by Gregory Stevens (BEA guest writer)
In the past few years, fresh expressions of Christianity have been emerging out of the continual globalization of world. The rights of all human beings have been increasingly recognized, being given greater attention and compassion. This emerging praxis has given rise to the feminist question, which in its earliest days was the radical idea that women are people too, yet has progressed into a liberation movement for all people to have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For Christians, the feminist movement has re-envisioned the way we can see the world and the way in which we understand the characteristics and nature of God – I must note that feminism is as diverse a field as humanity itself and therefore my portrayal of feminism is not objective but an interpretation of the broader movement (limited by my white-male cultural context).
As feminism has emerged many of my Christian friends have struggled to embrace the ideologies presented, as they often confront traditional ways of understanding the Biblical narrative. I personally think that the challenges offered are healthy, dynamic and creative, I think they are what will transform much of the ways in which we have negatively been in relationship with ourselves, our tradition, each other, the Earth and God.
In my previous article I railed against the more conservative expressions of Christianity, both fundamentalists and evangelicals, as ones who see the Bible in a very strange way. In my experience as a former evangelical, I was taught to read the Bible literally, which is extensively problematic. Not to mention, reading a text that is thousands of years old, from a 21st century perspective is dangerous.
With modern science, philosophical advances, the myriad of theological perspectives, historical academia and the like, we cannot read the Bible literally if we hope to be faithful and respectful to our sacred text. If we read the Bible literally, a vengeful God of hyper-masculinity, domineering power and coercive sovereignty is crafted – this God seeks destruction not healing, promotes environmental degradation and the hatred, exclusion and killing of people groups. I cannot accept such a portrayal of God, especially if I hold to Gods goodness, Gods infinite love and Gods immeasurable wisdom. But pick up any Bible and it’s thick with violence, masculine language and oppressive behavior that’s blessed and commissioned by God. So where do we, as those who bring a progressive worldview to the table, go from here? How do we read the Bible as feminists, as Christians and as those stumbling after God in the way of Jesus?
I think our first step is recognizing what the Bible is not – it is not a book. Our Bible is a collection of books, letter, stories, poems and parables that have been used by faithful Jewish and Christian sisters and brothers for thousands of years to put words on experiences with the Divine. This collection of stories, written by a variety of men throughout the years, who had absolutely no idea that they were writing for what one day would be sacred scripture.
Often the experiences described by these men contrast one another; my favorite meta-narrative example is between Proverbs and Job. Proverbs lays a pretty clear argument for follow and being blessed by God, the formula is: if you do what God asks, you will get God’s favor, blessing and prosperity. Job, written many years later, confronts this idea as he does exactly what God asks of him and suffers immeasurably.
How beautiful it is that our Bible is a diverse compilation, a library of opinions, ideas and ways of describing the Divine in the world. Our Bible is not a homogeneous book, but a assorted, multifaceted collection of stories that depict a God who is active, lively and deeply connected to the world. With that said there are three main ways feminists have engaged and interpreted the text, three ways that we have much to learn from (these three ways are ones I’ve made up, they are a simplification of a plethora of hermeneutical lenses)
1. Accept it!
a. Here readers of the Bible will often fight for the Bible, working through linguistic, contextual and historical issues. Holding the Bible as the sole authority in the Christian tradition, it is defended as a culturally progressive text, as if to say, Paul wouldn’t vibe well with modern progressive folks but he was forging a new, vibrant and progressive way of being religious in his day.
b. An example of this would be, defending homosexual relationships through the few Biblical passages exegetically.
2. Tolerate it!
a. Here readers of the scriptures will not be quick to defend the Bible as much as those in the first camp. They are more willing to accept the Bible for having mistakes, errors, and ancient ways of understanding the world that do not align with our modern perspective. This group sees the Bible as a historical product, with great metaphorical meaning and sacramental use.
b. An example of this would be, faithfully exegeting the text and being okay with the text not offering a more progressive perspective, as it can be used metaphorically authoritative. Paul might not have supported homosexual relationships, but historically he didn’t actually know what one was, as the word itself wasn’t used until the 19th century. The text is accept for not being perfect and yet is continually wrestled with.
