Sunstones along the Road to Zion: Mary Farrell Bednarowski and Women’s Religious Experience

By August 11, 2009

After salivating over Mystic Pizza and briefly, very briefly, missing Connecticut, I flipped to KBYU for a little late-night telethon watching. I was pleased to have my appetite whetted again. The fare was a documentary miniseries called Road to Zion: Travels in Church History, France.

An early thirty-something woman was interviewing a French man about a particular sacrament meeting, wherein a man who usually stuttered very heavily delivered one of the sacrament prayers without a flaw. It was not simply the emotive power of the story that caught my attention and kept me watching. Although touching, the story was of the regular faith-promoting kind. Neither was it the amazing production quality that kept me hooked into the wee morning hours. The film was beautifully made and far exceeded my expectation judging by the film’s title. (It wasn’t schmaltzy or gimmicky or cheaply done, as some LDS documentary films I have seen.) Something more significant was happening in this presentation.

The host is named Aline Conti, and she converted to the Church in 1998. Her self-stated purpose in undergoing this journey through Latter-day Saint history in France was to discover and present the untold stories of French members of the Church. Through a series of interviews, and reconstructive history accompanied by a narrated photographic montage, Aline takes viewers on a journey that is at once personal, universal, and church-specific.

During the telling of these stories, Aline does her best to stay out of the way, simply prompting her interviewees with occasional questions. Following each interview, Aline offers a brief reflection on what she has just heard or seen or handled. She offers her testimony of the establishment and growth of the church in France: God works through the least. God works on his own timetable. She demonstrates a strong Latter-day Saint sense of providential history.

What I found most interesting, however, were Aline’s reflections on religion as an instrument of healing. She contextualizes twentieth-century growth of the French church within WWII’s aftermath and notes the healing the church brought to her war-torn country. She discusses the suffering of refugees during Algeria’s fight for independence from France and interprets that suffering redemptively. Aline says, “War is terrible. It is painful. . . . The war was beneficial to the church” and “helped people grow closer to God.”

An emphasis on healing, particularly as “one of the essential functions of theological creativity” [1], is one characteristic of the modern American woman’s religious experience, according to Mary Farrell Bednarowski [2]. Although her study focuses exclusively on American women, perhaps Bednarowski’s criteria could be applied to women worldwide, to women such as Aline, who are filling needs in their religious communities in creative ways.

Aline’s may not be aware of the creative theological implications of her reflections, but in her gesture toward healing, she moves the project of the documentary miniseries into the realm of the theological. Bednarowski offers various definitions of healing, one of which is “a restoration to wholeness” [3]. The working definition of healing Bednarowski chooses, however, “is related to the generation of hope: to be healed is to have sufficient hope to proceed, whatever that might mean in particular circumstances. And to offer healing to others is to work at eliciting and acting on sources of hope in an individual or a community” [4].

The healing aspect of “theological work” [5] that Bednarowski describes among American Mormon women involves reclaiming institutional authority to heal. Bednarowski’s focus on Mormon women’s healing role is necessarily limited by the scope of her book. I see broader theological implications of healing in Aline’s project, which moves toward the restorative impulse in Judaism: “Gottlieb is among many Jewish women who see the work of Judaism as intimately connected with the healing of the world’s social structures. Another, Judith Plaskow, devotes the final chapter of Standing Again at Sinai to the connection between spirituality and politics that is part of Judaism and feminism: tikkun olam—the right ordering of society or ‘repair of the world.’” [6]

Thus, Aline is participating in a restoration of sorts, a gathering of lost pieces, a redemption of history enacted by remembrance—her own, followed by her viewers’. The theological interpretation, as implied by the title, is eschatological. Aline is placing important narrative cobblestones on the road to an anticipated Zion. This documentary, along with the more overtly healing gesture of Nobody Knows: The Untold Stories of Black Mormons, says that the church is not whole without a full telling of its history, is not Zion without all its unheard or underappreciated parts. This is the hopeful healing of which Bednarowski speaks.

