Thursday, July 21, 2022

More Usual Suspects

A review and disability-oriented response to Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

At the start of a graduate school class titled “The History of Christian Doctrine,” the professor apologized for the title, saying that “doctrine” probably sounded dull. The class wasn’t, thanks to his guidance, but it’s a reminder that whether we like it, whether we find it exciting or dull, history is there, whether we like it or not, especially when it’s full of surprises that we’d prefer to forget. And as this book’s historical survey of a theological topic progresses, we find out that there is much that’s been forgotten, thereby tilting the view that many have of this history. 

Text box, in the beginning, God said, followed by mathematical equations, ... and there was light!
As I would tell my history class, let’s begin at the beginning: the origins of patriarchy. Barr starts with the story of a church that refused to hire a man as church secretary. He was in need of employment and had the desired skills. The reasoning had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with the idea that a man was above such work.

Behind this “reasoning” is a cultural history: as agriculture emerged, so did structured communities, along with designations of rank and status, marking some people as more worthy—whether of authority, certain kinds of work, or other elements of social identity. As cultures develop, such notions often are conflated with religious belief, and over time, become a hermeneutical standard, a move over time that is generally with the loss of their origins. Generations of students, including myself, have written about the imago Dei and social structure and now Barr joins us, noting that patriarchy was a result of human sin. It exists, but is not God’s desire.

A careful reading will reveal that many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy. The Torah has many provisions for an inclusive society, one that doesn’t promote rank and status. And then there’s Paul—a survey of history shows that in the early and medieval church, his writings were hardly ever used to support the status quo. Paul was writing to teach early Christians to live counter-culturally in their Roman world, and how to resist the patriarchy of the day. (With serendipity in “full” mode, the Alban newsletter of July 18,2022 notes, “In Scripture, we can see the connection between behavior and culture when we reflect on the Apostle Paul’s comments . . . . a transformative vision for a Christ-centered culture by advocating for new ways of behaving within the Christian community.”)

Abetting our assumptions about patriarchy are vagaries of translation. Few people read the preface to translations. If one did, they would learn that King James sought to support male, royal authority—and many recent translations refer to maintaining that tradition. Many modern Christians thus hear in Paul a masculine authority, such as wives should “be subject.” Paul’s original audience would have heard a command to love as Christ did, to efface the self, and not to regard the family as a vehicle for personal gain.

Compounding these assumptions, we are reminded that translation is not a science and not literal. So readers often lose track of who is speaking and who is addressed. Moreover, the letters we have are one side of a chain of correspondence. Paul is often addressing what was happening (i.e., “women be silent”) and reacting in disbelief (“What!”) to offer correction. As Barr points out, Paul had reason to challenge such accretions: “In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection” (87). It should also be noted that Paul describes himself as a mother, much as Jesus did, and mentions women prominently among the leaders of churches.

Many translations have also wreaked havoc on gender. Inclusive readers are hardly a recent invention: in the first chapter of Genesis, a human (inclusive gender) is created, אדם ('adam). This was rendered in the Vulgate as homo/hominem (an inclusive gender term) and then as man in English. At that time, "man" was gender inclusive, but over time, it was often taken to apply to males only.

M. I should probably not venture into the hopefully unintentional hypocrisy of those who tell us that “man” is inclusive but then act as if it’s “male” only. An example of this is 1 Timothy 3:1–13, where the Greek uses non-gender-specific terms, but many English translations use a series of male-specific pronouns—none of which are in the Greek text.

book cover, a repeated series of an image of a woman's head, bowed

Aside from the gender concerns raised in this book, I am (unsurprisingly) interested in the parallels to the argument that prevailing views are accepted as cultural foundations, and in turn used to justify theological positions. This is part of what lies behind Theodore Hiebert’s ideas that we have misunderstood God’s diversity due to mistranslation and cultural assumptions.

In the realm of disability, we have a Gospel example: in John 9, Jesus converses with a blind man, treating him as a real person, and then tells those around that their notion that disability is the result of sin is all wrong. The extension of this story also illustrates why we need a social model of disability: the leaders refuse to acknowledge that the man is whole, and prefer to argue with his parents than to hear the man himself. (This does not exhaust the material available in this direction).

In a similar approach, Jenifer Barclay’s The Mark of Slavery argues that the legacy of slavery created much of the modern language of disability and influenced theological views which have survived even though slavery has not (at least legally). As our industrial-technical age has emphasized reading and similar technical competencies, society has singled out conditions such as dyslexia and some neurodiversity in a way that previous ages did not. This parallels a change of reading the λογος (logos) of John as “The Word” to be understood and given a fixed, specific understanding, one that departs from the classical idea of principle, grounds, reasoning, and patterns. In the process Barclay follows, these become stigmatized as disabilities rather than different approaches or understandings, and we lose much of the richness of the Gospel stories.

I also remember a remark from one person that in many ways, the oldest human disability is being female. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this book is needed--and that there is one more matter to address. In closing, Barr writes about the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects,” which, near its end, has the line “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” She begs to disagree, saying that the greatest trick was convincing Christians that oppression is godly (172). As Matthew 23.27 reminds us, the harshest words of Jesus were to self-appointed guardians of privilege and rank, of systems that give some people power over others. 

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, once again pushing some generously-compensated CEO toward having to consider whether he will have to cancel a subscription to heated car seats or something similar. A nice feature of electronic borrowing for people like me is that the book is returned automatically at the end of the lending period.