WHEN MOMMA SPEAKS: The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective. By Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xvii + 129 pages.
History has tended to be written by men and focused on the same group of people. When we read Scripture we tend to focus on the male characters as well. Perhaps we’re missing something important. Perhaps there are voices present in the Bible that have been either ignored or silenced. Perhaps we could learn something valuable from these voices, voices of women, many of whom are marginalized in the story. If we were to pay attention, what would we learn?
Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder offers up When Momma Speaks as an opportunity to hear some of those voices. She does so from the perspective of Womanist biblical scholarship. For those unfamiliar with "Womanist" scholarship, it is a theological perspective that is both feminist and rooted in the African American experience. Crowder is Assistant Professor of Theological Field Education and New Testament and Director of the ACTS D.Min in Preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is African American, a mother, and a preacher as well as a scholar/teacher. She is also a Disciples of Christ minister. In the end, she brings these experiences in life together with her scholarship to a conversation that is important and illuminating.
In recent years we have discovered that too often scholarship is done with the assumption that a white male perspective is normative. There is normative scholarship and then there is scholarship done from other perspectives. Such a vision has turned out to be very limited. White male scholarship is not normative, it is simply one of those perspectives (and even it is much more diverse than we might want to admit). So, in a world lacking normativity, how do we go about biblical scholarship, especially when that scholarship has the possibility of influencing the church?
What we’ve discovered is that theology and biblical interpretation are contextual, and by contextual I mean the interpreter’s context as well as the original context. Biblical scholarship and theology can be done, perhaps, from an objective perspective, but the degree to which we’re objective should be a subject of debate. A Womanist perspective, especially one written with motherhood as a component, will lead to intriguing discoveries and encounters.
Writing from the perspective of an African American “mother, professor, wife, scholar, and preacher," Crowder introduces us to both a theological perspective and characters whose lives, often lives lived in the shadows, invite us to see the world differently.
Crowder's book is divided into three parts. Part One sets the stage by introducing the reader to what it means to be an African American mother. That is, she introduces us to her own social location, but she also reminds us as to how this social location developed, especially in light of slavery and the way in which “African American women’s sexuality and fertility” were harnessed for the purpose of breeding more slaves. Both before and after emancipation African American mothers were forced to care for the children of their white owner/employer at the expense of their own children. Thus, we see the movement from matrilineal cultures to the image of “mammy.” In chapter two she introduces us to Womanist Maternal Thought, by which she means exploring the ways in which "race, class, and gender identity impact the lives of African American mothers" (p. 17). Thus, she moves deeper into explicating the social location, including oppressive forces that have forced “mothers to choose between making a living and making a home” (pp. 26-27). Finally, in chapter three she introduces us to Womanist biblical scholarship. Such scholarship is contextual, it brings gender, race, and class into the conversation, it is confrontational, and finally it's not monolithic. The chapter itself introduces us this variety of perspectives, naming a number of figures going back to colonial days to the present. By showing a historical development, she reminds us that what scholars are doing today builds on what has gone before.
The core of the book is found in Part Two, where she explores six specific biblical stories. Each of these stories focuses on a mother who must wrestle with her context. She begins with Hagar, whom she reveals to us as a homeless mother. Thus, she is a person whose experience can help us wrestle with the reality faced by homeless mothers. We learn about Rizpah, the concubine/wife of Saul whose children are killed by David's soldiers, along with others of Saul's family. She puts her life on the line to weep for and protect the bodies of the lost children. She is a reminder to us of the childless mother, the one who grieves over a child taken from her by violence, including police violence. There is the story of Bathsheba, not the story of the woman who is brought to David, but the mother of Solomon who works to get her son a place on the throne, making her a "fearless mother.” Crowder then moves to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the "favor(less) mother," whose story parallels other teen mothers, but in her case having the wise counsel of Elizabeth. But Mary's maternal experience can take away the stigma of teen motherhood. There is the story of the Canaanite Woman, who is an example of a relentless mother, as she seeks healing from Jesus of her child. Finally, there is Zebedee's wife, whom she speaks of as the shameless mother in her determination to make sure that her two sons get a good spot in Jesus' realm. In each of these chapters, Crowder introduces us to the original context and then suggests how that life is paralleled today. This is really insightful scholarship, that makes connection with the present.
Finally, in Part three she asks "Where Do We Go from Here?" She speaks of this book as being an "appetizer," offered in the hope that others will pick up the work she has begun here. Each story does something else to help us understand contemporary experience. She writes that her ultimate hope is that the book "will encourage readers to not only pay attention to the way the biblical texts portray motherhood, but also to scrutinize society's present treatment of mothers" (p. 109). She wants us to meditate upon the biblical stories in such a way that we will be moved to deal with issues that are faced by mothers. Such is what she does here with great skill.
One thing I learned a long time ago, though I still find myself needing to relearn it, is that when it comes to biblical scholarship, theology, and life itself, it's important to listen to one another's stories. It is important to remember that we come at life from specific social locations, and that influences the way we read the Bible and life itself. I am a white male. I represent the group that has dominated biblical scholarship for centuries. It’s easy to focus on the male characters, from Adam to Jesus, but there are many other important characters whose stories can inspire and illuminate our lives. Fortunately, we have interpreters like Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder who can bring a different perspective so that we can discover these stories. While this book is rooted in serious scholarship, Crowder writes in such a way that the book is accessible to the general reader. In fact, there is a set of discussion questions at the end of each chapter making this an ideal book for study in small groups. So take and read and be challenged.