Listen To Article
One of the reasons I keep participating on this blog is that I think it makes me more attentive. And that’s vital to me, especially as I seem to get ever busier. I’ve tried to develop a practice where I note (even if just mentally) events and ideas that might be interesting–or ways in which something just keeps presenting itself to me again and again.
The latter happened over the last week or so: over the weekend, I watched Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s adaptation of the Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking. The film, based on real events, tells the story of an isolated Mennonite community where the women have been drugged and sexually assaulted by the colony’s men. When one man is finally identified and he, in turn, identifies the other perpetrators, the local authorities intervene and take the men to jail; the rest of the men of the colony then leave to bail them out. This is where the film begins: the women, left behind, vote to determine what should happen next: stay and forgive, stay and fight, or leave. When the larger group of women effectively tie around the options, a smaller group of women is deputized to work through the issues and decide for the group. The film chronicles the conversation this multi-generational group of women has to decide their fates.
What is striking about the film is that it is respectful of these Mennonite women and the faith that guides their lives. Given the horrific abuses that they have endured and the patriarchal religious structures and authority figures that have enabled them (and the movie makes clear continue to enable), it would have been very easy to make a movie that simply (and rightly) demolishes the abusers and their faith in one fell swoop. But the film is clear that the women themselves are deeply faithful–the women frequently quote scripture, engage in theological discussions, and sing hymns. And the solution they come to grows out of their own faith commitments in spite of the abusive version of faith under which they have been living.
The ways the women find to envision a faith and a God who is not complicit with the toxicities in their community was echoed a powerful talk I had heard in the middle of last week. Wheaton professor and New York Times columnist Esau McCaulley chronicled the ways that white supremacy has deformed the interpretation of scripture. And then he provided hermeneutic strategies from the Black church that showed a way forward. The racism of the white church can never invalidate faith in the God of the Exodus.
And then my faculty women’s Bible study on Monday had as our text Malachi 3: 1-4. Here’s the main bit:
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
In other words, the refining fire is essential to God’s work. Not just on an individual level, but so that our corporate “offerings” can be made “acceptable” (a reminder that they are not currently).
A big reason I identify as Reformed is because of the “always reforming” part: whether it’s in metaphors of fire or soap or the pruning hook, the Bible is clear that God is at work to rid of us of every flammable encumbrance (or filthy rag or unproductive branch, etc), whether that is pride in place or position, in privilege or power, in possessions or prejudice. Painful as this inevitably must be, we need to understand that it is to be expected, welcomed even. Mightn’t “feeling the burn” be an indication of God’s convicting spirit and the need for examination and repentance? We all know that there is not one era of church history that does not contain examples of corrupt complicity and deeply shameful behavior and attitudes. Our era is, of course, no different.
In “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot explains the frightening necessity and enduring hope of God’s refining fire. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but the grace of God in wanting to make us even more precious–by ridding us of all that is not from God–should humble us profoundly. Salvation lies no other way.
The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one dischage from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-- To be redeemed from fire by fire. Who then devised the torment? Love. Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.