Many Voices, Many Visions: Toward a Feminist Methodology for Narrative Theology and EthicsElizabeth A. Say
California State University, Northridge
Feminist scholars have long noted the importance of women telling their own stories, in their own voices. Women's stories offer concrete grounding in experience from which we may engage in theological and moral reflections, and can provide resources for feminist transformation of society. My first book, Evidence on Her Own Behalf: Women's Narrative as Theological Voice (Rowman and Littlefield, 1990), was an examination of women's use of narrative as a means of engaging moral and theological debate in the nineteenth century, when women were denied access to the more formal means and institutions of entering such debates. Narrative furnished a means through which women were able to claim their experience as valid, over and against the assumptions of a patriarchal society.
Despite the fact that nineteenth-century women used narrative as a forum for moral debate, and that women have continued to do so into the twentieth century, not all stories by women represent equally authentic voices for the process of feminist transformation. In recent years conservative Christian and Jewish theologians have begun to utilize feminist language in the construction of theologies which continue to affirm the subordination of women. The basic claim of these conservative theologians is that women are liberated when they take their proper place in god's order, in submission to male authority. They frequently make use of women's own voices and stories to "prove" that women are happiest and most fulfilled in traditional gender roles. Such claims raise questions as to which stories represent a transformative vision of women's lives and which stories continue to be shaped by an uncritical acceptance of traditional gender norms. These questions serve as a point of departure for the project in which I am now engaged: constructing a feminist methodology for narrative theology and ethics.
The Methodological Assumptions
For the purpose of moral and theological reflection, what would a feminist hermeneutic of narrative interpretation look like, and what illumination can this shed on a reading of women's stories? Feminist philosopher Alison M. Jagger has suggested that "...there are minimum conditions of adequacy for any approach to ethics that purports to be feminist,"1 and I would extend these also to feminist theology. The first of these minimal qualifications is that a feminist approach to ethics must subvert rather than reinforce women's subordination. This approach, Jagger claims, must be "...practical, transitional and non utopian, an extension of politics rather than a retreat from it."2 Thus, a feminist approach must attend to the ways in which women have both resisted domination as well as the ways in which they have colluded with it. Second, Jagger asserts that a feminist approach must be able to address issues in both the public and the private realms while at the same time acknowledging the problematic nature of the public/private division. "It must," she argues, "be able to provide guidance on issues of intimate relations, such as affection and sexuality..." while at the same time providing "...appropriate guidance for activity in the public realm."3 Finally, a feminist ethic must take the experience of all women seriously, though this does not mean, says Jagger, that we must treat these experiences uncritically. As she points out, despite the fact that there is often a world of difference between what is feminist and what is feminine, a feminist ethic must reflect a basic respect for women's moral experience and acknowledge women's capacities as moral agents.4
I have taken these three minimal requirements to heart in my attempt to develop a feminist methodology of narrative interpretation. In addition, I draw on the work of liberation theologies in their many and diverse expressions. There are strong parallels between liberation theology and narrative theology insofar as both begin with the primacy of experience as the starting point for theological reflection. In addition, both liberation theology and feminist theology critique the experience of oppression from a spiritual as well as a political point of view. Thus, the work of liberation theologians holds promise for the construction of a feminist narrative methodology. There are five hermeneutic principles culled from liberation theologies that form the basis of my feminist methodology for narrative theology and ethics. These five principles represent the key themes by which I read a woman's narrative to ascertain whether it represents a transformative vision of society or simply offers a more palatable repackaging of patriarchal reality. The five principles, briefly stated, are that a feminist narrative must provide: 1) A Critique of the Prevailing System; 2) Theology Grounded in Concrete Experience; 3) Theology as a Conversation; 4) Theology as Relative and Contextual; 5) A New Vision of Community.
