Denison Journal of Religion

Article Title

Denison Journal of Religion, Vol. XIV


"Interpreting Sati: The Complex Relationship Between Gender and Power In India" by Cheyanne Cierpial, '16

This essay stresses the importance of context sensitivity when considering seemingly controversial issues. Cierpal uses the act of Sati, widow burning, to illuminate the need for such context sensitivity. The controversial act takes place when one’s husband dies. Sati is literally translated to “virtuous woman,” and the wife performs the ritual in order to serve, provide for, and protect her husband. Sati can bee seen as a “ritual necessary in order to regain and achieve ultimate devotion to her husband.” Many Western feminist scholars question whether a woman exercises agency in making this choice, yet these scholars often fail to explore the context. Cierpial, however, calls for context sensitivity when investigating these questions of morality and agency. Tracing a brief history of women’s role in Hinduism, Cierpal discusses the nature of women’s relationship to their husbands and reveals that women are “defined by their relationship to men.” She then enters a discussion of Colonialism to illustrate how colonial power has inflicted various regulations on the practice, consequently restricting such rituals of Hinduism. In order to analyze this battle over what many may call “gendered violence,” the author refers to the specific case of Roop Kanwar and feminist responses to the case. Many Western feminists, such as Mary Daly, see the widow as “the victim of a patriarchal society imposing violence against widows,” while many postcolonial feminists strongly disagree. These scholars believe that arguments such as Daly’s operate on principles of universality. They point out that such claims cannot deem practices as universally wrong, for they view sati though a strictly Western feminist lens. In relying only on this lens, scholars exclude other cultures, beliefs, and ways of knowing the world, including those of Hindu women in India. Cierpial doesn’t seek a definitive answer addressing the controversy surrounding sati, arguing that one cannot project absolutes on another religion or culture. Instead, she states that understanding comes from careful consideration of each “culture, characteristic, and orientation of individuals.” Thus, this essay illustrates the importance of context sensitivity: a necessary tool when interpreting any religion or culture.

"The Catholic Worker Movement" by Victoria Newman, '15

The first segment of this essay traces the Catholic Worker movement from its beginnings, discussing the lives of its two founders. Rooted in its goals of social justice and social reform, the movement was composed of an intentional community founded by French peasant Peter Maurin and Catholic convert journalist Dorothy Day. Coming from starkly different backgrounds, the two crossed paths and published a newspaper, The Catholic Worker. This newly founded intentional community operated to love and serve the poor, believing that this was at the heart of the Christian message. Not only did they do so by helping to provide for the basic needs of the poor, but also by calling into question systems that created and perpetuated injustice and inequity. The essay discusses the importance of personalism within the Catholic Worker Movement, explaining that this philosophy believed in the “dignity and respect of each human person.” Newman notes that this belief is inseparable from the Catholic Church, thoroughly rooted in this religious tradition. Yet, Newman also draws the reader’s attention to the idea that the Catholic Worker “expresses its faith and ties to the Church in a way that is seen as countercultural and even radical.” Rather than looking to directly critique the Church and other institutions, Day and Maurin saw their work as having the power to change individual hearts, minds, and ways of life, believing that these changes could revitalize the Church and society from the inside out. In addition to the importance of personalism and justice, Newman cites hospitality as another key objective in the movement. For those involved with the Catholic Worker, hospitality functioned as a foundation of resistance and as a form of resistance itself, for radical hospitality counters exclusion with welcoming acceptance. These principles of service and hospitality bled into the Catholic Worker Movement, making the church a “kitchen, a clinic, a school, a community, and a home.” Newman discusses the way that this movement not only expanded to Catholic Worker houses all over the country, but also transcending denominations in inspiring Protestant efforts such as the Open Door Community of Atlanta, Georgia. Thus, Newman explains how personalist ideals rooted in hospitality have great power, able to shed light on social justice issues to a complacent Church and society at large.

"Poetic Justice: Hip-Hop and Black Liberation Theology" by Mimi Mendes de Leon, '14

