Jane Schaberg died this week. I didn’t take one of her classes during my years at the University of Detroit. I haven’t read her books. And yet, her life left indelible marks on mine. She was, as my mother wrote in her email to me, my mom’s “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.” She was part of my mother’s life throughout most of mine, thus she shaped my life as well.
Jane was a professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, where she was on faculty since 1977. My mother began course work at UDM soon after, attending classes of Jane’s. Jane’s liberal feminist interpretation of the Bible and often eyebrow-raising theology opened my mother to new ways to read and understand the scripture. Many people were instrumental in my mom’s passage through UDM as graduate student then instructor, from U of M Near Eastern Studies doctorate student and recipient, then to Edgewood College, where she served as a professor until recent retirement. Jane, however, stood out.
Jane’s teachings and theology followed my mother home, and I was raised with an understanding of Jesus as a historical being and taught when quite young to read the Bible with an eye to history and a mind wide open. As Jane wrote and published her first and likely most controversial book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, my mother listened, learned, and thought. She also passed on Jane’s research and thoughts to the family, and before I finished high school (and just a few years after joining the Catholic church myself), I was steeped in the world of biblical exegesis and non-canonical gospels. I also understood that faith could stand the scrutiny of sacred texts.
Thanks to Jane’s work and teaching, my mother passed on another research-based understanding of Jesus’s infancy narrative, one where God takes Mary as a poor woman who has been wronged — raped– and intercedes. Jesus, whether as historical or divine, was so much more to me after that point, as was God. How much more of a statement is it to take what existed — what is sometimes dirty, messy, and even inhumane — and lift it up and make it holy. This resonated far better with me than a story of virgin birth. Further home exposure and a very small amount of formal study (in a class taught by my mother) brought me more understanding about the remarkable work of literature and history the Bible is. Study of the synoptic gospels and non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, brought me deeper appreciation for the remarkable book that is the Bible.
Jane touched my life via my mother in less intellectual ways as well. Jane was a dear friend to my mother, welcoming her and other students, colleagues, and friends into her home. When I was young, that home was in an ailing neighborhood of apartments near the old Tiger Stadium. On several occasions, we trekked to Jane’s house, which was often filled with other people from the University and other parts of Jane’s life. It was in that neighborhood that I first became aware of Jane’s compassion and dedication to the poor and marginalized. It was there that she befriended, supported, and began a lifetime of care for a few of the children in need in that area. She maintained that support and care for decades, never giving up and persisting as I’d imagine Jesus would have done. She lived the Gospels which she studied.
Jane remained a friend to my mother long after my mother left Michigan to teach at Edgewood College. Jane’s teaching and passion for learning and writing about the Bible as literature and history was firmly implanted into my mother’s own teaching, writing, and study. They continued to attend conferences together, and on many of her visits back to Michigan, my mother would visit Jane or meet her for lunch. Jane lived with breast cancer for decades, and for some of these visits, she was quite tired, ill, or in obvious pain. Occasionally, I’d visit along with my mother and Jane, but generally, I was the chauffeur, either taking my mom for the visit or taking them both to a local eatery. When I was in Jane’s presence, her wisdom, kindness, and compassion always impressed me. To be in her presence was a joy.
Over the past few years, I often wondered upon each visit if it would be the last. Time after time, year after year, Jane would rebound from a relapse, sometimes appearing stronger than she had in many of the previous visits, sometimes seeming more frail than the last visit. Her life seemed precarious, and yet she seemed to live so fully, continuing to write, publish, and teach. On April 17, 2012, she could rebound no more. Her wisdom and compassion live on through decades of students, colleagues, and friends. And if I’m any indication, she’s reached a step beyond, touching those who know those students, colleagues, and friends. Jane has certainly shaped my life, including my appreciation of Jesus, and for that I’m thankful.
Peace, Jane Schaberg. Thank you for the gifts you’ve given to me, my mom, and the world. In the words of my mother, you were “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.”