1. A critique of the prevailing system
The assertion that feminist theology and ethics must represent a critique of the prevailing system is the assumption that informs the other four principles, and resonates with Jagger's claim that feminist ethics must subvert women's subordination. Liberation theologians have argued that not only are they proposing a new methodology for theology, but that they are creating a new paradigm. According to feminist theologian Sharon Welch, "...such theologies are not merely variants within theology but may represent a new episteme."5 Rebecca Chopp argues that this paradigm shift views reality "...not through the eyes of those who ‘make’ history, but through the eyes of those who suffer history."6 This paradigm shift necessitates not only a new theology, but a new way of being a theologian.
This new episteme calls into question claims about the objectivity of the theologian. It is clear that liberation theology is not, nor can it pretend to be, neutral. As Gustavo Gutierrez states, in his now classic formulation, God has a “preferential option for the poor.”7 Chopp points out that this starting point “...uniquely characterizes Gutierrez’s theology of liberation as a new theological paradigm.”8 The theology of Gutierrez is, in fact, blatantly political because his goal is not simply to critique the existing social order but to transform it. In Chopp’s words, “...Latin American liberation theology committed itself not only to interpreting critically the world...but also to transforming that world.”9 Such transformation requires, says Chopp, a "hermeneutics of distrust"10 which requires new interpretations of existing symbol systems and the creation of new meanings. Sharon Welch finds that these reinterpretations lead her to "a critique of what counts as goodness, what counts as responsible action in our culture."11
For a woman's narrative to be authentic for the task of feminist transformation, it must begin with the presumption of critique. Barbara Harlow has demonstrated that what she calls “resistance literature” challenges the assumed normativity of those in power, and redefines the relationships of power from the perspective of the dispossessed.12 Women, and others who exist on the margins of society, find themselves in a confrontational relationship with those who claim the center of the dominant discourse. Women’s narratives which minimize or romanticize this relationship do not truthfully represent women's lived experience. These stories cannot serve as the basis for a feminist theology or ethic for, as Elsa Tamez powerfully states:
Women, too, need a militant and combative theology, that is, one which gives them theological and biblical tools to tear out by the roots the sources of their marginalization....With their new theological tools they must discredit those biblical interpretations used as the Word of God to prove their inferiority; and, they must fight by tracking down new hermeneutic guidelines over which a liberating biblical reading can be worked out.13
2. Theology grounded in concrete experience
The claim by liberationists that theology is not, must not, be neutral is related to the understanding that this new theological paradigm is grounded in the concrete experiences of actual existence. So, Gustavo Gutierrez and other Latin American theologians assert the privileged position of the poor; and Sharon Welch claims her theology is grounded in the experience of sisterhood.14
If theology is going to serve a critical function it must attend to the actual experiences of real flesh-and-blood persons as they exist in oppressive situations. This understanding is consistent with Jagger’s assertion that any feminist ethic must account for both the public and private realms of experience, and her claim that it must be sensitive to the “practical consequences of any actions that we take as gendered subjects in a male dominated society...”15 According to Enrique Dussel, while the universal principle of liberation theology may be the liberation of the oppressed (he speaks specifically of the poor), it also recognizes that there is no single, universal experience of oppression. “The principle, ‘Liberate the poor,’ is concrete and historical. At every moment, then, one must go back and rediscover, here and now, the ‘new’ poor.”16
Liberation theology makes a conscious effort to account for the multiple realities which inform human existence rather than presupposing a “generalized other,” assuming that all persons are, in essence, similar to oneself.17 Traditional theological approaches have been faulted for purporting to address human experience, while at the same time erasing the actual experiences of those who differed from the normative elite. Rebecca Chopp argues that, instead, we must take serious account of the historical location, position, of the subject. This necessitates the involvement of multiple theoretical positions for understanding human existence so as to account for both individual agency and the interdependency of this with structural relations.
3. Theology as a conversation
If we are to take seriously the lived experiences of others, this means we must hear the voice of “the other.” Theology, therefore, must be a conversation, not a proclamation designed to silence critical debate. If theology is to accomplish the goal of transformation, it requires the hearing of heretofore unheard voices. Sharon Welch refers to this process as the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.”18 These are voices which have existed, says Chopp, “...on the underside, on the margins, in death itself.”19
According to Welch, this authentic hearing of the other is “transformative communication,”20 because when we truly attend to the lives of those who have been dispossessed we must examine our own participation in the structures of oppression. This hearing necessitates changes in practice because we can no longer proceed under the assumption that our own experience is the sum of reality. In fact, as Daniel Maguire has argued, the view from the margins is likely to be a far more clear-sighted view.
