VDS Voices

Read This Book: Emergent Strategy


Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty or administration to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our March recommendation is offered by Lyndsey Godwin, Assistant Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. Lyndsey recommends Emergent Strategy” by adrienne maree brown (AK Press, 2017).

“Trust the community” is one of the lived practices and ongoing mantras of the Rev. Diane Faires, and something I learned from her firsthand when we were both students at VDS. When the anxiety was high and our tendencies toward perfectionism and individualism were running rampant, Faires would act and speak out of this core tenet, no matter the context: group projects, international travel, community organizing, or hosting collaborative events. It continues to be one of the most salient takeaways from my time as a student, as an aspiration—to build trustable, accountable communities; and an action to perpetually practice.

While it is a continual journey to learn ways to “trust the community”, adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy feels like a handbook full of possibilities and tools for developing these practices and to help us dismantle “the oppression of supremacy” and build a transformative and transforming world where all can thrive (142). brown is a healer, facilitator and doula of social justice, and writes Emergent Strategy not as a set of dictates or expert positions, but tools and ideas to test and adapt. It reminds us that we are still in the beginning of co-creating a new world, and that if we can give ourselves and each other grace, then together we can build resilience. If we can remember that growth is not linear, but iterative, then we can always be ready to change and adapt. And if we can if we can practice reflection and radical honesty, then we can see that “nothing is wasted, or a failure. Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process. It is all data” (14-15).

brown invites us into being more deeply human through community, through examples that reconnect us to the fact that we are part of the natural world, a world that is inherently interdependent [as illustrated in the book through the wisdom of geese, starlings, oak trees, and mushrooms (84-5)]. And by inviting each of us to claim our right to write ourselves into the future using the visionary possibilities of science fiction, particularly the ever-creative and vital insights of Afro-Futurism.

It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future. All organizing is science fiction. If you are shaping the future, you are a futurist. And visionary fiction is a way to practice the future in our minds, alone and together (197, emphasis mine).

Right now we are living inside the results of other people’s imaginations—people who couldn’t imagine Black people being free, fat girls being sexy, disabled people being leaders. People who could only imagine their own power and dominance. When more people imagine together, and then step from imagining into thinking through the structures and protocols of a society together, then more needs are attended to (248-9).

As the assistant director of the Carpenter Program, my work and the work of our program is to be a conduit for skills, tools, and knowledge that allow communities to have deeper, more impactful conversations about the complex intersections of religion, gender, and sexuality. This also includes naming and wrestling with the realities of white supremacy, ableism, classism and more. At its core, our work is about developing communities and leaders who are seeking to build a world of dignity and justice. Work that often requires a little holy trouble, a whole lot of radically honest self-reflection, and deep dedication to building accountable relationships amongst difference. If you are curious about this work or you see yourself in this work, then definitely read this book.

Emergent Strategy is the invitation you have been waiting for to find your path, your way of being, in building the world we all want to live in. “Uprisings and resistance and mass movement require a tolerance of messiness, a tolerance of many, many paths being walked at once” (119).

Posted by on March 18, 2018 in Read This Book, , , , , ,

Religion in the Arts students create projects of community interest

With Commencement on the horizon, students in the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture (RACC) program at Vanderbilt Divinity School have been preparing final projects to complete the requirements for the program’s certificate.  Three of 2018’s certificate recipients are extending their creative reach beyond the Divinity School community to the larger university community and the general public.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4dd2Julia Liden, a master of theological studies candidate, has worked as a research assistant in the area of Syriac studies with David Michelson, assistant professor of the history of Christianity.  As exhibition curator, Julia is overseeing a presentation of large-scale photographic reproductions of Byzantine iconography.  Her exhibition, “Eikon: a Triple Encounter” will open the afternoon of April 5 in G-20 on the ground floor of the Divinity School. In conjunction with the exhibit, Jelena Bogdanovic, MA’05, will lecture on “The Canopy and the Byzantine Church” April 14 at 3 p.m. Bogdanovic is associate professor of architecture at Iowa State and a leading historian of Serbian medieval art.  The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs through April 22. Gallery days and hours will be posted on the RACC website.

WetheHiddArmando Guerrero Estrada fine-tuned his poetic voice while a student in the master of theological studies curriculum. His final project will feature not only his own poems, but also a public performance of them.  As he began planning his event, Estrada reached out to other student poets and invited them to present their works as well.  Going forward under the title “We the Hidden People,” this group-poetry and spoken-word reading will take place March 20 in the Divinity School Reading Room.  The event will begin with a reception at 6:30 PM.  Following the readings of featured poets, there will an “open mic” opportunity when a limited number of unscheduled poets can read. Estrada writes, “For the poet of color, daily life often involves times of conflict and struggle.  Poetry, then, often becomes a form of resistance.”  Estrada’s final project offers an opportunity in which “poets of color can come together to share their life story through their poems or spoken word.” Joining Estrada will be students from NATIVE (Native Americans in Tennessee Interacting at Vanderbilt), the Latinx Seminarians, and other campus groups.  “We the Hidden People” is free and open to the community.

