Follow Up to WATERtea

“Information Apocalypse”

with Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 at 2 pm ET

A Follow-up Conversation from Susan’s Pat Reif Lecture

The video recording is available here.


Mary E. Hunt

Welcome one and all to WATER’s February 2021 tea with my friend Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. We had a brainstorm when Susan gave the Patricia A. Reif Lecture in October 2020, a program that is housed at Claremont Graduate University and sponsored by several  Immaculate Heart entities and several groups related to Mount St. Mary’s University in LA among other generous sponsors. Our brainstorm was to extend the conversation that began that night about the “Information Apocalypse” to another audience. So we gather, hopefully after watching the video of the lecture, at a new moment in history, post a certain president who will not be named, but with all of the complexities that Susan named. I am glad we are dealing with these issues now while there seems to be a public but not private lull in the action. We cannot be seduced into thinking the problems are solved.

WATER programs are aimed at supporting and igniting social change. Whether in theology, ethics, or ritual, our efforts are geared to bring together solid academic/scholarly data with the activist commitments of our Alliance. Today’s program is no exception, inspired by Pat Reif, a scholar activist par excellence, and led by another such scholar activist, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite.

Janice Poss is the coordinator of the Pat Reif Lecture Series. She is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate School, involved with the 1000 Women in Religion project that we discussed last week with Colleen Hartung and Elizabeth Ursic to get women into Wikipedia.


Janice Poss

Thank you Mary for hosting this WATERtea and inviting me to say a few words. I am currently a PhD Candidate in the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Claremont Graduate University. I am also the coordinator of the annual Pat Reif, IHM, Memorial Lecture series at CGU, now in its eighteenth year. Every year we invite a feminist theologian to speak to our students, and local feminist and international groups about topics that Pat Reif held dear. If you don’t know who Pat Reif is, let me explain.

Pat Reif was a stalwart feminist teacher, scholar, philosopher and activist and an over fifty-year member of the Immaculate Heart Community which was originally a Roman Catholic canonical order of women religious inaugurated in 1849 in Spain.  The Los Angeles group broke from the Vatican in the late 60s for embracing the changes enumerated by the sixteen documents known as the Second Vatican Council. These documents instrumented transformation and modernization throughout the Church.

The film, Rebel Hearts, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival just last month, documents the community’s story as they discerned their break as a canonical order. Their extensive archival records and interviews with those who broke away are wonderfully poignant today and is well worth seeing. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Pat Reif is featured prominently.]

Susan was our 18th speaker for the lecture last October when she spoke on the topic we will hear about today. She attracted over 189 attendees and, therefore, it is fitting to show it to a broader audience in spreading Susan’s wisdom. I hope you all will be enlightened by this timely topic! I know I am excited to hear it again.


Mary E. Hunt, introduction of Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Susan was with us for a WATERtalk in September 2020 when she spoke about one of her mystery stories, When Demons Float (Resource Publications, 2019). In that book and others in the series, we saw a vivid exposition of today’s big agenda: racism and white supremacy, hatred of all things Muslim, weaponized misogyny, and the impact of the cyber world especially on weak, white men who are preyed upon and eventually coaxed into violence, the likes of which we are witnessing this election season.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite was also with us in April 2016 when she spoke about her book Women’s Bodies As Battlefield: Christian Theology And The Global War Of Women (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). That book remains vividly relevant today.

Susan is Professor Emerita and President Emerita at Chicago Theological Seminary where she taught for twenty years before serving as the 11th president from 1998-2008.  Prior to the Presidency, she was also director of the PhD Center. She has a PhD from Duke University, a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, and a B.A. from Smith College.

An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author or editor of at least 16 books in theology and ethics. In retirement, she maintains an active presence on blogs, is a regular column in the Vail Daily where she lives in Colorado, and as the writer of the Kristen Ginelli Mystery series, including Where Drowned Things Live (2017) and Every Wickedness (2017).

She is a founder and a former trustee of Faith in Public Life. She has been on the Advisory Committee of the American Academy of Religion Section on Religion and Politics, a section she helped found. She is also consulted for the Carter Center “Scholars in Action” and the Women, Religion, Violence, and Power program; she is an activist at heart. What she said in the Reif Lecture about putting your body where it matters to claim agency, to write locally, and to resist white supremacy is what she does. Her primary concerns are violence against women and the violence of war.

As a mother and a grandmother, she sees the big picture—climate change, economic injustice, and systemic racism/sexism/xenophobia/heterosexism as with us into the future until and unless we stop them now. Using both the arts and the critical theory, fiction and long-form writing, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is exposing and trying to resist the “Information Apocalypse,” and she does it as well as anyone I know.

Welcome back and thanks for joining us.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Continued thoughts flowing from the Pat Reif Lecture:

