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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:

 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. 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, 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. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

5 Comments

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Jennifer!
    Love the T. S. Eliot quote and the references to “fire.”
    For Love to be experienced, it must be reciprocated. When you allow for the possibility of life after death (Jesus’ resurrection!), or even death after death (The “Second Death,” Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 20:14, 15; 21:8), the stakes are high indeed.
    Our “John” in The Revelation, uses Lake Fire as a metaphor of lasting punishment and exclusion. What he fails to mention at that point, is that the “rider on the white horse” whose “eyes are like a flame of fire” (19:1) was himself thrown into that “lake of fire”! He himself was engulfed by it, totally engulfed by the full fury of the wrath of God against sin and sinners (and outlived, outlasted, exhausted it). It consumed him. He consumed it. There is nothing combustible left! The Hornet has lost his stinger and must die. This is such good news for humanity. For us!
    Jesus was both the Fire (of God) and he was consumed by fire (ravaged by the consequences of our wrong choices). He was God abandoned by God, a concept not easily grasped. He went through it. He emerged on the ‘other side”. He was an Overcomer, and as a conqueror, he shares that kind of faithfulness/faith with his followers. Now we can see that the home (or tabernacle) of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them . . . be with them (Rev. 21:3, 4). It is the resurrection of Jesus that discloses that Jesus really came out on the other side (of trouble, sin, guilt, death and hell).
    Even in The Revelation, “The Fire” never goes out of existence. It is a lasting metaphor of the reality of judgment, punishment, rescue, and new life

  • Jim Brink says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for the clarity, truth and the encouragement your piece lends.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Always appreciate your contributions, Jennifer! I’m a fan of Miriam Toews. I read Women Talking some time ago and plan to watch the movie. Thanks for the insights you offer here.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for another helpful blog. Where you were led these last weeks has led us to Ann comfortably blessed spot. Reminds me of C. S. Lewis and his pointed observation that God may not be safe, but He surely is good!

  • RZ says:

    Very well done. Thought provoking. Paradoxical. Loved the “redeemed from fire by fire.”

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