By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: “I met Dr. Gafney in Waco, Texas, last fall where she was a presenter for the Nevertheless She Preached Conference. But before that I had followed her—read “stalked her like a crazy fan”—on Twitter. I’m fascinated by her work and writing, which convey her unique take on Hebrew scripture. I was thrilled and honored to talk to her by phone in November (amidst extremely noisy firetrucks in my neighborhood) and am excited to bring our conversation to you!”
Here’s the transcript of our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity. My questions are in bold and identified by my initials, JCP. Wil Gafney’s responses are identified by her initials, WG.
“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”
JCP: I know you as a preacher, a priest, a womanist, a seminary professor, and a Twitter celebrity. How do you describe yourself?
WG: I’m a black woman who is all those things. I’d probably say that I’m a biblical scholar first and foremost, simply because that’s my primary occupation. I would say priest secondarily, only because I don’t serve a congregation. My priesthood is non-parochial; I exercise it as a biblical scholar.
JCP: You certainly preached at the Nevertheless She Preached conference in September! We talked about Gomer and looked at her story through a womanist perspective. For our readers who haven’t read A Womanist Midrash, will you explain a little bit about womanism?
WG: Womanism is black feminism; the term comes from Alice Walker. She has a definition that I and other womanists regularly include in our work. It has a number of parts, but it’s rooted in the idea of being bold and brassy, brazen, audacious and sassy; of a girl growing into a woman, wanting to know more than is good for her.
One of the lines is that “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (Walker, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, p. xii). I often say in my own definition that womanism is feminism that is so rich, deep, and thick that other feminisms pale in comparison to it.
JCP: I love that! I was recently a part of an online discussion in which a black woman said it is not the job of women of color to educate white women. How would you respond to that?
WG: Why would it be? That’s my response. Why would anyone imagine that white women’s ignorance is black women’s responsibility?
JCP: And I certainly would not say that my ignorance is your responsibility. What I would really like to know as a Caucasian woman, and for our Caucasian readers, what would you say is the best way to educate ourselves?
WG: So the best way to educate oneself is simply to do the work that it takes—doing the hard work of reading and learning and listening and not just tweeting at somebody, “What do you think? What’s your opinion? How does this work? Can you give me a book to read?” Do all the legwork yourself. Put none of the burden on black women or other women of color or other marginalized people. Educating yourself means doing the work. The work is hard. It takes time and there are no shortcuts. Part of the problem is people are not actually doing the work.
JCP: Right; so would you agree that the work for us then is to be reading and listening to African American women— not necessarily assuming that African American women are there to educate us, but we can seek out and read books or go to lectures on our own. Is that how you would recommend doing the work?
WG: That’s part of it, and some of it is to do the work around whiteness yourselves and learn some of that’s going to need to be done in white spaces.
JCP: You say in your book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne that womanists and feminists ask different questions of the texts than do other readers. What type of questions might those be?
WG: Feminism is diverse and comes in many forms. Feminists broadly look at questions of gender, authority, and power. White feminism has broadly failed to move beyond that. Womanism looks at all those things and is intersectional. Intersectionality is not just about multiple identities or demographics; it’s about the way the resulting oppressions overlap and combine and compound. So womanists are always also looking at race, class, and gender together at a minimum and, more often than not, looking at sexualities and embodiment, ability and disability, immigration status and a whole host of other factors, depending on the interest and specialty of the particular scholar.
JCP: You talked in Womanist Midrash about sacred imagination. I love that term; it was a new one for me! So that has to do with seeing a text and viewing it through one’s particular gaze?
WG: No, it’s the sanctified imagination, which is a specific practice of the black church. So it’s not about anyone’s particular gaze. It is a particular hermeneutics strategy of black preaching.
JCP: How might a sanctified imagination look at, let’s say the story of Gomer, the adulterous wife of the prophet Hosea, that you talked about at the conference?
WG: Well, that’s what I did in my sermon. It takes the text as it is, and it offers ways to read it by creating a story behind the lines and between the lines. And the end result is as widely varied as the preaching practices and imaginative abilities of the preacher.
JCP: So it would be taking the preacher’s view as an African American person and reading that into the text.
WG: I don’t know that anyone would describe it that way. It’s making the story come to life by providing details that will help the hearer engage the text, and often those details come from the culture of the hearer rather than the culture of the text.
JCP: Ah, that makes a lot of sense. Now, you said that your main description of yourself is that of a biblical scholar and you work that out as a professor.
