Breathing Mysticism | A Conversation with Dr. Angela N. Parker

Transcript:

Dr Angela Parker: I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests, that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something.

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

Dr. Angela N Parker is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at McAfee School of Theology. She received her Master’s of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, and her PhD in Bible Culture and Hermeneutics from Chicago Theological Seminary. In her research, Dr Parker merges Womanist thought and post-colonial theory while reading biblical texts. Her books include If God still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, which is available now. And her forthcoming book is titled, Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark

Well, Dr Parker, thank you so much for joining today.

Dr Angela Parker: Thank you so much for having me Cassidy.

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I like to begin is by kind of framing your definitions for a conversation of what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today?

Dr Angela Parker: It’s interesting. When I think about mysticism, I’d probably equate mysticism more so with my own idea of spirituality, and the aspect of what it means for me to be a person who allows Spirit Mother to invade and permeate everything that I do. And so when I think about Spirit Mother, I think about ruach in Hebrew as an idea of feminine spirit, and an idea of part of God’s presence that allows me to be contemplative, while also opening up ideas of even activism in the midst of my own spirituality in my own moments of contemplation. I think that for me, there’s almost a porousness between thinking through mysticism, contemplation, and spirituality. Even though for me, I probably use the language of spirituality more so than mysticism or contemplation. But they seem very similar in my brain and how they operate in my own life. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I love that, evade and permeate everything I do.

Dr Angela Parker: Yes.

Cassidy Hall: And in that way, a lot of times when we talk about mysticism or contemplation, it’s this whole like, dissolving of oneself into God or losing oneself into God. But in the way that you speak about it, it’s an enlivening of what already is present in us. And in that way, do you see that contemplation and/or mysticism plays a role in social action and activism and the ways that we wake up to what’s happening around us?

Dr Angela Parker: I definitely believe that is so. I believe that each and every one of us because we are humanity. We are human and we are beings that have been specifically formulated to do something. And I think that all of us are tasked to find out what it is that we are here on this earth to do. And I think that part of contemplation and then God’s spirit conversing with us allows the opening up of what our social activism may be. And so again, I don’t see it separately, I see spirituality and contemplation as ways of understanding who we are as humans in relationship to the divine. I don’t think it’s necessarily the divine coming upon us and saying, this is what you were supposed to do. But the divine actually revealing to us what is already within us.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah, that’s great.

Dr Angela Parker: I think that takes time though, as I’m pondering it. I think that the idea of being human is the ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey. And I probably would say that it’s only after years of just beginning to understand who I am as a person and what my relationship to God and to divinity is, that I begin to understand what my own operations and what my own missions are, so to speak.

Cassidy Hall: You said, correct me if I’m wrong, the idea of being human is an ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. 

Cassidy Hall: I just love that the ways that that just — it’s a continual opening up and uncovering, like you’re saying. This uncovering of what’s there. And I wonder if you could share along with that, a little bit of your own story and your journey in being a biblical scholar, and how that’s led also to, you know, I see your work as an incredible form also of activism and the ways that it’s uncovering the truth of biblical scholarship. And I wonder if you could share a little bit about that.

Dr Angela Parker: I often say that my journey is a journey that takes a long time or took a long time. One joke that I usually make in the class context is that college did not take the first time or the second time, or the third time or the fourth time. It was usually the fifth or sixth time where college actually took for me. And after starting Community College, and being in community college for two years, while also serving in ministry and then realizing that being in a pastor position was not necessarily my gifting, but my gifting was in teaching and explaining text. And then after Community College, going into a four year program at Shaw University, while also still ministering and serving in a church context, and still teaching and preaching, and opening up my understanding of critical thinking in the midst of teaching and preaching in a church context. I think those two things along with raising children, being a single parent, and then going back to school, in the midst of that while also being ordained in preaching and teaching, that conglomeration of events essentially propelled me to then want to get a master’s degree in New Testament studies. And after that, while doing the master’s degree, and having conversations with professors who would often say something like, well, there aren’t that many black folks who do Biblical Studies or Biblical Studies is hard for your folks. And hearing those comments that actually solidified in me the desire to actually go into biblical scholarship. Because it seemed as though many of my professors, not in my undergrad but in my Divinity School just felt as though biblical scholarship was too hard for some people. So usually, you should go into theology, because with theology, you can kind of say everything, so to speak. And I always wanted to prove them wrong. Because I’d always been preaching and teaching based on the biblical texts. So why wouldn’t I continue to do that, and continue to study it, because Bible had always been a love in my life. So it just seemed appropriate to allow Bible to continue to be a love of my life, even as I critically engaged it. So that was part of the journey to biblical scholarship, while also remembering those folks who said I could not do it. And oftentimes it came from upper echelons of white masculinity, who told me I couldn’t do it.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And even the act of saying, I’m doing this as a form of activism and resistance to what you were being told. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I always have to say that, even though that was my experience, and when I talk to other people in Bible, especially black women in Bible, that tends to be a lot of their experience as well. We all seem to have similar experiences but we still persevere. And we still do this work, knowing that there are allies who come alongside of us and help us do this activist work in biblical scholarship, that I always have to make sure I state that it’s not all white male scholars who think a certain way, but there are those who are very good allies for these conversations as well. And will interrogate their own identities in the midst of doing biblical scholarship.