  • Extremism and Polarization
    • No one is a passive recipient of information
    • Information technology is an accelerant for damage→ damaging because of its lack of embodiment, anonymity
    • Twitter feed can be full of threats
      • Every time you click on a story you are feeding the algorithms → calculating what you choose
      • Doesn’t give you better information → trying to figure out what to sell you
      • When you click on the article/story, you become part of the information apocalypse
        • People mostly just read headlines → the more polarizing the headline, the more you get sucked in
    • Impoverishment of language (what Trump was great at): “The simpler the words, the more people are willing to click on it”
      • “Sensationalism and polarization drive our choices”
        • We all have information preferences
        • Makes a point not to repost, as it drives more hits and reaffirms preferences
        • Try to look for two sources on any given story
          • Washington Post has a two-source policy
      •  Magnifying the polarization
        • “We are so deeply misogynist as a society”
        • Perpetuating misogyny when you click on articles and repost them
        • “You help drive the story or not drive the story”
        • “The use of social media is now a political act”
          • “They hate it when we [women] take ownership of our Christian faith.”
          • A way to make noise: doesn’t build bridges, but makes it visible
          • Misogyny is hidden from some people, same with racism
      •  We are a deeply racist society → the stories may be fake, but the racism is real
        • Feeds the polarization
        • Polarization via conspiracy theory has become worse and worse
      • George Orwell’s 1984
        • “Newspeak” → impoverished language, suppresses capacity to think in complex, linguistic ways
        • “Doublethink” → the ability to simultaneously hold two different views at the same time
          • g. Kellyanne Conway disputing the size of the inauguration crowd in 2017, “We have to put out alternative facts.”
      •  The facts do not matter to change a person’s mind for people already deeply misinformed
      • “Language itself requires lying”
        • Language also developed the capacity to imagine → through the arts, poetry, music
          • “Language actually forms culture without having a one-to-one relationship with reality”
          • “Embodiment itself – to feel as if you are being acted upon – is depressing, you feel powerless”
            • Marches for BLM, even during the pandemic, made huge impact
              • The centrality of “the march” → nonviolent direct action
            • Seeing, not being seen; acting, not being acted upon
            • Empowers people but also changes the “lying narrative”
            • 15 to 25 million people participated in the BLM marches → it is the performance of the truths
      •  Impressed by Biden’s ability to perform grief
        • The candles at the White House for 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19
          • “Performed with the lights surrounding them,” didn’t say anything
          • Performance is not so much the words, and that is why ritual is important
      •  “Don’t tell, show it”
        • Learned through writing novels
      • “Better to perform feminist theology than it is to write it”
        • Feminist theology itself is not passive, it’s active
          • “We say, ‘This shall not stand!’”
          • “If you don’t say that, you’re not a feminist theologian, you’re just a tourist.”
      •  “Art is a way to perform in the face of this fire of lies and conspiracies.”
      • Critical thinking → to step back and ask, “Should I choose to feed the algorithm?”
        • Choose to watch the live feed/read the primary source rather than someone’s digestion of it
  •  Poem: “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman at the 2021 US Inauguration → led into the Q&A Discussion


Q&A Discussion

  • “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
    • What does she have to say?
    • A performance isn’t just words → her appearance and just being in that environment
      • “She personified a new era in just being there”
      • It was a performance
        • Power in the gestures, the appearance, but also the words
    •  “She is the future we want to live into”
      • An antidote to the poison that had come before
    • “She became the poetry”
    • What separates “alternative facts” from the commended imagination and performance?
      • Does it speak to the truth of the human condition, or is it trying to damage/distort/undermine that deep truth?
      • What is good and what is evil?
        • “You know good and you know evil by what it does…by what it performs.”
  •  Algorithm definition
    • From Susan: computer code/systems registering what we click on, tabulating our activity
    • From the chat, Christine Bandilla: “In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation. Algorithms are always unambiguous and are used as specifications for performing calculations, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks” (Wikipedia).
  • The problem with princesses: worried for young girls being impacted by the princess narrative
    • What are they performing? Long flowing dresses
      • Princess scientist dresses, decorated with the solar system, and paired with science kits
    • Trying to force little girls into the mold of the passive Disney princess
    • In raising boys, too, offering examples of strong men who are peace activists
  •  Civil religion of the Biden administration: How do you see this civil religion as a counterbalance to the many forms of authoritarian religious practice so common in many traditions?
    • Finding a “spiritually satisfying approach to how to be human with each other”
    • Changing landscape of religion
    • Domestic terrorism’s influence on Christianity, and there are forms of Christianity that are also feeding domestic terrorism
    • “The presidency is a bully pulpit.”
      • But Biden making the White House feel like a home
  •  It’s not a perfect union → back to “The Hill We Climb,” we have two visions in front of us:
    • apartheid, a small group of wealthy white men who will disenfranchise anyone who “doesn’t get to play”
    • A hill we have to climb
  • Anna Perkins from Jamaica: BLM has taken off beyond North America
    • Disenfranchisement goes beyond the borders of the United States, extends to many other countries
    • Race is constructed in different ways, but racism is universal
      • A mechanism to deliver bodies to exploitation
    • Global phenomenon, but the United States is exporting it
      • “Through the internet, hate and models of hate can spread.”
  •  Women of the last administration looked a certain way and echoed what the patriarchy was saying → In contrast, Amanda Gorman embodied what she was saying, but signed up for IMG modelling right after, as did the niece of Kamala Harris
    • What are we doing to these young women who are presenting a unique way of being in the world?
    • Capitalists see where the power is
      • Can these women use capitalism more than capitalism will use them?
    • “These are young women finding their way, hence the need for other women to help them find their way.”
      • Michelle Obama is mentoring Amanda Gorman
  •  Bearing in mind the history of the military and church silencing the stories of human rights violations, especially regarding violence against women and refugees → Will Biden’s actions match his performance in terms of holding up human rights or silencing their violation?
    • Poetry and performance can be very powerful, but it can also cloud
      • Don’t tell me what you’ll do, but show me what you’ll do
    • People respond to spectacle
    • Imagine hope
      • Hope as a strategy (Gloria Steinem)
      • A product of what we read and consume
      • Hope does not come out of the sky in a parachute. “Hope does not exist in a moment; we must create hope,” and it is a Christian’s duty to do so. – Gustavo Gutiérrez
        • How do you create hope?
    •  There is no single action that will fix this
  •  In fascist, dictatorial regimes, the first to be disappeared are the artists and academics.
    • A litmus test: how the administration treats/appreciates artists and art
    • Trump didn’t host artists; the Obamas hosted many

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Related and Referred to Resources

Notes by Ally Jeffers and Anali North Martin