- Naming Pharaoh's World and Ours
I teach a course called Who is God? and, to echo another theologian, "only fools [could] do it without fear and trembling."1 The class is designed to introduce undergraduates to Christian faith and practice and to invite them to consider further theological study. Like all courses at our Christian liberal arts university, it also seeks to form persons for lives of integrity, justice, and compassion in our world.
In my Who is God? class, we follow a pattern inspired by Letty Russell's "spiral methodology" of theological reflection and action.2 Together, we cycle among questions of who we are (reflection on self and world), who God is (reflection on biblical and theological traditions), and how we're called to live (action and practice) in a continually thickening spiral. Reading the creation stories of Genesis, for example, we encounter who God is as Creator, which sends us into new articulations of who we are as relational and vocational creatures, and how we are called to lives of ecological care and kinship. Entering this spiral requires skill building. It takes practice for students to read biblical texts theologically, and it also takes practice for students to reflect well on their own world: to perceive the world clearly, to name it truthfully, and to do so as an act of critique, freedom, and transforming love.3
One way my students do this work is in guided theological journal exercises. This semester, one journal prompt provoked particularly rich insight for both students and teacher. We were reading about the exodus and who God is [End Page 179] as Liberator. Students nodded along as we read about Moses parting the sea and leading the people out of Egypt into freedom. In our discussion, it became clear that while students followed the narrative, they were not able to connect this image of a Pharaoh-pestering, liberating, way-making God to our own world and its systems of domination. They weren't making the move from who God is to a deeper account of who we are as people made for full humanity, but who nevertheless keep recreating systems of dehumanization and exploitation—again and again. My students weren't making the move, I soon realized, because I was trying to "name the world" for them, to tell them about our world and the hunger for freedom and full humanity. They needed to do this world-naming, consciousness-raising work for themselves.4
The next day, we returned to the book we were reading together: Daniel Erlander's Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God's Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe. The book is filled with Erlander's whimsical and theologically potent hand-drawn cartoons. In the chapter on the exodus, Erlander illustrates the system of Pharaoh's Egypt. At the top of the triangle-shaped hierarchy of power is Pharaoh himself, richly enthroned and ordained by a god figure. Beneath him on the pyramid of power, we find the royal family, then the administrators and other "big deals," then ordinary citizens, and, at the wide bottom, "slaves, slaves, slaves, slaves, slaves." Along the left side of the pyramid is a representation of the priesthood blessing this system of domination and, along the right, a depiction of the military defending it. "This is the way it is," the caption proclaims, "and the way it will always be."5
My students dug in, engaging questions of critical analysis. How is power arranged in this system? Is this the way it always has been? Who benefits from thinking that it is? Who is the god who blesses this system? It wasn't long before one student said under his breath: "Sounds familiar."
That night, I asked them to draw their own pyramids of power in their journals, this time depicting our own world, as they see it. Then they were to describe why they drew it the way they did. Who has power? Who longs for life and freedom? Who blesses and defends this system? What vision of god ordains it? Is this the way it has always been, the way it always...