Theologian Christena Cleveland on recovering a non-white, non-male version of God

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A woman poses by her book
Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist, theologian and the founder and director of the Center for Justice + Renewal. Her new book is “God is a Black Woman.”
Photo credit to Kelli Wholey. Book cover courtesy of Harper Collins.

If you stand in the Sistine Chapel and look up at Michelangelo’s depiction of God, you’ll see the archetype. God is white, old, and male. Always male.

Theologian and activist Christena Cleveland believes that image is limiting and even harmful. Her new book, “God is a Black Woman,” seeks to recover the sacred, Black feminine, thanks to a pilgrimage she undertook in 2018 to visit some of the 450 Black Madonnas scattered throughout Europe.

Three Back Madonnas
Three photos of Black Madonnas taken by Christena during her pilgrimage.
Christena Cleveland

Ancient and revered, the Black Madonnas are sources of strength and miracles. Joan of Arc prayed before the Black Madonna of Moulin. At the Black Madonna of Vichy, thousands of sick came to pray and be comforted.

Cleveland. herself, found strength and healing during her pilgrimage. She writes in her book, “Imagination is theology. We can only believe what we can imagine. And our cultural landscape hasn’t given us many tools to imagine a non-white, non-male God.”

On this week’s Big Books and Bold Ideas show, MPR News host Kerri Miller talked with Cleveland about her book, her pilgrimage and why the white, male depiction of God is both constricting and corrosive to seeing the divine in everyone.

Guest:

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. 

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