By Grace Ji-Sun Kim
I write this on the blackboard on the day I cover Feminist Theology in my course, Theology from the Underside. I ask the students to read it. Most students read it as “penis envy.”
The way my students read this phrase seems to reinforce how Sigmund Freud has deeply influenced our societal perceptions of men and women. According to Freud, “penis envy” refers to the inner desire that women presumably wish they were men. For some time women adapted Freud’s teachings and actually believed that a penis was they all desired inwardly.
Margaret Atwood believes otherwise. Atwood stated that it was not “penis envy” that women had, but that it was rather “pen is envy”. It is not that women want to become men, but that women have always wanted to write their stories and influence literary discourse, which then affects how society thinks, understands, and conceives reality. Women have wanted to make a contribution to society in addition to being mothers who raised their children.
For much longer, women have recognized that the pen is mightier than the sword. There is power in the pen. The pen gives power to those who possess it, own it, and use it. The pen is the medium used to convey ideas, stories, knowledge, and meaning. There is an awesome power in the pen.
So it is that women do not envy the penis, but rather envy the pen. Throughout much of history, it was men who wrote stories, shared thoughts, and recorded events. Their stories have influenced how we interpret historical events, biblical stories, and theological understandings. Men have theologically monopolized the ecclesiastical enterprise. Women have longed to write their stories so that they can also shape the world’s present context, the past, and the future in all spheres of life. There is strength and empowerment in being able to mold and shape people’s thoughts through the writing of narratives, biographies, stories, facts, fiction, and theology. I strongly believe Atwood is correct, and it should be our perspective on women needs to shift towards the realization that women have something to say that is valuable, and more than that, necessary. This understanding makes Mihee Kim-Kort’s book all the more important for our time and within theological discourse. In her book, she shares her own personal stories and narratives, which nudge us toward an Asian American feminist theology.
Asian American feminist theology is still at a very nascent stage and only emerges in the aftermath of Christianity’s involvement in colonialism. Korean immigration to the United States occurred in three major waves. Political exiles were living in the United States as early as 1885, but the first significant wave of immigration was to Hawaii (1903-05). This can be described as immigrants concerned with either the Korean political situation or interested in Christianity and the Christian churches. The second wave was after the Korean War (1950-53), and involved a more heterogenous group, consisting of wives of American servicemen, war orphans, and students. The current wave began as a result of immigration reform through the 1965 Immigration Act in the United States. These immigrants are contending with a multitude of issues, including cultural and linguistic differences, parent-child stress, and changes in roles, especially among women. They are also coping with cultural conflict in norms and values, a healthy identification in a predominantly white society, and varied levels of acceptance by both the majority and other minority groups already here.
With this historical backdrop, Making Paper Cranes takes us on a theological journey that explores, reflects, and contributes to Asian American feminist theology discourse through engaging literary, historical, and sociological sources. Most importantly, Kim-Kort writes from her heart as she finds herself in the statistics and dates of these literary, historical, and social narratives. She opens up her life and shares her journey, in theological terms, from Korea to the United States, and through artful ways, Kim-Kort tugs at our heart through a theological narrative rooted in the genuine fragility of life told honestly.
Kim-Kort’s book adds richness to the Korean immigrant history as Asian American feminist theologians remember, recall, and retell our stories. Much of her stories are experiences she recalls with clarity, spontaneity, and integrity. She candidly shares her own personal struggles growing up as a Korean child in America. Many of the stories, both hers and other Asian Americans, are difficult to digest at times as they become our stories. Many Asian Americans can personally identify with the experiences of sexism, racism, prejudice, and subordination she confronts in this writing. Kim-Kort provides valuable insights into the woundedness, pain, and han that exists within many immigrant women. Despite the particularity of all these stories they become the life stories of all of humanity as we see a glimmer of ourselves in them.
It is only when we all enter into this journey that we begin to understand, welcome, and embrace those who are different from us, for then we recognize our sameness in them. As Kim-Kort manages to open up our own personal wounds, heartbreaks as well as joys, miracles, and wonders, we are invited to examine our own theological journeys and enter into this wonderful enterprise of theological reflection. Her deliberate methodology and the use of compelling metaphors and images potentially can be appropriated by others in their own reflections. But again, the most important piece to this process is clearly an uncanny willingness to share one’s life story. She does so, and brings a compelling new voice to this nascent theology. It is moving, heartening, enlightening, and joyous to read a fresh new voice in theological discourse in general.
Theology is biography and biography is theology. As people engage in writing their stories, they are writing their theology. Life is, indeed, a theological journey. It is the stories of God’s participation in our lives and our participation in the life of God. These stories are passed on throughout church history and have enhanced our perception of God.
Kim-Kort builds on the theology of the first wave of Asian American feminist scholars and challenges us to move forward to the next stage. She writes from the faraway spaces of her heart, thereby exposing our minds and hearts to the goodness of God and a world where we coexist in beauty, love, and peace. Kim-Kort engages with Asian American feminist theological writers such as Chung Hyun Kyung, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Anne Joh, Kwok Pui Lan, and Rita Nakashima Brock and wrestles with their voices, building order to develop her own distinctive voice within the academy.
As Kim-Kort writes, we recognize the power in her stories. They are constructive, refreshing, moving, endearing, and embracing. Her poignant and provocative words challenge us to continue the journey toward a liberative world. And she shows us, how, yes, “pen is envy,” and that once we take a step forward to reinvent the normative expectations of our gender and culture, then we invite all to write their stories of grace and redemption too.
(Read also: Mihee Kim-Kort: Making Paper Cranes)
[see also: Books Endorsed]
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary. She is the author of Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit (Palgrave Pivot), The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Pilgrim Press).