3. Toss it!
a. Here readers of the text are perfectly okay with tossing the Bible out. It’s not authoritative, it’s not helpful and it promotes racism, sexism and various people-phobias.
b. An example of this would be, not worrying at all what Paul has to say about homosexuality. He was a sexiest pig after all ;)
c. Martin Luther, the father of the protestant reformation, fell in this camp, but rarely, he hated the book of James and wanted to toss it out of the cannon. For Luther, James’ text was focused much on works and not grace.
When opening the pages of our Bible we are confronted with seemingly feminist- problems in our hermeneutical conversation with the text. The Genesis creation narrative isn’t exactly the easiest poem to understand, though at face value it reads beautifully and offers a narrative of God’s creative work. Once we begin to study the details of the text, the story is troublesome to many. To sample the three perspectives offered above, here’s one verse out of the creation narrative from three different Bible versions and three different perspectives from various feminist scholars on this verse.
CJB: Genesis 2:22, “The rib which God, had taken from the person, he made a woman- person; and he brought her to the man-person.”
NIV: Genesis 2:22, “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
NRSV: Genesis 2:22, “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
Many question rise from this one sentence; what do we do with the masculine language used to describe God, is a male rendering of God more faithful to who God is? What do we do with the fact that God created a lady out of the dude, does that mean women are to subordinate themselves to men? Etc.
Phyllis Tribble, a powerful female voice who balances the authority of the text with a strong exegetical ability, argues that, to “claim that the rib means inferiority or subordination is to assign the man qualities over the woman which are not in the narrative itself.”1 In contrast to such superiority, the mans life hangs on by the very breathe of a higher power, he is not in control and remains silent and passive “while the Deity plans and interprets his existence.”2 She argues that the rib means “solidarity and equality” for since this episode occurred no “exclusively male reference has appeared…only with the specific creation of woman (ishshah) occurs the first specific terms for man as male (ish).” 3 Ultimately the sexes are envisioned as interdependent and related to one another from the beginning of their creation until their unification in marriage as in verse 24.
Tribble has nonetheless presented the text with less suspicion; this is not the case for others as they see the scripture as filled with androcentrism, nevertheless useful in the religious community. For David Clines, the text needs to be re-imagined authoritatively, “the authority of a text has to do with its nature; we want to be saying things about the Bible that have to do with its function. We want to be saying, not so much that the Bible is right, not even that the Bible is wrong, but that it impacts for good upon people, despite its handicaps.”4
In a third expression of feminist critical scholarship offered, we have the work of Pamela Milne, who writes, “we can expose the texts patriarchy and reject it as sacred and authoritative…But if we are looking for a sacred scripture that is not patriarchal, that does not construct women as ‘other’ and that does not patriarchal interpretations based on this otherness, we are not likely to find it or to recover it in texts such as Gen. 2-3.” 5
Milne does not see religion as a liberative source of freedom, but as a historical force of oppression. The text, for her, should not be constructed as inclusive and female affirming but rejected as it is the source of great injustice.
In conclusion, the multiplicity of interpretive critics within the feminist perspective are incredibly beneficial and should not be seen in negative light (no matter the final outcome of the scholarship). Their work is a sign of vitality in gender studies, a field that seeks to liberate women from oppression within religious communities and societal structures that dominate through coercive uses of power. More voices are engaging the subject material and the conversation is no longer bound by the text but is embracing all aspects of religious life. Inevitably, this type of work leads to questions about how we are to live and act in the world. This discussion cuts through to the heart of our values, challenging us as Christians to dismantle oppressive structures in our world and work for peace through justice.
1 Christ, 76.
2 Christ, 76.
3 Christ, 76.
4 Fewell, 274.
GREG STEVENS HOLDS A DEGREE IN GENDER STUDIES FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA AND IS STUDYING FOR HIS MASTERS OF DIVINITY AT CLAREMONT SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY. HE SEEKS TO CONTINUALLY DISCOVER NEW WAYS TO UNITE FEMINIST ACADEMIA WITH LOCAL FAITH AND JUSTICE INITIATIVES. HIS WEBSITE IS http://www.hellogregory.com/, AND YOU CAN FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @HELLOGREGORY.