Biblical Girls Make the Big Time
What if “Godspell” (by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (by Andrew Lloyd Webber) had been based on feminist theologies? What if those songs performed in high school musicals reflected the work of a generation of feminist scholars in religion? What if the catchy tunes that stick in peoples’ heads and form unconscious images of the divine were based on equality and concern for Earth? What if the work that so many colleagues in feminist studies seek to write down, teach, and even blog were on stage in lyrics and dance? Why not?
Enter: “Biblical Girl: Eve’s Big Fat Family Reunion” (www.biblicalgirl.com). It is a new musical, written, produced, and directed by Lois Cecsarini that premiered in a workshop presentation on Mother’s Day weekend in Arlington, Virginia. It is feminist theology set to music, perhaps a first. There have been some songs along the way, like Carole Etzler’s “Out of the Garden” in my youth, and Marsie Silvestro’s beloved “Blessing Song” for example. But this is the first full-length production of which I am aware that includes choreography and a bit of a plot with feminist theological flavor.
The opening musical number of “Biblical Girl” is entitled “Made in the Image,” a duet between equally plucky Lilith and Eve, Adam’s first two wives (http://www.biblicalgirl.com/About_the_Songs/Entries/2012/5/12_Made_in_the_Image.html. Eve croons that in the Garden of Eden everything was fine. Then, “something I ate set fire to my imagination.” We know the rest of the story, including “the part of the plot our brothers sometimes forgot is that we’re both made in the image of God.” Lilith picks up the theme with a critique of “obedience.” She reasons, “its virtue depends entirely on who writes the rules.” Hat tip to Judith Plaskow for her writing on Lilith, and to so many biblical scholars who have brought feminist analyses to Genesis. There is even a line to praise the lord but not “lord it over each other,” a theme evangelical feminists have sounded. Our work goes mainstream!
The musical goes on through biblical characters including Sarah and Hagar, Ruth, Hannah, Jezebel, and Noah’s wife known as Thelma. For example Noah’s success is credited to Thelma, who kept the boat afloat and the animals happy. Junia, Mary, and Martha show up with their various tales. The “Ave Maria Waltz” features a gutsy Mary whose words to the rich and powerful in Luke 1 really heat up around verse 50. This woman is no chalky-faced blue-garbed statue but a powerful proponent for those who are poor and dispossessed.
I won’t spoil the performance for future theatregoers with more details. But how often do you go to the theatre and hear the titles of some of your favorite works in feminist theology sung about in ballads and anthems? I heard reminisces of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Bread Not Stone (Beacon Press, 1995) in one lyric. Jane Schaberg’s work seemed all over the Mary segment. I could hear Phyllis Trible in a few places and wished that the author had read Gale Yee on Ruth to nuance that selection a bit.
The experience is exhilarating in that it lays bare the power of the arts to communicate what a prose-only approach will never achieve. There is a finger-snapping, head-bobbing dimension to this work that makes me think it could catch on and maybe chip away at kyriarchal theology, one grace note at a time.
Lois Cecsarini is a musically inclined Spanish teacher who joined the Foreign Service. After stints in Portugal, South Africa, and Burundi where she was engaged in peace work, she retired and went to Virginia Theological Seminary. During her theological studies, she obviously began to read widely and incorporate feminist analysis into her thinking. The results are now on stage, not your (pun intended) garden-variety master’s thesis.
I met Lois when she came to the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), first with a VTS class group and later for meetings with local women in ministry, many of whom are artistically inclined. One evening they shared their talents. A Mennonite pastor offered a sexy musical rendition of a Langston Hughes poem; a Methodist dancer showed the video of a wonderfully choreographed liturgical dance she created; others did story telling, a reading from the Gullah Bible, and so on. Lois performed a few of her songs to the delight of the audience.
“Biblical Girl” is still a work in progress, so the author is open to suggestions. She includes a list of characters on her website, http://www.biblicalgirl.com/About_the_Characters.html, which could include some bibliography. Biblical scholars could make themselves useful by contributing ideas and resources. What a chance to make an impact!
I want to underscore my support for all such feminist efforts to weave scholarship and the arts together, to produce “consumable” culture that replaces kyriarchal images and symbols, to put in lights the concepts we struggle so often to convey. If this play makes it to Broadway or off-Broadway, you read it here first. Even if it doesn’t, “Biblical Girl” includes rich material for teaching and talking, better yet, for singing and dancing. I’m humming the opener as I write.