A Naked Theologian

naked theologian - anna rabe - goannatreeI’m a lateral thinker inclined to make connections between seemingly unrelated things: a naked theologian. In writing about 19th century women poets lately I’ve been thinking about the challenges of their domestic lives in the midst of their creative pursuits. I was also challenged by Joy Bennett’s post reflecting on Billy Coffey’s thoughts on ‘naked writing.’ It got me thinking further about the function of some of my writing here.

As Billy Coffey quotes his writing instructor:

“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”

My writing here has largely been process (about graduate school, PhD writing, engagement with academia as a young scholar, theology, living as an expat) and so even when I’ve dipped my toes into more heartfelt posts real vulnerability lay lurking under a mask. Partly, because i wasn’t ‘in practice.’ Learning how to write naked is a journey and the more I do it, the more my writing flows from the heart, rather than through filters of propriety. I know it may make people coming to read a scholar-blog uncomfortable, but I’ve accepted that I need to recognise my own agency in forging, shaping, and redefining what it means to be a scholar -blogger, a theologian, a scholar, an artist within the blogosphere, and digital media more generally.

I get to choose what it means for me to use my voice, to share my journey, to encourage and challenge, and question. I’m learning many lessons of discernment, of artistry, of allowing myself to be naked and vulnerable online as the kind of writer that also writes about scholarship and supposedly serious theology and literary stuff.

Impenetrable walls and false pride

That impenetrable wall most academic/scholar-bloggers put up around them is about preserving the air of invincibility, about ensuring that they are being taken seriously, and that no weakness is shown. As a woman this can sometimes be even harder, because any hint of weakness is brushed of as expected – well, of course you would be emotional or get upset. Or even worse, because I am a young woman, any hint of anything less than serious is considered flighty. I’d speak more about the men I most often encounter in theology, but it would possibly overshadow my point.* My point is, that I’m no less an academic, no less a scholar, because I’m willing to acknowledge my own life as spiritual, and every aspect of it as reflecting and reinforcing and challenging my theology, my understanding of God, and my interactions with the people of God.

It has always amused me that in being slightly polymathic, in being willing to push my own boundaries as a writer, a scholar, a woman, an artist, I present problems to those who categorise. When I wrote at Goannatree, it was on some lists as a biblio-blog, and on others as a theology-blog and is yet not included on others. It amused me because although I do not engage in the academic discipline of biblical studies, everything about that blog is built on the foundations of biblical studies, theology, and everything I know and feel about literature, faith, art, and life.

Am I going to share with you the latest in the New Testament studies? probably not, but I will share with you the way in which NT Wrights inaugural lecture as a university of St Andrews professor challenged me to stand up for myself as someone who loves narrative, loves the bible, loves God, and not to shrink back from all that my research and explorations into Theology of the arts, and theology and the arts, can teach us all. I do write, now, as a theologian, inasmuch as I have been trained to think theologically, to apply that thinking to my research, and more importantly, I would argue, life.

At the heart of my theology is the cross as salvific, and transformative. Everything in heaven and on earth have been inexorably altered because of it. Everything. There’s my license to engage with the arts. With culture. With the quotidian of life.

Go Ahead and Label Me

If that labels me as anything. Let it be that I don’t compartmentalize. Let it be that all of life matters. Let it be that questions are good and doubts are okay and faith, faith is to be tested and refined. Let it be that I bring the same intellect, and mirth, and hope, to all my writing; no matter where its final landing place. Whether PhD thesis, or academic journal article, or popular article, or conference paper, or a talk, or workshop, or blog post. May it be as Phillipians 4:8 says:

Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

and be ready as Paul says:

If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped? Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath. (1 Peter 3:13-16)

This last week I’ve faced my own failings in as visceral a way as ever. I’ve grieved, I’ve hoped, I’ve cried and I’ve laughed. I’ve been thankful for my family and my church, and i’ve struggled with the latter too. I’ve edited and read, been overwhelmed, and hopeful. I’ve been wired by the very discussions of possibility, I’ve been sleepless with anxiety.

Read Coffey

Go Read that Billy Coffey piece if you still haven’t yet. It’s worth your time. Even though I’m still trying to figure out how it relates to my academic writing, or even if it does, this quote has earned its place on my writer’s wall:

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

The courage to ask difficult questions, the willingness to relish all of life. That’s what I hope for my writing in 2012. I have so many masks; masks which have been so ingrained, inculcated, as part of my training: Don’t be to personal. Don’t get too close. Stand on abstract ideas that find their basis in the text, the text alone.

But even then, always, I’ve been fighting my own instincts to allow an author’s voice to stand on its own, their heart to pierce the dry theory. Their voice to touch my own heart and their creative impulses to shape mine.

So here I am before you; claiming the descriptor, assuming the mantle, of theologian. And declaring a willingness to be naked. A naked theologian.

And I am daunted. Terrified almost.

Yet, I will ask questions of the texts, of myself, of life, and of faith, that I’ve never been willing to voice aloud. Those questions that have always been there and some new ones. Those questions I’ve just pushed down, buying into the lie that said that they were not serious enough, not important enough. Yet, these are the most important questions of all. These are the questions I will ask. This is the voice I will use.

A naked theologian.

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This post was first published on www.goannatree.com.  As I was recently married, I’m taking some time out, and instead sharing writing which still has currency which has been previously published! For more Theology:Naked take a look at Quotidian Home!

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