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

[This review is adapted, with permission, from a review of this book previously published in Trinity Seminary Review.]

[1] In this first-ever volume of its kind, edited by Mary J. Streufert, ELCA Director for Justice for Women, the voices of sixteen well-known Lutheran women theologians from different racial, ethnic, and sexual-orientation backgrounds emerge, rise, and sing together a glorious new song about what it means to be Lutheran and embody the liberating love of Christ in the 21st century. The book’s seven sections — “Legacies and Margins,” “God and Humanity,” “Sin and Grace,” “The Work and Person of Christ,” “Spirit and Body,” “Knowing and Living,” and “Hope and the Future” — interlace contributions from Krista Hughes, Kathryn Kleinhans, Kristen Kvam, L. DeAne Lagerquist, Mary Lowe, Lois Malcolm, Anna Mercedes, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Cheryl Peterson, Mary (Joy) Philip, Caryn Riswold, Deanna Thompson, Marit Trelstad, Alicia Vargas, Beverly Wallace, and Streufert. For me, reading the book was like getting to hear for the first time sixteen of our tradition’s finest talent, all in one concert.

[2] Though each essay is unique in scope, methodology, and theological emphasis, three recurrent chords link the chapters together into a distinctively Lutheran ensemble, namely, 1) a critical concern for a theology of the cross, 2) an unashamed assertion of justification by grace through faith, and 3) a transformative proclamation of the ‘equally redeemed full co-humanity of all’ of God’s children. “We seek to be faithful to the witness of…the Protestant Reformation—justification by grace through faith—while at the same time raising the critical and constructive wager that all humans, no matter our class, skin color, biology, ability, or sexuality, are equally created, broken, and redeemed” (1). In the spirit of ‘faithful criticism,’ each author explores in a rich, contextual way her personal answer to the questions, “What keeps me here, as a part of the Lutheran tradition?” and ”How do I belong and contribute to our theological tradition?” (2).

[3] Following Luther, who allowed experience—especially his Anfechtung moments of suffering, pain, and grief—to authentically shape his theology, the courageous women in this book transform traditional Lutheran patriarchal theology by likewise engaging it with the evangelical and prophetic power of their own lived experience. The Lutheran women in this book boldly narrate unforgettable communal and personal stories—their own Anfechtungen—as well as how these stories re-form their theologies. Philip, for example, shares the 19th-century compulsory and humiliating practice of Indian lower-caste women being forced to go bare-breasted in public and summons all those living ‘on the margins’ today to prophesy (31). Writing from the perspective of queer theory, Lowe describes how the dominant discourse assigns labels such as ‘unnatural sinner’ and ‘deviant’ to members like herself of the LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Intersex) community. Lowe urges us to add a new contextual definition of sin—sin as discourse—to our traditional understandings of sin as pride, lust, and alienation when she pens this powerful observation: “Persons deemed deviant, foreigner, or queer can be constrained, deported, or punished because of their identities. Some discourses are sinful and distorting, and we sin when we actively or passively participate in them” (75-76).

[4] Vargas, a Latina writing from a mujerista perspective, tells a sobering 20th- century tale of never being able as a person of color to get a call in any congregation of the overwhelmingly white ELCA. I for one cannot get out of mind—nor should I want to—Vargas’ challenging and heartfelt interrogation, “Truly, how many of your congregations would call a person of color?” (101). How much this wounding experience has shaped Vargas’ Christology is obvious when she asserts, “Jesus Christ is for us the motivator for our lucha [struggle] against our suffering and pain from oppression because we believe that he shared our suffering” (106). Wallace, an African American Lutheran theologian, constructs a Lutheran womanist ethic and commends us to ‘restory’ our understanding of contemporary Lutheran ethics by including voices many Lutherans have not yet learned to hear, in particular those of African American Lutheran women (195). And finally, Thompson relates a moving contemporary narrative of surviving Stage IV breast-cancer, ending with the poignant chemo-query, “How does one embrace hope in the midst of life so far from paradise?” (231). As can be seen in all of these examples of contextual theology, the book’s essays exquisitely extend the semper reformanda (always reforming/always being reformed)tradition of Lutheran theology(ies).

[5] I found myself deeply moved as well as challenged by many of the contributors’ theological and ethical insights. Among the treasures to ponder are the following. Hughes distinguishes genuine fears from the ‘virtual fears’ of the privileged, which she defines as the rhetoric of fear that dominates the air- and e-waves in a post 9-11 United States: “Virtual fear and hope therefore are not only misguided, but they foreclose possibilities for justice and compassion…That is, privileged groups are able simultaneously to ignore those who live in real contexts of fear and to project on to them their own fears of suffering and mortality (215). Moe-Lobeda, who coins the term ‘the crucified Earth,’ maps out an unforgettable vision of eco-justice which redefines evil as “an intricate web of injustice in many forms (including white racism) that remain largely invisible to people advantaged by them” (208, 199).

