Discussing Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus

Posted February 23, 2011 by anglicaninsights
Categories: Faculty Post, R Student Post

Tags: , , , , ,

Mark Richardson is President and Dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California. For the last six years he has moderated The Trinity Institute International conference. This year’s conference, “Reading Scripture through Other Eyes,” featured Mary Gordon as a principal speaker. The experience inspired the following conversation with CDSP student, Martin Elfert, about Gordon’s Reading Jesus (Pantheon, 2009). Mary Gordon will offer a response at the end of this conversation, and readers of this blog are invited to respond as well. Dean Richardson would also like to encourage readers to follow Barbara Falconer Newhall’s discussions on the CDSP Facebook Discussion Page (go to www.facebook.com/cdspfans and click on “Discussions”), which comments on the weekly lectionary from the perspective of “the pew.”

Martin Elfert has an interest of his own in narrative. He has just completed a collection of short children’s stories entitled John the Baptist is Coming to Dinner, and Other Stories. Most of the stories are based on children’s sermons which he delivered at All Souls Episcopal Parish, in Berkeley, where he attends with his wife, Phoebe, and his two children. “Sermons and stories for children are always at risk of being patronizing, of degenerating into ‘kids say the darndest things.’ I try to build upon the dilemmas and the wonders that children already understand.” Martin is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in theater, and began his career in the performing arts. This year he is a senior at Church Divinity School of the Pacific anticipates being ordained this summer.

Thanks for joining me in this conversation, Martin. I wanted to discuss Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus with you both because this work touches on topics, and with passion, that many readers of the bible care about, and also because her life as a novelist, and as a life time Catholic in honest struggle, seems to shape her attitude toward reading scriptures. I find this combination quite fascinating.

Take, first, her own art as a story-teller: How do you see this feeding her insight into the gospels? What struck me is that complexity, even contradictoriness, are so much a part of plot and character development in her writing and experience, so when she sees this in Jesus’ story she is not thrown off by it. In fact, it lends to the realism that makes Jesus’ life credible. It seems to feed, not detract from, her conviction that Jesus, like no other protagonist in literature, can show us what is holy.

I loved her thought in the chapter on ‘divinity’ that religion makes the ordinary holy, and this is made biographical in Jesus. I’m not sure I’d say ‘biographical’ because we spent a century getting over the misconception that we have a biography of Jesus. But her point is clear enough: if we get even a small glimpse into the incomprehensible mystery we name ‘God’ it is through personal life and its structured interactions. I liked her lines that “…the experience of birth, friendship, suffering, and death was shared by the divine…And this, to me is the pearl of great price.”

Would you agree that this connection through narrative imagination was the strength of her ‘reading of Jesus’? I’m also curious to know your favorite instances of this in the book.

Thank you for inviting me to chat with you about Reading Jesus, Mark! I’m looking forward to our “book club” on this blog, and especially to hearing from the folks who choose to join in our conversation.

I agree with you about the strengths of Reading Jesus. In particular, I enjoyed hearing Mary Gordon the author in “dialogue” with the authors of the Gospels across a couple of millennia. Reading Jesus is at its best when Gordon talks about the writer’s craft – when she celebrates the art and the technique which the Gospel writers use to tell us about what it was like to meet Jesus. I was glad for her reminder that scripture can be both a testament to the divine and great literature. We don’t need to choose between the two!

One especially strong example of Gordon as literary teacher comes in the chapter entitled The Dark Garden. Here, Gordon engages in what our brothers and sisters in the Jewish tradition call Midrash: an imaginative retelling or interpretation of a passage from scripture.

The chapter begins with the arresting opening words, “It is a scene played out in darkness.” Immediately, we are invited to stand with Jesus in Gethsemane – and to think about the moments in our lives when we may have stood somewhere similar. Much as in her later chapter on Jesus’ divinity, here is Gordon demonstrating how Jesus finds the holy in universal experiences. And what is more universal than confronting the reality of our mortality? I loved Gordon’s decision to highlight the rhythm of this scene: the “jarring alterations between movement and stasis, inquiry and rest.” This is what grief and anxiety is truly like. Through their craft as writers, the Gospel authors testify that Jesus shared such an experience with us.

