Religious Studies Classrooms as Counterpublic Spaces: A Feminist Theological and Theatrical Perspective
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Religious Studies Classrooms as Counterpublic Spaces:
A Feminist Theological and Theatrical Perspective

Public life is often envisioned as an arena of reasoned debate among citizens who seek consensus about the common good. However, U.S. public life fails to realize its egalitarian vision of communicative practices in civil society; instead, it operates in exclusionary ways with roots in race, gender, class, ethnic, religious, and other social constructs of what determines rational discourse, who counts as a political actor, and what defines the common good. Consequently, subordinated groups create alternative publics and discourses in order to participate in, contest, and begin to reconstruct the dominant public sphere, thereby producing multiple competing publics.1 Feminist political theorist Nancy Fraser describes these “subaltern counterpublics” as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”2 Similarly, feminist New Testament studies scholar and theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza describes the ekklesia of wo/men as a rhetorical and lived counterspace to patriarchy. Drawn from the Greek term for a democratic assembly or congress of citizens, the ekklesia [End Page 141] of wo/men stands as theological shorthand for a full participatory, egalitarian, and just community; it serves both as a site of men’s and women’s solidarity in the struggle against patriarchy and as a site of an alternative radical democratic praxis to patriarchy, whether in society or in the Christian church.3 To eschew essentialist or separatist misinterpretations of the term, Schüssler Fiorenza inserts a strategic slash in the middle of wo/men to emphasize the integrity, equality, and solidarity of women and men in opposition to patriarchy’s hierarchical dualism and dominance along race, gender, class, and other lines.4

Religious studies classrooms may offer an opportunity to incarnate such counterpublics and counterspaces. Religious studies classrooms may serve as sites of social critique not only for subordinated groups to gather “bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics,” but also for all peoples to confront and resist “discursive assimilation” into reigning unjust norms and structures in U.S. democracy and instead practice “an egalitarian multicultural society [that] makes sense only if we suppose a plurality of public arenas in which groups with diverse values and rhetorics participate.”5 Fraser’s call for counterpublics based on critique, resistance, and alternative discursive possibilities for democracy aligns with Schüssler Fiorenza’s call for education—specifically in biblical studies and religious studies—that assists students with finding their voices via a pedagogy that is “problem-oriented, critical, constructive, collaborative, and dialogical.”6 This essay elaborates on how the religious studies classroom embodies Fraser’s counterpublic and Schüssler Fiorenza’s counterspace by reflecting on concrete examples of pedagogical theories and practices inspired by theatre and deployed in the design of a course component at a Quaker-inspired undergraduate liberal arts college setting. The first part of this essay probes the relationship between Christian theology and theatre for the purpose of constructing a pedagogy of counterpublic/counter-spatial life. It examines some salient perspectives on the anthropological similarities between theology and theatre, and then explores some aspects of the educational and theopolitical significance of theatre. Drawing on a case study of my seminar in comparative asceticism, the second part of this essay contends that theatre affords one way for students to find and rehearse their own theopolitical [End Page 142] voices, especially to articulate alternative heuristic realities that call for and begin to enact a more just participatory democracy and common life. In its concluding sections, this essay considers the impact of as well as advocates the import of theatre as a religious studies pedagogy for the purpose of educating students for responsible citizenship.

Reflections on the Relationships between Christian Theology and Theatre

Christian theology and theatre are jointly attuned to some central characteristics of human life, and thus can be put into fruitful conversation. Theologians Todd Johnson and Dale Savidge describe three features of theatre that are shared or resonate with a Christian theological perspective on human life: the incarnation of stories, living in community, and being...