VDS Voices

Alumni/ae Tuesday: VDS Alumni @ Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt Divinity Alumni serve in churches, organizations, and institutions across the country and around the world. Some, however, choose after they graduate to make a transformative impact right here on campus. This series features VDS alumni who work at Vanderbilt, showing the range of work a theological education can prepare one to do. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to meet them!

Norton-JonesKitty_smKitty Norton, MDiv ’98
Assistant Dean for Development and Alumni/ae Relations

How is your work at Vanderbilt shaped by having pursued a theological education?
Because I have a theological education from Vanderbilt, I am able to relate to alumni at a deeper level. My experience is similar to their experience. We often have had some of the same professors. Many of our alumni share the same passion for justice and I am able to tell them that VDS is more passionate about ministry and justice than ever before.

Who was your favorite professor (or what was your favorite course) at VDS and why?
I didn’t have one professor that I thought stood out. I learned something from all of them. Viki Matson, Evon Flesberg, Sallie McFague, Dale Johnson, Forrest Harris and David Buttrick stand out in my mind. Each shaped my ministry in different ways. They taught me different things and different ways to see the world.

What do you like best about Nashville?
I like that Nashville has a lot to offer people of all generations. It’s a city that has vibrant pockets of diversity. Nashville has become a city that welcomes strangers, and takes in refugees. And, Nashville has great places to eat, hang out with friends, hike, bike and practice yoga. There is, in addition to music, a vibrant art scene and some young entrepreneurs.

Posted by on January 9, 2017 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, News, , ,

READ THIS BOOK: January 2017

photo of Joerg Rieger (Vanderbilt University / Steve Green)

Professor Joerg Rieger

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our January recommendation is offered by Joerg Rieger, Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies and Distinguished Professor of Theology. Professor Rieger recommends Transcending Greedy Money: Interreligious Solidarity for Just Relations by Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

For good reasons money and economics are much-discussed subjects at present, but why should scholars of religion and theology join the conversation? Ulrich Duchrow and Franz Hinkelammert, one writing in Germany and the other in Costa Rica, are part of a small but growing minority who understand that money and the structures of the economy are shaping us all the way down. Affected are not just the obvious matters of business, budgets, and pocket books but also matters of society, culture, relationships, and religion and faith.

As the goal of the maximization of profits has become more and more widely accepted in all realms of life, linked to historical developments that reach as far back as the eighth century BCE, relationships with other human beings, the earth, and even with God suffer. Duchrow and Hinkelammert even discuss the socio-psychological effects of these dynamics, resulting for instance in the spread of depression, which is poised to become the second-largest disease in 2020 according to the World Health Organization. This rarely-observed connection of economics and depression has most recently been studied in greater detail in a new book by Vanderbilt Divinity faculty member Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, published in the same series, titled Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Nevertheless, Duchrow and Hinkelammert, like Rogers-Vaughn, are not merely presenting deep analyses of our age that transcend the common trends to moralize and to assign blame to individuals. The authors seek to introduce genuine alternatives that are rooted in various religious traditions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. While each of these traditions has distinct contributions to make, they share in common a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all of life and various commitments to justice. In some of these traditions justice is explicitly tied to taking the side of the exploited and oppressed, and this is also where God is found. Religions, in order to avoid becoming part of the problem, must give an account of how they benefit humanity.

Solidarity is thus key for Duchrow and Hinkelammert. All major advances in the history of humanity are linked to cooperation, they observe. Democracy can no longer be merely a matter of politics; it now becomes a matter of economics as well. Religion, too, needs to be examined in this light. What would it mean, for instance, to love one’s neighbor as oneself in this perspective?

The authors understand, as most of us do, that true change is not easy to come by. As a result, they put their hope not merely in ideas, noting that rehearsing religious and philosophical insights from our various traditions is not enough. Change happens when these traditions are alive in social movements that are on the rise all over the world where solidarity is practiced with the least of these, both human and non-human.


Posted by on January 8, 2017 in News, Read This Book, , , , , , ,

Alumni/ae Tuesday: VDS Alumni @ Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt Divinity Alumni serve in churches, organizations, and institutions across the country and around the world. Some, however, choose after they graduate to make a transformative impact right here on campus. This series features VDS alumni who work at Vanderbilt, showing the range of work a theological education can prepare one to do. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to meet them!

