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Interview: Cheryl Bridges Johns, Professor of Spiritual Renewal

23 October 2020

‘Women need permission to be angry, and I’m giving them permission’

Integrating the topics of mind and body is not too difficult. The Pentecostal Theological Seminary [in Cleveland, Tennessee] sees itself as a place for spiritual and personal formation as well as academic training. I’ve moved into a semi-retirement phase in the senior faculty; so I teach one course per semester. Right now, I’m focusing on writing and speaking.

We in the West continue to think of ourselves as the centre of the world. I try to help Western Christians de-centre a bit by serving as a bridge between two worlds. The axis of Christianity has shifted to the global South, creating new forms of spirituality that are not closely tied to the European Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholicism.

In particular, Pentecostalism is not only its own unique wing of Christianity: it is “Pentecostalising” all of Christianity. An Anglican from Uganda has some form of Pentecostal faith. A Lutheran living in Ethiopia is a “Pentecostal Lutheran”. Most of the younger Roman Catholic priests in Brazil are Charismatic/Pentecostal. One in 12 people on the planet identify as Pentecostal. This data has not reached the hearts and minds of most Western Christians.

As in all forms of crisis, Covid-19 presents dangers, but it also offers opportunities to revisit priorities. For the Church in the US, this pandemic is a season of “winnowing”, meaning it reveals our idols, such as hyper-individualism and nationalism.

For me, not much has changed. I was already teaching using Zoom technology as well as in-class instruction. Seven Transforming Gifts of the Menopause was released in March: promoting it now means less travel and in-person gatherings and more podcasts and online interviews.

I began writing on menopause as primarily a biological and psychosocial process. But, as I went deeper into my research, I discovered how the developmental window at menopause offers women opportunities to move out of their first half of life as “spiritual holding containers”.

I discovered that the feared things surrounding menopause are actually signals for change. For instance, increase in anger provides opportunities for women to deal with repressed issues.

Within every Christian woman lives the message “An angry woman is evil and sinful,” or “An angry woman is a bitch.” I hope that my book will help women develop anger competency and find righteous power in it. Women need permission to be angry, and I’m giving them permission. We need more publications and sermons that help women see anger as the possibility of righteous power. The #MeToo movement has been helpful toward this end.

The saddest thing that I discovered was how a woman’s experiences of early life trauma make it extremely difficult for her to navigate perimenopause, especially when there are few mental-health resources.

I discovered, too, that my experiences as a woman were not that unusual, and how those experiences could be analysed in a healthy manner. I wanted to help other women learn to read their bodies.

The Church pretty much follows the pattern of the larger society in ignoring the lifelong journey of women. Women at mid-life are expected to be the same as they were in young adulthood. The Church offers few safe places for anger, and no support groups for women during perimenopause. There are no rites of passage for women, and no ways of honouring older, post-menopausal women as elders. In Evangelical circles, women are often expected to continue in their support-giving and nurturing roles. They are allowed to age, but they are not given permission to mature.

I grew up in rural southern US, as a child of the woods and a child of the Church. Both nature and the Church were safe places for me. As you can see in the book, I encourage women to connect more with nature and to find a church that is safe for their voice.

Growing up in a Pentecostal church,
I had many experiences of God. Early in life I was aware of God’s presence. The Elders of the church encouraged me to develop my gifts. In my tradition, people used a phrase: “We sense God has his hand on your life,” to encourage young people to develop their calling or ministerial vocation.

In 1907, just a year following the Azusa Street Revival, my great-grandmother received what we call the baptism of the Holy Spirit during a camp meeting. As a result, she became a “shouting Methodist”: something that did not sit well with her home church. They asked her to leave.

My great-grandfather told her: “Sally, if you want a place to shout, I will build you a place.” They built a church, but my great-grandmother never served as official pastor. They joined what became the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, and pastors were appointed to the congregation. I grew up with male pastors, but with the legacy of my great-grandmother. Her portrait hung in the vestibule of the church. Her image was the “icon” of our faith. She died long before I was born, but at my church she was very much alive.

The church and the denomination were open to women, but few women actually served as senior pastors. I was encouraged to use my gifts: music, teaching, and preaching. Because I live in another state, it’s been many years since I visited. I hope they continue openness to women.

In young adulthood, I discovered that most churches were not like the church of my childhood. Pentecostal churches in the US have become more like Evangelical US churches: highly patriarchal, and often the least safe space for women.

I’d like to create a safe space for women who have left the organised Church.

Some women have found community and acceptance and voice in places such as Twitter. The internet was a galvanising factor in movements such as #MeToo. In the long run, I hope there can be more actual safe places. All humans, especially women, long for safe and loving interpersonal space — but, for now, the internet is life-saving for many women.

The book I’m presently working on, Re-Enchanting the Text: The Bible for a new generation, is my attempt to rescue the Bible from the constraints of modernity. Modernity has flattened the text, reducing it to an object. In that sense, the Bible has experienced the same fate as most of the world: objectified, controlled, and devoid of any form of enchantment. I investigate the ontology of scripture, in which the Holy Spirit is actively present in the textual landscape of the Bible.

Lies We Believe About Creation is a book for a broader audience. It looks at assumptions about the world and creation as a whole that are false. These assumptions come from distorted theology as well as distorted views of the natural world.

The nationalism in US churches is the touchstone of my anger right now. And President Trump.

I’m happiest being in nature: camping and hiking with my husband; or playing with my grandchildren.

I love the sounds of nature: the call of a bobwhite quail in the morning, and the sounds of whippoorwills at night; the wind in the trees; and a mountain stream.

I have hope in the younger generation of women, who are more vocal in terms of justice.

I pray through some of the hopeful passages in Isaiah: for the Spirit to be poured out from on high; for the earth to flourish and Jesus’s words — the renewal of all things. I pray for the healing of creation.

If I was locked in a church with someone for a few hours, I’d love to worship and pray with my friend Beth Moore. She has a deep spirituality and wisdom. She’s grounded in the scriptures, but also keenly aware of the times in which we live.

Cheryl Bridges Johns was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Seven Transforming Gifts of Menopause is published by Brazos Press at £10.99 (£9.89).

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21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

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