This book generates a critical framework through which to interrogate the way in which religious feminists have employed women's literature in their texts. This is in order that both the way we read literature and the literature we read might be subject to scrutiny, and that new reading practices be developed. Having both the critical and constructive agenda, this is a book in two parts. The first part locates the study of the use of women's writing by religious feminists in a much wider frame than has previously been attempted. In the past individual religious feminists have been criticised, often publicly and loudly, for the use they have made of particular literary texts. Having critically surveyed previously unacknowledged constraints under which religious feminists read women's literature, the second part of the book explores how the work of women poststructuralist thinkers and theorists can enrich the reading practices. It offers alternative models for an engagement between literature and theology. Julia Kristeva is best known within the academy for her unorthodox application of Lacanian theory to contemporary culture. Her work challenges religious feminists to reassess the utilitarian approaches to literary texts and enquire into whether these might have a more powerful political role when their status as literature is recognised and affirmed. The book elucidates Luce Irigaray's thinking on sexual difference and also demonstrates its significance for feminist religious readers.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book presents a critical framework to interrogate the way in which religious feminists have employed women's literature in their texts. It begins by establishing the ways in which a gendered complementarity is assumed to exist between literature and the logocentric discourses of theology and philosophy. The book employs gender as a lens through which to examine the way that literature and theology have been related in contemporary debate. It considers the reasons why many feminist theologians have displayed a resistance to use poststructuralist theory in their reading of female-authored literary texts. The book argues for a greater openness towards the insights of poststructuralist theory in order to create alternative patterns of engagement between women's literature and feminist theology.
Feminism is a peculiarly literary movement and many of the intellectual and political leaders of the women's struggle have been celebrated writers. Women's literature has been very useful to religious feminists. This chapter discusses canonical narrative theology with Hans Frei's important book, The Decline of Biblical Narrative. The project Frei initiated stands in contrast to the attempts of liberal and liberation theologians to discover, through conversation with secular culture, an appropriate register in which to reiterate Christian convictions. In the canonical narrative theologies of Frei and Stanley Hauerwas a distinction is being implicitly drawn between the realistic narrative and the values of contemporary culture which are illusory, seductive, immoral and dangerous. Through making this distinction literature becomes available as a resource that can be used to construct a theological position which then erases its vital contribution.
Early works of feminist criticism celebrated the discovery of this remarkable spiritual legacy and demonstrates how the spiritual radicalism of women's creative writing posed a direct challenge to the conventions of domestic piety usually deemed appropriate to women. For this reason women authors often found it necessary to dissemble and communicate their audacious visions in the language of the family hearth and schoolroom. This chapter explores the ways in which Carol Christ and Alicia Ostriker have presented women's literature as the voice of woman. It examines the work of Alicia Ostriker, whose approach to literature is paired with Christ's since both women are united in their characterisation of women's literature as representing distinctively female experiences and apprehensions of the divine. In the work of Ostriker the terms 'literature' and 'theology' lose much of their currency and are supplanted by references to male and female traditions.
Katie Cannon's famous work Black Womanist Ethics begins with arguments aimed at establishing the existence of a 'Black woman's literary tradition' and the cultural specificity of black women's writing. This chapter traces a trajectory away from representing women's literature as 'everywoman' in cultural form towards a recognition that literature may embody rather the specific, the located and the particular. The work of Kathleen Sands carries the engagement of feminist theology with women's writing into a new epoch in which a cautious engagement with critical theory is brought into dialogue with the liberative traditions of religious feminism. Sands outlines how Christian theology has sought to protect itself from knowledge of evil using two main strategies. She terms these the 'rationalist' and 'dualist' responses. Sands approves her adoption of a Foucauldian analysis which rejects alien moral absolutes and which locates knowledge and power in the discursive activities of dominating or subjugated groups.
This chapter examines how the threat of poststructuralism has been constructed in feminist thinking and what is at stake in exploring another way of reading texts. The encounter of feminists within the Anglo/American tradition with post-structuralist theory is marked by a series of important publications which introduced the work of so-called 'French feminists' to an audience unfamiliar with the theoretical debates taking place in France. With a strong tradition of political activism, religious feminists have been particularly uncomfortable about anything that appears to threaten commitment to the political real. Robert Detweiler, David Jasper and others appear to point a possible way forward for religious feminists who are seeking to consider, alongside reading strategies which have proved creative in the past, new ways of reading which keeps us open to change.
This chapter explores the work of women poststructuralist writers with a new reading of Julia Kristeva. It presents a close reading of her oeuvre which will display how she has taken the gendered distinctions between the realms of literature and theology and reshaped them in distinctive and provocative ways. Her famous trilogy Powers of Horror, Tales of Love and Black Sun shows her tracing the impress of the 'maternal' upon three classic sites of psychoanalytic interest: abjection, love and melancholy. These texts exemplify Kristeva's continuing concern to display how the repression (murder) of the mother offers the key to interpreting psycho-social traumas via the liminal insights of art and religion. Kristeva's preference for border territory beyond emigration and immigration controls places her own writing in the tradition of modernist literature. The writer, whose status is that of traveller and observer, offers her commentary upon this interrupted journey.
This chapter argues that Luce Irigaray's work has great significance for religious feminists seeking new reading strategies and new means of understanding the relations between literature and theology. The narrative of Irigaray's expulsion from her lecturing position can be seen as a parabolic representation of the thesis of Speculum. This is that the symbolic order functions continually to silence women and annihilate their cultural specificity. Although Irigaray moves in a similar way to Jacques Derrida when she assumes the role of the philosopher's wife, she is, at the same time, seeking to nurture the birth of a new language. Irigaray is familiar with the Belgian traditions of powerful women mystics living independent lives and making audacious speculations on the divine. The chapter suggests that Irigaray's reflections on the sensible transcendental point to an understanding of the divine economy which aids in reconceptualising the threshold that exists between literature and theology.
Hélène Cixous' unusual position as an academic critic/poet has made the reception of her work problematic. In marking the continuity between writing and the feminine Cixous is deeply indebted to Jacques Derrida who was a personal friend and intellectual soul-mate for many years. Her work leads her to acknowledge that her feminist politics do not promise a resolution to the darkest mysteries. Thus she declares that politics leads her to faith and faith leads her to cast her lot with those who do not deny 'the mysteries that beat in the heart of the world'. The image of writing as child returns us to the central theme of Cixous' work, and that is that writing belongs to the body, but not only to the body in its procreative power.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book begins by interrogating the relations between literature and theology as they are presented in contemporary theological thinking. Both feminist politics and post-structuralist theory have alerted us to the disruptive potential of the repressed feminine partner within the binary system which characterises Western culture. There is instability in the coupling of literature and theology, which reflects a changing social and symbolic order. The book highlights a number of issues that will characterise feminist religious reading. The most important of these is a re-evaluation of the significance of literary texts and their power to challenge theological thinking. The book serves as an open invitation for other women to bring many differing perspectives to their theological engagements with literature.