Not gonna lie. Any book that includes The Usual Suspects as part of its organising motif is pretty good. But that is only a minor reason why I enjoyed reading this great book. I love how it jumps straight into discussions of structural evil in relation to patriarchy because without a complex theology of evil we can’t successfully address issues like this. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth paints a picture that combines her own personal journey with her expertise as a historian of medieval times. Barr’s argument is that church history, particularly medieval church history, shows that modern understandings of bible passages regarding the status of women haven’t always been interpreted to support patriarchy. Barr looks at how certain bible passages have been variously interpreted throughout the ages, how women’s roles within the church have shifted, and how bible translations have muddied the issue. I had the opportunity to read it after borrowing the ebook version from the Saskatoon Public Library. What follows is not a review, per se, but rather a series of reflections that emerged as I read the book.
Reflection #1: Positionality.
My area of expertise is in the realm of social sciences, more specifically in gender and ethnography. One key aspect to doing research of any kind is to determine where the researcher fits into the research. The two words are used to describe this process, Reflexivity and Positionality, basically tell us that researchers and the subjects they research are intertwined. Reflexivity is “taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.” Positionality is “the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world.”
Positionality is important in any study and this book is chock-full of it. Barr clearly states her positionality in relation to the topic: She is a woman who has been a member of evangelical churches in the USA since birth; she’s a pastor’s wife within the same movement, an accomplished Medieval historian with a couple of graduate degrees, and a professor.
As a comparison and contrast to this, let me show you my positionality: I am a white man, who has been a member of evangelical churches since birth (as a pastor’s kid and a missionary kid), I am a pastor, I have a couple of graduate degrees, and I am a professor.
Each of us is positioned in this conversation but are different in two important aspects: I am a man and my evangelical experience is shaped by my life in Canada and the Philippines, while Barr is a white women who is shaped by her life in the USA. These differences mean that we have different perspectives when it comes to understanding the matter at hand.
Positionality is important because it identifies our place in the conversation, reveals our connections to the subject, and allows us to see our advantages and biases. My positionality has blinded me to the truths that Barr’s positionality has revealed to her. Barr’s positionality makes this book more trustworthy.
Reflection #2: Sources of truth.
Apprehending truth is complicated. One of the first systems of determining truth that I learned as a child is that God is a God of truth and Satan is the father of lies. While that statement may be true, one aspect that I overlooked was God’s sovereignty over all. I had divided the world into neat categories of secular and sacred. I connected God’s involvement in the process with seemingly holy things only: Bible, church, religious people, etc. I rejected things — the example that springs to mind is psychology — that were seemingly unholy.
I was talking with a friend yesterday about the time I began to see cracks in my process. I was taking a class on religious perspectives on death and dying from Dr. Robert Kennedy at the University of Saskatchewan. We were assigned to read and comment on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I thought I was being pretty smart by saying that Tolstoy had nothing to say about death and dying because his was a work of fiction and therefore was not true. Fortunately Dr. Kennedy was a nice guy and kindly showed me how works of fiction can also contain truth. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten.
A few years later I went to seminary where I learned the shocking reality that all truth is God’s truth. This means that regardless of the form of inquiry — social science, critical theory, hard science, literature, history, psychology, etc. — if it leads me to the truth then I have discovered something that is from God. This means that Barr’s study of the history of how the church has interpreted passages that seem to support patriarchy is a necessary way to help us apprehend the truth. As a historian her voice needs to be heard.
Reflection #3: The very nature of Scripture.
Dean Flemming gets it right when he talks about the New Testament as contextualisation in his Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. When we shift from thinking the New Testament is a doctrinal document towards seeing it as a guide for contextualisation, it opens up a new framework of interpretation. It allows us to move from seeing the bible merely as a series of truths to be believed (or a series of proof-texts to be memorised) towards a series of examples on how to live out our faith in our own unique cultural contexts. From Moses, in Deuteronomy, reframing the law to a group that hadn’t personally experienced the exodus from Egypt, to Jesus reconciling what we have heard with what he really wants us to know, to John recounting a view of history that shows us what is happening behind the scenes, the bible is full of making the gospel understood in different contexts.
That’s how Barr interprets the idea that Paul is addressing specific cultural issues of the day & providing a framework for how to contextualise the gospel into those situations. To assume that all cultural situations are the same as ours — and to assume that our cultural context has no impact on how we interpret texts — is doing disservice to the text & is leading us to false conclusions about what Paul (& other New Testament writers) are saying.
Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul addresses specific issues apparently raised by the local church. In these interactions, Paul directly quotes issues that have been raised in the church and then comments on them. Included among these quotations are the following:
6:12; 10:23 – “I am free to do all things” but my freedom is limited by my relationship to others. My freedom is not an excuse to cause others to sin.
6:13 – “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food – but God will destroy them both” is actually talking about Corinthian sexual mores. The body does have a specific purpose – that purpose being “for God” and “not for sexual immorality,” because in the end God will “raise” the body and not destroy it. Therefore, the Corinthians were to stay away from sexual immorality.
6:16 – “The two of them will become one flesh.” When one commits sexual immorality, in this case with a prostitute as an act of worship in a pagan temple, then that person is united with the prostitute. The basis for Paul’s argument is from Genesis where when a man and a woman are united sexually then they become one. Paul would much rather that we were united “with the Lord” than be united with a prostitute.
6:18 – “Every sin which a man does is outside of the body” was another Corinthian saying that identifies the body as being less important that the spirit. Paul counters this argument by saying that in fact our physical bodies are now and will always be important because it is here where the Holy Spirit dwells. This any sins that we commit against our bodies are in essence sins against the dwelling place of God.
7:1 – “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Paul connects this aphorism with the issue of marriage. Should married Christians abstain from sex? Paul’s answer is to get married (7:2). There are, however, other implications to getting married: 7:32-34 that says those considering marriage should carefully weigh the pros and the cons so that in the end they can remain pure but also dedicated to the work of the Lord.
Since this is the structure of 1 Corinthians, it’s not a stretch to expect the same thing to happen when we get to the 14:33-35 bit about women’s silence. Paul begins by quoting the issue and then comments on it.
14:33-35 – “As in all the churches of God’s holy people, the women must keep silent. They don’t have the right to speak. They must take their place as Moses’ Teachings say. If they want to know anything they should ask their husbands at home. It’s shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Barr’s contention here is that Paul’s actual beliefs begin in v 36: “Did God’s word originate with you? Are you the only ones it has reached? Whoever thinks that he speaks for God or that he is spiritually gifted must acknowledge that what I write to you is what the Lord commands. But whoever ignores what I write should be ignored.” In her explanation, Barr brings us into her classroom and allows us to feel what it’s like to have a eureka moment when trying to understand scripture. It’s a powerful description!
Barr is not the first to recognise this reality. Lucy Peppiatt also talks about this in her wonderful Rediscovering Scripture’s vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts. What it does show us is that Barr doesn’t toss aside Scripture in favour of her argument. Rather she presents historical evidence that Scripture has had a variety of valid interpretations throughout history.
Reflection #4: Structural Evil is legit.
Some may bristle at idea that structural sin exists. They prefer to see sin as being entirely personal with the solution being merely a restored relationship with Jesus. Regular readers of this blog will know that I subscribe to a more complex theology of evil that includes personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation take a look here and here.
Barr says, “Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.” I tend to interpret the famous phrase in the second part of Genesis 3:16 as negative for both parties — a turning away from God’s original intent. “Desire” — the same word used later on to describe sin’s attitude towards Cain (Genesis 4:7) — and “rule” being the key words. For me, both of these words reflect a change that happens after the fall. While they were not a normal state of affairs prior to the fall they have now become normal — a new normal as it were (with all the negative implications that term has taken on). As Barr says, “after the fall, because of sin, women would now turn first to their husbands, and their husbands, in the place of God, would rule over them” and “Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.”
The reality is not only that patriarchy exists but that it is an example of how structures created by God — namely the relationships between men and women — can be twisted into sinfulness. Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven,” which means not only do we pray it but we work to make sure that it’s true. Patriarchy then becomes an enemy that need to be defeated.
Reflection #5: Women’s rooms.
Sometimes we think that all that needed to be done theologically happened in the Reformation. It becomes the basis for how we decide if people are real Christians or not. It even seems as if all of our theology is centered around the Reformation. But obviously not everything that happened in the Reformation was enough. Barr points out that the situation of women in the church took a turn for the worse as their space became smaller. Why? Because of Reformation theology!
Here is where Barr’s positionality as a woman who has grown up in the evangelical church is especially helpful in opening my eyes to things that I am blinded to as a man. The first surrounds the idea of women’s rooms that get bigger and smaller throughout history as things change. Barr’s argument is that the current state of affairs that keep women from certain roles and activities in the church hasn’t always been defined in the same way. Rather throughout history the spaces that women are allowed to inhabit have at times been larger and at other times have gotten smaller. As Barr says, “When political and social structures are less centralized and less clearly defined, women often experience greater agency; their rooms are bigger” (pp. 113-114).
