Learning and Unlearning with Stellarella

Passing on the faith to the next generation has to involve learning as well as un-learning.  As long as Christian formation takes place in a white racist patriarchal culture, we have to pay attention to those things that children learn that we want to help them unlearn.

The dominance of male language and images for God is just one of the things that needs to be unlearned.  (If you don’t know why, read Elizabeth A. Johnson, Joan Chittister, and these posts.)  To this end, Deborah (Debo) Dykes has launched a new series of children’s books illustrated by Christina Mattison Ebert-Klaven featuring Stellarella, a “feisty frizzy-headed five year old” with “an indomitable spirit, sassy style, and creative imagination.”  Knowing that the book grew out of Dykes’ own background as an Episcopal priest wrestling against what she calls “the tyranny of patriarchy,” I opened Stellarella! It’s Saturday! expecting to see theological treatise and feminist manifesto on every page.

I didn’t find it.

What I found was more important.

You see, God only comes up a couple of times during Stellarella’s imaginary advenure at the market with her bulldog, Tank.  Once while they are shopping for strawberries, she proclaims:

“Tank, did you know God makes strawberries?  She grows them from seeds she plants in the dirt. … God makes rainbows and rabbitts, bubbles and brown bears – she’s as busy as Mama!”

And at the end, Stellarella concludes:

“Did you know God makes rain too, Tank?  She’s very clever.”

The rest of the book has the trappings of a typical children’s tale of a trip to the market.  It actually reminds me of the book Mr. Greedy Goes Shopping, a little book that my husband picked up for me twenty years ago when we were dating and he was in Canada for a conference … he thought I would find it cute and clever.  (I did.)

And if you pay attention, Dykes does something atypical within the tale:  Each of the adult women in Stellarella’s adventure, from her mother to Ms Thibodeaux to Ms Sadie and others, are independent, talented, resourceful, and decidedly unstereotypical.  They play the banjo and wear tropical pink muumuus and speak Italian.  They are of varying ethnicities and remain outrageously positive.  Even when it rains (oops, spoiler alert!) and Stellarella and Tank can’t actually go to the market, Mama happily puts on her own swimsuit and creates a fantastically fun day nonetheless.  No mother-of-two worried about her body size and shape here.

There’s no manifesto here.  No theological treatise.  No lecture from a five year old frizzy-headed girl about God or girls or the meaning of life.  But there is a bulldog who wears a collar with sparkles.

And this is how so much learning takes place.  It’s socialization 101, the small messages we continually get and give about who women are, who girls should be, what we should look like and care about and do, and certainly how we talk about God.  Those of us who grew up using male-exclusive language for God probably never once got a lecture or read a manifesto on why we have to say “he” and “him.”  We just noticed that this is what everyone around us did, what our childrens’ books did, and what our prayers and pastors did.  And many of us eventually learned that we needed to unlearn the assumption that God is male (because then, well, the male is justified in playing God.)

Imagine what would happen if that all changed.  Stellarella is part of that change.  She can help those us of who want to pass on the faith with many and varied images of the divine and her daughters.

Check out the book trailer here:

YouTube Preview Image

For more conversation on Stellarella!, visit the Patheos Book Club here. 

 

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • debodykes

    Living under the suffocating canopy of patriarchy in the bowls of the deep south, it is rare (if ever) to find someone who “get’s it” about the thousands of years of suppressed humanity that has been laid on the backs of women. We have borne this baggage for far too long.
    Thank you for bring this issue of crippling male language into the public forum. Thank you for your gracious, generous, gifted review; your depth of wisdom; your vivid sensitivity; and your remarkable intelligence.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    Hello Caryn, I’ve one question.

    The ancient Hebrews (and unfortunately many Christians today) saw God as an extraordinarily powerful man.

    We now know this view is absurd and that God is neither male nor female.

    But how are we to understand the personhood of God?

    What does it mean to confess that God is the greatest being, that He has feelings, thoughts and so forth, if we as humans need a brain (and a gender :-) ) for these very things?

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Kristina Skepton

    I just added this book to my amazon wish list :) a copy for me and a copy for 2 sweet little girls in my life …

    Kristina,
    Founder, SeeingGod Ministries
    http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod


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