Women's narratives, their circles of influence in things visible and invisible?

These days, the word influence is often used in social circles and workplaces to establish several things, such as popularity, impact, and networking capabilities. It is almost as if these measurements of various forms of influence equate to one’s impact and credibility.

Although it is an enticing thought that your work, life, stories, and voice need to have a measurable, visible, and almost immediate impact on others, one wonders about the effects of this trend and how it impacts and will impact human life, thought patterns, our understanding of faith and expressions of faith practices.

In a module in contextual theology, we paused at women figures with unexpected influence in their contexts and who might, centuries later, enrich our understanding of faith practices. 

A narrative in the Old Testament briefly referring to the figure of Hagar, recently received much scholarly attention. There are beautiful biblical interpretations (Claassens1, Thabede2) of how Hagar, as a liminal figure, can be re-read to see the care and compassion of God towards her. Hagar is a type of outcast, a woman from a diverse family background with little social standing and who is childless. But in a close read of the biblical narrative, one can become aware of how God recognized and cared for her. These modern women interpreters use the description to help readers see how attentive the care of God is, especially in societies where much goes unnoticed.

Contextual theologians, who reflect on the praxis of theology in context, further reflect on this biblical narrative3 to see how this narrative can help respond to the lived experiences, particularly homelessness. Homelessness, Mbaya4 argues, can also be understood as a consequence of gender-based violence. Many women, she argues, are often made homeless by either fleeing brutal acts of violence or internally migrating to lonely and barren inner emotional spaces to survive.

  1. See Claassens, J., 2013. Just emotions: Reading the Sarah and Hagar narrative (Genesis 16, 21) through the lens of human dignity. Verbum et Ecclesia, 34(2), pp.1-6.
  2. Thabede, S., 2022. Navigating the threshold: an African-feminist reading of the Hagar narrative in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Doctoral dissertation, Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University).
  3. Junior, N., 2019. Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible. Oxford University Press.
  4. Mbaya, B., 2023. Beyond handouts: A gendered analysis of faith-based organization’s response to homelessness.

These contextual theologians who focus on this lived experience of women and how churches and organizations respond to the realities of these women do see the significance of Hagar’s narrative to help women realise that God recognizes them and that they have worth, also in these difficult circumstances. The theologians carefully describe how this particular response of God to Hagar can inform practical responses of churches and communities that reach out to homeless women. Indeed, Hagar’s narrative is one of influence.

In a similar vein, the well-known Ghanaian theologian Prof Mercy Amba Oduyoye established a network called the Circle of Concerned African Theologians. She formed the circle to enable African women to think and dialogue together and to pin down their theologies. Many of these women were not allowed by the church or their culture to either study or practice theology formally. The circle allowed dialogue and encouraged women to find their theological voices and give their respective theological and inter-faith interpretations relevant to their various ecclesial, cultural, and societal spaces.5

The circle stretches across Northern, Southern, Western, and Eastern Africa. It is currently present in most provinces in South Africa, where women host cluster meetings to read, discuss and write theology. These dialogues address the effect of patriarchy, the many challenges women face, and what they deem as sound theological methods, interpretations, and praxis. Many women bring fresh perspectives from their lived experiences to theological discussions and understandings, thereby new life to the church and society.

During a practical theology course at Cornerstone, we introduced a younger women scholar to all these contextual stories and events of influences to open the dialogue to her and invite her into the journey of studying theology and to help her to reflect on the praxis of the church and more specifically her understanding of ministry with a reflection on the topical matter of Hagar, women, and homelessness.

After the conversation, my colleague and I reflected on the many layers of the conversation and how many women have influenced our thought and practices in living out our faith. She commented that she continues to stand in deep depth to the women scholars who engaged in theological work.

Ayanga, H.O., 2016. Voice of the voiceless: The legacy of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. Verbum et Ecclesia, 37(2), pp.1-6.

Still, she also noticed that influence is not necessarily something we can and should measure. She wondered if Hagar’s hidden narrative, now influencing us – without Hagar knowing it – is not also a reminder of the biblical knowledge that we cannot know all that we do for and to our neighbour. And she adds – that it is not for us to decide on the goodness and influence of our works. She thereby points to our hidden participation in the work and life of God and that perhaps much of our influence forms part of merely being part of the larger narrative with God and others.

I wondered after the conversation if anyone could have foreseen that in this small circle of three women coming together at Cornerstone, so many women’s voices from different contexts and times would be present to continue to influence our thoughts, dialogues, and practices.

And I wondered if male pastors do enough to read scholarly work from female and women authors and offer good reflections in their sermons and teachings about important issues women scholars raise and how often they preach good sermons about the women in the Bible. And by doing this, allowing the narratives to continue to influence them, the churches, communities, and societies in ways that we can not foresee.

It seems we are indeed part of circles of influence in visible (foreseeable and sometimes measurable ways) and invisible (unforeseeable and sometimes unmeasurable) ways.

Anlené Taljaard, Department of Theology and Ethics, Cornerstone Institute.
August 2023
Cornerstone Institute
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