STEVE-ARTSteve Stone has continued his work as a practicing visual artist while pursuing the master of divinity. During his time at the Divinity School, Stone has brought his creativity to the service of community life.  As leader of Poiesis, the student arts collective, and as a facilitator of student arts events, Stone helped keep the arts in the foreground of theological discourse among his fellow students.  Stone’s final project takes the form of several large-scale photographs—images of fellow students—which currently hang in the hallways of the Divinity School.  Stone says that his project is informed by one of the framing concepts of his master’s thesis: “Art is essential to theological education in that it pushes people towards holistic being.”

The use of black and white photos coupled with chalk inscriptions contributed by viewers helps to illustrate the idea that identity, although often co-opted and distorted by cultural constructions and biases, is a communal and deeply relational process.  Stone hopes that the size of his photographs (6’ x 8’)—each one a close-up portrait—will promote deep encounters with “authentic being” rather than simple experiences with photographs.  “Art offers an encounter, an experience, a moment of revelation. My ultimate hope is for the viewer to encounter, in some way, part of each of these folks’ being, their own being, and Ultimate Being while interacting with these photographs,” he said.

For more information, email Dave Perkins, associate director of RACC.


Posted by on March 13, 2018 in News,

The Holy Nugget of Lent

LentEach month, Dean Emilie M. Townes writes a letter to alumni and friends in the Divinity School’s e-newsletter, the Spire. We are releasing this month’s reflection early to mark Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Here Dean Townes reflects on the meaning of Lent and its gift of preparation.


When I was a kid, I always thought of Lent as the 40 days that I gave up something I really, really liked—or at least tried to. It was a time of denial. A time of losing something I valued. A time of frustration. A time of a growing hunger for that thing I was not supposed to have—be it food or an activity or whatever I could come up with. Some of my friends chose easy things. For those who didn’t like chocolate, they gave up chocolate or for those who didn’t like peas, well, that’s what they gave up. Meanwhile, I was walking around miserable while some of my friends bragged about their Lenten discipline’s ease. I always thought that they were cheating and getting away with it. I just couldn’t see the Holy in giving up what you never touched or did for 40 days, because you didn’t do them the other 325 days.

Well, somewhere along the journey, I realized that what I attempted to do each Lent was missing the holy nugget of Lent—preparation. Yes, prayer and doing penance and repentance, almsgiving, self-denial and more are a part of it, but I was so focused on the acts of Lent that I had lost the reason for Lent. Preparation is sometimes an undervalued thing in our religious journeys and in life in general. Too often, we leap into what we think must be done or should be responded to without taking time to ask basic questions like do I even know what I’m doing? Do I have all of the facts? Have I asked if I’m needed? Have I asked how I can be helpful? The list goes on. What preparation does—as folks still learn from the Rev. James Lawson about nonviolent social protest and disobedience and how to live it far beyond February Black History month—is preparation gives you the foundation for your acts through readying head, heart, body and spirit for the journey or task ahead.

So, this Lent I will begin again to prepare for the joy and celebration of Easter morning and the life that this calls me to for the rest of the year. Sometimes it is a reaffirmation, sometimes it is a new insight, most times it is humbling and it’s almost always much more possible when done in community. But the difference now is that rather than approaching it as what can I give up during these 40 days, it is what can I embrace that will help me be a more faithful witness to the Gospel. Won’t you join me?

Emilie M. Townes
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair
Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society

Posted by on February 14, 2018 in News, , , ,


Amy E. Steele headshot

Amy E. Steele, Assistant Dean for Student Life

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty or administration to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our February recommendation is offered by Amy E. Steele, Assistant Dean for Student Life. Dean Steele recommends
Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths by Melanie L. Harris (New York: Orbis Press, 2017).



“…King accepted a request to speak and organize on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. The Memphis movement exposed the deplorable conditions and environmental health hazards that workers had to face daily, all the while combating racism on the job. King grasped the connections between poverty, individual and institutional racism, and environmental health hazards, and he interpreted these links as threat to justice. These connections are not lost on many African American environmentalists.” (Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths, 67)

Melanie L. Harris, Founding Director of African American and Africana Studies and Full Professor of Religion and Ethics at Texas Christian University, has assembled an important monograph on environmental justice that retraces African and African American interdisciplinary claims and practices of environmental justice in the diaspora. In the opening epigraph, Harris connects the 1968 Sanitation Movement (the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate this year) to intersecting and inseparable realities, which she argues are embedded in environmental justice issues—race, class, gender, and environmental health. Harris’ book, Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths, emerges the same year, 2017, as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, a breach with a 196-country pact that steps back from a joint global agreement to limit the human impact on the climate by cutting back on climate change emissions. Harris makes bold claims about the ethical treatment of the earth, from an African American ecowomanist standpoint.

Harris addresses two underlying negations to establish her central purpose: that environmental social justice that has been relegated to a subfield of environmentalism assumes that black people are new and tangential to these discussions and practices, and that black people, who have cared about environmental justice when other competing social issues take precedence, affirm that many of these issues are interrelated.

