Experience over dogma

What would Mrs. Jesus do?

That’s probably the wrong question to ask feminist Biblical scholar Carol Newsom, who’s slated to speak in Asheville later this month.

A debate over the true identity of Mary Magdalene — who may or may not have been “Mrs. Jesus” — has ramped up recently, thanks in large part to the best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code. The novel revives the ancient legend that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus’ wife (and the mother of his child), and that she and her followers fled to what’s now France after the crucifixion.

Although Newsom enjoyed The Da Vinci Code as a breezy read, she’s troubled by the notion that Mary Magdalene has suddenly become more important by virtue of the disputed claim that she was Jesus’ wife.

“The historical, more likely scenario was not that she was Mrs. Jesus, but [that she was] a significant leader and teacher in the early church,” Newsom suggests. “And that’s the Mary Magdalene I’m more interested in.”

Newsom — an Emory University professor who’s also the first woman scholar to have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls — will plunge headlong into that hot topic at an upcoming Asheville lecture. Her speech is one in a cluster of events celebrating the 10th anniversary of Holy Ground, an Asheville nonprofit that challenges patriarchal world views.

In addition, Rosemary Radford Ruether — one of the “foremothers” of feminist Christian theology — will deliver two lectures, including the provocatively titled “Women, Ecology & Globalization.” Ruether has written and edited more than 32 books (including the 1983 classic Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology) and serves as a Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

She plans to outline how corporate globalization over the past 30 years has helped to impoverish the majority of the people on this planet and widen the gap between the extremely wealthy and the poorest members of society, many of whom are women.

“In order to turn that around, you have to have a whole different vision of how we have to relate to each other,” Ruether told Xpress. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself — a few thoughts like that, rather than ‘I love myself by hating you.'”

Along with the lectures, Holy Ground will showcase an exhibit of local women’s artwork, several pieces of which project dreamlike, mystical qualities.

Reaching for the stars

In the comfortable front room of Holy Ground’s offices in a turn-of-the-century house on Orange Street, Sandra Smith, the organization’s no-nonsense director and co-founder, plops down in a comfy chair to chat. Joining her are Noel Nickle, Holy Ground’s associate director, and intern Anna Flewelling, a Warren Wilson College student.

The taupe-colored walls, purple accents and fresh flowers help to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere that encourages conversation. But peaceful doesn’t mean dull.

For the past 10 years, the feminist-retreat ministry has brought together people of all spiritual callings to explore their ideas of “the holy” and to talk about issues of faith and justice, explains Smith.

“In this culture — and in most, I guess, in the world — the devaluing of women is a huge issue,” she reflects. “And certainly each religion has done its number on women. And so: Can we be that place in this community where … women who feel left out of their church or synagogue or faith circle can come … and feel like they have found a place where they can be engaged spiritually and theologically?”

A place, Smith continues, “where they can imagine Spirit in ways that are life-giving?”

Judging from Holy Ground’s history — or “herstory,” as Smith would say — the answer is a resounding yes.

In the decade since the organization was founded by Smith and theology-school buddy Dorri Sherrill, Holy Ground has held numerous workshops and retreats, and hosted nationally known speakers (such as Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, and Terry Tempest Williams). Such events, asserts Smith, challenge the way people think about their faith — and how they act on its underlying principles.

“We’re not Christian feminists,” she declares. “We’re feminist Christians. Feminism defines our Christian perspective. And I think there’s a difference. … We say we do theology, or approach spirituality, through the lens of women’s experience.”

A key part of that approach involves the careful use of language, since patriarchal terms can actually create barriers for women to embrace their spiritual selves, Nickle notes. (Smith, for example, is likely to eschew the word “God” in favor of “Spirit” or “Holy Creativity.”)

Another critical point: While the folks at Holy Ground would be delighted to talk theology over a cup of organic, fairly traded coffee, the organization is not to be confused with south Asheville java outlet Holy Grounds.

“We’re not the coffee place,” Nickle says firmly.

It’s a great thing

Holy Ground’s upcoming art exhibit (March 22-April 2) embodies two of the organization’s fundamental principles: trusting one’s own experience, and insisting on beauty.

“It is an affirmation to trust one’s experience,” Smith observes. “Experience over dogma. One’s theology and spirituality has to engage one’s life. And if [it] doesn’t do that, then we’re simply spitting out a company line.”

On aesthetics, Smith muses: “Beauty is heart-stopping. Isn’t it? No, beauty is heart-starting! Beauty can guide us to our heart and can, I think, help facilitate the spiritual experience, and also offer hope in the journey of justice, the struggle for justice.”

Take, for example, Asheville artist Eliza Hafer’s lush, color-saturated painting “The Seed That Opened After a Great Fire,” a mystical image of a woman whose heart is bursting with a white dove. Or local artist Valerie McGaughey’s pair of dreamy “spirit women,” both of whom look as if they reside in a secret, other dimension.

But in a world — and faith — that’s been dominated by patriarchal structures for millennia, isn’t it difficult for Holy Ground to exist?

Smith pauses to consider the question. The answer, she and Nickle agree, is most definitely and most emphatically: “No.”

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