Gender and Theology (and the Theological Academy): A Response to Tony Baker’s ‘Gender and the Studio’- Part One

Part One: The Pink Penis on my Desk (A Lengthy Introduction)

In addition to the random smattering of papers, books, and other odd objects that are strewn across my desk at various points, there are a few items that are consistent adornments—there  are the practical things: the external hard-drive , the file folder, the stapler; and the sentimental things—a stained glass cross I was given upon graduating from div school, a wine cork that reminds me of a particularly happy time in my life, and a bedazzled pink penis.

Often, people don’t comment on the pink penis, probably because they’re embarrassed, or think I’ll be embarrassed. But occasionally, the bold ones will ask,

“Why do you have a pink dildo on your desk?”

I explain to them that, actually, it is not a dildo, but rather, a water gun. When this answer proves unsatisfactory or incomplete, as is often the case, I tell them a version of this story….

In my final year of divinity school, one of the courses I was in, “Black Intellectuals and Religion,” was particularly challenging for me. Though, I am not speaking about the material or the pedagogy—these aspects of the course were undoubtedly challenging, but in the good/productive way…the instructor and the content were amongst one of the highlights of my divinity school career. What made the course so difficult, rather, was (some of) my classmates.

I was one of two women in a course of about forty. I also want to note here, in the body of this essay as opposed to relegated to a footnote, that the population of the course was predominately white. I am white, as is the other woman who was in the course, and as are most of the men who comprised the course…. But more on this later…

The gender and racial makeup of the course, to be fair, was not at all uncommon. Generally speaking, Duke Divinity was quite male dominated (and quite white). The entering class the year after mine was over 75% male. Moreover, it was a course in theology, which meant it was all the more unlikely for me to find myself with any fellow female colleagues, let alone with, shall we say, a critical mass. While I was constantly frustrated by this reality, it was something I had grown somewhat accustomed to. However, this class proved to be particularly challenging. Perhaps it was that I was especially irked by the quickness at which white men would speak with authority about black intellectuals and black religious life. It very likely could have been that these white men also spoke with such authority on black female subjectivities and experiences. Maybe it was just that this particular constellation of students seemed especially eager and especially confident (one might say arrogant), and would constantly interrupt, diminish, or dismiss me on the rare occasion when I spoke. Or maybe I was just tired, and this was simply the straw that broke the camels back, so to speak. By the middle/end of the semester, I would find myself in tears during or after almost every seminar.

So, one day, the other female in the course, who happened to be one of my dearest friends, came to class and informed me she had a gift for me. She then opened her backpack and pulled out this, the aforementioned pink penis that now adorns my desk and befuddles visitors:

“Now you have one too,” she tells me. “Plus,” she quips, “when the jerks won’t shut up, you can just shoot water at them. That should get their attention.”

Now, this bedazzled pink penis-shaped water gun sits at my desk as a reminder, encouragement, and inspiration. Whenever I am in an experience where I feel overwhelmed or frustrated by the predominance of white men in the theological academy and the all too often accompanying posturing, pride, and piety, said pink penis reminds me not only that I can do the work that I am doing, but why I am doing the work I am doing.

I wish I could say that this bizarre little totem of mine is barely needed, that it serves more nostalgic than motivational purposes….

In day to day life, that may be the case.. I’ve found a way to surround myself with a broad diversity of folks with a broad diversity of theological interests. I’ve also been careful to surround myself with folks who, regardless of interest, are aware of and attentive to the racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc… of the theological academy. Moreover, I’m now at an institution that is quite aware of social location and situated-ness and the ways such things intersect with and shape academic discourse. While Vanderbilt definitely has its problems, the institution has an ethos that at least somewhat engenders critical reflection and concern around the various “isms” that plague the theological academy, the broader academy, the church, and the broader culture. This is evidenced in the very makeup of the student body. The Theology and Practice fellowship program I am a part of can boast of the most racially/ethnically diverse doctoral programs in religion in the nation (as well as the highest GRE scores). In theological studies, right now, there are more women in the program then men. Sure, Vandy still has a lot of work to do, and can often hide or mask its problems under these statistics, but, comparative to other schools….

But, in the broader scheme of things, as a Ph.D. student in theological studies, and especially as someone who is interested in some of the more “systematic/traditional” thinkers and themes (Bonhoeffer, Barth, atonement, nature/grace stuff, etc…), it is damn near impossible to avoid the culture that inspired said gift of the pink penis. One of the ways I often encounter this culture is at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion….

I can cite numerous stories here—of being in the minority, and often the only female, in a conversation or session, of being ignored or dismissed, etc…. But for the sake of time, I will save those for another day. Rather, here, I want to reflect on the question of why this occurs, and then offer some brief suggestions for moving beyond it.

