By Christine Denecker
Every good gift and perfect gift is from above,
and cometh down from the Father of lights,
with whome is no variableness, neither shadow of
turning (James 1:17; King James Bible)
In “The Shadow of Turning,” Hannah Hall adds a personal and unique voice to the theological conversation on biblical equality. In particular, her work seems to be inspired by the writings of Gordon Fee whose essays, “Male and Female in the New Creation” and “The Priority of Spirit Giving for Church Ministry,” stress the importance of the power of Holy Spirit. It is this phantasmic image that Hannah Charlton vividly captures in drawings that complement Hall’s poetic musings. In contrast, juxtaposed against this dark, powerful, almost ominous spirit are Charlton’s drawings of a paper doll cut-out, which represents the female presence whose spiritual journey provides readers with an opening for contemplation regarding biblical equality.
Hall’s poetic quest begins with symbolic references to the body and blood of Christ, “the bread and the wine” which are questioned as “the true taste of human flesh.” In the margins are displays of trash and refuse—visual elements that carry throughout the piece and suggest sin, waste, or even chaos, a chaos which is reflected in the cut-out doll’s search for meaning “in the heat of the night.” While this search commences in words, Charlton’s illustrations depict two texts on a desk that sits adjacent to a window separating the indoors from nature. Those texts, Discovering Biblical Equality and Girls are Equal, Too, help illuminate the dilemma with which the poem grapples.
The theory of biblical equality “denies that there is any created or otherwise God-ordained hierarchy based solely on gender” (Pierce, Groothuis, and Fee 13; their italics.). Thus, Hall’s “hollow women,” “voices” that “mean nothing” and “iron souls in their misty cages” suggest the poet’s discomfort with traditional teachings regarding gender and Christianity. Charlton’s cut-out doll images suggest the same. It is at this point in the poem, though, where Hall layers in a feminist viewpoint via her inclusion of Carlson, Carlson, and Nicklaus’s Girls are Equal, Too, a text described as providing guidance on “how a girl can become the person, the full-fledged human being she was meant to be in our society and change what needs to be changed” (cover).
Since biblical egalitarianism is decidedly non-secular and those who espouse biblical equality do not consider themselves feminists or “woman centered” (Pierce, Groothuis, and Fee 14), Hall’s work strays slightly from a pure conversation on biblical equality. For example, the wind that surrounds the soul-searching protagonist “caress[es]” her, while the “You” (presumably the Christian God) appears distant and dark. Charlton’s illustrations enhance the chaos experienced by the cut-out doll as she listens for the voice of God trying to discern a message, atone for sins, or “caulk” her soul.
This chaos and conflict, leads to a grappling with the concept of the “shadow of turning” as recorded in the biblical book of James. While the shadow of turning stands as a metaphor to the unvarying, unchangeable nature of God—and Hall’s work acknowledges that nature—it is the female cut-out in the poem who challenges that the notion need not just apply to God: “there is the shadow of my turning to consider” (my italics). At this point, readers follow a visual journey that transports the cut-out figure across oceans to a place “where men fear to tread.” Here, Charlton’s dark rendering of the Spirit–formerly ominous—becomes distinctly angelic. The “turning” of the character may result in a wholeness or oneness with nature as words and images suggest. However, the poem (and its struggle) do not end that simple. The phrase “where men fear to tread” may be read as gender specific, and as such, begs consideration of the traditional saying: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
If Hall is referring to heaven here as the place where men fear to tread (and Charlton’s illustrations support this) then would women be “fools” to rush in . . . to heaven? To a belief not aligned with biblical equality? To any belief in traditional Christian roles and principles? Her ending suggests a lack of fulfillment and even defiance in this quest since men may fear to tread, but “women creep along, hollow, waiting.” As such, there is no pat answer to the conversation Hall’s work opens. And that notion of biblical equality layered with thoughts and questions thanks to Charlton’s rich illustrations makes for a vivid, thought-provoking, and highly personal reading experience. This poetic journey does not supply the answers. It does, however, challenge readers to consider their own.
Carlson, Dale, Hannah Carlson, and Carol Nicklaus. Girls are Equal Too: The Woman’s Movement for Teenagers. Bick Publishing: Branford, CT: 1998. Print.
Pierce, Ronald W., Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordon D. Fee, eds. Discovering Biblical Equality. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2005. Print.