If you draw a circle and cut me out of it, I will become acutely aware of what is going on inside. Alienation, in a painful and perverse way, lends light. The alienated must needs be defensive, and the defensive have big eyes.21
Or, in Jagger’s words:
[I]t seems plausible to suppose that women's distinctive social experience may make them especially perceptive regarding the implications of domination, especially gender domination, and especially well equipped to detect the male bias that has been shown to pervade so much of male authored western moral theory.22
In light of such observations, says Chopp, liberation theology creates “...a new language for faith, a new way of talking about God from the experience of the poor.”23
Together, these two ideas--that theology must be a conversation and that it must be grounded in the concrete experience of actual existence--are crucial to the creation of a feminist narrative hermeneutic. Women’s narratives which posit a single, universal, female experience must be viewed with suspicion. Too often in feminist theory and theology, the differences in women's lives have been minimized or ignored. Or, when the lives of Asian American, Chicana, lesbian, or poor women have been represented, they have been seen through the lenses of privileged, classed, Euro-American women, and thus become at best the “exotic other,” and at worst a caricature or stereotype. For the process of feminist transformation, then, we must allow individual women to claim the meaning of their own lives without imposing those lives as normative for other women. This does not mean we cannot enter into critical conversation with each other, but the door must be left open to future, transformative communication.
4. Theology as relative and contextual
The idea that all theologies are contextual and therefore relative is one of the most evocative themes to be found in the work of liberation theologians. It represents a departure from traditional theological discourse which has sought to posit final and absolute answers. Liberation theology, in contrast, suggests that the future is radically open.
Theology, says Chopp, is never final; it is always in process and is continually remade. It is neither the search for absolute truth nor the reflection on truth. “Rather, liberation theology helps create truth, it determines truth...,”24 and truth is determined in light of future possibilities. Chopp’s observation is akin to the claim made by Welch when she identifies truth as an ongoing conversation.
Openness in theological discourse is a concomitant of commitment to the oppressed, commitment to the importance of the perspective of those people and groups who are marginal and exploited. Solidarity with these people prevents a too early foreclosure of discourse.25
This hope in the openness of the future is consistent with the goal of transformation, for if the future is open to possibility, we have hope for change in the present. However, this same hope also demands, in the present, that we be self-critical; that we not fall prey to the tendency to confuse present reality with absolute reality. A feminist approach to theology and ethics, therefore, requires that an authentic woman's voice not be trapped in present realities, nor despair in the face of present inequities. Women cannot, for example, succumb to the adage “It’s a man’s world, after all.” In order for a woman's narrative to be a feminist narrative, it must call women to re-vision the future in ways which will be labeled “naive” by those among us who pride themselves on being “realistic.” “The process of dialogue, mutual critique, and political action is dynamic, a spiraling movement in which rudimentary forms of political action enable further critique and evoke more adequate forms of political practice.”26
5. A new vision of community
Liberation theologians identify a concept of community that is quite different from that which has traditionally dominated public discourse. One idea common to liberation theology is the concept of the interdependence of persons and communities, an idea at odds with the western privileging of radical individuality, as Gutierrez argues:
There is no such thing as individual, personal salvation. Our fates, our lives, and the meaning of our lives are intimately linked. I can no longer perceive and value my own life as having meaning simply through personal gains, successes, and possessions. Rather, my life has its value in relation to others’ lives.27
Gutierrez’s understanding of community is a far cry from the ethic of western capitalism which depends on individual interests and rights, and which posits the notion of a community based on a social contract between free, autonomous individuals.28
Traditional understandings of community, which presume autonomous individuals who negotiate differences as equal participants in the social contract, do not account for the actual power disparities that govern our socio-political interactions and therefore continue to perpetuate oppressive structures. A new way of thinking about communities requires a new language to express this, and the word solidarity often replaces the concept of consensus. “The intention of solidarity is potentially more inclusive and more transformative than is the goal of consensus.”29 Solidarity, as a model of relationship, does not assume a single community which includes all persons. Rather, we have the idea of multiple communities which are, despite their differences, committed to the well-being of one another. “Solidarity” says Welch, “breaks the bonds of isolated individuality and forgetfulness--the bondage of sin--and enables the creation of community and conversion to the other.”30
Potential Resources for Feminist Transformation
I now want to consider the stories of two women as possible resources for feminist transformation. In so doing, for the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the first of the five hermeneutical principles discussed above: Theology as a critique of the prevailing system. Although all five principles may be applied to an analysis of the stories presented here, brevity does not allow for this. Since the first principle informs the other four, I choose to limit my discussion primarily to this first one.
