Precocious Testimony

I’ve never written a blog post in my life. I’ve thought about it before, but it has always felt overwhelming and a little self-indulgent. But today on a rainy run in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, I decided that now is the time. There are those times, after all, when we don’t feel “ready” to speak, to write, to witness. But in some instances, we just have to do it anyway. This first one is a little long.

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of what it means to “witness” and “testify” to an event, an idea, a truth—questions I’ll pursue in “Veninga’s Smuler.” Today I was reading a moving essay by trauma theorist Shoshana Felman on education and crisis, in which she talks about the possibility that all testimony has to be precocious, in that it is always spoken before the testifier is ready. Felman references reflections by nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé:

“It is appropriate . . . to talk about it now already, much like an invited traveler who, without delay, in breathless gasps, discharges himself of the testimony of an accident known, and pursuing him . . .  Should I stop here, and where do I get the feeling that I have come relatively to a subject vaster and perhaps to myself unknown—vaster than this or that innovation or rites or rhymes; in order to attempt to reach this subject, if not to treat it.”

So I’m talking about things—both brokenness and joy—now, already, before I’ve got it all together and figured out. Chances are, I won’t ever have it all figured out, and maybe that is something to celebrate. The occasion (to use Kierkegaardian language) for this precocious attempt at testimony is a recent trip to Palestine, which was only two weeks but had the impact of a lifetime. I’ve struggled with how to begin to talk about my experience there—how to witness to walls that divide and demean human beings, as well as to resilience of spirit that can and should give us all hope.

What, after all, does it mean to witness to the pain of another? Can we do it justly? How can we offer authentic and constructive testimony when language seems to fall short? What does it mean to stand in solidarity with another?

These are the kinds of questions that I’ve been dreaming of writing about. In this blog, I hope to write about them, and others. Some things might be a bit less intense but not less important: my pug, Bubba/Buber, the most active turtle in the world, Elvis, attempts at a vegan life, the joy of snowcones, the nervousness that ensues every semester when walking into a new classroom.

The title of the blog invokes my beloved Søren Kierkegaard, whose 1844 Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, or Crumbs) was one of the first books I read by the Dane when studying in Copenhagen in 1998. In some ways, we are always thinking and living in fragments. Bits and pieces of insight, love, joy, pain, here and there. Recently, Kierkegaard scholars have been translating smuler as “crumbs” rather than “fragments,” and I like that, too. The crumbs testify to what we leave behind in the wake of our everyday lives—the crumbs of freshly baked bread, of spontaneous thoughts on a notepad, of an argument with a lover. Crumbs come from living.

They also remind me of St. Edward’s dear Ed Shirley, who we said goodbye to almost exactly four years ago. At his wake, his friends and family witnessed to the funny and profound “Ed crumbs” that he always left behind. And thankfully, we keep finding them.

My hope is to blog twice a month, maybe more and maybe less, on these crumbs. One of my favorite jobs was a semester-long stint as a weekly columnist for my alma mater’s newspaper, the SMU Daily Campus. In this blog, I hope to revive something like that. I’m a minister without a regular place to offer sermons, but I’m hoping that writing publicly can also be a kind of pulpit.

There is much to lament in this world of ours. There is much to voice righteous anger about, much that should trouble us and shake us to the core. I feel angry these days. There is also undeniable love, hope and humanity in the midst of all this brokenness. And humor, and funny things.

When I was in Palestine, I had the opportunity to visit the Tent of Nations, a peacebuilding organization affiliated with the Nassar family farm just outside of Bethlehem. The Nassar family has experienced tremendous loss at the hands of the Israeli government, which has destroyed hundreds of trees and repeatedly threatened demolition of the whole farm. But the Nassars, and the land which they tend, remains committed to life and to just peace. A few years ago, virtually all of their trees were destroyed, except one. They called this strong tree the “Steadfast Witness.”

IMG_5836

Today I witness to the strength of that one tree, to the enduring spirit of just peace, and to the possibility of testimony, even before one is ready. I invite you to come with me on this journey of reflecting on the fragments and crumbs of our lives. I end with part of one of my favorite poems from Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” (1977) which includes an image of weaving together ordinary-sacred “fragments,” that has always given me goosebumps.

 

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow
original domestic silk, the finest findings
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.

Let the turning of the fragments, the crumbs, the scraps begin.

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Author: Jenny Veninga

I'm a theologian, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and a faculty member in religious and theological studies at St. Edward's University in lovely Austin, Texas. I've spent quite a bit of time with Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, teaching and thinking about feminist and queer theology, and trying to figure out how to live better amidst religious difference. I'm also a runner, a pug-lover, a thrift-store addict, and a pseudo-vegan. I love to write and am experimenting with hearing my voice through this blog.

6 thoughts on “Precocious Testimony”

  1. Congrats on your blog Jenny and what a beautiful first post. Might I suggest adding a “follow” button and a “like” button so I can stay tuned and know when you post again? (Hope it’s more than 2 times a month) 🙂

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on The Story of the Four and commented:
    Friend and colleague Dr. Jenny Veninga just began her new blog. Super awesome person with a much reflection to offer on Kierkegaard, queer, and feminist theology. Check her out.

    Like

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