Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse”

An hour-long teleconference with

Gay L. Byron

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Mary E. Hunt Introduction: I am happy to welcome the Rev. Dr. Gay L. Byron, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC. She is a WATER neighbor, living scant blocks from here so we look forward to future occasions when we can work together. She is Parish Associate for Education and Formation at Northminster Presbyterian Church where she is currently leading a three-part Bible Study on Ancient Ethiopia and the New Testament.

Dr. Byron, is the author of Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (Routledge). She has written articles and essays dealing with gender, ethnicity, and early Ethiopian Christianity which can be found in publications such as True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentarythe Women’s Bible CommentaryFeasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryTeaching Theology and ReligionBiblical Interpretation, and the Presbyterian Outlook.

This session will focus on her work Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse (SBL Press, 2016) co-edited with Professor Vanessa Lovelace. The book is a review of biblical texts and their interpretation with attention to the insights of womanist biblical criticism.

Here is how we at WATER blurbed the book in our list of What We Are Reading: “Starting with the editors’ introduction that overviews womanist biblical hermeneutics and ending with a summary chapter by Emilie Townes that outlines the roads traveled, this book is a must for students of scripture who seek a comprehensive look at the terrain. Wil Gafney on Delilah, Love L. Sechrest on Stereotypes, Cheryl B. Anderson on Song of Songs in a time of AIDS are just a few of the invaluable essays that flesh out the field.” As I reread this volume in preparation for our conversation today, I was struck by its methodological uniqueness. Virtually every essay is deeply rooted both in biblical materials and in contemporary struggles. I was struck too by its depth of analysis on themes from children to gun violence, from agency to love.

Today we are privileged to have one of the editors and an author of one of the essays, Dr. Gay Byron, with us to provide an overview of the book and engage in discussion with us about womanist work in biblical interpretation. I hope you have had time to read the Introduction that Dr. Byron so graciously allowed us to share. We welcome you to WATER, Dr. Byron, and look forward to your remarks.

Gay L. Byron: Thank you for this invitation. Today I want to provide for you an overview of the book, how Dr. Lovelace and I came together to do this project, highlight particular essays in the volume, and more importantly, to talk about what we can do with this book in our respective ministries. I am an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church. I find myself in churches just as much as I am in the classroom, talking about womanist biblical hermeneutics. What does it mean? How do we use it? How does it help us access conversations that are often difficult to have? Here’s a summary of this volume.

This volume, reviewing both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts, demonstrates the wide-ranging interests and distinctive insights womanist criticism brings to biblical interpretation. It brings together cross-generational and cross-cultural readings of the Bible and other sacred sources, including Hindu scripture and Ethiopic texts, by scholars from the US, the Caribbean, and India. It addresses contemporary topics, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement, domestic violence, and human trafficking, while at the same time uncovering the complicated portrayals of children, women, and other marginalized persons in biblical narratives. The essays apply interdisciplinary methods and perspectives, such as gender and feminist criticism, social-scientific methods, postcolonial and psychoanalytical theory, and hip-hop culture to reveal the inherently intersectional dynamics of race, gender, and class at work in womanist thought and analysis. Finally, the volume introduces the critical mass of scholars now engaged in the expanding area of womanist biblical interpretation. It also challenges interpreters from various disciplines to include new voices and bold, innovative interpretive approaches.

The book is organized in four parts. The first part looks at gender and sexuality. Three of the essays in the first part come from the Hebrew Bible. The first essay is “The Invisible Women: Numbers 30 and the Politics of Singleness in Africana Communities” by Stacy Davis. In “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game,” Wil Gafney brings a hip-hop analytical lens to the task of reading Judges 16. Then, Cheryl B. Anderson deals with “The Song of Songs: Redeeming Gender Constructions in the Age of AIDS.”

