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Feminist Theology


A lot of us have some significant baggage with the word “feminist”-- let me just clarify that when I say “feminism,” I just mean the radical notion that women are people too. For a super quick, non-baggagey description of feminism check out We Should All Be Feminists (watch the 20 minute TED Talk here) and A Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions, both by Chimamanda Adichie. I like to use the language of “default” & “difference.” What I mean is-- when we open a Word doc on our computers, the default settings are different depending on the program we use. The default settings in Word on a PC use the font Times New Roman. But on a Mac it’s Calibri, and in Google Docs it’s Arial. Maybe, like me, you’ve tweaked those default settings so you always can use the font you like, the order you prefer, the structure that’s intuitive for you. It’s not always that simple. In our culture (especially the Church culture), men occupy a position of default; women occupy a position of difference. We use masculine language by default. We trace the story with men’s names on the whiteboard just automatically by default. And when it comes to leadership in the church (and in general), the default settings for our cultural user interface have been calibrated by and for men. We call this “default” that favors men the patriarchy, and it is sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, but always present. Even when there are wonderful, supportive men advocating for women and making space for us, there are still marked experiences of difference that women have to figure out on their own-- like asking for gender inclusive language, like asking for women to be written out on the board too, like pushing for examples of women to be included in the story.

Reading the Bible with a feminist lens just means looking at the way women are represented (or not represented) and treated in the text. It means paying attention to key moments in the story that happen through / in / because of women, like:

  • The matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah & Rachel, who were just as much part of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

  • Shiphrah & Puah, the midwives who rebelled against Pharaoh and saved as many Hebrew boys in Egypt as they could (Exodus 1:15-22)

  • Miriam who led God’s people in worship, prophesied their deliverance, and acted as primary governor of their moving refugee camp in their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 15)

  • Deborah who governed Israel in justice & peace (Judges 4)

  • Huldah who interpreted the law for the nation of Israel when no one was found to read it (2 Kings 22 & 2 Chronicles 34)

  • Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah (daughters of Zelophehad), property rights advocates who approached the elders to gain their rightful inheritance after their father died and thereby revised the law in favor of the other daughters of Israel: “If a man dies and leaves no son, turn his inheritance over to his daughter… This is to be a legal requirement for the Israelites” (Numbers 27)

  • Esther who saved God’s people from genocide (Book of Esther)

  • Mary of Nazareth who birthed the Savior of the world, and prophesied shalom for God's people (Luke 1-2)

  • Anna the prophet, who worshiped Jesus the Messiah (Luke 2:22-40)

  • Mary Magdalene who was the first person to preach the Gospel, the good news of Christ’s resurrection, the first Christian evangelist and patron of preachers (John 20:1-18 & Mark 16:9-11 & Luke 24:1-12)

  • Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus as the Messiah (John 12)

  • Joanna & Suzanna disciples who traveled with Jesus along with several other women who financially supported Jesus' ministry (Luke 8:1-3)

  • Tabitha, faithful disciple who was known for her consistency and faithfulness in loving acts of service (Acts 9:36-42)

  • Priscilla who corrected false teaching (Acts 18:24-28)

  • Lydia & Nympha who hosted and supported house churches (Acts 16:11-15 & Colossians 4:15)

  • Lois & Eunice, grandmother & mother of Timothy, who were great teachers of the faith (2 Tim 1:5)

  • Junia the apostle, who was a co-laborer with Paul (Romans:16:7)

  • Phoebe the deacon, who was a co-laborer with Paul (Romans 16:1-2)

Reading the Bible with a feminist lens also means paying attention to the key moments where women are neglected, abused, threatened, and violated-- and adequately answering 1) what God has to say about the violence against women, 2) why those texts are in the canon, 3) what do we do with them now. For example:

  • The blaming and demonizing of Eve (which is a medieval projection onto the text rather than a faithful biblical reading, due largely to John Milton’s portrayal of her in Paradise Lost rather than her actual characterization in the Genesis account)

  • Hagar, used as a pawn to be a surrogate mother of a child, then discarded, sent into the desert with nothing and no one

  • Tamar, remarried again & again, forced to prostitute herself to her father-in-law to gain something that resembles justice for herself.

  • Jephthah’s daughter, sacrificed because of her father’s foolish vow

  • Leah, who was given secretly in marriage to a man who didn’t ever want her and then spent the rest of her life unloved and uncared for. Plus the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who get traded as sexual pawns in this twisted competition between Leah & Rachel of who can have more children and therefore more power / cultural capital. (Genesis 29-30)

  • Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who was raped and then used as an excuse to destroy an entire city, and the catalyst for further violence against men, women, and children from a revenge killing of all the men and “carrying off all their wealth and women and children, taking as plunder everything in their houses” (Genesis 34:29)

  • Bathsheba-- summoned by a king she couldn’t refuse in order to satisfy his sexual desire (remember that when power and authority is used to manipulate someone to say yes, so that they can’t effectively say no, this is clearly understood as rape), and then subsequently married off to her rapist after he had her husband killed.

  • So many unnamed women, barely footnoted only as someone's wife or daughter.