Harris’ foundational point is that ‘ecowomanist’ methodologies are birthed from ‘ecoautobiography’. In other words, environmental justice concerns often take root in one’s personal story. To mine the rich field of experience and theory, Harris offers readers a seven-step ecowomanist method, which includes excavating experience, using memory, critical reflection, intersectional analysis, readings from within a tradition, engagement in action, dialogue, pedagogy, and reparations. The environmental crises we are in and those we face cannot be fully understood without ecowomanist methodologies that are interfaith, interreligious, intrafaith, and interdisciplinary. Harris’ own ancestral story is featured first as a way of situating herself, her family commitments, and her application of the methods and arguments she raises.

Several compelling essays by Alice Walker and others feature prominently. Walker’s, “Everything is a Human Being,” “Nuclear Madness: What Can You Do?” and “Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism.” These essays, writes Harris, contribute to foundational principles for activism. Harris ascribes human value, agency, and honor to the earth and each manifestation of the natural world. Harris does not locate these principles in any particular religious tradition per se, but recalls Walker’s four-part womanist definition as foundational to womanist religious thought and thus ecowomanist praxis. Walker’s nod to “loves the Spirit” is emphasized in Harris’ ecowomanist project to expand the notion of the religious. Rose Mary Amenga-Etego’s observations of Nankani women, who have no term for ‘religion’ but which can be best described as malba as the meshing of ‘belief and practice.’ Mercy Oduyoye’s contribution as an Akan woman is also here an example of the expansion to include voices that speak to Diasporic ecowomanist traditions. Ecowomanist spirituality’ is important as ecowomanism seeks “spiritual perspectives across the diaspora” (102). Harris writes on these and other traditions to emphasize, through the work of Emilie Townes and others, the womanist ‘dancing mind’ a mind that is inherently, Harris would argue, interreligious and interfaith.

Harris does employ a classic theological concept of ‘sin of defilement’ to describe the ways colonization has both ravaged the earth through environmental hazards and the bodies of African American women through the system of slavery as ecowomanist problems built upon dichotomies that have operated by subduing and undermining a ‘planetary wholeness.’

Harris’ book is a concise methodological resource for understanding how ecowomanism fits into womanist spirituality and ethics and for understanding the necessity for enlarging the conversation on environmental justice, especially useful now.

Posted by on February 13, 2018 in News, , , ,

Partial listing of Vanderbilt Divinity/GDR professors fall speaking engagements


Jaco Hamman

“The Confession of Belhar,” First Presbyterian Church of Franklin, Sept. 6, Franklin, Tennessee

“The organ of tactility: The eye, the internet, sexual pleasure and personal well-being,” Tennessee Pastoral Psychotherapy Association, Sept. 16, Franklin, Tennessee

“Divinity Friendship House at Vanderbilt,” Governor’s Housing Conference, Sept. 20, Nashville

“Toward a Christian Sexual Ethic: Why a Marriage Ethic for Human Sexuality is Inadequate” Young Life Conference, Oct. 18, Denver, Colorado

“How I decided to do what I do?” Project Dialogue, Nov. 7, Vanderbilt University

Amy-Jill Levine

“Of Pearls and Prodigals: Listening to Jesus the Jewish Storytellers,” Irving and Regina Rosen Public Lecture, Queens University, Oct. 18, Kingston, Ontario

“The Book of Ruth: The Dangers and Blessings of Immigration,” Pray, Eat and Learn series, West End Synagogue, Oct. 20, Nashville

“The Women Who Followed Jesus: Why Jewish Identity Matters,” James M. and Margaret H. Costan Lecture on Early Christianity, Georgetown University, Oct. 25, Washington, D.C.

Lectures for the Medicine and Ministry group, Nov. 3-5, Kanuga, North Carolina

“David and Bathsheba: Sex, Lies, and Politics,” Congregation Sukkat Shalom, First Congregational Church of Wilmette, and Kenilworth Union Church, Nov. 12, Wilmette, Illinois

“Plenary conversation on Jewish Annotated New Testament second edition, Bible and Archaeology Fest, Nov. 18, Boston

“Bewitched by Tabitha,” Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti session Society of Biblical Literature, Nov. 19, Boston

“Wisdom Commentary Series” panel discussion, Women in the Biblical World, Society of Biblical Literature, Nov. 20, Boston

Michael Devlin Lecture in Biblical Studies at St. Patrick’s College, Nov. 30, Maynooth, Ireland

Four talks at Limmud Festival, Dec. 24-28, Birmingham, UK

Paul C.H. Lim

“Calvin, Refugees and the Poor: Human Rights & the Imago Dei” First Monday Speaker Series at Dordt College, Sept. 4, Sioux Center, Iowa

“Four Major Moves of the Reformation” Adult Sunday School Class, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Aug. 20-Sept. 10 Nashville

“Reformation and Racial Taxonomies: An Underexplored Narrative of Modernity,” 2017 Dudleian Lecture, Harvard Divinity School, Sept. 28, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“Reformation & Modernity: A 500-Year Retrospective” public lecture, Montgomery Bell Academy, Oct. 30, Nashville

“Can Science Explain Everything? A Christian and Scientific Rationalist Dialogue” moderator for the Vanderbilt Veritas Forum, Nov. 8, Vanderbilt University

“Global Protestantism: Religion and Foreign Policy,” convenor of a conference for the Council on Foreign Relations, New York

“Four Major Lessons in Church History: Trinity, Justification by Faith, Racism, and Global Revival” special lectures on Global Christianity at Bethel Grove Fellowship, Dec. 22-24, Beaverton, Oregon