Adam McKeever-Burgett

Adam McKeever-Burgett, MDiv ’11
Associate Director of Academic Services for Vanderbilt School of Engineering

How is your work at Vanderbilt shaped by having pursued a theological education?
Each day I speak with several (sometimes many) students in varying circumstances – some in academic or personal distress, some who simply need someone to encourage them, occasionally some at crisis level.  The ability to serve as a non-anxious, nonjudgmental presence that I practiced in Pastoral Care courses, as well as the ethos of inclusion that pervaded all of my other courses are learnings that I draw upon daily.  I can’t think of a better training for the work that I do than a theological education; I could not do my work without it.

In what ways do the Divinity School’s Purposes & Commitments inform your work at Vanderbilt?

I am lucky enough to speak with nearly every student who comes through Vanderbilt School of Engineering at some point during their undergraduate career, and speak with many of them frequently.  VDS’ commitments to combat, oppose, and confront  racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia are commitments that became ingrained in me through discussions with my classmates in ethics, theology, field education, and history of religion classes.  That I can draw upon the experiences shared by my former classmates to educate, empathize, or make my students feel more safe is a vital part of my role.  The VDS community that challenged me daily to see all people as worthy continues to challenge me to make sure that all undergraduates I encounter – many of whom are in vulnerable places at some point during their time here – feel safe, respected, and cared for.

What advice would you share with prospective students?

Use some of your electives to explore areas of interest.  One of the great things about VDS is that it’s just one of ten schools that comprise Vanderbilt University.  I used elective hours to take an education course at Peabody that helped me further discern exactly how I would be able to use my theological education in the real world.  Being able to take a course or two outside of the Divinity School can strengthen your vocational discernment and efficacy.

Posted by on January 5, 2017 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, News, , ,

Advent 2016

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December 2015 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

The long quiet has settled in the halls of the Divinity School. Students depart to visit family and friends across town and around the world. Faculty retreat to cozier spaces to grade papers and prepare for the new term.

Around our building, the staff is keeping the lights on, holding our steady vigil over daily tasks not beholden to the academic calendar. We know this silence well. In the summertime, we crack jokes about the ease of getting work done when there are no students around. But in the winter darkness, the mood is more somber, the silence aching to be filled with sound and life.

This is the season of waiting.

We read in the Advent story of a young woman whose body holds a secret treasure. From the dark and quiet stillness of her womb, Light and Life are about to emerge. She bears within herself the great mystery—that God will upend the status quo—not with princes and armies, but with a helpless babe, in a ramshackle stable, in a backwoods town. She waits to meet the one who will redeem a broken and brokenhearted world.

In our present time, my colleagues and I in the Office of Admissions are waiting, too. Who is even now walking the path that might one day lead them here? What gifts will they bring? What hopes? Fears? Possibilities? We wait to see how our small corner of God’s kingdom is about to be transformed.

In our wonder, we find pieces of our own story inside the stories of those who have waited in wondrous expectation before us. With thrill and fear, we are Mary, leaning into the “not yet” of the next stage of our life’s journey. We are Joseph, seeking to be faithful despite his surprising role in a story he could never have anticipated. We are God’s people, longing for the One who will bring plenty into a world that declares there is Never Enough.

We are all waiting to see what God will do next.

Perhaps the good work that God is about to do is in you, or in me. What might my small influence do to move the waiting world toward greater justice and compassion? Will I sing the song of Zechariah, praising the God who calls us toward greater mercy and peace? Will I shake up Bethlehem, dismantling its lies about who should be welcomed, and who is excluded? Will I welcome the refugee child and call him Son of God, God With Us?

In the stillness of the season, may our words and works declare that light will outshine the darkness, hope triumph over despair, and new life emerge in the most surprising places.

by Katherine H. Smith, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship

Posted by on December 19, 2016 in Feature, News

Alumni/ae Tuesday: Jeanie Rice-Cranford

Our monthly Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series on the VDS Voices blog highlights posts written by VDS and GDR alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)
in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.

Daily Presence

by Jeanie Rice-Cranford, MDiv’16

In faith circles, we often speak of the daily presence of the Divine. We reference our sacred texts and lift from their context the very promises attributed to the voice of our God promising to be forever faithful, always with us, a forever present help in times of trouble. We cling to these promises and embed them into the fiber of our being to feel strengthened and hopeful and able to continue forward doing the work to which we are called during such a time as this.