When discussing “Official preaching space,” Barr tells the story of Anne Askew who argued that since “Preaching only took place behind a pulpit, and since she wasn’t behind a pulpit, she wasn’t preaching” (p. 116). This is is a clever use of logic to thwart a technicality — a technicality that doesn’t actually exist in scripture but we assume that it does. I am familiar with this idea but from a different angle. It relates to a different theological problem that we have here. There is an oft-cited idea that to be a pastor is to have the “highest calling.” It results in pastors being above reproach (even though people may have reasons to reproach them). Part of this “highest calling” is that only they are allowed inside the “official preaching space” — an area defined as being behind the pulpit.
What is interesting is that this “official preaching space” is an entirely social construct. No where does the bible mention any form of official preaching space. Looking at Jesus alone, we can see that he preached anywhere and everywhere — on a boat, by the seashore, on a mountain, on the plain, in the Temple, while walking down the road. Of course let’s not get into the idea that even “pastor” is highly constructed and bears little resemblance to what we see in the bible. (Should I point out here that one of the few people mentioned by name in the Bible as being a shepherd — another word for “pastor” — is Rachel in Ge 29:9?)
Reflection #6: Gender-inclusive language.
The final reflection that I will discuss relates to how we use language. The issue at hand is translating passages of scripture that do not specifically refer to gender in an accurate way. Barr discusses two ways that society has chosen to deal with this issue: Using gender-inclusive language or using a “universal” language.
Gender-inclusive language is language that allows latitude when referring to gender. When related to scriptures it refers to translating the original languages to accurately reflect it’s sometimes gender-neutral nature. Of course the topic of gender-neutral language is one that larger society is also facing for a variety of reasons.
The other option that society has chosen for addressing gender-related linguistic issues is a “universal” language. What this means is using male pronouns as the default even when the original is not gender specific. You can see where this would lead to problems. What I didn’t realise before reading this book is that this is a “False universal language.” This hit home for me because at least in the past I advocated for understanding words like “he” and “his” as referring to both male and female. Where this falls apart, as Barr so ably points out, is that this belief is not implemented in practice. “Words for men were used interchangeably in reference to kings, politicians, preachers, household heads, philosophers, and even to represent all ‘mankind.’ while specific words for women were used exclusively for women and mostly regarding the domestic sphere. ‘Man’ in early modern English could represent humanity, but the humans it described were political citizens, decision-makers, leaders, household heads, theologians, preachers, factory owners, members of Parliament, and so on. In other words, “man” could include both men and women, but it mostly didn’t. It mostly just included men” (p. 146). What this means is that in practice we assume “men” means “male” but look for evidence to prove that it also means “female.” Unfortunately, as Barr so ably points out, bible translators have not been as faithful at reflecting gender inclusivity in their work as is warranted by the text.
What is interesting is that Gender-inclusive language is completely linguistically-based. While that may seem like a rather obvious statement, what I mean is that different languages treat gender in different ways. Take for example one of the languages spoken where I live and work — Tagalog. Tagalog pronouns have no gender. Whether one is referring to a male or female person the pronoun is the same: siya. That means that even if I include the pronouns “he/him” in my Twitter bio, if my bio were in Tagalog it would say, absurdly, “siya/siya.”
All that to say if we take issue with making language more gender neutral we are probably focussing on the wrong things. We miss the forest by focussing on the trees.
The next step.
What if the theologies that I believe are also manufactured by others? Or what if they are based on misconceptions or misunderstandings of the text? Or what if they are based on theologies developed during a time of immaturity rather than maturity — milk rather than meat, so to speak? Or what if the narrative is not based on reality but instead on a limited understanding? The issue is how we understand something to be true or false.
Just before he went public with the truth about his involvement in the cycling world’s doping scheme, Lance Armstrong apparently said to his son. “‘Don’t defend me anymore. Don’t.’” He was believing a lie that had been repeatedly stated was a truth.
We need to face the reality that sometimes we end up defending things that aren’t really true. It’s looking more and more like the so-called traditional understanding of the passages supporting Christian patriarchy aren’t in fact all that traditional. The traditional interpretations, as so clearly delineated by Barr, are quite the opposite to what many of us have grown up believing.
I highly recommend reading this book. If you are already moving in this direction, this book will encourage you. If you are still weighing the issues, this book will help provide balance to make an accurate measurement. Regardless of your position on this issues discussed, you won’t be disappointed. And who knows? You may be led to reflect a little on your own. In fact, you may already have some reflections of your own. Please feel free to leave them in the comment section, below.
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Image is a screen shot from the cover of the ebook I read and is copyright by Brazos Press.