This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. It was led by the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney who drew on her expertise in biblical interpretation and womanist hermeneutics to challenge and inspire attendees to take seriously our calling as ministers of the Word.
Gafney writes in her book, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, “Most simply, womanism is black women’s feminism.” This is, indeed, the simple answer to the question, “What is womanism?” and Gafney is quick to unpack more fully the way womanism is more than just feminism channeled through black women. There is far more to unpack than will fit in a blog post (Coffee, anyone?), but I will say that one of the things I appreciated most from the workshop was the invitation to approach scripture with “sanctified imagination.”
Gafney describes a sanctified imagination as, “the fertile creative space where the preacher-interpreter enters the text, particularly the spaces in the text, and fills them out with missing details: names, back stories, detailed descriptions of the scene and the characters, and so on.” She goes on to point out that in the Hebrew scriptures, female characters are most often relegated to the background and are regularly left unnamed. These unheard and overlooked stories that require an intense reading between the lines ought to interest us not as merely a flight of fancy daydream but for the ways that drawing out these untold stories allows us to know a God who is not bound by the text. By giving these women names, voices, and listening for the truths they have to share, we prepare ourselves to do the same for the women in our own time who are still too often overlooked and ignored.
The sanctified imagination is likely not a completely new concept since I’m fairly certain both Joel and I have practiced it in some form in the past year. What stuck with me from the workshop, however, was the insistence that bringing imagination to the interpretation of a scripture text, reading between the lines, and adding detail to give biblical characters their own chance to speak their truth does not mean that we are taking scripture less seriously. By listening for the voices that have been suppressed and allowing ourselves to be transformed by their truth, we are taking more seriously not just scripture but also the good news of the Living God.