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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf& Stacey Floyd-Thomas

Quilting, Christianity, and Cultural Memory

Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School / Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture
Associate Professor of Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
March 26, 2019

Quilting, Christianity, and Cultural Memory: Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Miroslav Volf Q&A from Resilience: Growing Stronger Through Struggle.


I just wrote a piece for this, well, I was interviewed for this magazine called Quilt Folk, and in that magazine…

Real, real quilt?

Real quilt, Quilt Folk.

I love quilt, I love quilt, now this is amazing.

See he’s trying to pit me for a free quilt.

No, no, no, no, no.

‘Cause he knows I would do that for him. [audience laughs] [Man stammering]

What, you have access?

I’m a quilter. [chuckles]

You’re a quilter? Whoa.

Yeah. And so, it was very difficult, that was one of the hardest confessions for me to make was to call myself an artist. And I’m the granddaughter of a master quilter in the area of Gibson.


My Nana was a fabulous quilter, and to know, and of course, the quilters of her generation were discovered, right, as great artists, when all they were trying to do was to create sanctuaries for themselves to make whole cloth out of scraps, to bring beauty into share-a-crop shotgun houses, and to give warmth to their children. And my grandmother had 14 children, 12 who were girls, my mother was the oldest of all of them, they’re all living, and 35 grandchildren, and even more great-grands. And they all hated quilting. [all chuckling]

Because it reminded them of poverty, it reminded them of the way in which she would steal away to do that. You know, 14 kids who are used to having her always at their beckon call, and it was a thing that separated her, much in the same way women use kitchens as secret sororities when they didn’t have college educations. And it was only until I became a professor and got a Wabash Grant for the artists as theologian for mid-career faculty, where we were told to find an art that we were interested in or were curious about, so we might be able to empathize with our students who were entering into discourses that they never knew.

Like the gentleman back there said, you know, I’m in this room full of scholars and I don’t do this, I’m just trying to live, right? So we might be able to identify with our students, and we might be able to refine our expertise by learning something new. So, I Stitch in the Ditch with machines, and the way my grandmother did it by hand, and it has ignited, for me, a sense of cultural memory that I now possess even though she is gone.

And my grandmother died of complications with Alzheimer’s, and when she passed, when she was in her latter stages of Alzheimer’s, she didn’t know her children’s names, she forgot, you know, even some bodily functions, obviously, but two things she recalled. She recognized her quilts, and she would say that there’s a baby somewhere that wants me to teach her how to make these.

Ah [mumbles].

So art, and I think it does go to your question of what the work of the Christian social ethicist might be, art is about that utopia. It’s about that New World making, it’s about taking refuse and making something divine, using utility for the purpose of making stained glass where there aren’t even windows, right? I realize that what upset my aunts, and uncles, and my cousins about my Nana’s quilting was art allowed her to create a sanctuary for herself, when she was otherwise laid open to their desires.

So there’s a way in which, for me, the work of ethics is much like art, it cannot start with a divine will deontology that says, you know, deal with it as it is, and that whatever your experience is, or how God ordained it, no. I think it’s more of King’s rational intuitional deontology that says, we can look at this thing that says it’s this, and make something new out of it, right? Where we have to reformat that Platonic and Aristotelian notions of forms to function for us in ways that might otherwise never have been imagined.

And that is to tap on the God within us, that is to realize that God is not some removed entity, but Emmanuel, God with us, and [foreign language], God through us. And art is a wonderful spiritual practice for us as theologians, because that’s what we’re doing in our literary and biblical imagination as we dare hand over to people the word of God morning by morning and Sunday by Sunday, right? Toni Morrison puts it this way.

She said, it is a sin and a travesty, this is in her book “Sula”, to have, for a woman to exist with no art form, because when people do not have art, they become dangerous. In other words, if we’re not constructing something, we’re always destroying something. [audience member laughs] He wants a quilt. [audience applause]

I had no idea you did that.

Yeah, I quilt, yeah! [enthusiastic contemporary rock music]