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Shively T. J. Smith on Visualizing Christian Faith through Howard Thurman's Metaphors

Rather than starting with words and theories of interpretation, scholar Shively T. J. Smith uses Howard Thurman's metaphorical imagery to help congregations visually process how they understand scripture and live out their Christian faith.

Shively T. J. Smith teaches New Testament at Boston University School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a scholar, speaker, and writer who focuses on the letters of the New Testament, diaspora rhetoric, hermeneutics, and Howard Thurman. Smith, an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, serves as member and resident scholar at the historic Metropolitan AME Church (Washington, DC). In this edited conversation, Smith discusses her Vital Worship Grant to name and explore images that shape how worshiping communities interpret the Bible and live out their faith. 

What was the goal of your Teacher-Scholar Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW)? 

Individuals and congregations don't always have the language to describe how they interpret biblical texts or make meaning of their life with God, their faith community, and the world beyond. My CICW grant project used Howard Thurman's image-rich meditative writings as a resource for interpreting Christian faith. I wanted to engage congregations in visualizing how interpretive images might help them—or not—proclaim a message of hope, relationality, love, and radical inclusion.

My research assistants and I combed through Howard Thurman's biblical meditations to catalog his metaphors and correlate them with images in biblical writing. His meditations powerfully use both biblical and secular images. Many of his images come from nature or the mundane affairs of life. I wrote workshop reflections on seven Thurman metaphors and field tested them with congregations, divinity school students, an AME church education conference, and a summer Chautauqua [faith-related learning community]. We are sharing the learning through a website, and I am writing a book and essays about Thurman as an interpreter and about congregational hermeneutics.

How do you describe Howard Thurman's significance to people who know little about him?

People know about the civil rights movement in the United States, so I explain that Howard Thurman was the pastor, the mystic sage, who had the ear of Martin Luther King Jr., Otis Moss Sr., and other civil rights leaders. He was a spiritual guide and presence for them.

In the 1940s, Howard Thurman cofounded The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California. It was the nation's first multiracial and interfaith community. Thurman is one of our American pioneers of the twentieth century. He wanted to find ways for people of different faiths and embodiments to find fellowship and kinship with each other. Some of us are just now beginning to have these conversations, and here was Thurman already involved in creating new multicultural and interreligious communities and practices in the 1940s! In 1953 he became dean of Boston University's Marsh Chapel, which made him the first Black dean of a historically white university. He was a thought leader who sought to expand the spaces and relationships he engaged toward more inclusive and interactive human experience.

When and why did you become interested in Howard Thurman's writings?

I had a brother born two years and three days after I was. His room was across the hall from mine. We were especially close and always celebrated our birthdays together. Then, when he was 15 and I was 17, my football-playing brother got cancer. I watched his strength decline as the tumors grew. When he died, I shut down. I stopped talking, stopped believing in God. A chaplain—I don't even remember her face—handed me Howard Thurman's Meditations of the Heart, which was first published in 1953. Reading it gave me language and images to talk about loss and living along the edges of life and death. 

It wasn't till I entered graduate school that I learned about Thurman's civil rights leadership or his famous book Jesus and the Disinherited and his autobiography, With Head and Heart.

What will people find on your website about Thurman's metaphors?

During my grant project, a web designer helped me start the Images of Interpretation: Thurman Metaphors website with an initial gallery of five of his metaphorical images—seed, roots of trees, (our face), clothesline, and bridge crossing. Each image includes a quote from Howard Thurman along with image and quote sources. A brief description explains what the image meant to Thurman and how it might help people or congregations make meaning of the world and their faith practices.

Soon we'll put up a new gallery of twenty images, including road, flowerbed, oak tree "family," and a view from above while looking down on a mountain. Eventually we'll have four galleries of twenty images that will change each quarter. The images are primarily from Thurman's meditative writing, each chosen to invite people into an interpretive practice. People will be able to sign up to an email list so they know about new gallery postings. My goal is to ignite a movement in congregational life that gets people talking about the power and dangers of interpretation and meaning-making. I also want them talking about Howard Thurman’s social interpretive endeavors and productions.

How might visualizing a metaphor help a person or congregation reflect on their faith journey?

In Disciplines of the Spirit, Thurman uses the image of persistent tree roots spreading out in many directions, always "on the hunt—for life." Picturing the underground growth of tree roots can create space for us to reflect on questions like: What are we persistently committed to in our biblical interpretive practices? Do we interpret in ways that cultivate relatedness, wholeness, and inclusion, or in ways that disrupt relationships and seek to exclude? What is the matrix of connections feeding our collective purposes and what matrices subtract from that endeavor?

Do some Thurman metaphors work especially well in certain situations?

The pandemic forced me to do most grant presentations virtually, which worked well and helped me reach many people. However, for in-person presentations I sometimes use Thurman's short poem "The Threads in My Hand" from his book Meditations of the Heart. I am a crocheter, so I relate to this metaphor. 

I pass out pieces of yarn for people to hold as I read and they meditate. The poem talks about how threads link us to others, but those threads grow slack when someone or something dies or disappears. We hold threads differently when that happens. Thurman describes one thread as strange, yet steadying, because "God's hand holds the other end." This meditative poem helps us think about who holds our threads. It helps us embody our faith journey so we become aware of what's happening in our head, heart, and body. I've found that the image of threads in a hand helps create space for people who are processing recent losses.

How might contemplating a Thurman metaphor open ways for congregations to expand their vision for reading scripture and living out their faith?

I've found that something special happens when a worshiping community listens to a Thurman meditation and related Bible passages, ponders a photograph, and reflects on it together. Simply going through this group exercise deepens relationships. The power of relatedness is not just that it comes from the inner self out, but, by relating to others, it works inside us. Expanding on spiritual images together builds new forms of kinship, including with the larger world of God's creation. There is a social and interpersonal significance to this work. It is not just individual, but collective. That is why I like working with congregations, workshops, and communities of people and leaders.

How familiar must people be with Howard Thurman to apply his images to their lives? 

You don't have to be familiar with Thurman at all other than to open a book of his Christian meditations and be willing to ponder. You might start with Deep Is the Hunger, Meditations of the Heart, or The Inward Journey. These are short meditations that he used as a theology professor and chapel dean at Howard University, as a pastor in San Francisco, and as chapel dean at Boston University. Thurman's meditations invite us to pause, sense, reflect, and pray. They can help us find new ways to imagine who God is and who we are as people speaking of faith. 

Have any Thurman metaphors taken hold in your family?

My older daughter is a coxswain on her high school crew team, so she is drawn to Thurman's images of water. The images of channel, reservoir, and swamp have become like code language in our family. She'll say, "Today, Mama, I was a channel," meaning that she was like a connector through whom resources flow to others. Or she might say, "They're just a swamp where things go to die." And we speak of reservoirs as places where you collect resources in preparation for bad times so you have something to share. Thurman’s metaphors, in other words, give my family language to talk to each other and connect. It becomes the common ground by which we share each other’s lives.


Read more about Shively T. J. Smith's Vital Worship Grant and hear her summarize it in this 2021 Teacher-Scholars Vital Worship Grants presentation (5:12 to 14:33). Listen to a Zoom presentation where Smith helps people reflect on the biblical image of springs in Howard Thurman's writing (3:02 to 40:22).