Cassidy Hall: In your forthcoming book, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I, Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, you explore the fact that Christians are taught more about the way of whiteness than the way of Jesus. And I wonder if you can share a little bit about your own journey, as a Womanist, post-colonial biblical scholar, and also more about the book. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I think about this book as part memoir, part of biblical scholarship. And so throughout the book, you’ll find anecdotes just about my life or about being in seminary and what that experience was like. And also a deep desire to interrogate our text in ways that others may not have thought before. One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed writing was the piece on the Gospel of Mark and the women at the end of Jesus’s death; with Mark, you don’t have a resurrection story, but they’re going to the tomb in order to anoint the body. And just that idea of thinking about what women see when they see the crucifixion, and what women feel as they were experiencing the crucifixion from afar, and what it means to be in a highly testosterone-charged environment that has a large military presence. I think that pondering what women feel and experience in the midst of highly charged militaristic presence and even thinking about what it means for women to live in Afghanistan right now, and to see highly charged masculine presence in a space that now becomes unsafe, and to have a conversation with scholars of the Gospel of Mark, who read these women in the text, but consider them unfaithful or consider them less than good disciples––without pondering what it may have bodily felt to be in such an environment where you could easily be accosted, and still thinking that I have to go to a tomb in order to pay some type of respect to a fallen leader. I don’t think we give the women in the text enough credit. And so part of breathing again, for me is actually engaging what those women felt in their bodies in the midst of going to worship a fallen leader. And instead of immediately taking on the idea of what contemporary male scholarship says about these women, what does it look like to think about them slightly differently? And even for my work in Galatians in this text, thinking about what it means to ponder all of us just making it home together. Home being the idea of we can all breathe, and not feel as though we’re stifled in the midst of reading our biblical text or we’re breathing and we are not stifled in the roles that we can play in ministry; or we can breathe again and we’re not stifled by what other people say about what we are supposed to be as black and brown people or even as women who want to work in a world for the betterment of society, for justice in society. I ponder a lot about male evangelical leaders who still can’t fathom that women can preach and teach. And I think I often thought that we’ve gotten past that, but it’s interesting moving from the Pacific Northwest to the South, to the American South of Georgia, and seeing those conversations resurge, and not just feeling as though oh my goodness, not only are they taking the life out of me with these conversations or having to prove myself over and over again. But to think about all of that, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, and then thinking about others, who have died as a result of police militarized violence that there was just no way we cannot engage such conversations today where we — We have to imagine we can all make it home, we can all live, we can all prosper, we can all flourish, we can all thrive. There has to be some way for all of us to thrive and to make it home together safely. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. And allow faith communities to begin to have a different conversation about what it means to hold the biblical text as sacred and authoritative without allowing the people who think that they have the authority of the text to lower the authority or the authoritarianism of the text over them. And I see these power dynamics both within some policing systems and the policing systems of evangelicalism.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I’m struck by this, this beautiful and important refrain of breathing and the ways in which I wonder do you experience study of the biblical text to be an embodied experience in that way?