I offer these reflections in conversation with, and as critical but constructive response to, Tony Baker’s recent reflection on “Gender and the Studio.” I was one of the six women in the room, though, when I was there, I only counted four—Sarah Coakley, Mandy (the Duke student who asked the question that prompted Tony’s response), myself, and one other woman I did not know—amongst 47 men (I make it a habit of counting these things. Also,  I have to say, I actually found myself surprised at the ratio, as usually, its worse…).  I appreciate/commend Baker for reflecting on this important reality on his blog—it says a lot that one is even willing to reflect upon these matters… That being said, in the spirit of dialogue, I want to contend with Baker’s reflection—with his suggestions for what  “Christianly-gendered” theological work might foster, and how the Theology Studio might help create said space—keeping in mind that I believe that Baker and I have similar aims, at least ultimately: the full flourishing of all of humanity towards/reflecting the glory of God.

My critique comes in two parts: first, I suggest that Baker’s proposal is inconsistent—that he calls for an attention to and affirmation of “female receptivity” without actually engendering said attention/affirmation in the discourse, and without attending to the material realities of bodies (this, admittedly, is a broader critique of the theological academy, not just of him). Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, I want to argue against Baker’s account of gender. Relying on gender theorist Judith Butler, as well as a Barthian account of the relationship between nature and grace, I want to suggest that the association between receptivity and femininity, and the reification of femaleness at all, is problematic socioculturally and theologically.

All to say, stay tuned… I’d also love to hear any initial thoughts y’all have: if others had similar concerns or reflections–or if anyone has any pushback to my initial critique– following the studio event or Baker’s blog.

20 thoughts on “Gender and Theology (and the Theological Academy): A Response to Tony Baker’s ‘Gender and the Studio’- Part One

  1. Brandy – Thanks for this great introductory post. I got invited to that session on Facebook, and really wanted to attend especially since it featured a discussion on Sarah Coakley (I’ve been interested in her past work on kenosis). However, I decided against going. To be fair, there were multiple reasons why I couldn’t attend, but I did not make any extra effort to attend even with Coakley as the topic of conversation precisely because of the fact that the TS is dominated by white men. As a theology student who has been a part of numerous male-dominated courses/seminars in the past (sometimes being the only female in the room), I imagined that the TS meeting would be a similar experience. And I’ve also experienced their TS facebook conversation threads and they are not often engaged by women in comparison. I hesitate to even admit that because I can imagine the expected eye-rolls, but the violent rhetoric that usually ensues in male-dominated settings gets old.

    Even more than the white male-dominated atmosphere of the TS, there doesn’t seem to be an extensive engagement with questions that I care to ask. Many male academics take for granted their place of power, their gender, their race and how they simply don’t have to be aware of asking these questions because of their place of privilege (to be clear: as a white woman, I realize I am also *far from exempt* in these criticisms as well). It would be refreshing to see more of these white male academics, including those among the TS, engage in questions of race, power, class, and gender in ways that make them vulnerable and open to critique.

    I also wanted to note that I appreciated this line: “Relying on gender theorist Judith Butler, as well as a Barthian account of the relationship between nature and grace, I want to suggest that the association between receptivity and femininity, and the reification of femaleness at all, is problematic socioculturally and theologically.” The fact that there is an implicit notion of what this space of “femaleness” even means is problematic in itself and must be criticized. Perhaps this isn’t related, but I often grow weary when I get the sense that gender studies is a “female” thing to do and men do “real theology.” It is as if men think they do not have to engage the question of gender and think they are exempt from these issues that are so critical. And maybe the lack of women and people of color in circles like the TS might just be a direct product of failing to realize the critical necessity for (white) men to engage with these issues themselves.

  2. I know we here at AUFS have been confronted with this charge of masculine rhetoric and I’ve resisted it in the past. It’s certainly true though that I’ve been trying to think through my responsibility there and this is in part why I contribute less online in the past year. I just don’t know where to stand anymore, though I know it can’t be with the creepy nuptial theology present in the mainstream. So, I really welcome these posts and look forward to hearing what you have to say.

    Karen Kilby, one of the few orthodox Catholic theologians who still likes me, has a really good take down of this vision of gender in her book on Balthasar (the source for much of this in the contemporary scene). She’s not a radical feminist by any means, but in some ways that makes her critique more useful when talking to less radically inclined theologians.

  3. I was also trying to work out how to respond, given that women’s participation here has historically been less than “robust.” It does bother me that Tony goes straight for gender essentialism rather than, you know, actual equality — and thus questioning himself if he’s not taking a woman’s comment as seriously as a man’s, etc.