Although this documentary project is not explicitly female or theological, aspects of it resonate strongly with Bednarowski’s description of the American woman’s religious experience. This work is significant and holds interesting implications for the future telling of Mormonism’s stories, particularly those of women, which may enable a healing of the tradition that could lead to greater theological creativity.

For those interested in hearing Bednarowski speak, shimmy over to the Sheraton and the 2009 Sunstone Symposium, where she will be giving the Smith-Petit lecture at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, August 12.

This year’s remarkable symposium, which lasts until Saturday, August 15, focuses on the contributions of LDS women. Consider this a huge plug.

***

[1] Mary Farrell Bednarowski, The Religious Imagination of American Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 150. Regarding her interpretation of healing, Bednarowski says, “It is not healing rituals and practices I am concerned with in this chapter other than indirectly. Instead, it is another matter: women’s expansion of ‘healing’ as a fruitful religious idea, as an ubiquitous, multivalent, powerful, and complex concept whose many meanings go far beyond the merely palliative. I see the subject of healing in women’s religious thought as one more angle from which to explore women’s search for intellectually and emotionally adequate ways, more theologically creative ways, to expand and transform traditional religious ideas—and healing itself is one of the ideas being expanded and transformed” (150).

[2] I first learned of The Religious Imagination of American Women from Bored in Vernal, who recommended it as an alternative text for next year’s Relief Society and Priesthood course of study. Bednarowski traces five themes that appear throughout the American woman’s religious experience. Her chapter titles establish these themes: “Ambivalence as a New Religious Virtue,” “The Immanence of the Sacred,” “The Revelatory Power of the Ordinary and the Ordinariness of the Sacred,” “‘Relationship’ and Its Complexities,” and “Healing and Women’s Theological Creativitiy.”

[3] Bednarowski, 151.

[4] Bednarowski, 152.

[5] Bednarowski, 160.

[6] Bednarowski, 163.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Elizabeth, I saw this episode as well. I thought it was very well done and much more intruiging than the previous episodes of “Road to Zion” which were aired a few years ago.

    If I remember correctly, these are produced by BYU-TV. Aline is the host/narrator of the program, but she is not the person who is producing this series. Despite this, I was intruiged to see the history of the Church in France being told by a recent French convert. This is much more compelling than having a long-time member from Utah try to tell the story of the history of the Church in France. Hopefully we’ll see more of these soon!

    Comment by GLBJ — August 11, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  2. GLBJ, that is an important fact I missed (that’s what I get for attempting this entry from a three a.m. viewing). Thank you. I completely agree with you!

    Comment by Elizabeth — August 11, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Very interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 11, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  4. Thanks for the review. I’ll have to look for the program. My family watched previous versions of Road to Zion and found them to be interesting, adequate, but not deep.

    Your statement:

    The healing aspect of “theological work” [5] that Bednarowski describes among American Mormon women involves reclaiming institutional authority to heal.

    …reminds me of the commentary on a post on BCC a couple of weeks ago (“That Chaplain is my Sister!”).

    Comment by Researcher — August 11, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  5. Liz, thanks for this insightful analysis of both the documentary and women’s religious experience. This is really great stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  6. Researcher, thank you for the link. What a wonderful story! Edje and Chris, thanks, as always.

    Comment by Elizabeth — August 11, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  7. Great analysis, Liz. I’m encouraged to see active work (esp. in the the LDS tradition) toward feminine theology. One of the most welcome implications of your arguments/observations here is that some of this is in fact ongoing – even if it is largely unconscious.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 11, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  8. Thanks, Ryan. I have a great deal of hope for the upcoming generation of female Mormon theologians out there.

    Comment by Elizabeth — August 12, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  9. Liz, great review of this documentary. I’ll have to make sure to check it out when I get the chance.

    Comment by Jared T — August 12, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  10. Elizabeth, thanks for bringing Dr. Bednarowski to my attention. I attended the lecture based on your post and I thought she was fantastic.

    Comment by Sanford — August 13, 2009 @ 8:02 am

  11. Elizabeth, can you drop me an email? Thanks

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2009 @ 2:05 pm


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