In life, as we encounter the world and one another via family and community, these experiences also become embedded—for better or for worse—and not only affect the very moment of occurrence, but often become part of our filter through which we see our surroundings. This filter contributes to whether or not we believe the world is good or bad or something in between. It often plays a role in the development of our attitudes toward situations and others and can dictate the decisions we make in our daily lives. Some of these experiences require overcoming and healing to help us find a positive tract to follow in life.

The knowledge and skills gained during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School pursuing the master of divinity degree are forever present in my daily life. Studying theology at Vanderbilt helped me deepen my resolve and commitment to pursue the heart of God and also emblazoned the desire to pursue an understanding of myself while contemplating the mysteries of our Christian tradition and the ways in which I am called to love my neighbor.

Each day I find myself engaging in theological dissection of the world around us. Whether it’s a local situation with a specific person, analyzing popular culture, or our political climate, I’m constantly trying to find the roots of the meaning we are currently creating and the ways in which we embrace specific tenets of our faith and seemingly reject others. I’m constantly seeking that “why behind the what” beneath our speech, actions, and silence with regard to the issues of justice in our midst.

photo of Jeanie Rice-CranfordMy experience at Vanderbilt Divinity School encouraged me to imagine different perspectives, provided me new tools for analysis, and helped me construct a framework through which I can investigate my own faith.

Posted by on December 13, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , ,

Alumni/ae Tuesday: Kitty Taylor, MTS’10

Our monthly Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series on the VDS Voices blog highlights posts written by VDS and GDR alumni/ae. Hear firsthand about their important work in the community, collaborations with other alumni/ae and faculty, and much more.

Be sure to also check out the Divinity School Instagram feed every Tuesday for our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day. Each week, we will showcase a different alumnus/a as they document their day in photos. Follow @VUDivinity on Instagram today!

If would like to contribute a post to the Alumni/ae Tuesday Guest Post series, or participate in our Alumni/ae Instagram Takeover Day, please email Addie Sullivan (addie.sullivan@vanderbilt.edu)
in the Vanderbilt Divinity School Alumni/ae office.

photo of Kitty TaylorI never thought I would preach.

And I really never thought I would like it.

I blame Clinical Pastoral Education, both the six-month externship I experienced as a Vanderbilt Divinity School student and the yearlong residency I risked a year after graduation. I also blame my CPE supervisor and the best mentor I’ll ever know, the Reverend David Nowlin.

In retrospect, I’ve always been a talker with a purpose. I recently ran across a school newspaper from my eighth- grade year with a section titled “You would know something is wrong if…” and this rather astute classmate’s contribution to the list:

“Kitty didn’t have an opinion on an important issue.”

My earliest ambition for when I grew up was to be a teacher, then a lawyer, then a lifetime student, then a librarian, then a risk taker, and always a writer. Vanderbilt Divinity School invited me to imagine all these roles at the same time and to live them out in that word “vocation” that I’m still trying to figure out or, to use a good VDS term, “discern.”

Divinity School also taught me that still trying to figure it out is okay. It’s actually good.

Right now, discerning finds me in the role of professional talker, a.k.a. Prevention Education and Outreach Coordinator for the North Georgia Mountain Crisis Network, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency. By day I meet with civic groups, church groups, school groups, and service organizations to make sure people know that there are resources and to help people understand that not talking about domestic violence and sexual assault doesn’t make it disappear; it does, however, make survivors disappear. I try to build a small nonprofit’s social media presence one Facebook post at a time, hoping that a shared article or statistic or message of encouragement will reach one person who needs it and reminding myself that “likes” are not the same as effect. I send so many emails. I teach myself how to update a website using a free (read “limited”) host. I read and listen to stories of survivors who have waited years for justice and others who have waited decades to be believed. I try to blend theological education with statistics, and I struggle to blend grace with adverse opinions, cultural norms, and religious oppression.

It’s incredibly hard and incredibly worth it.

I came to this work by what some would deem a calling or a path. Maybe. It does make sense. After all, I know how it feels to be silenced in love with another person and I know how it feels to turn up the volume when you fall in love with yourself.