WG: That’s part of how I work it out. I say biblical scholar because it’s the broader term. It includes being a professor; it includes being an author. It includes being a public speaker; it includes doing public theology. It includes all of these things. It frames and supports my priesthood in terms of my preaching and teaching ministry.
“Sometimes the text fights back”
JCP: Something else I noticed in your book, Womanist Midrash, is that you talked about engaging the scripture as— I believe the term you used was “God-wrestling,” going back to the story of Jacob [Genesis 32:22-32].
JCP: Now how would you say that engaging the scripture from a womanist interpretation is akin to God-wrestling?
WG: The text is this often-sacred thing from which reader, hearer, or preacher wishes to obtain blessing. I’ll use the word “blessing” broadly, not just in the sense of “if I’m doing Bible study, God will bless me,” but in looking for a word, an interpretation, an understanding of truth —those are the blessings in this analogy— and the text doesn’t always yield them easily. Sometimes the text is hostile to the process. Sometimes the text fights back. Sometimes one has to engage in a degree of struggle and get down and dirty with the text to bring anything life-giving out of it, so it is a fully-rounded metaphor you’re eliciting from the text.
JCP: Are we able to wrestle enough with Scripture so that any passage we engage could turn out to be life-giving and life-affirming?
WG: No, because the problems with the Bible are as often rooted in the text itself as they are in an interpretation. Some people would like it to be the case that all of the horror of individual specific biblical passages disappears if you just translate them well enough, or interpret them well enough, or use the right hermeneutics. But sometimes the text is itself horrifying. And that doesn’t go away with anybody’s culturally-cued hermeneutic.
JCP: So how does one engage with a text that is unable to be life-affirming?
WG: Telling the truth about it is the most important thing. And then, depending on the text and the context, determine how, if at all, the text has any utility for the individual or the community. Sometimes those stories can stand as object lessons or even as a pole against which to measure what is life-affirming. Sometimes those texts are our ancestral weight that we have to carry with us that remind us of the harm that’s been done in the world through the text in those who are its inheritance. I’m not an advocate for throwing the text away en masse, although some who read this will immediately ask me about the epistles for which I have a very low regard and often talk about throwing away en masse; but with the Hebrew Bible, I do a better job of holding on to even the most troubling texts.
JCP: I often say, if you can’t be a good example, serve as a terrible warning. Are you saying that, for some of those passages, we have to look at them as a warning?
WG: I don’t know about a warning per se, but I would say they still have something to teach us.
“Puns, parables, and poetry are not literal forms”
JCP: Can you as a biblical scholar sum up the stories of the Old Testament in a couple of sentences?
WG: No. No, I wouldn’t even try. I also don’t think that that’s useful because it conflates varied literature into a simplistic form that doesn’t give an honest or deep account of the multiple genres. Again, I study Hebrew Bible, not Old Testament, and there are simply too many different genres and subgenres. One could make a claim about the Torah. It is true that the first word of the Torah in Hebrew, “bereshit,” is about beginning. And it’s true that the last word of the Torah in Hebrew is “Israel.” And so one can easily say that the Torah has been framed as the story of the beginning of everything that leads to the formation of the people of Israel. You could sort of make that argument around the opening and closing words. But the rest of the Hebrew Bible is mostly not in one sequence in Hebrew. There are a couple of manuscripts where the last books show some variation. It’s in a different sequence in Christian Bibles; it’s shorter in Protestant Bibles. As an Anglican, as an Episcopalian, I have the full text from when most of the books that have been preserved since a front testament or back testament were slapped together in the earliest Bibles. The simple variety of what is Bible makes it not possible to make a grand sweep like that. People use the word Bible meaning the thing they think is Bible because of what it is their church uses without acknowledging— sometimes not even knowing— that Christians use different Bibles with different books and different sequences; that whatever it is that’s on their shelf is not necessarily what’s going to be in the pew at another church or the Bible from which lessons will appear in the Lectionary or Missal.
JCP: You mentioned the multitude of genres that are in the Hebrew Bible. My dad is a retired Southern Baptist minister, so I grew up very conservative, very fundamentalist, with the belief that the Bible is to be taken literally rather than looking at scripture as literature and interpreting it based on its particular genre. For instance, I would never read your book and expect it to be a romance novel, nor would I read a fantasy novel and expect it to be a biblical scholarly work.