Speaking of Midrash, and the Jewish art of dialoging with sacred scriptures, this takes me back to her chapter on ‘The Problem of Perfection’. There Mary Gordon seems to negotiate with Jesus, even critique him about the meaning of perfection as she struggles with his Sermon on the Mount. In doing so she carries on the art of human story and counter story.

She probably questions along with many readers of the Sermon on the Mount who struggle with Jesus’ moral vision and how out of step it seems with life in history (e.g., having enemies such as Hitler or any of recent history’s totalitarians, and wondering how to get along with them without being run over by them), or in nature (knowing temptation which at times run wildly contrary to how we ought to act). She openly questions whether it is morally acceptable to turn the cheek in a violent and unjust world such as this, and whether we can compare a pre-moral lustful imagination with reprehensible sexual actions. In both cases, I think she effectively brings Jewish moral realism into dialogue with Jesus and the moral ideal he inspired in centuries of Christians.

The final twist, after all of her criticism of Jesus the moral teacher, is that she far prefers this seemingly unreachable standard, rising from life under the vision of divine holiness and goodness, to the maxim, ‘do your best’. There is no greatness to be found in the latter, only mediocrity, and middle class moral casualness.

Martin, did Mary Gordon treat to your satisfaction the distinction she wished to make between ‘perfection’ and ‘completeness’? For her, perfection conjures a lifelessness hovering above or outside history. I understand her point. But how does this definition of perfection as ‘completeness’ help when it comes to dealing with Jesus’ ideal and absolute moral teachings, the ones that trouble Mary Gordon so much?

I can’t encounter this subject without thinking of Leonard Cohen, who sings of “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount – which I don’t pretend to understand at all.” Jesus’ odd and awesome speech gives us the Beatitudes (the series of couplets beginning, “blessed…”), which many believers identify as Jesus’ mission statement. But it also gives us some of Jesus’ hardest and most opaque statements.

To begin, I appreciated the parallel that Gordon draws between perfection and completeness. This is a welcome argument. As she demonstrates through the anecdote about her son rejecting Christianity, there is an unfortunate strain in our tradition which has interpreted Jesus’ perfection as meaning that he wasn’t really human – that he knew nothing of essentially human experiences such as making mistakes or of feeling shame. Speaking of Jesus as a complete person, by contrast, allows the contemporary reader of the Bible to ask the much more helpful question: what does it mean to live completely? What would a complete six-year-old, or thirty-three year-old, or eighty-year-old look like?

My own suspicion is that Jesus’ statements are often more nuanced – more complete, if you like – than we allow. We read Jesus through the eyes of generations of interpreters (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, Jimmy Swaggart), many of whom correlated Jesus’ perfection with their own pathological relationship with the physical body. Thus, these interpreters spun Jesus as someone who knew little of real life and was essentially humorless. Whether we recognize it or not, we are influenced by them. This causes us to miss Jesus’ frequent use of irony, hyperbole, and plain old jokes.

Let’s take the question of Jesus’ teaching on adultery, which Gordon wrestles with: if you have looked at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. Note that these words imply a question: have you ever looked at a woman (or, in the interests of inclusivity, a person) with lust? Augustine and company insist that the answer to this question is, or ought to be, no. But Jesus, being not just fully divine but also fully human, would have known that the answer to his question would be of course. Everyone has looked at another person with lust – lust is a universal, biological reality – and, wait for it, that makes all of us adulterers. I wonder if this saying is not about agonizing over your fantasy life but, rather, if it stands a complement to the story of the woman caught in adultery: let you who is without sin cast the first stone.

One aspect of the Sermon on the Mount that I wish Gordon had touched on is that, well, it’s a sermon! It was, in other words, never intended by Jesus to be read. Not only has this essentially oral method of communicating been constrained on paper, but it has been translated twice (from Aramaic to Greek and from Greek to English). Thus, this speech is only partly visible to us, obscured by a cloud of time and paper. I am curious as to how many of Jesus’ sayings which we experience as difficult made a whole lot more sense in their original language and context. Are we right, for instance, in supposing that “turning the other cheek” means standing by cheerfully while you get beaten up? (For those readers interested in a provocative and powerful treatment of this question, I commend Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be.)