Although both of the stories presented here are "real," it is my claim that both are not authentic for the process of feminist transformation. I have chosen to look at two autobiographies because, perhaps more than any other form of literature, autobiographies make claims of truthfulness based on the experience of a life lived. Critics of autobiography have, of course, challenged such truth claims, but that is the topic of another paper. The auto biographer offers the reader her life as a real thing, grounded in flesh and blood experience, and thus it is truthful because it is empirically verifiable.
The first story to be considered is the autobiography of Stormie Omartian, titled simply Stormie.31 Stormie Omartian is a conservative (fundamentalist) Christian songwriter, performer and lecturer, and her autobiography is offered as a testimony to the transformative power of Jesus Christ in her life. The second story, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,32 by Jeanette Winterson, is described as an "autobiographical novel." Thus, it incorporates fictional motifs as Winterson tells us the story of her life, a life also profoundly shaped by Christian faith. Winterson makes use of myth, metaphor and fantasy, cleverly woven into her life story. In keeping with Jagger's assertion that we must take all women's experience seriously, I offer the following summaries of each woman's story, attempting to be as faithful as possible to their own telling of these.
Stormie Omartian's life is one that is full of pain and sadness; her name bears apt testimony to the troubles of her life. Born to a poor family in Wyoming, her childhood is marked by loneliness and deprivation. Her mother was a schizophrenic, whose mental illness caused her to lash out viciously at her daughter, heaping abuse on her, beating her, locking her in the closet for long periods of time, and generally terrorizing the small child. At the same time, this was a mother who could sparkle in front of company, and who once brought Stormie and her classmates ice cream on a hot summer school day. Sadly, there was no stability or security for Stormie in her relationship with her mother and over the course of her life the mother-daughter relationship would continue to disintegrate as her mother's mental illness escalated. Stormie’s father, whom she describes as a kind man, was absent most of the time as he struggled to provide economically for the family. When he was home, he was unable to protect his daughter from his wife; Stormie learns later in life that he was unaware of the extent of her abuse at her mother's hands. Her childhood is one of isolation and loneliness, and she grows up convinced of her unworthiness as a person. As an adult, she pursues a career as a singer and performer--she is a regular on the Glen Campbell show, and performed with many other Hollywood celebrities. But her doubts and insecurities continue to plague her and wreck havoc in her life. She seeks to drown her problems in alcohol and drugs, in excessive work, in sexual relations. Her life is a downward spiral, driven by internalized self-hatred. On this self-destructive path she has two illegal abortions, enters into a loveless marriage, attempts suicide more than once, and spends countless days lying in bed, paralyzed by fear and anxiety. When she is “born again” as a Christian, she begins the path to recovery and wholeness, though she admits that it is not easy and it is years before her suicidal tendencies disappear. She re-marries, has children, comes to terms with her mother's illness and renews her relationship with her father; she develops a successful career, and finds peace and joy in her life.
In a completely different vein, Jeanette Winterson also offers us a story of life strongly marked by Christian faith, though in other ways. Jeanette is an adopted child, adopted by a woman who believed that God had given the child to her. Jeanette explains her adoption in the following way:
I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn't that she couldn't do it, more that she didn't want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next best thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me. I cannot recall a time when I did not know that I was special (3).
