What value does the book of Revelation have for us, especially in the face of ecological crises? My guess is that most of us have not spent too much time on the Bible’s last book. Some people of course have, including those looking for a special secret code to life and history, and those puzzling out different timetables for Christ’s second coming. Such interpreters however typically have little concern for ecology, and some even welcome signs of environmental apocalypse. Faced by the strangeness of John the Divine’s visions, we may therefore be tempted to dispense with the book altogether. Yet that would be a mistake. For, as this morning’s reading (ch.12 vv. 1-9 & 13-17a) illustrates, truth and light can be received in the strangest places…
Last year SBS Insight told some of the diverse personal stories of faith, loss of faith, and changing faith, in contemporary Australia. One was of a young Croatian Australian woman who has committed her life to God through a faithful adherence to Islam, including covering her head and body in conservative traditional dress. In this she has found a profound sense of peace and flourishing. Some significant resistance has however come her way. She experiences some of the continuing Islamophobia within our society, and, in addition, strong extra kickback from some white Australians, not least fellow Croatians. For what, some would say, is a nice, white, western, and well educated, young woman doing taking up such a religious path? Is this not also, some would say, a betrayal of her family, and culture, too? After all, religiously speaking Croatians are almost exclusively Christian, and in particular Catholic. What on earth is this young woman doing? What is happening here? We might say something similar of the stories in our lectionary this morning, each of which involves a breaking with powerful expectations, and a profound response to needs of salvation which are simply not met by conventional culture or practice. Abraham, Sarah, Matthew, the synagogue official, and, not least, the hemorrhaging woman: each challenge us. They invite us to reflect upon what is bleeding in our own lives, hearts and souls, and invite us to reach our in faith ourselves. For what are our needs that require transformation? What salvation do we seek? What of God is calling to us?...
If I were choosing the books which have most shaped and inspired my life, then very high on that list would be Janet Morley’s All Desires Known. Originally published in England in 1988 by the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and Women in Theology, it remains not only as an evocative expression of the Christian feminism which shaped so much of my early adult and ministerial life, which I also shared in with my wife Penny, and which, in many ways (together with other aspects of faith, and football) saved my life. Like Janet Morley’s earlier book Celebrating Women, co-edited with Hannah Ward, it also represents a landmark in the development of new life-giving language and imagery for God. For All Desires Known is a book of prayers for public and private worship, and it was formed out of the experience of an intentional community, the St Hilda Community, which specifically sought ‘to receive the broader vision of our Christian heritage and women’s spiritual offerings in language which excludes no person and no image of God’: a ‘non-sexist’ community, giving ‘full space and authority to women, without apology, secrecy, or shame.’ It is good to recall this today, in the wake of International Women’s Day this week, and as we hear the subversive, and in some ways shocking, Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. For exploring life-giving language and imagery for God and prayer remains an invitation to us all. Like the woman at the well, we too seek living water, and the source which can quench our thirst: our profound, existential desire for life in all its fullness.
This is a well known but in some ways seriously annoying story, and I blame Luke – to say nothing of centuries of largely male, monastic interpretation - which can basically be summarised as ‘Hurrah Mary’ and ‘Boo Martha’. Or more aggressively as ‘stop complaining and pray harder’! Anyone out there feel like they’d like to muster at least a small cheer for Martha? Hurrah! This is a story that has been used as a means of social control in church and state, and a means of silencing the voices of women. For the very way this story is constructed, tends to make us choose sides. So, whether we are sympathising with Martha and feeling she’s a bit hard done by, or cheering Mary for breaking the gender stereotype, it is hard to remain neutral. The story itself sets up the two supposed sisters in opposition to one another...