  4. Thanks very much for this, Brandy. I look forward to the future posts. I was one of the people who was there at the TS party (very, very reluctantly, I might add). The thing that I couldn’t get over is that the conversation that night was nothing other than a display of piety and moral posturing. That’s all it was. (I think Anthony has an oft repeated phrase about a circle or something that captures this slightly more vividly). If this was a discussion over “the future of systematic theology,” then it looks like the future of systematic theology is to learn how “the church” (this phrase happened in like every other sentence) can continue to be a paternalistic benevolent Father figure to poor minorities. Seriously, there was like a 30 minute period where everyone in the room was trying to one up each other with their awesome ministry stories in exotic poor communities. Someone even told a story about how he was ministering to a poor African American community somewhere and he had to “simplify” his language in order to be effective.

  5. I also can be guilty of a kind of violent rhetoric, though I honestly try (successfully or not) to turn it against myself. Problems adhere to this as well, admittedly. Anyway . . . I’m very much looking forward to reading more about this, even if I haven’t a clue what the Theology Studio actually is.

  6. Thanks for this, Brandy. I’m glad to see it up here. The particular conversation you’re addressing is a little bit off my radar… I’ll admit that, since I don’t really consider myself to be “doing theology” in a proper sense (I’m not a practicing Christian and wasn’t raised as one), I’m choosy with my diet of theological ideas and often restrict it to those that have already been passed through the filter of feminist analyses. Sure, I read the ancient stuff. And I get my shackles up about it. But when it comes to contemporary work, I’m guilty of filtering a lot of this stuff out… the way that, these days, we can restrict our news and information diets to the sites and sources that don’t turn our stomachs. I’ve tended to seek out the more avowedly “philosophical” conversations. But those conferences, and conference sessions, are beset with nearly identical problems. It’s good to think about the kinds of defense mechanisms (like penis guns!) that we cultivate and harbor in order to continue to exist in these environments. I suspect I have more than I even recognize. When you have something like a water gun… something that you can hold and look at… it’s easier to see when you’re turning it outward, and when you’re turning it back on yourself, using it to silence yourself. But a lot of defense mechanisms aren’t like that.

    Having read over the blog post that you linked to, I’ll say initially that I’m inclined to agree with your critique: the essentialist meld of femininity and receptivity is fundamentally problematic. I think his blatant use of figuration (advancing the “redeemed form of Mary” as something that can save theology from its own masculinity…its “Nimrod trajectory”) is way too easy. Feminizing figures, turning to female forms, is an ancient practice that’s existed alongside – and supported – patriarchal domination.

  7. I had only read the first half of Tony’s post when I commented before, but having gone through the whole thing — wow. I recognize he’s well-intentioned, etc., but starting off his conversation of how women could come to be included with the crassest possible gender stereotypes seems like… a misstep.

  8. I mean, Jesus Christ, you lead with the active/passive binary in a situation of rape?! And then you leave that as your guiding thread? Wow, I wonder why women don’t feel welcome!

  9. In one of the AAR / SBL sessions I attended (“Jewish and Christian Moral Uses of Scripture”), three of the four panelists were women. In the discussion generated by the respondents, the point was raised that one of the presentations approached scripture with a more, shall we say, “receptive” or “listening” posture—it was interested in applying a scripture-inspired framework to a contemporary problem—while the other three were more critical in their approach to scripture, wanting to enter into a conversation, or even argument, with the texts. When this was pointed out, one of the women responded that the paper with the “receptive” approach was by a man, and that women in biblical studies or theology of necessity have to learn to argue with scripture for the sake of our very existence.

    So in addition to the very necessary reasons to critique the female = receptive / male = active Barthian / Balthasarian framework due to its essentializing and sexist presuppositions, I’d venture to suggest it isn’t even descriptively accurate, if we start looking at the scholarship being done by women in biblical, theological, or religious studies.

  10. Bridget,

    Seems to me that that’s the problem with traditionalist wanting to avoid constructivism for its “Promethian” elements. They are trapped in that weird play of empirical and transcendental that ends up spinning but going nowhere.

  11. It’s also tremendously (potentially? necessarily?) destructive to recommend a prelapsarian receptivity to a postlapsarian world. One of the most-repeated points of feminist biblical interpretation is, after Phyllis Trible, that sexual hierarchy is imposed by God following the Fall, it’s not an “original” vision of human flourishing. We don’t have the ability to distinguish clearly between that which should be meekly received as gift without grasping… and that which must be firmly resisted as an expression of the injustice of a world in which sinful oppression and hierarchy exist…

  12. And he says something along those lines when he’s doing “his” thing, but when he tries to do the gender thing, that falls completely by the wayside and suddenly we’re trying to strike an appropriate balance between active and passive. (Which I guess in his terms would be represented by the Nephilim themselves?)

  13. Yeah, there is definitely an inconsistency happening there… to say the least…

    APS- that’s a helpful point re: the assumed problematic of constructivism…. can you say a little bit more?

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