Jeanette is raised in an industrial city of Northern England. Her adoptive mother is fervently involved with a pentecostal group, and in particular in their missionary activities. She is constantly involved in revival meetings designed to rescue the heathen Next Door. She raises Jeanette to follow in her footsteps, and to become the missionary she had always dreamed of being. People frequently told Jeanette her mother was mad, but she did not see it that way. She found security in the fact that her mother had an answer for everything. Jeanette is an enthusiastic participant in her religious community, playing a tambourine and handing out religious tracts during street meetings, and warning her classmates about the impending doom and destruction of the end of the world (her mother keeps a store of canned foods so they would be prepared for the anticipated holocaust). Her mother educates her by teaching her to read the Old Testament, and Jeanette's childhood world is shaped by her belief in the wrath of God and her own place among the elect. Jeanette's mother warns her to stay away from things of the flesh and to steer clear of "Unnatural Passions." Thus, when young Jeanette falls in love with another teenage girl, her mother reacts aggressively and subjects Jeanette to an exorcism, convinced she is demon-possessed. The young girl remains demon-free for awhile, but eventually will fall in love with another young woman. Her mother insists she repent or leave home; she leaves. The story ends with Jeanette and her mother having achieved a kind of truce, but one in which Jeanette must remain emotionally distanced from her mother.
The Methodology Applied
These are two very different stories. In the stories two women's lives are offered for our consideration and instruction. At the end of one, Stormie tells us she has found wholeness in her life. At the end of the other, Jeanette leaves us with unanswered questions and contradictions. Both are stories of self-discovery, both are quests for personal identity, both stories provide us with the truth of a woman's life. However, both do not offer resources for feminist transformation. Feminist and liberationist principles tell us that an authentic feminist narrative must provide a critique of the prevailing system, must subvert women's subordination.
There are elements in the telling of Stormie Omartian's life that might indicate she provides a critique of the prevailing system. She implies, early on, that she resented the "dumb blonde" roles she was always asked to play (11), and she rebels against the domestic expectations of her first husband. However, rather than placing these observations in a critique of the gendered structure of society, she sees them as personal failings and/or problems: there is something wrong with her, not the system, and if she can figure this out all will be well.
Since Stormie sees all her problems as the result of personal shortcomings, so too she looks for personal solutions to these. Stormie's young life is marked by fear and self-doubt. Her mother's schizophrenia is so damaging to Stormie's sense of self-worth, that she internalizes the hatred and sees herself as unlovable and unworthy. This is reinforced in school where she never feels that she fits in.
Our poverty was obvious. No one lived in a worse house or drove a car that was older than ours. And even though I was able to get five new dresses for school--one for every day of the week--they were of such poor quality that they soon looked dowdy and ill-fitting. We ate so poorly that my hot lunch at school seemed like the finest gourmet meal. I went to bed hungry many nights....My escape was to dream about being a beautiful movie star (55).
Her classmates laugh at her, and she retreats into isolation and fantasizes about wealth and fame. But when she achieves a degree of success, she still cannot escape the feeling that she is worthless. She continues to look for a way to fix herself.
Born-again Christianity, as it is explained to her, provides not only a personal solution, but also a personalized cause for her pain: the devil made her do it. A minister tells her that her suffering is caused by the devil, to which she answers that she doesn't believe in the devil. The preacher responds that "The devil wants you to believe that he doesn't exist....for then he's rendered you totally impotent" (95). Stormie accepts this interpretation of an evil power outside of herself, and willingly accepts the image of Jesus who is also a force outside the self, but in this case a force for good. Thus, her understanding is that her own weaknesses allowed someone stronger than her (the devil) to exploit her to do evil, and now someone stronger than both herself and the devil (Jesus) can enable her to do good.
In the midst of all this conflict, Stormie appears tossed about by forces beyond her control until Jesus takes control of her life. Her spiritual struggle is to give up herself even further, so that Jesus can have full control. She tells us that "I wanted God to take my life and do with it what He wanted. He would certainly do a better job than I had ever done" (106). She later reiterates this when she says that: "Everything I desired of God to be implanted in me couldn't happen until I let my own life go....Excess baggage had to be eliminated, the most major of which was self" (124).