Bruce Morrill

“Roman Catholicism Then and Now: The Reformation and Vatican II,” Christ the King Catholic Church, Nov. 5, Nashville

“A Roman Catholic Response to the Reformation” Vine Street Christian Church, Nov. 15, Nashville

Bonnie Miller-McLemore

“Reimagining Vocation Across the Lifespan and into Childhood,” (based on Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout all Life’s Seasons) Nov. 13, Jangshin Presbyterian Seminary; Korea Theological Seminary, Nov. 14; Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University and Seoul Women’s University, Nov. 15, Seoul, Korea

“The Living Human Web: An Idea and Its Twenty-Five Year Evolution,” Korean Association of Christian Counseling and Psychology and Korean Association of Pastoral Counselors, Nov. 17, Seoul, Korea

Joerg Rieger

“Why Consumerism is not the Problem,” meeting of liberation theologians at Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones, June 26, San José, Costa Rica

“Christ and Empire 2.0,” Wild Goose Festival, July 15, Hot Springs, North Carolina

“Which Common Good? Rethinking Religion, Self-Interest, and Agency,” Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding, St. Norbert College, Oct. 17, De Pere, Wisconsin

“Jesus, Jobs and Justice: The Black Church and the Economy,” Kelly Miller Smith Institute Saturday Intensive, Nov. 11, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Teresa Smallwood

“Civil rights cold cases” (speaking on behalf of Tennesseans for Historical Justice), Aug. 16, Special Joint Legislative Committee chaired by State Rep. Johnnie R. Turner, Nashville

“Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative,” Religion Newswriters Association annual conference, Sept. 9, Nashville

Tennessee Holocaust Commission, Oct. 20, Nashville, Tennessee

“Working Together. Doing Justice. Restoring Hope: A Conversation about Race and Justice” Federal Public Defenders, Oct. 27, Nashville

“Scholar Activism” panel (moderator) Oct. 29, Society for Race, Ethnicity and Religion

“Cultivating the Scholar/Activist: Pathways to Racial Justice” conference, Nov. 10, Vanderbilt University

Melissa Snarr

“Iftars, Prayer Rooms, and #DeleteUber: Postsecularism and Promise/Perils of Muslim Labor Organizing,” Religion, Protest, and Social Upheaval Conference, College of Holy Cross, Nov. 16, Worcester, Pennsylvania

Emilie Townes

Campbell Chapel AME Church, November 5, Denver

University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint Doctoral Program in the Study of Religion public lecture and faculty/student workshop, Nov. 6, Denver

American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature annual meeting, Nov. 17-21, Boston:
Professional Conduct Task Force Public Forum (panelist), Nov. 19
Vanderbilt Reception (hosting), Nov. 19
Teaching and Scholarship as Resistance in the Post-Truth Era (panelist), Nov. 20
From Colleague to Leader: Transitions in the Life of an Academic (panelist) Nov. 20
American Political Economy and the Politics of Producing Vulnerable Populations (respondent), Nov. 20

Dixon Memorial United Methodist Church (preaching), Nov. 26, Nashville

Posted by on November 14, 2017 in Events, ,

READ THIS BOOK: November 2017

read this book nov 2017

The question of the “other” is a recurring one. Many scholarly volumes wrestle with this inquiry: who is the other? Toni Morrison enters the discourse with a decidedly reflective view of her own work alongside a plethora of writers who have produced both fictional and scholarly, literary and scientific contributions. Morrison’s particular reference to “origin” is a play on the folksy notion of creation as she weaves her literary prowess into the fabric of despair for those “othered,” while concomitantly leveling seismic critique upon those whose literal and figurative expressions serve to “other” human beings, historically and presently. (more…)

Posted by on November 13, 2017 in Feature, Read This Book, , , , , , , ,

Rattling Bones: A Eulogy for Dale P. Andrews

JANUARY 16, 2013- Martin Luther King Commemorative Program (photo by Dan Anderson)

JANUARY 16, 2013- Martin Luther King Commemorative Program, Elon University (photo by Dan Anderson)


Eulogy for Dale P. Andrews

Emilie M. Townes

27 September 2017

Vanderbilt Divinity School

Ezekiel 37:1-14

pastoral prayer

if we die while being faithful, then death is not the end of life

this redaction from an interview dale gave in 2011 was repeated many times on facebook and other social media in the days shortly after he died

it was taken from a longer interview he did with faith and leadership—a resource from leadership education at duke divinity school

in that interview, he talked about balancing the pastoral and the prophetic as an ongoing challenge for the church

and the specific question he was responding to was: What about those leaders in the church who may say, “Well, social justice is a goal, but we are trying to keep our organization together, trying to keep it healthy, trying to keep it alive”? How do those two issues intersect? (more…)

Posted by on October 26, 2017 in Feature, News, ,

READ THIS BOOK: September 2017

Segovia_Fernando headshot

Fernando F. Segovia

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our September recommendation is offered by Fernando F. Segovia, Oberlin Graduate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Professor Segovia recommends Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky (New York-Oakland-London: Seven Stories Press, 2017) and its companion film “Requiem for the American Dream.” directed by Peter Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott (PF Pictures, 2016).