The essay opens with a discussion of a white artist’s recently attained Grammy award for his anthem for marriage equality. Black artist, Kendrick Lamar, was also in the running, but did not receive the Grammy for his critically acclaimed album about his life in Compton, good kid, M.A.A.D. city. Mendes makes this point to illustrate how the public perceives hip hop as political, arguing that hip hop in its nature is, in fact, thoroughly political. Hip Hop originates from the “corner”: “the heart of the inner city community.” The location of the corner may vary, but serves as a universal source of inspiration to the musicians in the marginalized black community. Mendes points out that many forms of systematic oppression target this community, manifest in the political, economic, and social order. These colorblind caste systems are disguised as accepted institutions, such as the War on Drugs, prison industrialization, and market capitalism. Yet, while the general public assumes these institutions to be both necessary and universally beneficial, these literal wars on a specific group of people actually serve as a way for the dominant powers to exert social and racial control. Amidst these conditions, the “least of these” often turn to underground, illegal capital for survival. Hip hop artists, often able to speak to the experiences of the oppressed, offer their stories through music as a sort of protest. The essay then moves into a segment discussing the historical background of the Corner. Hip Hop’s roots trace all the way back to the Blues, Civil rights movement, and slavery. Mendes discusses Ralph Basui Watkins’ ideas about the four primary characteristics hip hop shares with the blues, illustrating the notion that both musical movements have resistance embedded into the very core of their identity. Finally, the essay brings a theological discussion to the forefront. Mendes notes how Jesus was born into a marginalized condition and continued to identify with the marginalized of his time throughout his life. Therefore, she asserts that the “God on the Corner is one who is active and present in the lives of the neighborhood.” In today’s society, thus, it would make sense for Jesus to be black, one of the “least of these” who has chosen this community as his own. Thus, Mendes argues that hip hop acts as a sort of prophetic voice, naming and calling out to the God on the Corner who has promised to suffer with his people and work towards their liberation.

"Evil and Theodicy in Hinduism" by Sunder Willett, ’15

This essay seeks to explore the ways in which Hinduism uniquely deals with ideas related to evil and theodicy. First, Willett describes the context behind the two terms “evil” and “theodicy.” He explains that because of its ambiguous definitions, the term religion complicates our understanding of the term evil. Likewise, the Christian perception of evil creates significant problems when trying to consider the way that evil is a part of or related to other religions. Willet describes theodicy as the attempt to answer questions concerning the overwhelming amount of evil in the world and how one can “reconcile the belief of a good god with the existence of evil.” He notes that these questions of theodicy have been unique to the notion of a Christian God. Thus, all discussions of evil in which evil is diametrically opposed to goodness involve a Christian understanding. Hinduism, however, challenges these perceptions of evil, for this religion fails to dichotomize the polarities of good and evil. Hindu deities are not classified according to goodness; rather questions of goodness are addressed by karma. Next, the essay moves to a discussion of Karma as theodicy. Karma is defined as “a combination of the principles of cause-and-effect with the South Asian belief in rebirth or reincarnation.” Willet argues that Karma is not a systematic answer to the question of theodicy, meaning that “karma only seeks to explain the existence of evil and suffering,” not to reconcile how a good god and evil can simultaneously exist. Thus, this cause-and-effect approach cannot answer questions of punishment or the divine authorization of evil that Christian theodicy asks. Willet also notes the limitations of karma, such as its ability to undermine deities and interfere with free will. Finally, the essay discusses the way Hinduism deals with the conceptualizations of good and evil, choosing not to polarize these concepts as Christianity does. Instead, Willet explores various interpretations of good and evil within Hindu mythology. He notes that some myths claim that the creator deliberately fashioned a world with both good and evil, while other myths tell of religious figures whose level of good is ambiguous. Willet also points out that myths offer different explanations for why evil may exist and what purpose it serves. In sum, by setting aside Christian absolutes and polarities, this essay reveals the more nuanced, unique understandings of evil and theodicy that appear within the Hindu traditions.

"Seeing and Being Seen at the Margins: Insight into God from the Wilderness" by Luke Hillier, '15

Hiller argues that by approaching the often neglected or negatively interpreted biblical story of Hagar through a particular context, one can conclude that God is encountered at Hagar’s location: the outskirts and the margins. Hiller’s analysis is rooted in this “literary and culturally contextual” reading of Genesis 16, asking the reader more deeply examine Hagar’s experience of oppression to see the radical nature of her encounter with God. The first part of this essay describes how Hagar’s agency, identity, and life are compromised in the face of adversity. As a female slave, Hagar answers to Sarah and Abraham in every way and is forced to carry a child for their family. Hagar has little to no identity, considered property of Abraham and never being called by name within the text. Although the absence of agency and identity was common to those of her gender and servant status, Hillier argues that the conditions in which Hagar lived were most likely highly detrimental and painfully dehumanizing, also citing physical violence as a particularly harsh portion of Hagar’s plight. Hagar escapes, but is soon faced with the many dangers presented by the wilderness. Yet, it is here that Hillier debunks possible negative interpretations of Hagar’s encounter with God, instead proposing that it is here that God acknowledges Hagar’s identity before enslavement, offers her a newfound hope, and enters into an intimate relationship with her. Hillier particularly emphasizes the way in which Hagar is given the opportunity to name God, the only biblical character to do so. Thus, Hillier concludes that one particular interpretation of Hagar’s story tells us it is at the margins of existence that one can best be seen by and see God.