The second part of the book deals with agency and advocacy. In this section, we have an essay by Mitzi J. Smith titled “Race, Gender, and the Politics of “Sass”: Reading Mark 7:24-30 through a Womanist Lens of Intersectionality and Inter(con)textuality,” which looks at the Syro-Phoenician woman. We have another essay titled “Antitypes, Stereotypes, and Antetypes: Jezebel, The Sun Woman, and Contemporary Black Women,” by Love L. Sechrest. Also, in the spirit of agency and advocacy we have “One More Time with Assata on My Mind: A womanist Rereading of the Escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13-23) in Dialogue with an African American Woman Fugitive Narrative,” by Shively T. J. Smith looking at this whole notion of what it means to flee and be in exile. Also, in this section, there is an analysis on the book of Job and the title of this one is “Battered Love”: Exposing Abuse in the Book of Job by Marlene Underwood. We always think about Job’s unbearable suffering but we don’t think about Job going through domestic violence. Marlene Underwood looks at this battered love and exposes abuse.

The third part of the book foregrounds women on the margins. In this section we have three more essays including one written by my co-editor, Dr. Vanessa Lovelace, “We Don’t Give Birth to Thugs”: Family Values, Respectability Politics, and Jephthah’s Mother. Looking at Judges 11, Dr. Lovelace challenges the Moynihan Report and this whole notion of respectability politics and concludes that single black mothers can raise respectable black men. Another essay in this section is “Flowing from Breast to Breast: An Examination of Dis/placed Motherhood in African American and Indian Wet Nurses,” by Sharon Jacob and Jennifer T. Kaalund. My piece is titled “Black Collectors and Keepers of Tradition: Resources for a Womanist Biblical Ethic of (Re)Interpretation.” I look at extra-canonical Ethiopic sources and discuss how this material can help us to move beyond appealing solely to the Bible for all of our insights and understandings about God. By looking at black keepers of tradition we see that there are many other sources from our own African American and Africana history that can help us to foreground women who have been existing on the margins.

The fourth part of the book focuses on illuminating biblical children/childhood. This is one of the major contributions of this book because often there is nothing about children when it comes to biblical interpretation. In this section, we have Margaret Aymer’s essay “Outrageous, Audacious, Courageous, Willful: Reading the Enslaved Girl of Acts 12,” that exposes human trafficking and lifts up that contemporary concern. The next essay is “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free”: Exploring Gender and Class Injustice in a Story About Children (Luke 18:15-17),” by Bridgett A. Green. Dr. Green explores gender and class in a story about children and thinking more critically about who responded when Jesus said “let the little children come to me.” In that text we are usually thinking about children running up to Jesus but the actual Greek term for children in that text is βρέφη which refers to infants. If we think about these children as babies then that means that there were mothers bringing their children to Jesus. This complicates the biblical landscape about who is in the audience during the ministry of Jesus. The final essay in the book is by Valerie Bridgeman entitled “I Will Make Boys Their Princes: A Womanist Reading of Children in the Book of Isaiah.”

Part five of the volume includes very useful responses to the essays in the book. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, a feminist Hebrew Bible scholar, titled her response “Challenged and Changed.” Emilie M. Townes writes about “The Road We Are Traveling.” Layli Phillips Maparyan, a women’s studies and Africana scholar, adds from her work on the concept of “Womanist” but not from a theological or biblical perspective. We wanted her to respond as someone who brings a different perspective, and so she takes up the task of doing her own womanist reading of John 14 and Ephesians 4. We hope all readers will walk away from this inspired that there are resources that can help us deal with contemporary challenges that not only black women or black people face in this country, but all people are caught up in this web of injustice, violence, and police brutality. I am hoping that our volume will help us to have some resources to deal with these contemporary challenges.

A quick word about how Dr. Lovelace and I came together to edit this volume. Dr. Lovelace is in Atlanta, GA at the Interdenominational Theological Center where she is a Hebrew Bible scholar. I am in Washington, DC at the Howard University School of Divinity where I am a New Testament scholar. So, we are not in the same schools and we had not worked closely together on other projects. As noted in the Introduction, we conceived of this volume through a series of conversations that began back in 2011 at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting that was held in San Francisco. I hope that what we have done in this volume models how important it is to have sustained conversation, dialogue, and engagement around those matters that mean the most to us.

