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Theologian keeps death close when she talks to freshmen

NCR Staff

Death runs deep in Theresa Sanders’ books and teaching. Dead bodies. Recently or long expired. She also likes relics, saintly bits of death.

The Georgetown University theologian makes the corpse a wonder to behold. She uses the dead body as a tool to pry into life and into theology. It’s an approach that keeps her students coming back for more.

In the introduction to her first theology book she examines a photograph from the war in Bosnia. Corpses “hopelessly entangled among each other,” have been unloaded by a driver who “glances back from the cab’s open door” to make sure his entire cargo has been dumped.

Sanders writes in the introduction that mixed among the corpses “is other debris: a wheelbarrow, a stretcher, sticks and dirt. One man’s arm, stiffened and bent like a claw, reaches up from beneath another man’s body in a parody of embrace.” She quotes Larry in the Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.”

Sanders, 37, keeps death close when she talks to freshman students in The Problem of God, the introductory theology course. “I guess I have a morbid fascination because death is the central question of life,” she told NCR. I figured if I tackled death first” as a scholar, “everything else in life would be easy.”

Sanders tells her students that there are two things “I am absolutely sure about, would go to the mat for.

“The first one is God is love. The second that love is stronger than death.”

What Sanders loves is teaching that introductory course.

“I’ve never yet had the feeling that I hadn’t seduced them into thinking theology is the most fascinating thing in the world.”

She doesn’t take them to a cemetery to convince them, though. She takes them to the movies. She has them view movies about death, movies like “Romero,” the biographical account of the life of Bishop Oscar Romero, assassinated after standing up for the poor of El Salvador.

“In film,” she said, “you see theology written in experience. I think film does have the power to change people’s lives -- in a way Karl Rahner might if they read Rahner.”

Sanders, who holds a doctorate in religion from Syracuse University, specialized in Rahner, the 20th-century Jesuit theologian.

“They’re never going to read Rahner. But if I can show them a film where Rahner’s theology comes out -- ‘Romero.’

“I tell my students that Christians should hate the cross in the way they should hate all murders,” Sanders said. “I tell them that Jesus’ death isn’t good in itself. It’s only good because it’s part of his fundamental commitment to people and to their needs and concerns.

“And I try to show the same thing in ‘Romero.’ ”

The movie shows that Romero dies, “but he’s resurrected in the end. There are those closing quotes that say a bishop will die, but the people of God, which is the church, will never die,” and that Romero realized his blood would be “a seed.”

She referred to Romero’s words heard in a voiceover at the end of the 1989 film. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

Sanders acknowledges that she doesn’t reach every student. But she tries.

Her first assumption when she walks into the classroom to teach is that “somewhere along the line, all of my students have been hurt by religion.”

“Experience confirms this,” she said.

“I teach to the kid in the back who has to be there, doesn’t want to be there, and who loathes anything associated with religion,” she said. “I seduce them by getting them to ask all the questions they’re afraid to ask or thought they couldn’t ask: Is there a God? If there’s a God, how come there’s so much evil in the world? What do I do with my roommate who’s a Buddhist? My church says she’s going to hell. Isn’t that the stupidest thing you ever heard?”

However, when she sits down to write -- a commitment that’s resulted in two books so far -- she makes the point that this is what life’s about, that “as hurtful as religions and their attendant theologies can be, they are inescapable.”

Her books so far: Body and Belief: Why the Body of Jesus Cannot Heal, (The Davies Group, 2000) and Celluloid Saints (Mercer University Press, 2001). She got the idea for Celluloid Saints when she was in Blockbusters picking up a movie and realized she teaches a course on saints and another on film but knew of no book that combined the topics.

Search for meaning

“We are creatures who seek meaning, and, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, we can never be without a sense of ‘ultimate concern.’ I try to offer students a language to express the thoughts, doubts and questions they have about religion,” she said.