Today’s Gospel reading (John 12.1-8) brings the song Bread and Roses (and see below) to my mind. This, for me, highlights two key aspects of the anointing of Jesus, and, particularly, the challenges presented by two central figures, Mary and Judas. There are several other significant features. Yet the tension between Judas and Mary is pivotal. For, in the early Jesus movement, this story is revelatory of struggles of identity, of power and gender, of politics and economics, as well as faith and spirituality. All that can hardly be summed up simply in the phrase ‘Bread and Roses’. Nonetheless there are undoubtedly vital feminist aspects, and the themes of ‘bread and roses’ – or body and soul - are highly pertinent…
by Jon Inkpin, for Pentecost 7A, Sunday 27 July 2014 (St.Luke, Toowoomba)
There is a great little art exhibition at the moment: in the Crows Nest Art Gallery. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so before it ends (on 3 August). The exhibition is by two talented local young artists, one of whom is our own Katherine Appleby. Katherine’s subject for this exhibition centres on fairytales and she has created some wonderful works, not least a powerful piece called ‘Fear’. In this, we see what appears to be a young girl walking into the midst of a dark forest, where wolves and wolf-like heads, eyes and mouths glisten in the darkness. Even the trees are dark and bare, devoid of foliage, symbolising the darkness and threat of fear itself. Isn’t that a powerful picture of how fear can feel to us? Look again though, and perhaps you may see other things. What, for instance, is the really fearful thing in the painting? Is it the dark woods? Is it the closure of the path and of the light? Is it the wolves? Or is it the girl herself? Is she, so central to the picture, actually the true source and figure of fear? Why, for instance, is she walking into the forest, into the darkness away from the light? She stands very self-possessed. So is she afraid of the woods and the wolves? Or are they afraid of her? The painting you see, like any fine work of art, reveals more as we look at it. It asks us not one but many questions, some of them surprising. It is an invitation to mystery, rather than a mere description or proclamation of the straightforward. Indeed, if you look very closely at Katherine’s painting of ‘Fear’ you will see that the girl’s face is also partly an old and partly a young face. As such, it expresses the awesome ambiguity of life, truth and our human condition. Which way of looking, being and living will we choose?
Religion at its best is in many ways akin to art at its best, especially in its capacity to invite us into the awesome ambiguities of life. It is an invitation to mystery, not a mere description or safeguard of the straightforward. It is a means, like great art, by which we can hold our fear and our suffering and not be overwhelmed. It is a path on which we can walk with courage, through the darkness around and within us, through the grace of God, into the light and love of God...
by the Revd Dr Jonathan Inkpin, Pentecost evensong at St John's Cathedral Brisbane, Sunday 8 June 2014
‘Come out from behind that thing!’ – the Aboriginal elder’s voice rang out powerfully as I was about to begin the Decade to Overcome Violence launch in Alice Springs. She was objecting because I was behind a lectern: another whitefella, as it were, standing over or apart from her. As it happened, in what followed, every blackfella who spoke also headed behind the lectern. I guess therefore it was probably that elder’s own personal issue. Yet I have never forgotten it. For, in a way, following feminist pioneers, it was a lived experience of what Indigenous scholars (such as Denis Foley, Martin Nakata and Aileen Moreton-Robinson) call ‘standpoint theory’.
Standpoint theory is a postmodern method for analysing inter-subjective and ethical discourse. For a standpoint is a place from which one sees the world. It thus helps direct both what we focus on as well as what is obscured. The specific circumstances of our standpoint then determine which concepts are intelligible, which claims are heard and understood by whom, and which reasons and conclusions are understood to be relevant and forceful.
Now, like any approach, standpoint theory is not without weaknesses. It risks, for example, generalising the experience of different peoples, and it risks suggesting an overly ‘essentialist’ character of particular genders, races, or other identities. Yet it is a powerful means in which marginalised groups can challenge the status quo. Indeed, as the feminist theorist Sandra Harding put it, it helps create ‘strong objectivity’, or strong inter-subjectivity. For when the perspectives of the marginalised and/or oppressed are included, we have more objective, or deeper inter-subjective, accounts of the world. This is vital to a richer, and more life-giving, ethics.
Spiritually speaking, standpoint reflections also lead to a richer ethical and doctrinal expression of Pentecost. For, in Pentecost, the Spirit of God is embodied, enlivened, and expressed through all created voices. As God’s voice puts it, through the prophet Joel, in our first reading tonight, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh’: on old and young alike, male and female, not least slaves; and, the passage goes on to say, also through the more-than-human environment, by ‘portents in the heavens and the earth.’ True Pentecostal experience, it seems, is about true inter-subjectivity. All creation’s standpoints are voiced, held together, and contribute to the whole. Pentecost is thus a basis for a holistic, fully environmental, ethics. For Pentecost is so much more than we have often made it...