Dr Angela Parker: Definitely! I think that oftentimes, we’ve been trained. And when I say we’ve been trying to, I’m thinking about my own black Baptist upbringing, and what devotional reading looks like. And so devotional reading is singular and individualistic. But I think the idea of a collective breath is what stands out for me in reading biblical texts with people or even with contemporary situations. That breathing is embodied; breathing the text is embodied and thinking about God’s breath, and how God’s breath interacts with our breath. And I think that’s the contemplative experience. I think that’s the ruach spirit that kind of goes in between God and us. So that reading the text is almost like a wavy experience of breath coming in and out of us. Both our breath intermingling with God’s breath, and God’s breath intermingling with us. Which then goes back to how we begin to understand ourselves as humanity, and what that means for what our own activism is in the world. Because God’s breath is intermingling with us in order to do something. We think about the Genesis narrative that God breathed into Adam and how Adam becomes a living creature. We’re supposed to be living creatures that actually do something. And I think the text allows us to do that as long as it’s the text doesn’t become God. And for a lot of people, I think the text has become God and so you get this bibliolatry. Again, people use the text in order to beat someone over the head with it without this interactive breath that God wants to be involved with us as we read this text and that breath of God just kind of moves us. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. I just love the fact that yeah, I mean, the very fact that God’s breath is in us means that we must act, we must show up.

Dr Angela Parker: Well, I think, even as we ponder contemplative actions, and see that’s the thing. I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. You think about contemplation and sitting by yourself and being very individualistic. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something. That there is a breath that goes through collective bodies as well, that it’s not just individualistic contemplation, but it’s contemplation by groups of people in order to bring about some kind of change.

Cassidy Hall: How do you think groups of people or individuals get to that place where they’re able to open up and engage with the group and then, it’s almost like getting to a place of openness where we’re moved by each other’s stories, and we recognize our reliance on the collective breath in order for the individual breath as well?

Dr Angela Parker: This is where the conversation becomes a little bit difficult. And why does the conversation become difficult? Because I can imagine two groups. And I’m really in my brain, juxtaposing the January 6 insurrection against the Capitol with the peaceful protesting of Black Lives Matters in the midst of the summer of 2020. And I do believe that it all goes back, for me, especially being a biblical scholar, goes back to the idea of who Jesus is supposed to be for those of us who espouse Christianity. And for those of us who espouse Christianity that is not white, nationalistic Christianity that we can see groups of people coming together and trying to walk in the way that Jesus walked. Meaning as Jesus is walking on the road in Galilee, going down to Jerusalem, and he sees a blind man on the way and says, stand up, what do you want for me? And the blind man is saying, this is in the Gospel of Mark, I just want to be able to see, and Jesus heals that blind man. And then he goes with Jesus along the way. He’s walking along the way, not towards an insurrection, but towards his own death. I would believe that those of us who tried to walk in the way of Jesus realize that oftentimes we’re walking towards our own death. Because if you’re truly walking in the way of Jesus, you’re trying to walk in such a way that you know people may not like the way that you’re fighting against an imperialistic system. You know that people may not like the way you’re fighting against a racist system. You know that people will not like that you’re fighting against some kind of supremacist system. And so when I read Jesus in the biblical text, I see Jesus gathering groups of people to actually walk against a Roman imperialistic supremacist system. So if we are nuancing, what it means to gather people today, and for people to walk together today, it does not mean that you’re gathering a white supremacist system to fight against a system that is actually the democratic. There was something that was missed in the January 6 insurrection. Because I think what’s missing is the idea that Jesus is fighting against some kind of supremacist system. On January 6, Jesus becomes the supremacist system. So how do we have a conversation, especially in the context of the United States of America, that says that we can recognize these different groups that oftentimes espouse, a Jesus, but a very different Jesus? And then how do we break that box? And how do we move into an almost a better understanding of Jesus? I think that’s part of the conversation on what it means to think about groups of people who breathe together and then come together, because we still see groups of people coming together, but you have to ask, what kind of breath are they coming together with? And I think that’s what I want to do.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yes. Yeah, that makes sense. And beginning with that piece, like what’s the commonality of the breath that’s bringing the group together? Is it this false Jesus, this false authority and the way you talk about to really walk with the breath of Jesus? Can you share more about your other forthcoming book Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark?