For Stormie, then, the goal she seeks to achieve is obedience to God. "The power" she says, is in "being obedient to the Word of God whether you understand it fully or not" (110). The quest is not for understanding, because understanding is self-reliance. Blind obedience to the power greater than herself would lead to her liberation. Just as in her childhood she strove to obey her mother out of fear and in hope of reward, now she attempts obedience to the will of God. But God is a much more benevolent parent, and Stormie attributes her growing success as a Christian music artist not to her own abilities; rather she interprets them as a reward for her obedience (109).
The fundamentalist church Stormie belongs to reinforces this need for absolute obedience. As the pastor and others explain it, she is a sinner because she is not perfect and could never be perfect.
I discovered that "sin" was an old archery term meaning to miss the bull's eye. Anything other than direct center was sin. That realization opened up a whole new world for me. Anything less than God's perfect will for my life was sin. In that light, I had plenty to confess (121).
Stormie struggles to discover all those areas of disobedience in her life and to rectify her erring behavior. As time went on she made progress on her spiritual journey, and found increasing satisfaction in her family and her work, but continued to be plagued by what she called a "subtle unrest." Though she cannot place a finger on the cause of this, a spiritual mentor at the church reveals to her that it is the result of "unconfessed hatred and unforgiveness" toward her father (161). Stormie does not believe this at first, but comes to see the truth of this woman's claim. She resents her father for not protecting her from her mother's abuses when she was a child. This unresolved anger, she tells us, continues to get in the way of her own spiritual growth. "We were talking about rage--rage toward my dad. Because of this rage and unforgiveness, I had grown up to distrust all male authority--not all men, but only those in authority over my life, such as my pastor and my husband" (162). Through prayer and confession, Stormie tells us she is liberated from this final impediment to true obedience to God. What is the result of this?
Trust for my husband and pastor came slowly and steadily after that....My relationship to [my husband] improved immediately because I began to worry less and let him handle things. Always before I felt I had to be in on every financial decision....Now I didn't care if I was even consulted, for I trusted that God would guide my husband in all things (164).
Thus by the end of her story, we discover that true liberation comes through absolute obedience to the will of God, not understanding of God. The discovery of meaning in one's life comes when one gives over her life to the control of another. And freedom is found, finally, in submissiveness to male authority. It seems clear that her story, while moving and told with deep conviction, does not offer a critique of the prevailing system, if we assume that the prevailing system is patriarchal authority.
Jeanette's life is also a story of spiritual struggle, though her struggle is not to give up control of her life but to claim some authority over it; it is a battle for self. Unlike Stormie, her childhood is not marked by self-doubt and fear. Although she too does not fit in at school, she sees this as the failing of her teachers and classmates, not a problem with herself. At one point she gets in trouble for terrorizing her classmates with stories of Hell. Of this she says:
It was true. I couldn't deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt....I was very depressed. What was all the fuss about? Better to hear about Hell now than burn in it later....[My teacher asked] my mother to moderate me. My Mother hooted and took me to the cinema as a treat....After that day, everyone at school avoided me. If it had not been for the conviction that I was right, I might have been very sad (43).
This sense of her own rightness, and that of her mother, will eventually be challenged. She tells us about her first theological disagreement with her church. The pastor was preaching a sermon about the nature of perfection, and declares that this is "flawlessness." Jeanette juxtaposes this with a fairy tale about a prince who sought for a perfect (flawless) wife, and he discovers a young woman who appears perfect.
The woman was indeed perfect, there was no doubt about that, but she wasn't flawless. He, the prince, had been wrong. She was perfect because she was a perfect balance of qualities and strengths. She was symmetrical in every respect. The search for perfection, she had told him, was in fact the search for balance, for harmony (64).
Faced with admitting that he had been wrong in his understanding of perfection, the Prince announces that the woman is evil and he chops off her head.