Martin, perhaps we can move on in this last exchange to the end of the book. I was quite touched by Mary Gordon’s candor regarding the utterances of Jesus at the end of his life: “… these words are the basis and the foundation of my religious life.” She is referring, of course, to what we often name ‘the seven last words’.

Preachers have struggled over blending these short saying of Jesus, taken from the four gospels, into a single Good Friday sequence of homilies, without regard for context and authorship. Her instinct is to look past these technical problems. What if we treated each of the seven on its own terms and not as a progression, giving each our concentration, and remaining present to the particularity of each?

In this spiritual reading of Jesus’ end, she offers moments of vivid insight. Divine abandonment (Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani) is made all the more harsh by public aloneness as Jesus experiences human cluelessness around him in this final hour. His last loud cry “…is a relief from the unbearable rushing meagerness of what makes up most of human activity.” What dramatic contrast to the recognition in the story soon to come!

Next she teases out a classic problem buried in the utterance: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How can you forgive those who have no knowledge that something’s gone wrong? Here the specter is raised that we humans possess far less moral knowledge and accountability than we think, and a much narrower capacity for change. Does history march on with human beings captive to forces that contradict their self-understanding as free moral creatures? For Mary Gordon, these few words of Jesus contain the classic problem of freedom and necessity. This ought to catch our attention if ethical monotheism hinges on the assumption of human freedom.

Well, I could go on about this dense last section of Reading Jesus, Martin, but I’d rather ask what you found in it.

I’m glad that you’ve highlighted Gordon’s closing chapter, Mark: it is the high point of Reading Jesus, the place where we really get to hear the fullest expression of Gordon’s passion and faith as well as her craft as a writer.

How are we to read Jesus’ words, “father forgive them, for they know not what they do”? It is disquieting to think that Jesus is giving humanity the kind of pass that a judge might give to a small child! Are we really amoral perpetrators, incapable of forming intent and, therefore, cheerfully crucifying the world? Maybe. Most of us do commit evil without giving it much thought: the last time that I was in a box store, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea how or where the goods on sale there were made. I wanted to believe that the merchant was taking reasonable precautions to ensure fair trade in its dealings. But, really, I couldn’t be sure that my purchase wasn’t helping to crucify Jesus in the factories of Asia. But our very awareness of this troubling possibility gives me hope: much as in 12-step spirituality, the first step in becoming most completely ourselves and, therefore, in moving closer to God comes in telling the truth about our failings.

Gordon is a masterful student of the text, and she knows that there are few accidental words in great books, especially in their key scenes. “They know not what they do,” in other words, doesn’t tell us something as superficial as “it’s not your fault.” Rather, it is intended to provoke precisely the question which Gordon has invited us to ask: when have I casually committed evil? How, if you prefer, have I crucified Jesus? How may I become aware and behave differently?

Finally, I loved the closing reflection in Reading Jesus, “The Resurrection is the possibility of possibility.” Yes. Today, when we struggle so mightily to find experiences of wonder – when the electric light keeps us from seeing the milky way, when hospitals and mortuaries keep us from seeing death, when PDAs keep from seeing each other – to invited into wonder, to possibility is as urgent as it is countercultural.

In the quest for the historical Jesus, in our fascination with reading the Gospel through the lens of the scientific method, it’s easy to forget that Jesus invites us into the possibility of possibility. What if really came back from the dead? And, if he did, what else might be possible?


CDSP First Year M.Div. Elizabeth Ashman Reports from the NCC and Church World Service

Posted November 28, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: R Student Post, Uncategorized

by Elizabeth Ashman, CDSP  M.Div.

