Review: Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Fortress, 2010)

[1] I like books that confirm my considered judgments, but I have come to like even more books that compel me to litter the margins with observations, questions and challenges. Transformative Lutheran Theologies, a collection of sixteen essays presenting feminist, womanist and mujerista perspectives, offers reading experiences of both types. My first question concerns the book’s audience. To whom are these essays primarily directed? Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary states in her commendation of the volume that she can’t wait to put this book on a course reading list, having waited twenty years for such a text. She foresees using these essays side by side with Luther’s writings when teaching the Reformer’s theology and concludes, “Luther would no doubt be proud – maybe even a bit envious.” Actually, given his track record with contemporaries who took what he called “my Gospel” in unauthorized directions, chances are he would be greatly perplexed and consequently outraged. This reference to Luther is for me curious in the first place. Why the note of wry deference? Luther’s projected pride does not legitimize the value and integrity of this theological enterprise. Feminist, womanist and mujerista discourses serve the community well by their insistence on critical conversation with the Lutheran tradition and its varying theologies over time. No one will have the determining word, because evangelical truth must be discerned ever anew as it is embodied or lacking in communities of faith. Luther himself recognized this when he insisted that the Gospel is not something we can hold in our hands or tuck safely away in a little chest. We have it only as the most fragile of things – a word that sounds upon the ear, reaches to the heart, and then passes away into nothingness. It never comes back to the same person twice. We are always in flux, and consequently there is the holy possibility that the familiar Word will turn out not to be so familiar after all. It will keep sounding on the ear and entering the heart and making us new. This is the hope of the authors of these essays. Their genre is not proclamation, but they tell their stories and develop their arguments with an urgency that can change the way the reader sees the world and his/her place in it.

[2] This brings me back to the issue of audience. These essays present the problems – racial, gender, economic discrimination, perverse responses to embodiment, studied avoidance of suffering in one’s own life and, most brutally, in the lives of others, shameless greed, unapologetic stupidity and spiritual shallowness – that make American society and, more particularly, Lutheran churches toxic. The dark reality of the situation of women, persons of color, and others pushed to the margins of society is laid out with compelling certainty. The authors offer this critique in bold strokes; they aim to expose such prejudice and ignorance to their readers and catch them up in a new vision. It is the second use of the law at work. The audience seems to be students and other persons for whom such perspectives come as more or less astounding news. However, readers (this one at least) who already share the convictions of the authors may come away frustrated. Compelled by the law to repent, the personal and social sinner lives forgiveness out in newness of understanding and of living. As Gerhard Forde put it, “Now that you know that you don’t have to do anything, what are you going to do?” Disciples of Christ need help with a game plan forhow to enact these faith commitments in the reality of life in both kingdoms.

[3] Consider this passage from “Being Church as, in and against White Privilege” by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda:

Moral vision, or truth telling, complicates the question with which we began: What would it mean for the Lutheran church in the United States to be a church of racial and economic justice a church that holds evangelical defiance to white racism and economic violence as central to proclaiming the gospel? The question deepens dangerously, for we must consider what it means to be antiracist for a church composed of both colonizers and colonized, especially when the colonizers still in some senses dominate. We must grapple with what constitutes economic justice-making for a church that includes people whose ways of living depend upon the exploited labor of others in the same body (200).
One is ready for the next step, where moral vision moves from truth telling into truth doing. I live in a town house complex in a small community across the bay from San Francisco. There seems to be at least one foreclosure notice posted in every building. Ironically, here is one instance where the bank is functionally color-blind; the ranks of the defaulters contain persons of every race, creed, color, national origin, and gender identity. But the creation of solidarity amidst this diversity is not enough. A friend and I drive past our local branch of Wells Fargo. She sighs and comments, “That place has a carefully balanced workforce in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and language. In my experience the folks there are always friendly and eager to help. On their desks they have pictures of kids, knickknacks from the Philippines and Mexico and New York City and A’s bobbleheads. They are hardly the enemy. And yet I know somewhere in that bank there beats a heart of darkness that needs to be staked. I just don’t know where.” How might one put transformative Lutheran theologies into practice in such a situation? How might they chart the move from talking the talk to walking the walk? Once challenged to re-appropriate grace against the realities of violent prejudice and arrogant entitlement of whatever sort, where do we go from there? Granted, the authors in this book have written the essays of their choice in keeping with the overarching purposes of the collection as a whole. It is hardly a legitimate review to say that they should have written the book I want. This is just to say, however, that readers who have already traveled some distance along the transformative theological paths discussed here may well be ready for something more.

[4] It is the historian in me who always wants theologians to show me the money in discipleship currency. Lutheran theology is unbending in its insistence on ambiguity. On the one hand, you can see the Spirit transforming this community’s cries for a better world into potent agency for God’s new realm of justice, righteousness and mercy. On the other, you can see this very same hunger and openness to suffering being co-opted and manipulated. If we are to move forward as not just transformers of theology but as renewers of the world, most of us need guidance and inspiration. It is often said that Lutheran theology leaves much to be desired in its doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Whether one agrees with this charge or not, one can see its roots in the insightful and baffling paradoxes of Lutheran teaching: life in two kingdoms, life under law and Gospel, life as simultaneously saint and sinner. Perhaps the hardest simul we bear is being hopeful for healing while also despairing of the world’s prospects in the wake of sin. It is like seeing with a severe astigmatism – but not all the time and not everywhere. I know many of the women who contributed essays to this volume. They are my sisters in the faith, my (blessedly challenging) companions in discipleship, my friends, my saints. That is why I am nagging them to write Volume Two. I know some of the stories they can tell and the witness they can give to the Spirit bringing the hearts of darkness into perfect light and providing the sharpened stakes when needed.

Jane E. Strohl

Jane E. Strohl is Professor of Reformation History at Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, CA.