Jeanette's disagreements with her church continue to grow, and when, as a teenager, she falls prey to "Unnatural Passions" for the first time, notions of absolute truth are called into question. "Some people say there are true things to be found," she tells us, "some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don't believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots" (93). She concedes that there might be some "unassailable truth" known to God alone. "But" she says, "I am not God."
And so when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way, and I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own (95).
The real turning point comes in Jeanette’s life, as it did in Stormie Omartian's, over the issue of male authority. She has been accused and found guilty of giving in to her Unnatural Passions, and the pastor claims that this is the result of usurping male authority.
The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teaching of St. Paul, and allowing women power in the church. Our branch of the church had never thought about it, we'd always had strong women, and the women organized everything. Some of us could preach, and...the church was full because of it. There was an uproar, then a curious thing happened. My mother stood up and said she believed this was right....She ended by saying that having taken on a man's world in other ways I had flouted God's law and tried to do it sexually. I knew my mother hoped I would blame myself, but I didn't. I knew now where the blame lay. If there's such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore (133-34).
Having reached an impasse with her pastor, her church, and most significantly her mother, she leaves home. Reflecting on the choice she has made, she says:
I could have been a priest instead of a prophet. The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power. Words that are always on the surface. Words for every occasion. The words work. They do what they're supposed to do; comfort and discipline. The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning. The prophets cry out because they are troubled by demons....If the demons lie within they travel with you (161).
Jeanette does not leave us with a picture of a life fully resolved, all questions answered. Her story does not resonate with the surety we find in the life of Stormie Omartian. But for the process of feminist transformation, her story provides us with rich resources. It meets Sharon Welch's requirement in that it provides a "critique of what counts as goodness" as well as "what counts as responsible action in our culture." This is not a painless process for Jeanette, and she cannot offer to her readers the confidence found in Stormie's autobiography. At the end of Jeanette's story she tells us:
I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it....I do not want to be betrayed....It's not a word people use very often, which confuses me, because there are different kinds of infidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on somebody else's (170-171).
The prevailing system, the system which assumes female subordination as normative and male authority as natural and divinely ordained has betrayed women. It offers no avenue to our liberation.
The stories of Stormie and Jeanette are both “authentic” in that they both offer us real voices of real women as they struggle to find meaning in their lives. However, as Alison Jagger pointed out, there is often a world of difference between what is feminine and what is feminist. Stormie’s life certainly lends itself to feminist analysis, but it does not provide resources for feminist transformation. Jeanette’s story, on the other hand, as it offers a pointed critique of the prevailing system, also provides hope for a new vision of society in which women will not be encouraged to accept betrayal masquerading as love.
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1 Alison M. Jaggar, "Feminist Ethics: Some Issues for the Nineties," in William H. Shaw, ed., Social and Personal Ethics, 2nd edition (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company), 1996, 77.
2 Ibid., 77.
3 Ibid., 77.
4 Ibid., 77-78.
5 Sharon D. Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1985), 24.
6 Rebecca S. Chopp, The Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1986), 23.
7 Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1973).
8 Chopp, 61.
9 Ibid., 20.
10 Chopp, 49.
11 Sharon D. Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 2.
12 Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (New York: Methuen, 1987), 55.
13 Elsa Tamez, "Introduction: The Power of the Naked," in Elsa Tamez, ed., Through Her Eyes: Women's Theology from Latin America (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 6.
14 Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, 25.
15 Jagger, 77.
16 Enrique Dussel, Ethics and Community (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 76.
17 See Sharon Welch’s discussion of Seyla Benhabib in A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 127-129.
18 Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, 44-46.
19 Chopp, 121.
20 Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 129-136.
21 Daniel C. Maguire, “The Feminization of God and Ethics,” Christianity and Crisis, March 15, 1982, 59-67, 62.
22 Jagger, 77-78.
23 Chopp, 51.
24 Ibid., 60.
25 Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, 31.
26 Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 136.
27 The Amanecida Collective, Carter Heyward and Anne Gilson, eds., Revolutionary Forgiveness: Feminist Reflections on Nicaragua (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 33.
28 Gutierrez, 29.
29 Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 132.
30 Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, 45.
31 Stormie Omartian, Stormie (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1986).
32 Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985).