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Author speaks to the value of naming and reclaiming women’s stories from the gospels

The Rev. Claire McKeever-Burgett is a recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Claire McKeever-Burgett (Photo courtesy of Claire McKeever-Burgett)

LOUISVILLE — In her new book “Blessed are the Women: Naming and Reclaiming Women’s Stories from the Gospels,” the Rev. Claire McKeever-Burgett supplies readers with what could have been the backstory for some of most interesting women in the New Testament, including the Canaanite woman and her daughter, whom Jesus heals after first arguing with the woman.

Earlier this month, McKeever-Burgett was the guest of the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, hosts of the podcast “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” Listen to their 55-minute conversation here.

“I believe centering and celebrating, naming and reclaiming women’s stories — not just from the gospels, but from everywhere — is essential work for our healing, or at least it can be,” McKeever-Burgett told the hosts.

In Matthew 13, for example, Jesus returns to his hometown, where the people who knew him growing up are trying to figure out how he got so smart and so powerful. They name his brothers and note he has sisters, but they don’t identify their names.

“I get curious, and I ask folks, what are their names? What are their stories? What do they love to do? What lit them up? What drove them nuts? What do they think about Jesus? Do they think about him at all?” McKeever-Burgett said. The practice of creative nonfiction, she noted, has its roots in Midrash, an ancient Jewish practice that offers commentary or interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

It also draws on the belief, she said, that “Scripture isn’t the inerrant word of a male God, but rather the living, breathing word that lives and breathes in us and gets to evolve and develop with us and ask questions of a text written for, by and about men.”

“These are not nameless women,” McKeever-Burgett said. “It’s just that nobody cared to write them down. I like to get really curious and ask them, ‘What’s your name? What’s your story?’”

“I believe it’s a way, a practice, a tool that can help us heal.”

When she’s preaching on the topic, “I invite people to move their bodies,” she said. She tells those in worship, “We are going to try hard not to let this stay in our heads. Let it move in and down and through our bodies, so the blood is flowing a different way when we come to the text.”

“I find that allows for a more playful posture,” she told Doong and Catoe. “Kids move all the time.”

Asked by Doong why uplifting stories of biblical women matters to men, McKeever-Burgett replied that white supremacy and patriarchy harm all of us. The sole purpose of both “is to emphasize domination and control and very rigid identities norms.” As we know from bell hooks and others, “Patriarchy knows no gender.”

“Even a matriarchy based on domination and control is going to harm,” she said, adding she wrote her book as much for her eight-year-old son as for her four-year-old daughter.

“Why in the world would I not want him to know the women from whom he comes — their beauty, complexity, imperfections, strength and humility? It’s an incomplete faith without the women’s stories,” McKeever-Burgett said. “We’re not doing justice as holders of the flame, the keepers of the faith.”

McKeever-Burgett calls herself “a big believer that you practice into belief.” In her book, she gives Jesus four sisters and names them Edith, Sarah. Leah and Rachael. In workshops, she asks people to say their name and what they know about the origin of their name. “That helps us do the powerful and prayerful thing of saying our names out loud and also gets into, how did I get that name?” she said. “Maybe it meant something and maybe it didn’t. It gets us out of our head space and more into an embodied who I am in the world.”

Each chapter includes a woman’s story and a corresponding liturgy, as well as a connection with a modern-day women-led nonprofit doing “the work of love and justice in the world,” she explained. “The more I got into these stories, it doesn’t take much to say, ‘Oh my gosh! We’re still living with so much of what they had to live with.’ I think of refugees and young women who are shunned from their communities today because they don’t have access to period products.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

For Doong and Catoe, she used the account of the Canaanite woman and her daughter found in Matthew 15:22-29 to explain her process. McKeever-Burgett names the woman Asherah after the Canaanite goddess of the Earth. Her daughter, whom the woman is begging Jesus to heal, gets the moniker Talaya, the Canaanite goddess of rain. After Asherah pleads with him, Jesus tells her to leave him alone, “and then he insults her and says she is lower than the dogs and not worthy of the crumbs that fall from the table. As I imagine her,” McKeever-Burgett said, “she stands in front of him and uses her body and her size and will not let him pass. It is a mother’s deep advocacy and deep presence.”

McKeever-Burgett titled that chapter “Nasty Women.” In it, Asherah tells Jesus, “I’ll be lower than the dogs if it means healing for my daughter,” McKeever-Burgett said. “The way I understand it, her daughter is watching this happen and that’s what heals her. It’s the miraculous power of her mother’s advocacy and her persistence and presence that she gets to witness that helps her heal.”

“The people I know who are possessed by demons didn’t just get there on their own,” she said. “There are systems in play that ushered them there, and our system of mental health and mental illness is prevalent here.”

“It was a gift,” she said, “to reimagine that story.”

Listen to other episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here.

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