by Anna Kate McWhorter, Staff Writer
“First of all, she had a name, and she had a history…”
So begins Scott Cairns’ poetic retelling of part of Genesis 19 in “The Turning of Lot’s Wife.” As Cairns’ process of filling in the gaps of this biblical narrative indicates—even in its very first line—there are a vast number of unheard voices to be acknowledged when we read the Hebrew scriptures. From political ideology to the perpetuation of heteronormative patriarchal hegemony to justification for environmental neglect and devastation, the Christian Bible—which includes Hebrew scripture in an inseparable way—persists as both a gentle guidebook for provoking thought in some hands, and a rhetorical weapon for exclusion in others. Thus, it is essential that we begin to openly recognize, without shame or judgment, the ways in which all biblical readers filter the text, not simply for reshaping it to fit a particular agenda (though this too, happens more often than it should) but in order to make sense of an ancient collection of literature, legal codes, treaties, and poetry in light of our contemporary context.
The one and a half semesters I have now spent in divinity school have contributed to no fewer than three internal existential crises as I struggle with finding words to articulate my own personal theology—and attempt to figure out what the heck I believe in the first place. I recall one late Tuesday night at a local bar with some of my peers when I was venting to a friend about a particularly troublesome comment I had overheard from another classmate during the week. This came after a long string of other complaints which essentially consisted of an almost liturgical anaphora of “I don’t believe that…I don’t believe that…I don’t believe that…” Eventually my friend laughed and said, “Well, what do you believe?”
It’s a good question—and one that I can only answer honestly on some days—but it’s especially poignant for how I am learning to interact with scripture. As I continue to engage with these texts in an academic setting on a daily basis, I have frequently found myself wanting to throw my hands up in surrender, being unable to find anything redemptive or redeemable in passages that have been used to oppress or manipulate or exclude. Can scripture still be an instrument for good…for women in light of misogyny? For people of color in light of slavery? For the natural world in light of climate change and mass species extinctions? For Jews in light of the Holocaust?
This is the intellectual turmoil which I have attempted to think through in the process of creating a series of biblical erasure poems. Reflective of the tendency we all have to read what we want to out of a particular biblical text, erasure poetry uses an original writing to create a new one (find some examples linked below). Working with these scriptures in their given form allowed me to preserve some of the ancient wisdom or poetry from writers long ago, while also discerning the ultimate meaning that I take from those stories—for better or for worse. Ultimately I am reminded again and again that the Bible is not always a book depicting what should be, but rather what is; in this way, scripture gives us a reflection of the complexity of human experience that we live with day to day, in ways that can sometimes—and often do—make us uncomfortable. But the big question is: are we equally uneasy with the misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, etc. that exists around us today? (Because we should be).