WG: I think, honestly, people don’t need a seminary-level education to do that. There’s a certain willfulness around the way people construct the authority of the Bible, that if you don’t believe it in a certain way, then you can’t believe any of it and therefore it falls apart. So much of that is illogical because, outside of making those kind of assertions, most people know perfectly well that puns, parables, and poetry are not literal forms. That doesn’t require any background into ancient Near Eastern comparative literature; people know that. I often do an illustration with congregations and seminarians and ask them to think about the way pastors preach in their particular denomination and all the genres they use. So the pastor gets up in the pulpit, and it may start with the genre of greeting: “Hello, everyone. Thank you for inviting me.” You might, to put people at ease, use the genre of a joke; nobody takes that joke literally. They recognize this as a joke. The pastor’s not making a historical claim; we’re not going to go Google it and then come back and say the pastor lied. You know how to switch your ears when you hear that joke, right? There may be singing, there may be a recitation or reading of Scripture; the sermon will have its forms. And in the sermon (again, a non-literal genre) the pastor may say, “Once there was this man who lived in a cabin,” and everybody knows to switch over to their non-literal ears, right? They’re not going to go out to the cabin and mount a rescue operation, because they understand that genre. There’s a certain amount of just willfulness around this pretense, and all of these structures that have been stacked on top of this claim that you’re not serious about God or the Bible if you don’t believe it all in this way, and only in this way.
And so the real issue is: What is at stake for those folks? What are they protecting? What are they holding on to? Why is their faith so fragile that you can’t entertain the rich nuance of literature and genre? And why is it that they imagine that God is so limited that God can’t speak in complexity? In that example of the sermon, that sermon is going to go through a good seven genres in 20 minutes or in some churches in an hour. But in 3000 years of development, the biblical texts only have one genre? I actually heard people say everything in the Bible is literal, except for the parables, but they’re literal, too.
JCP: I’ve heard preachers and teachers say that you either believe it all or you believe none of it; you believe it all in a literal way, or you believe none of it.
WG: But those are their choices and their categories, right? Nobody else is constrained by that, and I’m definitely not constrained by that.
JCP: You asked earlier why somebody’s faith would be so fragile. From what I’ve seen I believe there’s a lot of fear around wanting to be certain. I had a Bible college professor who said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is the opposite of faith.” I think so many people want to say, “Okay, these are the words and the words clearly mean this.”
WG: Right. But they’re off the track as soon as they say, “These are the words,” because they’re reading a translation— not only reading a translation but reading a translation from a compilation of a particular set of manuscripts, sometimes over against other manuscripts. Take something like the book of Psalms, of which there are a good 5000 manuscripts. So these are not the words. I tell my students that the three categories for interpretation are: What does it say (which cannot be gotten that completely and successfully in English)? What did it mean in its own context (which means a whole bunch of study to know what the context is, and whether it’s a euphemism or a pun or whatever)? And what might that mean in our context? And that’s always going to be speculative because we’re crossing centuries, continents, and grammar.
JCP: Right. And the power of Scripture does not rest on what I think about it.
WG: To some degree. The text is only canonical or sacred because people say it is.
Our fond farewells
JCP: Do you have a favorite passage?
WG: I don’t know about a specific passage. Job remains my favorite book; I keep coming back to it. I like Job because its honesty about the inscrutability of God and suffering reflects how I understand the world. It grants permission to argue with and protest to God about things that are not right.
JCP: I have one more question for you. What’s a question that you never get asked that you would love to answer?
WG: I don’t have one of those.
JCP: What’s your favorite question to answer?
WG: It’s not a specific question. But I like when I get to talk someone through a text and help them see things that are obvious in the text that they’ve never seen before, or never permitted themselves to see before.
JCP: Yeah, I love that! Dr. Gafney, I appreciate your generosity with your time. I am a big fan. Your wisdom along with this fantastic sense of humor is what first got me to follow you on Twitter, and I really appreciate that.
WG: Well, thank you.
About Wil Gafney
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne, a commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel and co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. She is an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth, and a former Army chaplain and congregational pastor in the AME Zion Church. A former member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia, she has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, PA. A number of Dr. Gafney’s sermons in Jewish and Christian congregations are posted in her blog. In most cases, the translation of the scriptures is her own. Dr. Gafney is an occasional contributor the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Sojourners and Working Preacher. Dr. Gafney’s sermons have also been published in Those Preaching Women and The Audacity of Faith, both by Judson Press.