“I want to give them the power to think and to speak and eventually to act,” she said. “I want my students to understand Christianity as a beautiful tradition that is constantly struggling: to express its vision of the world, to live up to that vision and to articulate that vision intellectually.”

She wants them to see that whatever version of Christianity they grew up with or met along the way, “it isn’t the only version possible -- that there are options for thought and action they may not yet have considered.”

Sanders understands.

“The big question for me was faith and reason. I remember distinctly, even as a child, being told, you can’t ask that question, just have faith. I came from a family of smart kids. Four were in academia. And I’m just guessing that at some point, when they were told you should ask about physics and chemistry and biology, they were also told, but you shouldn’t ask about religion. I’m guessing that was enough for some of them to say, ‘Well fine, I’m don’t want any part of it.’ ”

Sanders, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, graduated from Mercyhurst College, and got a master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame before finishing her graduate work at Syracuse. She is an associate professor at Georgetown.

She believes that the best remedy for hurtful theology is better theology. Some scenes in “Romero,” she says, “are the most powerful eucharistic theology I know.”

Sanders, who arrived at Georgetown in 1991, is the seventh in a family of eight children. All eight tend toward their “very Catholic” father’s brand of verbal humor, she said, while their mother finds her humor in life. When a local priest asked the mother if she would be a eucharistic minister, she said not until her daughters could be priests. (The mother is now a Call to Action conference attendee.)

Sanders, one of the four daughters, didn’t want to be a priest. But she did try being a woman religious and got as far as first vows. As she’s essentially an explorer, she moved on.

In her first book, she explored why the body of Jesus still has holes in it. Depictions of Jesus, bleeding and scarred, made no sense to her at all. According to Christian theology, “He’s risen. He’s whole. I mean, we don’t picture John the Baptist wandering around in heaven carrying his head,” she said, “yet we do picture Jesus still with these holes.”

Fundamental contradiction

“There’s a fundamental contradiction there,” said Sanders, who spends the book exploring it. She decides the message of the depictions of a bloody Jesus is intended, first, to remind viewers that the church is not a whole body, but a fractured one.

Next, “the fact that Jesus’ body still has holes shows us that we can never afford to close ourselves off from the life of the world. It’s when we think we have God all sewn up that we get lost.”

In her first book, Sanders moves from dead bodies with holes to dead saints and their relics.

Relics were not something Sanders necessarily had had faith in or had reasoned about. Yet she wrote, “when we hold a tooth or a skull in our hands nothing feels more solid or certain than the heft of bone. Nothing seems to have more of an inherent, undeniable bond to a saint than his or her remains.”

“Just touch it. Feel its weight. Close your eyes and know the presence of the saint. But even that presence, a presence so close I can hold it to my lips or clutch it to my breast in prayer, is fraught with loss and undecidability.”

Relics can be multiplied and divided -- like St. Stephen’s finger, broken into a thousand fragments. Yet each fragment is still a relic. Further, the representation is equivocal, she said, for it relies on the saint’s absence. The saint had to be dead.

Now, however, because of movies, a version of the saint can be brought to life. The celluloid saint lives. Perhaps future reliquaries might contain both the relic and the movie.

The movie, at least, would still capture the imagination of the students, even though the relic might blow their minds.

Or not.

Sanders said in recent years she has noticed in her students a longing for something “big” to grab hold of and hang on to. They want something to matter.

“They are on the one hand profoundly cynical about all institutions, religious ones included,” she said, “and on the other hand truly receptive to movements and traditions that promise spiritual depth.

“They flock to late-night Masses,” she said, “and to prayer vigils and religious retreats. Untouched by the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, they are curious about religions even as they are reluctant to commit themselves unequivocally to them.”

But if Sanders’ introduction to theology has set them thinking, a portion of those students might find the life lessons of the dead saints on celluloid, the tangible bits of saintly dead bones, and the body of Jesus with holes in it, extremely hard to resist.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001