Dr Angela Parker: Yeah. So with that, I’m actually arguing that there is a connection between the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5 and Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross that there are similar — and again, it goes back to marks of empire on Jesus’s body and potential marks of empire on that hemorrhaging woman’s body. And instead of translating that phrase as a hemorrhage, I translate that as she’s in a flow of blood. And what does it mean to be in a flow of blood? Well, I make the argument that if we think about her as a woman who has seen so much blood shed as a result of imperialistic sufferings, that there’s something to what it means to be a woman who constantly sees blood flowing in the streets. Not just blood flowing from her own body, but blood flowing from those who are related to her. And I make the connection with the idea of her own suffering being classified as mastix. And that’s the Greek term for whips, or scourges or sufferings that also correlate to the idea of Jesus’ suffering, scourging at his crucifixion. And so is there a way to think about that woman, as a woman who essentially sees her own brown children, her own brown brothers, her own brown siblings, her own brown mothers and fathers who have died or had their bloodshed in the midst of a Roman imperialistic takeover in Judea. And so I can make that connection to what it means to be a mother who sees Tamir Rice die in a Cleveland Park; or to be a mother who sees her own child extinguish and that child’s body laying in the hot sun on an August day in Ferguson, Missouri. So there’s some kind of connection between the bodies, the violence and the emotionality of seeing all of this happen. And thinking very hardly thinking, just making a nuanced connection between why that woman’s story is important, and how it connects to Jesus’s story at the crucifixion. Because that’s one story that is not your typical healing story. A typical healing story, has someone cry out, Jesus calls that person to him. He asks them, what do you want me to do? They tell him he does it, everybody goes along their way. This particular healing story is not in that same form. So for those who understand form criticism, it’s not in that same form. She sneaks up behind and has and has to reach out. And so just thinking through that whole story, and what it means for a woman to show agency and touch Jesus’s garment, there’s something to that. And to even think about how Matthew and Luke tweak the story, because you can’t have a Jesus who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, or you can’t have a woman touch Jesus. So Matthew and Luke kind of tweak it, so that in Luke, I don’t even think she touches Jesus at all. He just turns around and says, like, who’s about to touch me? So I think that there’s something to that particular story in the Gospel of Mark that allows me to actually engage contemporary issues regarding fallen black and brown bodies in these United States of America.

Cassidy Hall: Another piece I’m really struck by as you draw those two parallels is the connection of people not believing. I imagine people not believing that woman’s pain, the truth of her suffering, the truth of what she’s going through. And similarly, Jesus not being believed. And then thinking today about all these stories, and even studies of black women not being believed, the pain they’re going through in hospital settings. I mean, in all kinds of settings and in life, that the pain emotionally physically, quote-unquote, isn’t real.

Dr Angela Parker: There’s that feeling that we, especially for black women, we are supposed to be able to take so much more suffering than other people. And I think I’m often just struck even in the beginning of ministry and the beginning of working in pastoral settings and ministerial settings for me, that, especially black women in the church have often been looked upon to volunteer the most, to cook the most, to clean the most to take care of everyone else the most to the detriment of their own lives and bodies. And one work that opens that up for me is Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, if it wasn’t for the women. That for a long time, we’ve often been told that our suffering is going to be good for other people or for the hereafter. So just continue to suffer and continue to work and don’t make too much noise. Just continue to do and work through your pain, work through your suffering. And that’s not healthy and healing and whole for, for anyone, but even especially for black women. 

Cassidy Hall: When you joined us in my class with Dr Russaw, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, in that class you said allow what you’re fighting for, to shine through, find what you can do, and work with that hurt. We’re all too valuable to burn out.” And so I wonder, with all the hurt and the pain that surrounds us, how have you found your way to engaging so powerfully in your work? And how have you kept yourself from burning out?

