enrolled in an M Div program at an accredited seminary and employed Hip-Hop Theopoetics in his coursework? What if, as was the case with his graffiti and canvas paintings, he sought fresh and innovative ways to communicate, interpret, embody, and apply the texts and terms he was taught? Would Basquiat be allowed to exegetically frame the Passion Narrative as a discourse in police brutality? Would he be allowed to analyze Jesus’ attitude towards the foreign Syro-Phoenician woman as a case of clerical misogynoir? Would he be allowed to draw a Venn diagram comparing Caiaphas and the plot to illegally detain and execute Jesus with J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO? Or would he be reminded by his senior professor that, after two thousand years, all the hard intellectual work had been done and all he needed to do was check his creativity at the door and “find his place in the Story.”

It’s like Sony signed Basquiat
He gave it all he got
And now the nigga don’t paint the same. —J Cole

While I respect the contributions of individuals like Amos Wilder and John Caputo, I find it very necessary to make it clear that Hip-Hop Theopoetics does not need their co-sign in order to be a part of the conversation. I am convinced that, unless this is understood up front, all Hip-Hop Theopoetics will become is another Exotic Other in the academic menagerie that other white scholars can look at and examine before they move to the “important” work that centers them. Though I love his work and am inspired by his contribution to the field, Amos Wilder does not compel me to take up and write. While I owe a debt to Callid Keefe-Perry and all he has meant to me both academically and personally, he does not compel me to write.

What compels me to engage in the discipline of theopoetics are the countless Black and Brown persons who, like me, were told somewhere down the line that they were theologically worthless until they learn to live, move, and construct their being like white folk.

I write with the sisters and brothers who feel like they have to drop out of Bible College because there is no way to correlate what they are taught in class with what they know to be important on their street corners and recreation centers.

I write with every teenager in a youth group who was laughed at when they answered a Sunday school question with a rap reference.

I write with the seminarians who keep their heads down and their mouths closed during class because they already know which voices are allowed to dominate the conversation before the syllabi are even handed out.

I write with every student who hears snickering or sees eyes rolling every time they choose to courageously quote Delores Williams, Katie Geneva Cannon, Jaqueline Grant, Emilie Townes, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Eboni Marshall Turman in theological spaces narcotized by heteropatriarchal white supremacy.

I was rollin’ around, in my mind it occurred
What if God was a Her? —Common

Ultimately, what compels me to engage Hip-Hop Theopoetics is the fact that, at its roots, it is a modality of God-Talk that is decolonial and emancipatory in both nature and praxis. Moreover, it is a form of critical inquiry that seeks to resist all forms of totalizing, hegemonic control in the church, the academy, as well as society at large and is fueled by the imagination of marginalized, oppressed peoples whose orientation and thought-world is indelibly influenced by Hip Hop culture. When I speak of Hip Hop Theopoetics, it must be understood that I am not referring solely to rap music. Without question, if Hip Hop Theopoetics is to be taken seriously, future works must seek to explore the ways in which other mediums of Hip Hop culture, including Hip Hop photography, Hip Hop theater, and Hip Hop poetry critically and imaginatively engage the enterprise of God-Talk.

I know that after reading this, there will be those who leave the conversation surrounding Hip-Hop Theopoetics unsatisfied. There will inevitably be persons who will consider my description of Hip Hop Theopoetics as God-Talk informed by a Hip-Hop episteme little more than “nebulous jargon.” I am fully aware that, no matter how much I explain my own journey towards theopoetics and no matter how much energy I spend outlining with unfettered passion my own understanding of the endeavor, it simply will not be good enough for some folks.

My reply to such inquiries is simple; the moment we seek to contain it, dogmatically define it, and limit its potentiality is the moment it ceases to be what it was created to be. And if that answer does not suffice, I’ll just tell them what I told an old friend many years ago . . .

This ain’t the Grand Ole Opry. —James Howard Hill, Jr.

  • Scott Holland

    Reply

    Worthy of the Name

     

    After the seas have all been crossed,
    After the great captains and engineers have acomplish’d their work,
    After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
    Finally shall come the poet worthy of the name;
    The true Son of God shall come singing his songs.
                                        —Walt Whitman

    After over five decades of Death of God Theopoetics, Confessional Theopoetics, Literary Theopoetics, Liturgical Theopoetics, the Theopoetics of Peacebuilding, Postmodern Theopoetics and Process Theopoetics, we warmly welcome Hip Hop Theopoetics into this artful movement of naming ourselves and rendering God’s name in history. James Howard Hill, Jr. now joins others, such as Rap artist and Claremont theologian Jon Ivan Gill, in announcing the arrival of Hip Hop Theopoetics.

    How could it be otherwise? Theology, after all, is a kind of writing. No God-talk falls out of the sky like a stone from heaven into the preacher’s pulpit or onto the theologian’s desk. It is contextual, contingent, and composed like any good story or song by authors or artists. This graced and gritty world may indeed be alive with the glory of God but the world itself does not speak. It awaits the vision and voice of writers like Hill who understand, along with Jay Z, the poetic prophecy of brash delivery that can challenge and de-center the theo-logics of the guild theologians and open what they might critically judge as an impolite, illicit and transgressive space for the arrival of theopoetics.