I remember falling in love with Eve, too, who was the first one to spark my interest in the rest of the story. Her story. Herstory. The one that was never written down. That was before VDS, though our love grew tremendously during those two years and it grows still. I also remember diving into the stories of Biblical women who had something to say but never had the opportunity to say it, or never had it believed. If given the chance, would Hagar disclose she was raped? If invited to tell their side of their story, would the wives Paul instructed to submit to their husbands open up about their fear of leaving because their husbands would take the children, the house, the money, and possibly their lives? And who are the Hagars and Ephesian wives sitting quietly in the pews today?

Here’s the thing about Divinity School: graduation doesn’t mean you’re done. It means it’s about to get really real. So are you.

Here’s the other thing about Divinity School: whatever it is that pulls you is going to find a way make it happen.

This year, it happened in a big way. As of March 29th, 2016, I can officially call myself a published, professional talker. In the biggest risk I’ve taken thus far as a writer, an essay I submitted was selected for publication in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. Condensing much of my Divinity School story into less than 1500 words and seeing it in print is never what I thought would happen, but I also never thought I would preach. It took a lot of years to recognize that telling my truth is preaching.

And I really like it.

Thanks, VDS. Thanks, CPE. And thanks, David.

Kitty Taylor
Prevention Education & Outreach Coordinator
North Georgia Mountain Crisis Network, Inc.

P.S. In wrapping up my first Domestic Violence Awareness Month as a professional talker and advocate, I recently shared some thoughts on domestic violence in the bible. It’s really real. So are its victims.

Posted by on November 8, 2016 in Alumni/ae Tuesday, , , , ,

READ THIS BOOK: November 2016

photo of Juan Floyd-ThomasEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our October recommendation is offered by Juan Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious History.  Professor Floyd-Thomas recommends “The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel” by Gary Dorrien.

Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition stands as an insightful and challenging book that illuminates how the pioneering African American scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with the complex interplay of race, faith, and politics in Progressive-era America.  Although sadly overlooked within the broad historical narrative of American religion, the Black social gospel arguably was one of the most relevant and influential religious movements of the twentieth century. As Dorrien defines it, the Black social gospel “affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression. It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it. Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny. Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression” (p. 2).  Reading this statement against the backdrop of our current moment—an era that will marked by the bittersweet legacy of President Barack Obama and the awakening of the #BlackLivesMatters movement in addition to the toxic emergence of Trumpism and the so-called Alt-Right—Dorrien’s words should remind readers that our shared history is determined by moral choices and political actions that have a substantial and substantive impact on how we are going to live in the world.  In what presently seems to be a highly volatile and vitriolic moment in our nation’s existence, the author gives us a meaningful glimpse of how an earlier generation of activists, advocates, and allies of social justice refused to remain either silent or submissive in the face of racial segregation and white supremacist terror.

Enmeshed within a great cloud of prophetic Black witnesses such as Ida B. Wells, Alexander Crummell, Henry McNeal Turner, Nannie H. Burroughs, George Woodbey, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Richard R. Wright Jr., and Reverdy C. Ransom among countless others, the author clearly illustrates that Du Bois poses a considerable paradox within the academy and the church both then and now. Having frequently taught courses focused on Du Bois for nearly two decades, I always found it ironic that throughout his life he was often deemed much too religious for secularists but also seemed too secular for religionists. As if the answer to a silent prayer, Dorrien argues, “Du Bois was not a godless intellectual removed from the biblical cadences and imagery of the black church.  He embraced the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus. He defied a white oppressor that did not see the beauty and genius of [African Americans]… And he wanted black Americans to believe that their liberation from oppression and exclusion was coming” (p. 229). Thus, the author situates Du Bois’s efforts to promote social justice as being indispensable to a more robust and pluralistic vision of American religion. In the realm of American society and culture, the author depicts Du Bois as a radical visionary in terms of religious belief as well as racial politics whose message is just as imperative in 2016 as it was over a hundred years ago.

Without question, The New Abolition will be a vital addition to scholarship on the life and legacy of Du Bois.  While a growing number of scholars are exploring the role of religion in Du Bois’s worldview, Dorrien’s thoughtfully persuasive and provocative writing ably demonstrates that there is great need to revisit and reclaim such insights in future research.  In ways both large and small, The New Abolition thoughtfully evokes both the spirit and substance of Du Bois’s moral worldview in ways that will certainly make it essential reading to anyone genuinely interested in U.S. religious and intellectual history.


Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Danger of American Civil Religion

The 2016 presidential election carries with it the enormous gravity of deciding not only who will be the next President of the United States—and, by extension, the leader of the free world—but also of determining if this culturally-constructed public theology that is manifested in the legacy of American Civil Religion (ACR) will undergo a desperately needed reformation. The Donald Trump campaign represents a legacy of American Civil Religion that sees as the “other”—nonwhites, immigrants, LGBTQIA, and women—as outside the tradition of American exceptionalism.

Although patriotism, nationalism, and white supremacy are secularly-based tenets, they have been afforded eschatological preeminence since the arrival of Europeans five centuries ago.  Today, these tenets have become a public theology embedded in the United States’ legal framework, customs, and religious practices.  The early indication of this public theology is reflected in the fact that white, male, and landowning Protestants, who abided by professed hetero-normative standards, was the only group recognized as fully human.

In addition to the policy differences between the two candidates, a major issue is whether the national theology espoused by Trump—one fastened by white supremacy, sacralized patriotism, and white nationalism—will win on election day.  For those of us who dedicate out lives to theological study in the Christian tradition, the Bible offers a counter-narrative for understanding the relevance of civil religion.  This narrative, as exhibited in Genesis 1:26: “[Then God said]…Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”; however, many would-be adherents on both sides of the political aisle have largely failed to make this distinction.

The public religion pronounced in Genesis has been espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and an emerging remnant of other Baptized Christians who are living into their faith through their active support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), an overwhelmingly nonviolent social movement that is providing a prophetic witness to the ongoing systemic racism that continues to circumscribe the life chances of black and brown persons in this nation. BLM has performed a liturgy of lament in the streets across this nation. This work of the people has given voice to the pain and frustration of persons for whom justice is not a reality. This movement is a response to the deafening silence of the Church, the institution that has been empowered by the Resurrection power of Jesus to transform the world.

The preeminent issue at stake for this election is not a platform issue of either candidates. The issue is upon what the platform is constructed: Identity. This campaign embodies the ongoing contestation of identity that has been waged since before this nation was a nation. The electorate is responding to the ancient whispers of the meticulously crafted national myth—a myth rooted in misogyny—that asks of Secretary Clinton’s candidacy, “Who gives account for this woman?” It requires that she belong to someone and that she does not possess full human agency.

In a real sense this election has been reduced to a domestic dispute in the public imagination. The dispute began two decades earlier when Bill Clinton’s political scandals surfaced. The nation’s patriarchal gaze focused on Hillary causing her to become the ire of public spectacle, not Bill—the one who transgressed. In ACR’s configuration of what it means to be human, after being white comes male. The linear distance of power that exists between being white male and being white female has been placed on full display during the course of this election.

In this domestic dispute, Donald Trump simply stands in for Bill Clinton during the course of this election—The Donald is the man who gives account for her. This insidious act is performed despite the fact that Secretary Clinton is regarded as the best qualified presidential candidate in modern history.

The power and danger of public theology is that it bestows divine sanctioning onto nationalism. People tend to double-down on their beliefs when they interpret them as being God-ordained.


Photo of Keith Caldwellby Keith Caldwell, MDiv’15

Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Feature, , , , , , ,

A Reflection on Seven Years in the Divinity Library Exhibit Programs

By Charlotte Lew, Exhibit Preparator and Collections Assistant

article imag

The renovation of the Divinity Library in 2006 set the stage for the exhibit programs. At the completion of the renovation, the addition of six exhibit cases spotlighted the library’s potential as a suitable location where art and theological education are integrated. The library has an envisioned goal to provide an environment in which the visual expressions of the spirit can be as essential as the written words. Retrospectively, it was a leap of faith to dedicate valuable space in the new facility to a program not yet developed. Ten years after the renovation, the exhibit programs continue to thrive and prove what can be achieved with appropriate facilities and administrative support.

Along with one hundred forty years of the Divinity School’s growth, the library collections have been expanded and enriched. The treasures of collections formerly underpublicized and underappreciated have become star attractions thanks to the exhibit programs. One important aim of the exhibitions is to promote, interpret, and encourage the use of the collections. Exhibitions are designed to stimulate new audiences and researchers to pursue new ideas. For seven years, I have been contemplating whether my endeavor to adhere to the goals of the programs has proven to be fruitful. A review of the exhibits may provide an answer.