Dr. Lovelace wanted to do a volume that would honor the scholarship of a Professors Renita J. Weems and Clarice J. Martin, both who have been incredibly strong influences on our own formation as scholars. I, too, wanted to do something that would honor Dr. Weems and Dr. Martin. Also, at that time, I was serving on the Semeia Studies Editorial Board, and it was in that capacity that we came together. It has not been an easy road getting publications on womanist biblical interpretations out into the larger scholarly realm. For the most part, publishers did not think that this would be a sustainable mode of biblical interpretation.

Lots of womanist discourse took place at Union Theological Seminary under the influence of Dr. James H. Cone and the pushback from his students like Delores S. Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, Jackie Grant, and Katie Cannon in the mid 80’s. Union in NYC was not the only place where womanist research and scholarship was taking place. Howard University was on the cutting-edge of womanist and theological reflection in the 80’s as well. We do not hear anything about Howard University when we talk about womanist biblical interpretation.

The point I’m trying to make is that I was serving on the Semeia Studies Editorial Board and I started having conversations with a colleague Bridgett Green who was also serving as an editor for Westminster John Knox Press. Bridgett knew both Vanessa Lovelace and me, so she was actually the pivot person who put us together in conversation. That kind of background is important because we can always pick up books and read material but what really matters is how we can bring our different perspectives together. It is important to have a platform for dialogue and conversation and that is why we came up with the subtitle, “Expanding the Discourse.”

Womanist discourse is not new. It is over thirty years old within the academy. Therefore, all of us in this volume are standing on the shoulders of trailblazers who have come before us. How do we expand the discourse? How do we keep this line of scholarship, advocacy, and involvement in the church alive? That way a whole new generation of young women, men, and activists can come together and have a richer and stronger foundation to carry forth their particular work.

I’ve had a chance to share insights from this volume in a number of different ecclesial and community settings. For example, Howard is part of the inside- out prison exchange program. We offer a class taught at the DC Jail (half of the students are incarcerated and the other half are seminary students). I had a chance to come into the Jail and do a lecture on this book and the response was absolutely amazing. There is a hunger out there to understand the experiences of black women. We are not the stereotypes that we see in the media. This volume gives us an opportunity to name for ourselves who we are and what is important to us.

When I teach this material, regardless of the setting, I take everybody right to Alice Walker’s definition in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Then, it is important to know the history, and also to see where the field is now. Our book is not the only book on the market. We certainly want to note our other colleagues who have been doing this work, such as Nyasha Junior’s 2015 book An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation and Mitzi J. Smith’s 2015 edited volume I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader. And there’re many others.

The beauty of our book is that after each chapter there is a full bibliography of works cited. I am very excited about the volume and I pursue every opportunity I have to speak about this book, Dr. Lovelace is doing the same. We have our colleagues using this material in their classes and we are hoping that we can start to see how this scholarship can take root in our communities and churches. 


Q: Angela Parker: It was encouraging to be able to sit and hear your voice from the context of where I am, a place where it has been difficult to engage students with womanist thought. Also, thank you for mentioning Howard Divinity because that’s one piece that often gets lost.

A: In my own work I was so deeply grounded in my own scholarly journey at Union Theological Seminary (New York) that I too overlooked the history of what was happening at Howard University School of Divinity. This is all a part of expanding the discourse. We get a fuller picture of what was going on; not everything was happening at Union or Harvard. What tends to drive what we hear the most about is who gets published. A lot of the main publications on womanist theology and ethics were coming out of Union Seminary, therefore Union took lead with respect to the origins of the discourse. But this is not the only narrative. Would you mind sharing for the listeners your own womanist scholarship?

Angela Parker: When I looked at the volume and I did the review for Brill Interpretation, my main question was that it is hard for a womanist to engage Pauline literature. For me, I am trying to expand the discourse with Paul, Galatians, and 1st Corinthians.

Q: As you and I have commiserated, the loss of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon this last year is a body blow to the field of religious studies in general and womanist studies in particular. How is the Center for Womanist Leadership that she founded providing a space for the kind of work that you and your colleagues are doing in biblical studies?

A: I know that the Center for Womanist Leadership is still going strong. They are doing all types of programming there and are conducting a national search for an executive director for the Center and a faculty person. They are still very much present and have a website and mailing list.