Growing up with a Jewish sister and father, and being a former Catholic now studying to be an Episcopal priest, I feel a strong call towards ecumenical and interfaith work, but what shape that will take is still unknown to me. So when the opportunity to spend a week in New Orleans as a young adult representative for the Episcopal Church at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service I took it in hopes of answering some of these questions. There I engaged in a young adult gathering of ecumenical leaders from across the denominational spectrum. For two days we shared in community and conversation, I built friendships across denominations and seminaries and discovered we are all more alike then we originally thought. All of us bonded and planned for the future in that idealistic way that only youthful energy can bring, certain that we could solve all the worlds problems if we all just love one another and get along. But in all seriousness, we focused on the importance of our common denominator, that we are Christians, and that needs to become more important then denominational lines. The majority of us also attended the General Assembly by sitting in on meetings, participating in conversations, and promoting the young adult voice for those denominations and communions that did not already have young people presence.
My time in New Orleans gave me an opportunity to reflect both on my future goals as a minister and my time at CDSP. It can be difficult to focus on the next three years after experiencing what is happening right now in the ecumenical and interfaith movement. Yet, I must recognize the importance of my education so that I can fully understand the world that I want to work in. So what can be done while I am here? Though the Graduate Theological Union is unique in its structure of having so many denominations present, it is not truly as ecumenical as it could be. We do have an advantage over many other seminaries in that we are a consortium of seminaries and are able to take classes with one-another, but we still find ourselves identifying first with our denomination both inside and outside the classroom. There is a unique opportunity here to build a generation of leaders in the Christian church who are already ecumenical and go into their parish, diocese, or classroom understanding the importance of that attitude. In all of our futures there will be interactions with people of other Christian and religious traditions. Therefore our training at seminary should be reflective of the world we are trying to enter. Yes, we need to understand our own denomination. As Episcopalians we need to know the Book of Common Prayer, the history of the church, and how to preach a sermon. However, once we understand our own perspective we must strive to understand the other Christian perspectives and then build from our common ground.

Elizabeth Ashman is a first year seminarian from the Diocese of Alaska.

CDSP M.Div. Student Martin Elfert writes on “Godly and Decent Order”

Posted August 9, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: Lived Theology, R Student Post, Uncategorized

A third-year student in the MDiv program, Martin Elfert comes to CDSP from the Diocese of New Westminster (Vancouver, BC). Martin and his family are enjoying living, studying, and worshiping within the Episcopal Church.

Godly and Decent Order: Compromise in Theory and in Praxis, as Modeled in the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Martin Elfert

The celebration of compromise in the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer stands in tension to the history surrounding the its publication. The Preface is a love letter to the Via Media, repeatedly congratulating the Savoy Conference, called to amend the BCP, for rejecting partisan extremes. History tells us, however, that that compromise played little actual part in the Conference: it all but entirely sided with royalist bishops against reform-minded Presbyterians, thereby setting the stage for the latter to leave the Church of England. The task of “spinning” this inconsistency between theory and praxis in meeting conflict fell to the authors of the Preface. The authors did so by implying the existence of a third voice in the argument, repeatedly contrasting the demands a nameless this party versus an similarly anonymous that party, both of whom were extreme and unreasonable. Wisely, the Preface tells us, the Savoy Conference avoided the extremes, thus preserving that most Anglican of things: “Godly and Decent Order.”

Were the authors of the Preface disingenuous in their motivations, seeking to misrepresent themselves as fairer than they actually were? Or is this document an example of what psychology would dub cognitive dissonance? My guess is that the latter comes closest to the truth. The Preface reads like a document written by individuals with a deep need to understand themselves, their government, and their church as fair and reasonable. The notion that these individuals were party to an essentially partisan document was antithetical to their self-understanding. Thus the primary goal of the Preface is to make it clear just how balanced and sensible the new BCP is. To synopsise the Preface’s argument, the nature of the BCP is such that anyone who studies it seriously cannot help but conclude that it is a reasonable document. Perhaps this is true: one could argue that no concessions would have been adequate to prevent the Presbyterian departure from the Church of England and, therefore, that the near wholesale rejection of their demands was wise. What one cannot defensibly argue, however, is that the authors’ theory of compromise translated into praxis in the BCP.