Soong’s Saga in 2009 and Brockman’s Mission Life in Asia in 2011 exemplified contributions from the Divinity community to bring visitors in to the library from as far away as Ohio and North Carolina. Books as Art: Sacred Texts in 2012 displayed jewels from the rare book collections to draw viewers to Special Collections to learn more about materials on display. God in Music City in 2013 showcased faculty achievements that promoted interdisciplinary research and teaching on campus. The Fight for Freedom: Religious Rights in 2014 highlighted the important role played by Divinity faculty and students in the local and national Civil Rights Movement. Vanderbilt Judaica Collection: 70 Years in the Making in 2015 collaborated with the Jewish Studies Center and Congregation Micah to publicize the strength of the Judaica Collection. The current exhibit, Syriac: Preserving an Endangered World Culture, shares the Vanderbilt research collaborations of an international team of scholars in an online reference hub to raise awareness of the role of Syriac culture in world history. An interactive touch screen recently installed features materials that cannot fit into the display cases. The new interactive display brings the exhibit program to a higher level.

Using exhibitions as opportunities to cooperate with library friends, donors, students, and faculty takes considerable time and energy. To design the exhibit to feature the materials in appealing ways and with striking presentation poses challenges; nevertheless, creating a welcoming public space as a forum where the educational experience can be cultivated and personal and spiritual formation can be encouraged is validating and even gratifying. As the exhibit schedule changes in the coming months, again I surrender myself to God’s provision. Just like Elisha’s widow, whose oil sufficiently reached her neighbors, I hope a small jar of my oil can also witness God’s boundlessness that flows to you and to the community.

Posted by on October 19, 2016 in Feature, , ,

READ THIS BOOK: October 2016

Photo of Laurel SchneiderEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our October recommendation is offered by Laurel C.Schneider, Professor of Religious Studies, Religion and Culture.  Professor Schneider recommends “Green Grass, Running Water ” by Thomas King.

Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water is a brilliant, quirky novel that plays havoc with the lines between text and reality, history and presence, spirit/s and everyday life.  King is a writer of mixed Native American (Cherokee) and European heritage whose primary experience of life has been in the colonized world of Christian Native America.  The novel has several synchronic (synoptic?) stories that run alongside each other throughout the book.  There are four Native American young adults returning to the reservation where they were reared to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of them.  Theirs are everyday stories of family difficulties, lost loves, professional hopes, and uncertain identities in a modern world.  There are four old people – strange figures who start out in a mental hospital somewhere in the upper Midwest and whose names change, as do their apparent genders, as do their ages and other identifiers, as they go along.  All we know of them is their dialogue, their focus on telling the story right in order to fix something (again).  Then there is the hapless hospital administrator and canny nurse who discuss these four, and decide to follow them when they disappear from the ward.  And finally, there is Coyote and the narrator, who wander around the other stories.  Four stories, four directions.  A less than orderly tale.  We could say that this is a very Native American novel.

Almost everything in this novel is biblically inflected. Almost everything in it is funny.  Much in it is not funny, even when it is.  Choctaw Biblical scholar Steve Charleston wrote about “the old testament of Native America” in order to demonstrate a different perspective on the Canaanites, turning the tables on those biblical readings that valorize the settler colonial Israelites.  King’s novel can be read as a kind of narrative exegesis on the Genesis themes of creation, fall, and the role of water.  Beyond those biblical themes, the theological importance of this novel is its ability to point past the modern obsession that relegates all strangeness to delusion and all spirits to fantasy.  As Edward Farley noted in his wonderful little book Deep Symbols, our era has lost its capacity for enchantment.  What if there are four elders who walk the earth unburdened by the dichotomy we draw between fiction and fact?  What if Coyote does slink through all the ordered doctrines?  What if these are metaphors, but not just metaphors?  Theology has a long way to go to reintroduce the possibility of enchantment, not solely as a means to understanding, but as a description of the world beyond the brittle line we draw between fact and fiction.  In another wonderful novel entitled Alif the Unseen, a character exclaims, “Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Book.  You’ll be searching a long time.  Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions.  You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”  Green Grass, Running Water, I suggest, is a hefty portion of both.

Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Read This Book, , , , , , ,


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