Re-collections and Re-visions

Beginning next year and for the next four years, 2018-2021, a number of key events having to do with what was, arguably, the most significant development in Christian Studies—theological and ethical, biblical and historical, liturgical and pastoral—of the twentieth century will mark a major anniversary. I am referring to the fiftieth anniversary of Liberation Theology, the first contribution emerging from what was then known as the Third World and is today characterized as the Global South. To speak in terms of a singular point of origins would not be appropriate, given the breadth of this movement. It is far better, therefore, to speak of a set of launching events.

Three come to mind in particular. The first, taking place in 1968, was the Second General Meeting of the Episcopal Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia. Out of this gathering, which followed shortly upon and was directly inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1961), came the first formal articulation and appropriation of the preferential option for the poor as a working principle for the church of Latin America.[1] The second, occurring in 1969, was the publication of A Theology of Human Hope by the Brazilian Presbyterian theologian Rubem Alves. This work was originally titled “Toward a Theology of Liberation” as a dissertation submitted to the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. [2] The third, taking place in 1971, was the appearance of Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas by the Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez.[3] Both the focus on poverty and the concept of liberation had been under discussion for some time among Latin American bishops and theologians, including Gutiérrez himself.[4]

Central to Liberation Theology was a driving sense of religious-theological discourse as contextualized: emerging from, reflecting, and addressing a context—local, regional, global. Such a stance called for a threefold movement: a critical analysis of context, society and culture; a critical analysis of the Christian tradition, the biblical writings and the ecclesial tradition; and a critical analysis of praxis, programs and strategies.[5] The context would be analyzed with a focus on poverty; for this task the tools of the social sciences were to be invoked. The context-as-examined would be analyzed under the lens of the Christian tradition for evaluation and orientation; here the methods of historical criticism would be used. The praxis to be adopted would be analyzed in the face of the context-as-examined and in the light of the context-as-traditioned; for this task the tools of social action and transformation would be marshaled, both in terms of overall vision and concrete measures.

This fundamental insight into the structural framework and demands of religious-theological discourse remains, in my opinion, valid—most incisive as well as most revealing. At the same time, this threefold mediation stands in need of ongoing review, involving reconceptualization as well as reformulation, for neither the set of components (context, tradition, praxis) nor the set of studies thereof stand still, but are always in flow. In effect, the overall critical analysis of fifty years ago would be altogether out-of-date now. To begin with, society and culture today are strikingly different, at every level, as are the models of the social sciences to be deployed. Similarly, the critical approaches to the Christian tradition have undergone radical transformation and expansion, yielding very different views of both the biblical and the ecclesial traditions. Lastly, the programs and strategies to be pursued today are quite different as well, as are the models for social action and transformation.

It is in the light of such reflections that I offer this volume-documentary recommendation for reading. Chomsky’s reflections on the concentration of wealth and power can be very profitably used toward a contemporary exercise of the first mediation: a critical analysis of society and culture in the United States of America. Its focus is timely: the crisis of increasing inequality as a result of such concentration. Its scope is broad: the local as involving the regional and the global at all times, given the nature of the country. Its style is ideal: to the point, with utmost clarity. The combination of volume and documentary would serve as an excellent first step in configuring the context in and for the articulation of any religious-theological discourse today.

What Chomsky sets out to do is to trace the fate of the ideology of the American Dream—a dream built largely on social mobility—from its historical vision of promise, progress, and belief to its present perception of collapse, stagnation, and disillusion.[6] This is a narrative of decline, therefore, for which the dynamics and mechanics of increasing inequality between the rich and the rest are blamed, due to the ever-expanding control of multinational corporations and the rule of the profit-for-the-few principle. It is also, however, a narrative of hope, insofar as the dynamics and mechanics for a renewal of the American Dream are set forth, appealing to vigorous exercise of popular democracy and the rule of the common welfare. This narrative is unfolded in terms of ten principles that are said to govern “the concentration of wealth and power”: reducing democracy; shaping ideology; redesigning the economy; shifting the burden; attacking solidarity; running the regulators; engineering elections; keeping the rabble in line; manufacturing consent; and marginalizing the population. In each case, the present state of affairs is described in terms of historical development, subjected to ideological critique, and counterpoised with a contrasting vision—all yielding, in the process, a treasure trove of information on the workings of the country through the passage of time, the ideology of national representations, and the availability of alternatives.

The first and last chapters provide the rhetorical-ideological framework for the proposal. The first, “Reduce Democracy,” explains how, from the beginning of the country, a constant struggle has existed between two “countervailing tendencies”: an impulse for freedom and democracy coming from below, the people (the Jeffersonian path), and an impulse for power and control coming from above, the rich (the Madisonian path). In the course of this struggle, the country has witnessed periods of progress and periods of regression. While the 1960s represented a period of activist democratization, what has followed has been, out of fear, a period of activist backlash. It is this reaction, argues Chomsky, that has emplaced the present crisis of inequality in wealth and power, through a variety of strategies and techniques detailed in the chapters to follow. The final chapter, “Marginalize the Population,” shows the consequence of this crisis: a movement from below, arising from the people, marked by anger. Such rage, however, is unfocused and destructive—directed not at the cause of the crisis but rather at everything, especially the most vulnerable, and hence ultimately against their own interests. The solution is a different kind of activism and mobilization, based on the impulse for democracy and freedom. This calls for a different set of strategies and techniques as well, similarly laid out in the intervening chapters. To wit: a society—local, regional, global—based not on maxims of wealth and greed, but on principles of sympathy, solidarity, mutual support.

