Laurie CASSIDY and Maureen H. O’CONNELL, eds.  She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012.  pp. 228.  $29.95.  ISBN 978-0-8146-8027-8.  Reviewed by Ann MICHAUD, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458     

She Who Imagines situates itself as a seminal text for a feminist perspective on theological aesthetics.  It seeks to generate links between notions of beauty as truth, justice, hope, and flourishing which promote the good of the entire human and global communities.  The editors invite others to continue the conversation by adding their own voices and unique perspectives to the discourse.  While the work openly considers methods and approaches which surpass traditional theological techniques, the central issues are habitual theological concerns: humanity’s image of God and all of humanity made in the image and likeness of God.

Structurally, the book is divided into three parts, with four authors contributing to each of the three themes and methodological approaches – “women as subjects of beauty, women as objects of beauty, and women as agents of beauty.” (xiv) 

In Part One: She Who Imagines, Susan A. Ross examines the relationship between beauty and justice in a variety of contexts, including the Church.  Jeanette Rodriguez reflects on the beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe while Jayme M. Hennessy contemplates the Pieta and Colleen Mary Carpenter reflects upon motherhood via the metaphor of landscapes.  The section collectively proposes that women’s experiences in life dispose them to perceive beauty and its deeper meanings in situations and imagery which surround all of us but are often neglected, disregarded, turned away from, or simply ignored.

The methodology of Part Two: She Who Is Imagined was proposed by M. Shawn Copeland.  The impact of race on the conception of beauty, Jennifer Lopez and body image, proper gazing at the faces of suffering, and artwork calling for accountability and activism regarding AIDS are considered by Copeland and Michelle A. Gonzalez, Laurie Cassidy, and Kimberly Vrudny respectively.  This deconstructive segment reveals preconceptions and biases concerning women and girls and the underlying justice issues which demand to be seen, recognized, and acted upon.

She Who Imagines, Part Three, reflects on the manner in which women can become agents in developing new means to envision beauty in creative and sometimes surprising ways.  From Rebecca Berru Davis relating the poignancy of Peruvian women “stitching theology” (153), to Maureen H. O’Connell’s naming the challenging forms of beauty present in the work of Dorothy Day, and from Mary Ann Zimmer critiquing medieval images of Mary Immaculate through the lens of a feminist hermeneutic to Susie Paulik Babka finding the face of God in self-portraiture, each contributor challenges us to re-imagine our vision of who God is and how God is reflected through the art and work of women.

Despite the many styles, topics, approaches, methods, and interests involved in each of the essays, the text holds together as a cohesive unit through the common themes of women and their engagement with the beautiful.  As in any healthy community or collective, each piece both stands on its own with its individual giftedness and contributes to the scope and depth of the entire project.  The astuteness of the editors comes in sculpting their book into three methodological segments which take on the challenge of theological aesthetics via slightly different foci.  This process allows the readers’ responses to build gradually as they view different images of women as subject, object, and agent.  With each successive section, the connections between women and beauty are expanding, breaking down, and being re-imagined.

The photos and artwork contribute to a praxis which invites the theological reader to find new methods to imagine theology.  The writing styles are clear and comprehensible.  The topics readily provoke discussion.  I propose this book would be useful as a text in a course on feminist theology, theological methodology, theological anthropology, or theological aesthetics.  It would also be a wise selection for a parish adult education program or book study.  And as the authors themselves note, this volume is but the beginning of a much-needed conversation.