After journeying through the biblical narratives, you might now be wondering what else there is to feminist theology, so in case you’re wondering “What books should I be reading about faith & feminism generally?” here are a few recommendations and some accessible places to launch your own journey of discovering what to think and how to respond to faith & feminism:

Half the Church, by Carolyn Custis James— The premise is pretty straightforward: women are roughly half the world & half the church, but are often shut out from contributing in significant ways, especially in the Global South / Majority World. The author was especially impacted by the book Half the Sky (by pulitzer-prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof), which issues a call to action in response to our most pervasive human rights issues: the oppression of women in the developing world. James encounters these realities with a slightly different lens; she claims the global plight of women demands a Christian response, a gospel-centered response, a holistic embrace of all that God calls women (and men) to be.

Jesus Feminist, by Sarah Bessey— An accessible, straightforward, narrative-based look at God’s view of women. Bessey especially takes a close look at the way Jesus responds to and incorporates women in his ministry. She is gracious and winsome in her writing, and I find her approach to be very biblically sound. She says, in essence, “I’m a feminist because Jesus was. And I’m not advocating for anything that’s not in the Bible—look and see.”

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans— Another accessible and narrative-based treatment of gender issues, specifically looking at gender-roles in the church and the ways ideas & practices surrounding “biblical manhood / womanhood” can be really problematic. The premise of the project is to unpack the idea of “biblical womanhood” by embodying biblical practices / principles as closely as possible and paying careful attention to the way women are presented in the bible. Each month, for one year, she tackled a new challenge or virtue such as gentleness, domesticity, obedience, and submission. At the end of each chapter, she features a specific woman in the Bible writing out a historical profile and her thoughts. She interviews a wide range of people from a variety of faiths and traditions (from rabbis to polygamists), and lives out a variety of explicit commands in scripture (including things like wearing a head covering, calling her husband master, and following the Old Testament purity laws during her period). Her very personal experience provides a great window into the double standards that women have to navigate, told in a funny & winsome way. I found it to be a refreshing look at what it means to be a godly woman, and I thought she handled the word of God with respect and care.

Texts of Terror, by Phyllis Trible— This is a more academic text, in the discipline of Biblical Studies, interpreting stories of four women in the Old Testament who suffered terrible fates, texts of violence against women, where women are victims of male power: Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16, 21:9-21); Tamar, (Genesis 38, 2 Samuel 13:1-22); an unnamed concubine, (Judges 19:1-30); and the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11:29-40). These texts are particularly troublesome for feminists to interpret, and while many write them off completely, Trible insists God has something to say to us here. At the core of these stories are violence, brutality, and dehumanization for which the texts do not offer a satisfying resolution; however, they illustrate the failure of systems of power to prevent violence against women or to provide victims of violence with justice, and she claims this in itself appeals to the God of justice to set things right. It’s an excellent & classic example of feminist hermeneutics that doesn’t deny the problematic ways that women are presented in the Bible, but instead points to a God of justice and shalom.

In addition to direct engagement with the biblical narratives and with the broader church culture, a significant part of feminist theology revolves around issues of women in ministry and church leadership. For practical perspectives about women in ministry more specifically, I would add a few more resources that speak directly about women leading in the church:

  • She, by Karoline Lewis.

  • Women Who Lead, by Mary Paul.

  • A Woman's Place, by C. S. Cowles.

  • Emboldened, by Tara Beth Leach.

  • The Junia Project (an online blog, I’d start with reading “Why I Support Women in Church Leadership in 30 Seconds” for a list of women like the one above with additional linked articles to learn more about them)

For a deeper, more academic dive into some of the classic texts of feminist theology, I would add these resources:

  • She Who Is, by Elizabeth Johnson. This text is a foundational work within the discipline. Johnson wrestles with the difficulties of talking about and to God when God-talk (theology just means talk about God) is so wrapped up in masculine language and metaphor. She brings thoughtful, faithful, hopeful responses to other more severe feminist critiques, and begins to work out what it might be like to engage a different kind of God-talk.

  • Models of God, by Sallie Mcfague. Another cornerstone text. challenges Christians' usual speech about God as a kind of monarch. She probes instead three other possible metaphors for God as mother, lover, and friend, all of which are found in scripture and in the ancient literature of the church.

  • God, Sexuality, and the Self, by Sarah Coakley. A much more recent work (2013) in systematic theology (first of three volumes), reconciling how we talk about a human desire for God by drawing on the relation of sexual desire and the desire for God. Through prayer practices and the recovery of lost / neglected materials from the ancient Christian tradition she traces the intrinsic connection of this relation to a theology of the Trinity. Her expansive trinitarian theology pushes against the default understandings of gender & sexuality and offers a substantially bigger picture of the Triune God.

  • Sisters in the Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Delores Williams (*womanist is a label used mostly by African American feminists who point to the intersectionality of race & gender, emphasizing the way being Black and being a woman and still reckoning with the trauma of slavery and oppression impacts the way someone might hear and interpret the Bible)

  • En La Lucha/In the Struggle: A Mujerista Theology, edited by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (*mujerista is a label used mostly by Latina feminists who point to the intersectionality of colonialism & gender, emphasizing the way being a woman of color located within a culture that is still reckoning with the trauma of colonization and oppression by another culture impacts the way someone might hear and interpret the Bible)

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I think it's a good place to start. I'd love to hear what you're reading and where you're at on this journey. leave a comment or drop me a line!

Grace, peace, and much love,

Alicia

San Jose, CA, USA

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