In coming to terms with the critical analysis of society and culture, I would argue, recourse to the arts would prove most helpful. There is a way in which literature, film, and the visual arts can capture and express a context that no work of analysis can match. One need only think here of the power of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) regarding the Great Depression of the 1930s. In this vein I would recommend three short stories that I have found to be most helpful in describing our era of collapse, stagnation, and disillusion. The first is local, about the U.S.: “King Cole’s American Salvage,” written by Bonnie Jo Campbell and part of the collection American Salvage (New York-London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). The background is provided by the Michigan of the Rust Belt in which broken characters endure, barely, in the midst of devastation. The second is global, about Korea: from the pen of the Korean American author Krys Lee, “The Salary Man,” in the collection Drifting House (New York: Penguin Books, 2012). It recounts the relentless degradation of a company man in Seoul who, laid off by his company in the wake of the 1987 Crisis, loses all that he had—family, home, dignity. The last is transnational, about migration from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.: “Negocios,” written by the Dominican-American Junot Díaz and part of the collection Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996). The background is the contrast between the American Dream of migrants and the harsh social-cultural realities awaiting them in the pursuit of this dream. Together, they bring Chomsky—and our times—to life.

If such is indeed the situation in which we find ourselves, directly or indirectly, what about religious-theological discourse? What does one do, and how does one proceed? I leave it as an open question, yet one that cannot be eluded from the perspective of liberationist religious-theological discourse. I limit myself to a word on religious-theological education. I find that such critical analysis of context has been sorely missing in the curriculum as a whole. Allow me to take Vanderbilt Divinity School as example.[7]

  • From the late 1960s through 1979-1980, the curriculum had but one required introductory course for all, “Introduction to Theological Education” (later “Introduction to Theological Studies” and “Christian Faith and Ministry”). The latter would take up “the contours of theological studies and the character of theological thinking as these relate to problems of personal identity and the Christian faith.”
  • With the adoption of the “Minister as Theologian” curriculum in 1980-1981, a number of foundation courses in theological disciplines were reintroduced, along with a course titled “Faith and Ministry in American Life.” Its goal was “to inquire into the nature of faith and ministry in the contemporary world,” and this would entail readings on “the religious pilgrimages of significant Christian (or religious) leaders as well as “writings that provide a good introduction to crucial problems facing faith and ministry in our day, viz., racism, sexism, poverty.” This course was discontinued after 1984-1985.
  • Toward the end of the decade, it was substituted by “Religion in American Life,” introduced in 1988-1989, in the wake of the student protests of 1986-1988. The course focused on the sociology of religion, with some attention given to issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—in “analytical” rather than “ideological” fashion. It was described as “a study of contemporary and recent historical aspects of the American religious and cultural situation, in order to discern the context, trends, and major issues confronting the churches and their various ministries.” The course was dropped after a couple of years, given “a problem with staffing.”

While one can discern a certain movement toward inclusion of social-cultural context in and through the 1980s as introduction to the curriculum, it is evident, quite apart from their short-lived nature, that no rigorous critical analysis of “American Life” was incorporated or presupposed in these offerings.

Is there no room, I wonder, for such critical mediation to be undertaken within the curriculum in sustained and systematic fashion, especially now, when knowledge of context is almost nil? Is there no way out of a liberal humanist paradigm that has lain behind all such curricular visions and changes? Perhaps not. Above all in the age of corporate academia. Yet, if there were, Chomsky would make for ideal reading as a beginning step, for critical analysis of context would demand ever so much more, in economics and beyond. That is my recommendation for reading.


[1] Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council: II Conclusions (2nd ed.; Washington: D.C.: Division for Latin America—United States Catholic Conference, 1973). See especially the “Document on the Poverty of the Church.”

[2]A Theology of Human Hope. Washington: Corpus Books, 1969. Alves followed this up with a paper in which the term “liberation” did appear. See Rubem Alves, “Theology and the Liberation of Man,” in In Search of a Theology of Development. Papers from a Consultation on Theology and Development held by Sodepax in Cartigny, Switzerland, November, 1969. (Geneva: Committee on Society, Development and Peace, 1970) 75-93.

[3] Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas (Lima: CEP, 1971). The English translation was published in 1973: The Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973).

[4]On earlier use by Gutiérrez, see both the presentation given at a meeting of priests and laity in Chimbote, Perú, in 1968 (“Toward a Theology of Liberation”) and the article published in Theological Studies in 1968 “Notes for a Theology of Liberation.”. For the former, see: Alfred T. Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990) 62-76; for the latter, Theological Studies 31 (1970) 243-61 Theological Studies 31 (1970) 243-61.

[5]A most thorough and sophisticated analysis of this threefold mediation was provided early on in Clodovis Boff, Teología e practica (Petrópolis: Editora Voces, 1978). English translation: Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987).

