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Abraham and the Multiverse

The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams says what Abraham and Sarah faced is akin to a Marvel superheroes plot

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, the McClendon Scholar in Residence this summer at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said at the outset of her captivating online talk Thursday that she was workshopping material eventually intended for a commentary on Genesis.

Judging from the engagement and thoughtful questions she received from the online crowd, her analysis, which she called “Abraham and the Multiverse,” is just about ready for publication.

Fentress-Williams is Professor of Old Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary and director of Christian Education at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

The multiverse, a staple in Marvel superhero movies, is defined as “a theoretical reality that includes a possibly infinite number of parallel universes.” For Superman, it’s the Bizarro World. A current example is “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” in which the hero, Dr. Stephen Strange, is the bad guy in some contexts. “He learns that to be successful, he must not only stop the bad force, but he himself has to change,” Fentress-Williams said. “I see a correspondence between that and the theophanies in the Abraham cycle. Abraham has the opportunity to live into the big promise God has made. With each appearance, Abraham struggles to receive it. He has to go into himself and stretch out to receive God’s promise. It is part of his formation as he forms a new identity.”

God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, and appears to him again in chapters 13, 15, 17, 18, 21 and 22. Fentress-Williams thinks of these theophanies as chronotopes, turning points in the narrative. The one that stands out is Gen. 18:1-15, in which one of the three men who appear at Abraham and Sarah’s nomadic encampment is the Lord, and we know it’s the Lord because the narrator supplies the information. After the strangers arrive, Abraham plays the role of the host, “the front man, greeting and extending hospitality while Sarah and the servants do the work,” Fentress-Williams said. When Abraham presents the meal to the strangers, it’s like the family patriarch carving a Thanksgiving turkey “whether or not he prepared it,” she said.

The strangers ask Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

“How does the stranger even know her name? Does she belong in this conversation or is she exactly where she should be — behind the tent flap but within earshot if the guests need anything,” Fentress-Williams said. When a guest promises to return in due season and Sarah will have a son, “she engages in conversation with herself: ‘After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’” Fentress-Williams said. The stranger — the Lord — then has nothing but questions: “Why did Sarah laugh?” and “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams

Fentress-Williams asked viewers to look at the passage through the lens of internal family systems theory, which interprets the multiple sub-personalities in an individual. Our outward-facing part is the manager, who navigates daily life. The exile part carries our painful memories, including fear and shame. Under this theory, the characters of Abraham, Sarah and, to a lesser degree, the servants, are all parts of Abraham. For Fentress-Williams, Sarah’s body is “the reminder of barrenness.” In this story, the Lord will not allow that to be hidden, and “laughter is the action around all of this. The promise is Eden, and she is the wilderness.” God asks “the question to end all questions: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? … The invitation to imagine is issued to the part of us that carries hurt and shame, the parts that are hidden away.”

“The question addressed to Sarah has the function of a call. We can call this chapter, ‘The Call of Sarah,” Fentress-Williams said. “Abraham’s growth depends on his integration of all parts of him, particularly the parts he has exiled. It is the call to wholeness.”

Among the observations she presented before taking questions: The theophanies in the Abraham cycle “are reminders of the alternate realities when we encounter the Divine,” Fentress-Williams said. “We must grow in such a way where we can live in more than one space and one reality.”

The multiverse is a useful way to think of how God interacts with human beings, she said during the Q&A session. “We need to be mindful that whatever our experience is is not the only experience. We might learn about God when we encounter people who are different from us.”

She made the point that “anyone who has experienced God’s call has experienced some doubts about that call.” Like Abraham, “you have a powerful and real encounter with God, and then God is gone — the theophany, and then back to regular life. That is the pattern we see in other places in the Bible — God’s presence and then God’s absence. This is the essence of what it is to be a human being.”

She also had this to say about chronotopes, literally “time/space,” or “the moment when everything comes together. It’s how we build a story.” If we can’t rely on chronology in Scripture, “What are we looking for? Chronotope is the structure, the framework, which for Abraham came in the theophanies, the moments that structure the story. In between are Abraham’s responses. You can think of it as a story of call and response.”

If we follow this idea that the call God makes on our lives “isn’t just about what we do but who we become, there is the risk of vulnerability, the risk of change,” she said. “God’s call to Abraham was, ‘Leave your identity behind for a new one.’ That feels very risky to me.”

She uses “unfinalizeability,” a translation of a Russian word, to describe God’s Word as “not dead. It still speaks and makes meaning. It speaks beautifully to the truth of Scripture.”

Fentress-Williams urges students to bring their imagination when reading and interpreting Scripture.

“It’s always about wondering, because we don’t have everything,” she said. “An imagination framework means everyone brings questions to the text based on their own understanding of the text. There is no such thing as an objective reading of the text.”

“The Bible is inspired by God, and I believe it to be inspired by God’s words,” she said. “But I also believe we find God in surprising places.”

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