The Preface has many echoes in contemporary Anglicanism. Our communion’s tired conversation about sexuality, for instance, is overwhelmingly comprised of consecutive monologues disguised as debate. While these monologues are generally less eloquent that the words found in the 1662 BCP, they are very much its descendents. Most of us, regardless of the position that we take on this question, share one characteristic: we believe that the case we have outlined is, above all, reasonable and balanced. There is, therefore, no way that anyone who honestly and faithfully examines it could conclude otherwise. This claim made, the accusation that follows it is all but inevitable: we have compromised, we have listened, but you neither compromise nor listen. (Were much the same words of hurt and anger spoken at the Savoy Conference?) We insist that we walk a middle way between two poles, judiciously avoiding the extremes, holding forth a way to unity. Our argument is half right: there really are two extremes, a this party and a that. But when we reduce the people with whom we disagree to caricatures, railing against their impetuous assaults on our middle way, we soon find that they are far from us, marooned on their personal extreme. In the midst of our communion’s perennial argument, then, let us allow ourselves a moment of honesty: let us stop our frantic entreaties for compromise, for reasonableness, and for the Via Media long enough to look at our surroundings. Should we do so, we might just come to the same startling and uncomfortable conclusion that, deep inside, the authors of the BCP must have reached. We might just realise that the party standing at the opposite extreme to our theological opponents is none other than ourselves.

The Virgin of Guadalupe and Pastoral Outreach in the Episcopal Church

Posted July 13, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: Uncategorized

by Kevin Sparrow, Certificate of Anglican Studies,  ’10 

The emergence of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in early modern Mexico shows a clear affirmation of place and culture operating within a robust Catholic identity. A similar dynamic may serve as a pastoral model for Latino congregations within the Episcopal Church to affirm cultural identity as well as speak to divine regard for concerns specific to their community.

The account of Juan Diego’s vision of Virgin of Guadalupe featured the lived concerns of native Mexicans in the period directly after the Aztec conquest The Virgin specifically states she is the compassionate mother for all people of Mexico. She declares “I am the compassionate mother of you. . . and of the other various people who love me, who cry out to me, who seek me, who trust me. There I will listen to their weeping and their sorrows in order to remedy and heal all their afflictions, miseries, and torments.” (The Story of Guadalupe, Sousa translation). Juan Diego’s account seeks to provide a sense of God’s favor to a people in a specific part of Mexico. Later texts expand that interpretation and give it a political connotation – the Virgin becomes a symbol not only of Mexico, but of faithful native people in all of South America within the context of a vibrant Catholicism.

Within the Episcopal Church, Guadalupe devotion can serve a dual purpose: it could provide a way of entrance for Latino people drawn to the Episcopal Church as well as a distinct mark of continuity with countries of origin. Likewise, within a larger cultural context, the Virgin as a symbol of Mexico is quite well known.  Increased devotional practices within the Episcopal context could serve as a reminder of the (increasing) diversity of the larger Episcopal Church.

Emphasis on the Virgin as a means of assistance for those in need has specific pastoral implications within the Episcopal tradition.  A connection can be made between the experience of societal dislocation after the conquest in Mexico and the physical and societal dislocation of immigrant communities in the United States. The Virgin suggest that she will, “will listen to their weeping and their sorrows in order to remedy and heal all their afflictions, miseries, and torments…” (The Story of Guadalupe, Sousa translation). As immigration remain important within Latino communities, the Episcopal Church could provide for devotion to the Virgin as an entrance into a pastoral response to immigrant communities as well as a sign of God’s abiding concern for the land and people of Mexico – even within a new and different cultural context.

While it is primarily a Roman Catholic devotion, the Episcopal Church – perhaps alone among Protestant churches – could provide an atmosphere where this devotion could flourish. Inclusion of images within the majority of Episcopal congregations is no longer controversial. To provide an image or shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe within a parish with a substantial Latino population is one way to allow for the devotion within the Episcopal Church in that it would be, at minimum, an image of Mary that provides an instant connection for Latino congregants.

The Episcopal Church could provide a pastoral space where a much closer identification with the Virgin and issues of justice could emerge through Episcopal Church’s understanding of sainthood and what constitutes an “official devotion.”  As the Episcopal Church does not include the apparition in its official liturgical calendar, any devotions would be by necessity local and by the permission of the bishop. This locality and “semi-official” status may allow local and pressing pastoral concerns to find specific identification with the Virgin of Guadalupe and her preference for the poor and needy. Such a freedom of identification was actually a component of the original account of the apparition and remains a hallmark of local celebration. This pastoral opportunity exists in connection with earlier traditions surrounding the Virgin, yet is specific to current lived concerns on one hand as well as the specific theological positions and polity of the Episcopal Church on the other.