    Finally shall come the poet worthy of the name.

    “It’s like Sony signed Basquiat/He gave it all he got/And now the nigga don’t paint the same.” (J. Cole). Theopoets know that those who hold ecclesial and political power love to declare that the order of salvation and civility follows conformity to the pattern of sin, repentance, and redemption. Indeed, sometimes it does. However, theopoets, especially Hip Hop theopoets, understand how these received salvation stories serve preachers and politicians by producing citizens that are clinically compliant to the old masternatrrative, indeed to the master’s story.

    The incomparable David Tracy, writing on postmodern thinkers, traces an approach to God-talk and God-thought that is closer to “transgression, excess and gift” than it is to the received theology of sin, repentance, and redemption. Theopoets likewise know there are other necessary orders of salvation and ways of seeing in this blessed, broken world that demand transgression, excess and gift. God, bless my brash delivery!

    James Howard Hill has creatively and constructively transgressed the theo-logics of many of his former evangelical teachers and in so doing has discovered his own evolving theological and theopoetic voice. He rightly resists allowing Hip Hop Theopoetics to be politely affirmed as an interesting but Exotic Other in the normative discipline of theology. But I wonder… Is there really such a discipline that remains in the 21st century?

    For many years we theologians imagined and defended an academic canon of theology proper that functioned almost as a metanarrative. This was serious theology, real theology, with given categories of Creation, Fall, Sin, Soteriology, Christology, and all the other cultural-linguistic markers from classical Christendom and modern European theology. We found identity-theologies intriguing and even important. Yet Black theology, Feminist Theology, Womanist Theology and Liberation Theology tended to be perceived more like minor narratives that were limited, tamed and tutored by the established texts and traditions of the real normative masternarrative known as THEOLOGY.

    Certainly conventional approaches to theology still remain significant ways to name the divine, and whether consciously or unconsciously, they too are acts of imaginative construction that can be meaningful and even beautiful in the composition of their signs, symbols, stories, confessions and creeds, in the performance of their rituals, and in the ethical practice of their doctrines. I do not deny this. However, as one who was trained in “theology proper,” when I travel across Europe and North America, from time to time old, white, male theologians privately sigh and lament after one too many glasses of wine, “No one does theology anymore.”

    To them I respond, “Perhaps what we have traditionally called theology no longer serves as an exclusive method or masternarrative in the great adventures of intercultural and interdisciplinary God-talk?” Aware of my work in theopoetics, these theological colleagues push back, “So in the movement from theology to theopoetics aren’t you merely replacing one thing for another? Aren’t you guilty of setting up a new metanarrative?” I respond by suggesting that if we were only offering one model for theopoetics this charge might indeed stand. If only Process Theopoetics is really theopoetics, for example, or if only Hip Hop Theopoetics, for that matter, counts as ultimately theopoetic, then this would just be trading one comprehensive God-thing for another fictive totality. However, we theopoets suggest that theopoetics is a genre or method, not a metanarrative, shining systematic, or a final longed for metaphysic.

    Those engaged in the theopoetics conversation usually insist that theopoetics is imaginative rather than merely mimetic like too much theology or God-talk. That is, theopoetics is not simply poeticizing a received, established or given theology to make it more ornate, attractive, or missional. Instead, it is experimenting with imaginative constructions of God and artful compositions of the self. It is a genre of writing – and living – that focuses on an evolving poiesis: an artful, inventive, intuitive and imaginative act of composition performed by authors. It is a kind of writing that invites more writing. Its narratives call forth other narratives. Its metaphors inspire new metaphors and its conversations encourage new conversations. It is also a kind of living that opens itself to imaginative surprises because the theopoet understands that any theology and its supporting apologies can only follow paths which are first broken open by the imagination.

    There is a welcome and satisfyingly transgressive tone in James Howard Hill’s engaging essay. Hill too wants a new path. So much so that he found it necessary to break free of the old theo-logical methods and metaphors of his professors’ metanarrative in which he was expected to find his plot and place in their story. Instead, as a strong poet, he is now composing his own life and re-presenting the divine in Hip Hop’s culture, rhythmic lines and lyrics. Really, can there be a manifestation of God in Hip Hop? Why not? What was God before God became the reasonable and responsible deity of white Christian systematic theologians and their proper churchly hymnody?

    In the history of spirituality many saints, prophets and poets understood the order of salvation, for both soul and society, as transgression, excess and gift rather than ecclesial and political conformity to the theological powers’ narrative of sin, repentance, and redemption. These pious heretical saints must be invited back into the theological conversation. Heretics, mystics, ecstatics, saints, prophets, pietists and poets remind us that God often comes to us first as transgression, then excess, and finally, gift! This is the gift of a new vision and voice. This is the arrival of the strong poet singing a new song.

    After theological dogmatics, after the creedal priests, pastors and their canon theological lawyers, after the systematic theologian, after the philosophical theologian, indeed, even after the practical theologian, comes the Hip Hop Theopoet, James Howard Hill, Jr., and he is indeed worthy of the name.

Shares