Dr Angela Parker: There is actually one Amazon purchase that I still need to make, that’s actually a blanket burrito. So there are two things that I try to do. I try to first do my own self affirmations in the morning, just to at least remind myself that I am valuable, there’s still work for me to do. But even in the midst of my value, I can’t allow my own reserves to deplete to the point where I can’t do what I need to do. So for some people, and this was difficult. Because I think, as women, we’re often told that, or we often perceive from our surroundings, that we are not valuable. That we are to assist other people. And part of recognizing my own value means I have to actually say, out of my mouth, that I am valuable, I am resilient, I can resist and I can say no, in some instances, and actually do say no, and don’t feel guilty about it. I think that as women, we are often saddled with a lot of guilt if we don’t have children when we’re supposed to have children. I mean, it’s amazing to me the conversations that people have with women saying, when are you going to do this? Or when are you going to do that?  Why are you so worried about my timeline? My timeline is my timeline. And what it means to actually take hold of your own life and your own affirmations and just do you and be happy in that. That means that you have to have a change of thinking about who actually can be involved in your life as well. It’s okay to not answer every call, it’s okay to not have a conversation with everyone who asks of you, it’s okay to say no, it’s okay to take a day and rest on your couch in your blanket burrito. And then after you have had that recuperation, and a little bit of revival in your spirit, you get up and do what you can do for the cause, for the work that you feel called to do, for the writing that you have to do. I think for me, especially when I was in seminary, I was reading works that I did not see myself reflected in. So what does it look like to say, okay, I have to write work where people like me can feel reflected in it? So I have to continue to do that. But I have to rest in the middle of that as well because it can be difficult. It can be difficult to constantly see the hurt and harm that’s going on in the world and begin to write about it in such a way that people can actually breathe. And that’s what I want to do, but I want to do it with a little bit of longevity. I want to do it with a little bit of laughter in the midst of it. I want to do it with a little bit of celebration in the midst of it as well, and take time when I need to take time. So I will plan those moments for my life. And I will plan those quiet times, I will plan the absolute silence because I don’t think every moment of our lives has to be filled with so much buzz. We can have some silence, we can have contemplation on the couch and have that little bit of individualistic contemplation as well. Because I think all of it is important. I think the collective contemplation and the individual contemplation is important. But I also have to say that finding people who can help you on your journey and others that you can help with their journey as well is also important.

Cassidy Hall: And I appreciate that you note that. Because there’s still a piece of that collective breath in what you shared. So one more question before we go. Who is someone or some people that maybe embody mysticism for you, or that host that image of mysticism maybe that you were talking about earlier?

Cassidy Hall: For some reason, I keep thinking about Dr. Valerie Bridgeman. And she is a Dean in Ohio. And she has talked about and posted about on social media walking. And she’ll often say also on social media: “if someone didn’t tell you today, drink some water, drink your water. Have you had enough water today?” And that presence, even though she is not actually physically here in the Atlanta area, but she’s a presence on social media who says, did you drink water? Did you do your steps? That connection, which seems almost as if it’s nothing in a social media space, actually is a lot. I don’t know what it is about that presence and that reminder, it just seems as though she’s one of those scholars who allows me to say, oh, yes, I need to walk. I need to drink water. I need to replenish myself. And I think that’s what mysticism is for me. How do I replenish myself so that I can do what God has called me to do? I can’t say that I’ve read enough mystics, because I’m thinking even a lot of the mistakes that I read in seminary, they did not speak to me. And that makes me slightly sad as I ponder that question. Because I think for me, it’s those present-day people who are in my life who say: “Rest,” or “Have you noticed the trees? Have you noticed the purple in the flowers?” That is mysticism to me as well Color Purple, Alice Walker, saying God gets really mad if you don’t notice the purple. And I think noticing God’s beauty and God’s creation, and those books and the quiet times that remind me of that those are the mystics that helped me. I had a colleague, Dr. Chanequa Walker Barnes who invited me to the Botanical Gardens. And so we were in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and we see the purple, and we just stared at the purple flowers. Those are the contemplative moments that helped me most. So people in my life who actually pushed me to stop and look at the flowers and drink the water, those are the mystics and I think they’re the womanist mystics that I would name.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining today. Yeah, I’m just so grateful for your time and your wisdom and insight, your scholarship.

Dr Angela Parker: I really appreciate it. Thank you.

OUTRO:

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, student, and holds a MA in Counseling. She works as a Teaching Assistant at Christian Theological Seminary where she is studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees. She also serves as Student Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Since 2017, Cassidy has been the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society. Cassidy worked on the production team of the documentary feature film In Pursuit of Silence and her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years. Her podcast, Encountering Silence features interviews with contemplatives, modern-day mystics, and explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. Cassidy’s work centers around the tension and intersection of silence and social action and contemplation in a world of action.

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