Kevin Sparrow received his Certificate in Anglican Studies from CDSP in May 2010. He holds an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School and a BA from the University of the South. He has served as Director of Christian Formation at Christ Church, Somerville, MA. Most recently, Kevin taught English and NGO Capacity Building in the Republic of Georgia as a Peace Corps volunteer. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a member of Holy Innocents’, San Francisco.

CDSP M. Div. Student Lindsay Hills on Thinking Theology and Intersexuality

Posted June 16, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: R Student Post

As a queer Christian woman who has struggled to find her own place within religious communities I have often found myself looking at issues of insiders and outsiders especially in the Christian context.  Who is invited to the table and who is pushed to the margins are questions that intimately inform my theological lens.

I first encountered the biological complexities of sex while completing my undergraduate work at Bryn Mawr College in Sociology and Feminist and Gender Studies.  It was in this context that I was first exposed to the heartbreaking stories of intersexuals, or those born with ambiguous genitalia, historically referred to as hermaphrodites, whose families, doctors, teachers, priests and rabbis desperately tried to cover-up, deny, or surgically fix these perceived broken and imperfect bodies.  The question I was struck by was how do these individuals, often marked from birth as other and misfit, who are caught in the socially constructed binaries of gender, sex, and normalcy, find their way to the table and how can we as church leaders educate and empower our congregations to create and maintain safe spaces where all the Children of God can be nourished and fed.

The result of all these ruminations was my paper for Constructive Theology. The paper, entitled God is Creating:  A Creative Approach to Intersexuality in Light of the Creation Accounts explores the biological, cultural, scriptural and theological evidence regarding intersexuality in a way that seeks to transform the ways in which intersexuals are welcomed into the world and our churches.  God is Creating explores the creation accounts exegetically in order to break open the often translated orderly account of God’s cosmos, creation of male and female.  Calling on the contributions of feminist theologians, I explore the landscape of the ‘adam, or human, androgynous being, in which man and woman both have their being, a being that pre-existed sin, therefore rebuking the claims that are so ignorantly made that intersexuals are the product of sin.  I then explore the essentialist and constructivist claims regarding gender norms and pulling on the works of Augustine, Judith Butler, Lisa Isherwood, and Serene Jones, to demonstrate the growing need to recognize that a theology that embraces the bodiliness of intersexuality is one that reflects a “creating” God.

The conceptual tools I advocate for, in light of this different view of creation, are informed by a theology of creativity.  This creativity is seen in the eyes of the intersex infant, the image of God is seen clearly in God’s complex creativity, and that image is something that needs to be honored and celebrated, invited to the table and fed at the table, like every other Child of God rather than being disguised in a cloak of shame and lies.


Lindsay Marie Hills graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004, with a BA in Sociology and a concentration in Feminist and Gender Studies.  It was there that she first encountered the complex issues of gender and sexuality.  It was during this time that as a queer Christian woman she experienced spiritual violence for the first time.  Hills is entering her final year at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.  Hills seeks to create safe spaces where all of God’s Children know that they are loved unconditionally by the creator and are able to grow and flourish in that love.

Learning From The Early Church Fathers – A Research Project By Edwin Daniel Johnson

Posted May 9, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: Lived Theology, R Student Post

What in your life and context compelled you to write this particular paper?

I grew up attending an Afro-Latino Episcopal Church in Boston and have had most of my experiences within the context of urban churches of color. When I first encountered the Patristic and Cappadocian Fathers during seminary I became intrigued about how their approaches to theology may be helpful, constructive, informative and inspiring for urban church communities. I became drawn to a completing a project that would allow me to make some of their work accessible to a theologically sophisticated and creative audience that may lack certain forms fo theological education.

What is the problem you are addressing?

The urban church communities that I have been a part of have often been called upon to answer the question: “Are you saved?” They must do this while in the midst of great violence, drug-related issues, racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination while being estranged from nature. They must also do this within a religious landscape that is dominated by conservative, charismatic, perhaps “fundamentalist” churches. In general, the approaches of the earlier theologians were very incarnational, unapologetic, and grounded in Scripture, which sets it up as a helpful point of departure for communities that continue to struggle with soteriological and other theological questions.

