Skeptics and Soul Sisters: Beautiful Art by Amanda Porterfield and Janet McKenzie

by Edward J. Blum

Back from the Southern Historical Association and its celebrations of new books, its criticisms of old paradigms, and its copious amounts of laughter and liquor, I was so glad to be home in silence. I sat in quietude with two of my favorite artists – Amanda Porterfield and Janet McKenzie. These are women who challenge my mind and nourish my soul. Neither, of course, was in San Diego. They were on the east coast, one in Florida and the other in Vermont. But both were opening my eyes in so many ways. In one hand, I held Porterfield’s page-proofed new book on religion and politics in the early republic. Writing an endorsement for Conceived in Doubt is going to be easy, I thought to myself. It’s creative, it’s fascinating, and it turns Nathan Hatch’s democratization thesis on its head. I don’t want to say more on the argument, but I firmly believe that it will become a “must-read” for students both of the early republic and of American religious history. Her rendering of how doubt became the pathway for a new reckoning of religion and politics will join David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom to transform how we talk about and teach religion in the early republic.

In my other hand, I cradled Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie. It’s a beautiful and inspiring book that pairs McKenzie’s art with personal, poetic, and scholarly reflections. She gained national and international fame when she was won the “Jesus 2000” competition from the National Catholic Reporter’s contest for her painting “Jesus of the People.” Although her most famous, this painting was but one of her many accomplishments. Her others feature Mary with Gabriel, the Holy Family, and even a touching homage to 9/11. Her art is visually stunning, and it induces for many an avalanche of spiritual reflection. McKenzie’s work is borne of religious conviction, and she, in her own words, strives “to reflect in my art … that sacred and inherent place within that connects us all beyond race and gender where no judgment exists.”

As I thumb through the pages, I see images of Mary next to Gabriel. The sacred wings, as Mary E. Haddad (a former Toyota sales-woman from Detroit and now pastor in California), writes, “enclose and embrace Mary.” Heaven and earth “stand side by side” and the distance that former artists had put between the two figures is dissolved in a fellowship of foreseen terror. The book has poetic responses to McKenzie’s “Holy Mother of the East” and “Magna Mater.” The amazing theologian Diane Hayes works from “Woman Offered #5,” a startling image of a black woman being crucified. For Hayes, it is time for women who have suffered, have had pain, have carried the “weight of the world on their shoulders” to “come down from the cross” and to “choose for themselves the paths they should take, the lives they should lead, the tapestries they will weave.” And finally, McKenzie’s “Homage to 9/11” portrays the Twin Towers as two women who support one another. An essay by educator Sally Goodrich follows. Goodrich lost her eldest son in the 9/11 attacks, but inspired by McKenzie’s art, Goodrich joined her grief to giving: she ventured to Afghanistan and help the young there. What amazing stories, reflections, and images. For scholars, McKenzie’s book offers tremendous insight into how individuals respond to the visual arts, and for the spiritually inclined, it offers a vibrant array of considerations.

For me, Porterfield and McKenzie stand side-by-side with strength from their own creative arts. One opens the art of skepticism, the dangers of doubt corralled and the craftiness of disbelief hiding often in plain sight. The other displays salvation beyond suffering, where visions of lives that are gone can inspire hopes for lives to come.


Matt Sutton said…
Thanks Ed! I can't wait to see the Porterfield book.
Mike Diaz said…
These works sound really good. Makes me want to go out and get them. But what is this endorsement you speak of Prof? Does that mean that other scholars are reviewing them prior to getting published? Kind like giving feed back, corrections, and suggestions? The world of history sounds interesting. The world of religious history scholars that is, it sounds difficult and enriching. Difficult because not being able to make it to a historian party where liquor is being served sucks, and enriching because one seems to get all this feedback from colleagues. If one was to place these works into the various schools of thought discussed in Hist400W, where would they fit? Hmmm.