Tuesday, May 8, 2007

God Stopped By Today: The Politics of Gender in theBible

(Artwork created by Kaleema Haidera Nur, activist,artist,writer,law student and child of the Goddess and Universe)

The following is a book review I wrote on the publication, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective by Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Theres Wacker on April 30, 2007

God Stopped By Today: The Politics of Gender in the Bible

God stopped by Today and blessed me with her wisdom.
God graced me with her peace and beauty.
She caressed me and whispered consoling words of love to me.
God stopped by today.
(written by Qiyamah A. Rahman-2006)

In the tradition of feminist theology genre, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective passes the scholarly torch, opening up liberating spaces of discourse to excavate women’s lived experiences in the Bible. I greatly appreciated the author’s strategic beginning with the well known personality in women’s studies and religious studies, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lillie Devereaux Blake and Clare Colby’s efforts to advance the public discourse of women’s equality using “enlightened reason” in their Women’s Bible will forever remain a watershed moment in women’s and religious studies. Thus, the authors trace the tenuous strands that have spanned women’s lives in antiquity across geographic locations and time while linking the evolution of women’s struggles in Germany with those in the United States of North America. The authors identify many unfamiliar names such as Julia Smith, the first woman to translate the Bible into English. Her translation became the basis for Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible. Often, in the cult of personalities the light is shed on the few bigger-than-life-women and thus we only hear about the more familiar personalities while others are relegated to mere footnotes in history, if even that. Schottropff et al exposes the reader to all the authors of the Women’s Bible including Lillie Devreaux Blake and Clare Colby, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Clare Colby wrote the commentary in the Women’s Bible on Genesis utilizing “new thought.” Colby believed that the Bible was not the word of God in the sense of an authority that encounters humans from outside. Colby desired to discern the symbolic content of the Bible to show how it corresponds to the processes of human self discovery. Schottroff et al introduces the reader to an array of feminist theologians, hence, effectively modeling an important principle of feminist methodology, that is, careful attribution so as not to perpetuate the same kind of erasure that males have been guilty of that resulted in marginalizing women’s lives and rendering them invisible.

Increase in Female Theologians and Clergy
Christa Mulack is another feminist theologian introduced in the book, Feminist Interpretation. Her name is evoked to remind the readers that conventional theology that revered a patriarchal God and a patriarchal image of God is partly why feminist theology, exegeses and hermeneutics developed, that is, as tools to counter solely male centered images of God. Yet in the shadow of this patriarchal God attention is directed to the “feminine divine” exemplified in Jesus. This is a powerful example of why feminist exegesis is so critical in the ongoing task to bring women from the margins to the center utilizing both religious studies and gender studies and why feminist theology is essential. Schottrof contends that feminist exegetes focus with eyes of social history on the world of women’s lives as reflected in biblical literature and extra biblical sources. The authors acknowledge that feminist exegesis is still in its infancy. Yet, when denominational leaders in the Catholic Scripture Federation met in Bogota in 1990 and called for the inclusion of women in every aspect of the apostolate of the Bible, then we feminist/womanist theologians are reminded of the importance of our work. That there has been a significant increase in female clergy is a reflection of a number of factors including the women’s movement, the availability of birth control that loosened family forms and granted women greater role flexibility, changing cultural norms regarding women and increased denominational and individual recruitment and support from other women. By 1993 the United Church of Christ had ordained approximately 1,899 women; the United Methodist Church had ordained 4,200; the Presbyterian Church, 2,419. One thousand of the 14,000 ministers in the Disciples of Christ were women and in 1988, about one-third of the 19,000 ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church were women. According to figures from the National Council of Churches (which at the time of these stats had not been updated since 1986), there were 20,730 women clergy. That figure represents a 21,000 increase over 1977 data. At that time, there were 5,591 licensed women. There are approximately 30,000 clergywomen in the United States. Unitarian Universalist records indicate that between 1957 and 1978 the Unitarian yearbook indicated that among its 538 ministers only nine were female, and of those women, none were settled or called as parish ministers. By the 1980s female clergy surpassed males in being ordained and called to UU churches. According to Cynthia Grant Tucker, in the mid 1990s, of 1,200 Unitarian Universalist ministers, one of very four was female.

Without feminist exegeses the barely visible theological strands that have called women into an historical partnership and dialogue with God might well have been thoroughly extinguished. Women might still be held hostage by antiquated interpretations of scriptures. Instead, feminist exegeses shine their light on scriptures such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female: for we are all one in Christ Jesus,” as well as Colossians 3:1-11, “But Christ is all, and in all.” Vashti McKenzie identifies several scriptural references to which proponents of female leadership point to: the woman at the well, who went to tell her neighbors about Jesus (John 4:28-29), the women such as Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome, who first carried the message of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:9-10; John 20:17-18); Lydia in the church in her home; Preisca or Priscilla, who co-pastored with her husband, Aquila and the four daughters of Philip, who prophesied.

Still, there are those scriptures that are used today to justify women’s oppression. Seeing women as having the same spiritual capacity and recognizing women that heeded the call of God, thus turning their lives over to God perhaps requires a similar reminder from James Cone given to African Americans that persist in quoting the Bible to justify their exclusion of women. Cone contends that some African American male ministers have no problem rejecting Paul’s command to slaves, “to be obedient to their masters,” and yet want to enforce the silencing of women and restrict them from teaching on an equally problematic scripture. Demetris K. Williams addresses these persistent naysayers by first correcting the misinformation about Paul’s silencing of women with the knowledge that the egalitarian tradition in the church was domesticated and deradicalized toward the end of the first century in response to conservative trends in the early church. It is helpful as Unitarian Universalist seminarians begin to develop Bible literacy to know where the land mines are in the Bible that are used to justify oppression of others so that we can compassionately, confidently, passionately and assertively speak to the alternative scriptures. Support for sexism is often cited in the creation narratives of Genesis 2 and 3, in 1Cor. 14:33-36, in the household codes of 1 Peter 2-13-3:7 and in the deutero-Paulie epistles (letters attributed to Paul); Colossians. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21 – 6:0; Timothy. 2:8-15 and 6:1-2. Williams is helpful in contextualizing the African American religious experience because it speaks to three important realities - race, class and gender. Several phases that he has rescued from the Bible that refute the oppression of women and evokes liberative themes are: “disciples of equals” and the reminder that “all people are equal before God.” Feminist theologians such as Schottroff et al attempt to appropriate the Bible as an important source to justify their struggles and refute the notions of women’s inequality utilizing feminist hermeneutics. They provide bread for the journey. However a growing edge of the book is its failure to include even a brief and focused discussion on homophobia and the use of scripture to justify the othering of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning (GLBTQ) individuals was a short coming of the authors.

While I did not find Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective an easy read, I read it along with other readings addressing similar issues in the African American, Unitarian Universalist and GLBTQ communities so that I could contextualize and ground some of the theory that Schottroff et al presented. While I found the diachronic section a little dry, the section on feminist hermeneutics and violence in the First Testament were very good and again, her beginning on familiar territory was helpful in engaging this reader.