At Howard we will be having a 30th anniversary Womanist Scholars Consultation later this month on March 29th and 30th. This is a 30th anniversary reunion of those who were at Howard from the beginning when they were doing their own scholarship, research, and presentations. This event is called “Continuing the Womanist Tapestry” and is free but registration is required. (NOTE TO DR> BYRON Please send us info so we can publicize. Thank you.)

Q: The kind of work that you do is of global importance. I am a Canadian that lived in Kingston, Jamaica (in the early 2000s) where I was teaching feminist liberation theologies because nobody else was, at a tiny college called Saint Michaels. The students found Delores Williams’ book Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, liberating and exciting. Thank you for this expansion! 

A: This gives me an opportunity to mention one of our respondents Althea Spencer-Miller. She brings a Caribbean Africana response to the volume. Her piece is entitled “Looking Forward from the Horizon: A Response in Africana Sisterhood and Solidarity.” We are very mindful of the global impact of this specific volume, and see this as a strong trajectory for future scholarship. I think it would be great to get a broad understanding of this volume by reading the responses and taking note of how others have summarized this book.

Q: When you said that you brought this work into the prison I was thrilled! I wonder if you might talk about what that experience was like for you?

A: I went into the prison with my colleague Dr. Harold Dean Trulear who teaches social justice courses and has a course on ethics and contemporary society. I gave the class (with the guards sitting around the edges of the room) a basic overview of the book. I started by giving them a history of womanist biblical interpretation. I connected with what I knew those male inmates could identify with which is the system of oppression in which we/they are caught up. Then, what really opened up that conversation is when I started talking about my particular hermeneutical perspective and why I was called into doing this kind of scholarship. I started with the story of how I was raised by my father who was a single parent, I did not have a mother to look at and nurture me. They could see that I could empathize with where they were coming from when I talked about how important it is for men to understand this scholarship. I emphasized that part of the womanist definition that is typically overlooked which is how “a womanist is committed to survival and wholeness of entire people male and female.” After I put that on the board, then the class (and especially the men who are preparing for re-entry into society returning to their mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, and children), said that this way of reading the Bible helps them understand how to relate to the women in their lives. 

Q: Could you say a little bit about your own essay in the book? I found it to be one of the most powerful in terms of the scholarship and method.  

“Black Collectors and Keepers of Tradition: Resources for a Womanist Biblical Ethic of (Re)Interpretation”

A: My essay focuses on the André Reynolds Tweed collection of Ethiopian artifacts and manuscripts that we have at the Howard University School of Divinity. One of those manuscripts, the Acts of Paul and Särabamon, actually belongs to a monastery in Ethiopia. In this essay, I talk about issues of provenance. Who rightfully owns these biblical manuscripts that are housed in museums and other places around the world? I talked about my own scholarship with this Acts of Paul text and how looking at Ethiopian sources opens up our framework for understanding the interpretation of the New Testament. And the essay describes our Howard Divinity School delegation that returned the manuscript back to the monstery in 2016.

The subtitle of my piece is “Black Collectors and Keepers of Tradition.” We have this Ethiopian collection from an African American man who attended Howard’s Medical School, so there is a fascinating story included in the essay. He had collected different artifacts and manuscripts and right before he died, he donated his collection to Howard University. That is how these black collectors help us to keep our tradition and furthermore they serve as “Resources for a Womanist Biblical Ethic of (Re)Interpretation.” Using womanist insights, I discuss my own experience with working with the Tweed Collection. I demonstrate that womanist biblical hermeneutics is first and foremost grounded in emancipatory recovery and reclamation of source material that sheds light on the history, culture, and worldviews of the Africana diaspora. In this essay, I also reveal (this is where the influence of Katie Cannon is always with me) how a womanist hermeneutical framework honors the experiences of black women in the interpretive process, that our stories matter. A womanist hermeneutical framework overcomes structured “academic amnesia” (Dr. Cannon’s term) and transgresses canonical boundaries.

I hope you will be encouraged to find your own ministry and your own way of naming how you read biblical texts. What you see in your community and naming what you see and experience can truly make a difference.

WATER thanks Gay L. Byron for an insightful presentation.