[6]For a spectrum of conceptions of the American Dream, see Edmund S. Phelps, “This Thing Called the American Dream,” Project Syndicate, 28 August 2017 at: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/recalling-the-american-dream-by-edmund-s–phelps-2017-08?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=e8bef8a0bc-sunday_newsletter_3_9_2017&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-e8bef8a0bc-105585741. Accessed 28 August 2017.

[7]For this information I have relied, besides my own experience, on the essays of Howard Harrod and Edward Farley to the history of the School edited by Dale A. Johnson (Vanderbilt Divinity  School: Education, Contest, Change [Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001]: 178-96 (“Social Transformation and Theological Education at Vanderbilt since 1960”) and 265-81 (“Tracking the Course of Studies at Vanderbilt”), respectively.

Posted by on September 6, 2017 in News, Read This Book, , , ,


Perkins_DavidEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book or other artistic or literary work they are currently engaging in their scholarship. Our March recommendation is offered by Dave Perkins, Associate Director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program. Dr. Perkins recommends The Mill and the Cross (2011).

Polish director Lech Majewski described his 2011 film The Mill and the Cross as “art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life.”  As the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder—played by Rutger Hauer—works on his painting “The Way to Calvary” (1564), the painting comes to life. If the film Girl With a Pearl Earring is a painting inside a movie, The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside a painting, a “living painting film” as one reviewer described it.  The true star of this film is Bruegel’s masterpiece. In Majewski’s hands, “The Way to Calvary” comes alive not simply as setting and backdrop, but as actor and story.

The Mill and the Cross is a challenge and a gift. Majewski (himself a painter) conjures a cinematic beauty that is immediately arresting and, ultimately, unforgettable.  The film’s aesthetic scope is both sweeping and, with the help of technology, finely articulated.  In an era where films are taken to task for their overreliance on computer generated content, The Mill and the Cross is a model of the creative partnership now possible between theatre and technology.  In the present cultural climate, it is meaningful to me that such a forward-reaching, experimental film be one with strong religious subject matter.


Along with its aesthetic merits, The Mill and the Cross presents a challenge; it resists casual viewing.  To begin, the film has two narrative tracks.  The first involves the stories depicted or implied in Bruegel’s painting.  The second track pivots on the actions and words, as spare as the film’s dialog may be, of Bruegel, his friends, family, and community at the time of the painting’s creation.  Majewski stitches the two narrative sources into one cloth, blurring the lines of where one ends and the other begins.  Weaving another color into their narrative cloth, both the painter and the filmmaker bring Jesus, the only character not dressed in era-correct attire, into the amalgam as a third narrative element.  Departing from what movie audiences have come to expect, in few ways could this film be called movie entertainment.  However, to those willing to meet the film’s challenges, it is a gift.  Especially to a viewer interested in the creative transposition of Biblical themes into new, fresh contexts, the film can be rewarding.

From the opening, the viewer is thrown off balance by the unsettling quiet of Bruegel’s pre-modern countryside.  The ambient noise of our world is jarringly missing.  Further complicating the viewer’s unease, Majewski takes a minimalistic approach to music and sonic enhancements, deepening the aural void. These qualities, along with an atypical scarcity of dialog set the viewer adrift without a compass.  Majewski places the burden on the viewer to develop the eyes and ears necessary for a full experience of the film.  At first, this burden is an annoyance; as conditioned moviegoers, we resent being made to work.  However, as the richness of the film’s visual poetics increases in weight, the desire to fully participate in the viewing experience takes hold.

The action begins with Bruegel preparing his models—dressing them and staging them as they will appear in “The Way to Calvary.”  This is happening in real time, but, also, in situ, against the painting’s dramatic landscape.  Towering behind a grassy expanse is an inaccessible craggy mountain peak.  Incongruously perched upon the peak is a mill with sails motionless but ready to catch the wind.  Bruegel explains to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), “The mill is the axis around which the people circle between life and death.”  “The miller is the great miller of heaven grinding the bread of life.”  Dispassionately, the miller looks down upon Bruegel’s characters—the good and the bad.  Life goes on. In the foreground, the townspeople are occupied, singularly and in groups, with the activities of daily life, which, on this particular day, includes a crucifixion.

In another scene, we watch over Bruegel’s shoulder as he works on an incomplete iteration of the painting.  Scattered over the grassy foreground are sparse groupings of the painting’s characters.  Most of them stand fixed as Bruegel painted them.  Barely noticeable at first is subtle movement—a peasant in the foreground, two horses in the distance. It is at this moment that we enter into the life and action of the painting. We meet several of the painting’s characters such as a young couple waking with the first light of day.  Their living space is rustic and cramped and shared with a lovely spotted calf.  Calf in tow, the couple arrives at an open-air market on the edge of town where they purchase a loaf of bread.  No sooner is the bread blessed and broken, than the young man is arrested by cavalry soldiers. The sound of saddle leather and spurs accompanies the wife’s wailing.  The young man is whipped, beaten and lashed to a wagon wheel on which he is hoisted high in the air atop a “tree of death.”  Crows circle to feast on his undead flesh.

The young man’s execution foreshadows the film’s climax, the crucifixion of Christ transposed to 16 C. Flanders during Spanish occupation.  Majewski creates a dramatic tension that disallows the viewer to let go fully and surrender to the film’s beauty.  In the absence of dialog, the friction between the serene and intoxicating beauty of the setting and the threat of violence becomes the film’s most effective dramatic element.