[6] Mercedes, in a beautiful exegesis—or better, midrashic exegesis—of Philippians 2:5-7, reimagines Christ as ‘doula.’ Explaining that a doula in contemporary English means not a slave as the Philippians text is traditionally translated but instead designates a ‘woman who assists a pregnant woman in childbirth, helping the birthing woman to know her own strength,’ Mercedes rescues our image of Christ and our corresponding ethics from oppressive, self-negating, and enslaving discourse (91). Streufert’s essay contemplates a fascinating image of a pregnant Christ that she stumbled across in a Russian Orthodox chapel in Alaska and which led her to ask, “How is Jesus Christ male and female?” (135). Streufert, drawing on Brigitte Kahl as well as Galatians, concludes with the liberating message, “Our differences are different in Christ” (148). Feminist theologian Kvam rediscovers in Luther a liberative understanding of Eve that contrasts starkly with the rest of the patriarchal tradition’s depiction of her as the quintessence of sin and seduction. Kvam cites stunning, little-known passages in Luther where he depicts Eve as ‘a saintly woman’ and a person whose life was ‘full of faith, love, and endless crosses’ (64-65). Finally, Trelstad, a process theologian, argues for an ontological understanding of covenant that reconceives of the relationship between God and humanity as one of never-ending ‘cooperative creativity’ (115-16). Trelstad erases the threatening possibility of our relationship with God ever becoming undone when she states, “Atonement rooted within covenantal relationship grounds our soteriological reflections in the persistent, grace-filled love of God that precedes all our actions or acceptance” (121).

[7] All of the gift-wisdom of the theological essays in this book moves me to share a story. In the summer of 2010, the very same summer this book was published, I took part in a national conference research seminar of Lutheran scholars. At the end of our time together, every conference participant gave a presentation on their work-in-progress project and solicited constructive feedback from the other members. One of my male colleagues, whom I respect very much and who teaches at one of the ELCA liberal arts colleges, delivered a presentation in which, as a stepping stone for a broader argument, he used Luther’s theology of the cross to critique various elements of traditional theology. I was genuinely astonished that during his presentation he failed to mention any of the feminist, womanist, or mujerista voices within Lutheran theology who had already used the theology of the cross to make critiques in a similar vein. As soon as he was done speaking, I asked him if he was aware of texts such as Thompson’s Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism and the Cross (2004) and several others, texts which not only echoed his own argument but would make an invaluable contribution to his own broader project. He confessed that he was not aware of these texts and had not yet read them.

[8] To my colleague’s credit, he did go on to read the texts I recommended. The article he had presented to our group in a preliminary way was eventually published in a very reputable journal. In his published article, he cited all of the important voices of Lutheran women that I had mentioned, and he even added a footnote thanking me for pointing him in the direction of these works. I am to this day grateful for my colleague’s willingness to learn and to expand his theological horizon. But a larger question still tugs at my ear: why had he never heard of these female theologians and their theologies in the first place?

[9] I hope it is clear by now that, of course, this story is not really about my colleague, but instead is about the larger, more disturbing issue of this aporia in theological education. Such a cavernous gap in knowledge shocks the senses. For the problem, tragically, is by no means confined to my male colleagues. When not very long ago my institution was interviewing Lutheran women candidates for a university pastor position, the chair of my department posed to each finalist candidate the question, “Who is your favorite feminist or womanist theologian?“ All of us present were heartbroken when neither of the two finalists could even cite a single female theologian they had ever read. Both candidates were graduates of the very same Lutheran seminary, which I shall not name, and both had graduated from that same seminary in the last six years. I was ashamed, shocked, and horrified, as much as it is possible to feel all of these emotions in the exact same moment in time. How, in the 21st century, can we be graduating Lutheran pastors from seminaries who cannot even name a single theologian who is not male? How can we be graduating Ph.D.’s in theology and seminarians who have little or no working or appreciative knowledge of the contributions of half of the world’s population to that theological discourse?

[10] Both of these anecdotal experiences indicate that it was kairos time for the publication of Streufert’s volume. The fact that the volume’s publication is overwhelmingly needed within our tradition appears incontestable. That being established, several questions still haunt my mind. When will the day come that essays written by these brilliant women do not belong to a separate volume all of its own, but instead are simply interwoven into any text which professes to address Lutheran theology? Why are this book’s contributors seemingly not included in the Lutheran canon? When will women in our tradition not be considered ‘specialty’ theologians, but just theologians, the way virtually every male theologian is and always has been? I ask these difficult questions out of my own love for our shared tradition, and also because it only seems keeping in the spirit of this text to do so, and to do so publicly.

[11] In conclusion, Streufert’s new volume becomes a gate to a limitless country in the sense of the Vida Dutton Scudder quote which graces the book’s first page: “For to remain a member of a historic Church is not to achieve finality. A creed is not an imprisoning wall; it is a gate, opening on a limitless country that cannot be entered in any other way” (15). Though admittedly the text is laden with academic discourse at times, I found that I could not put this book down because every page taught me something new about what it means to be a Lutheran follower of Christ and seek justice and peace in today’s world. Every Lutheran seminary should require its seminarians to read Transformative Lutheran Theologies; every Lutheran and student of theology should read it in order to fully comprehend the rich depth and breadth of this tradition as well as the dauntless willingness of many in that tradition to continue the practice of re-formation and its critique of hegemony. In short, this book is for all those pastors, theologians, students, and lay people who care about lived theology, and who are committed to ministering to the diverse people of both world and pew.

Jacqueline Bussie

Dr. Jacqueline Bussie is the Director of the Forum on Faith and Life and Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.