What is the resolution you propose in the paper?

I propose that these urban church communities build soteriologies that address what “happened” in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, what continues to happen in their own lives since their Baptism and/or affiliation with the Church, and what is happening and must happen in their communities that encounter evil and death at disproportionate rates. I propose that they use the works of the Patristic and Cappadocian Fathers as places of departure and further education.

What is the takeaway piece?

I came away even more thoroughly convinced of the importance of theological education for all and its application to truly life and death issues. I also learned some of the ways that both the strengths and weaknesses of other theological approaches can be helpful for communities seeking to modify and better understand their own.


I am an Afro-Latino third-year Masters of Divinity Student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific soon to embark on an urban curacy in my home Diocese of Massachusetts. I seek to present and proclaim the Good News in everything I do and have gained an incredible amount of tools to do that in seminary while somehow finding the time to dance salsa and take part in fitness competitions.

“Gifted and Giving” – Renewing Theologies of Ministry with Young People

Posted April 7, 2010 by anglicaninsights
Categories: O Student Post

In a series of blogposts, CDSP presents outstanding, provocative, and inspiring written work of a student to a wider audience. We will begin with a summary of a paper written for a class in Constructive Theology.

By Sylvia Miller-Mutia.

In my experience as a parish youth minister, and now as the chaplain intern at an Episcopal school, I find that there is often a disturbing lack of critical, theological reflection on what we do with young people, and why. For example, “community service” (service learning, social outreach, volunteerism, mission trips, projects etc.) is a central component of ministry with youth in many parish and school settings. But too often our practices actually serve to distort humanity, thus undermining our best intentions and betraying our Christian faith. In my Constructive Theology paper, Gifted and Giving, I considered how our approach to community service with youth might be informed and reformed by bringing our practices into conversation with scripture and the doctrine of theological anthropology.

I begin by engaging the insights of several contemporary theologians and thinkers (bell hooks, Sharon Betcher, Nancy Eisland, and Joerg Rieger)  in order to identify three common “distortions” of humanity that arise in our practices of community service.  I conclude that humanity is distorted when : 1) community service reinforces the superiority of the one serving and reinforces the victimization of the one being served; 2) when community service results in ultimate isolation rather than increased connection; 3) when a person is defined primarily in terms of utility or action, rather than as a being in relationship.

Then I look to theological and biblical resources for help identifying alternatives to these distortions.  I propose a working definition of the human person as gifted and giving—creature– imaging God– in relationship. Theologians (from Irenaeus, to Karl Barth, to Jurgen Moltmann) and biblical texts (Genesis 1: 26-31 and 1 Corinthians 12:14, 21-26), assist us in exploring the implications of this definition.  To affirm that the human person is a  “gifted and giving-creature-imaging God-in relationship” does several things: it acknowledges the human person as limited and finite, yet created by God in the image of God; it affirms the unity of the human person against forces of fragmentation; it challenges us to resist oppressive paradigms that locate us in relationships of constructed hierarchy; it insists that we cannot image God in isolation, but only in relationships of mutuality and openness to our “other”; it identifies gifts as manifestations of God’s own Spirit, flowing in relationships of interdependence for the common good. Through our exploration we discover a theological model of humanity that may inform our approach to community service: it is in reciprocal relationships of giving and receiving that we image and encounter God.

In the final section of Gifted and Giving I reiterate key insights articulated in the paper, offering them as springboards for further questions and conversations. It is my hope that the paper might provide a starting place for reflection and discussion among individuals and groups charged with discerning how we might approach, engage in, and reflect on community service with young people in ways that most faithfully reflect our best understanding of what it means to be human.

Sylvia holds a BFA in ballet performance from University of Utah and an MA in Liturgy and the Arts from Pacific School of Religion.  She is currently enrolled at CDSP, completing coursework in preparation for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  She has served as Pastoral Assistant for Youth and Family Ministries at St. Stephen’s, Belvedere and is currently Chaplain Intern at St. Paul’s School in Oakland.  She lives with her husband, Donnel, and their two young daughters in Berkeley, CA.