With his patron observing, Bruegel sketches Mary (Charlotte Rampling) as she weeps in anticipation of Jesus’ death.  To depict the crucifixion, Bruegel has chosen the moment when Simon of Cyrene is conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross.  Bruegel’s onlookers are more interested in Simon’s inconvenience than with Jesus’ plight.  Bruegel: “I must hide him (Jesus) from the eye.”  Patron: “Why?”  Bruegel: “Because he is the most important element.”  Here is the artists’ (Bruegel’s and Majewski’s) contention that much of the truly significant is often missed in the course of what seems a relatively typical day.  Majewski is about to show Bruegel performing one of the roles artists perform most uniquely.

The patron asks, “Do you think you can express [all of] this?  How?”  In what, to this viewer, is the film’s most memorable scene, Bruegel responds to his patron’s query “How?” by slowly raising his right hand toward heaven.  Seeing the artist’s raised hand, the miller follows suit.  In obedience to the miller’s charge, the mill’s sails stop turning, its gears slow to a stop, grain for the life-sustaining bread of life stops streaming forth. The world comes to a standstill.  This is for the benefit of us, the viewers.  With time at a standstill, we are able to sift through the world’s chaos, to parse the flux of the many layers of activity depicted in “The Way to Calvary.” The filmmaker gives us both time and perspective through which to find meaning.  This scene is Majewski’s commentary on one of art’s great contributions—to freeze events and bodies, which would otherwise dissipate in the mist of time, lost to future eyes and minds.  Majewski brings “The Way to Calvary” to life only to stop it for our moment of reflection if we will take the time to grasp what it offers.

When Majewski’s work is done and cinematic action fades to black, light slowly returns revealing that we have leapt forward five centuries and are standing before Bruegel’s painting where it hangs, day-in-day-out, in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.  Seeing it surrounded by other works, one among many, smaller than I would have imagined, the painting is humbled.  Yet, as I gaze at the work I know, somehow, that I share with it deep secrets.

Director: Lech Majewski
Writer: Michael Francis Gibson, Lech Majewski
Starring: Rutger Hauer (Pieter Bruegel the Elder), Charlotte Rampling (the Virgin Mary), Michael York (Nicolaes Jonghelinck, Bruegel’s patron)

Posted by on March 16, 2017 in News

Exploring Faculty Scholarship: Seven Years of Interviews

We invited Christopher Benda, a theological librarian at Vanderbilt Divinity Library, to reflect on seven years of his audio interview series “Authorial Intentions.” Chris first joined the Vanderbilt Library system in 1997 and joined the Divinity Library staff in 2007. He and his colleagues are invaluable resources supporting student and faculty scholarship and research.

This May will mark the seventh year of Authorial Intentions, a series of interviews with Divinity and GDR faculty about recent or forthcoming publications.  The inspiration behind doing these interviews came from the interview series Entitled Opinions, which I enjoyed listening to while taking walks or doing household chores.  Robert Harrison, the Stanford professor of French and Italian who hosts Entitled Opinions, talks with his guests about all sorts of topics, from African and Caribbean Francophone writers to Wittgenstein.  My enjoyment of Harrison’s show led me to think about doing something similar with Divinity School faculty.  Desiring a bit more structure than an extemporaneous conversation, I decided to focus on new faculty publications.  I would read faculty books, generate a list of questions, and use them to guide the conversation.  And that’s how I’ve mostly conducted the interviews.

The interviews are all audio rather than video – partly because of my experience listening to Entitled Opinions, partly because someone I consulted on campus asked, “What will video get you that audio won’t?” or words to that effect.  Nothing that I could think of, so audio it was.  Anyone can get to the interviews:  they’re on the Divinity Library Web site as well as in DiscoverArchive, Vanderbilt’s institutional repository.  A few are in iTunes U; at some point, I’d like them all to be there.

Last year, I started a second series of interviews, this one called Open Exchanges.  Also available on the Divinity Library Web site and in DiscoverArchive, this interview series focuses on (typically) shorter faculty publications that can be made available online for anyone to read.  The impetus for this series is both practical and philosophical:  practical in the sense that folks who listen to the interview don’t need to go out of their way (or spend any money) to read the item that the interview is concerned with; philosophical in the sense that many libraries and librarians are advocates of open access publications, and this series is a small way of advocating in that direction.

The interviews have been helpful for me to get to know faculty work and the faculty themselves.  I hope they’ve also been helpful for listeners.  Generally speaking, the actual interview process has been uneventful, though one particular interview stands out:  it was with a faculty member who was in France at the time, and I was still doing interviews using a Mac laptop (I’ve since moved to a small recorder that’s easier to tote around).  We decided to use Skype, and I found some free software to record the interview.  Things were going well until the thunderstorm started (on his end).  We needed to truncate the interview, and, instead of trying to pick up where we left off, we started all over again.  (I only released the finished version.)  So far, that’s as exciting as the interview process has gotten – but I’m hoping that all of the interviews, in their own ways, have been exciting to listen to and learn from.

Posted by on February 6, 2017 in Feature, , , , ,


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