Tuesday sees the release of the much anticipated ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ by Rachel Held Evans there’s been a lot of talk already. Touching the lives of women and men hungry for new and improved discourse about and use of the Bible. I am so inspired to see/read a really, really smart and wise woman, who is my age, changing the world for many generations who are living with struggles and difficulties with faith, faith representation and scriptural premise. In good, robust, tension seeking style Held Evans writes as adeptly as she knows how to cry liberation, mutuality and unity to the Christian church.
As this project & publication have unfolded I am acutely aware of the work done and battles fought in this and the last century to recover and re-member the place of women in scripture, theology and institution. This has paved the way for women like Rachel Held Evans to continue pioneering, liberating and prophesying to the church and the world. Rachel Held Evans writes a lot about the prescriptions given to women in contemporary Western, typically evangelical, Christian culture. She particularly critiques the idea of complementarianism – the idea that there are God ordained roles for men and women that complement each other, for example, men are the leaders and the workers, women are nurturers and mothers – and the way the Bible is used authoritatively to expound this idea. Whilst she speaks to the church and sub-culture, she is not naiive in assuming that this way of thinking about gender and the appropriation of the Bible is confined only to the church and also thinks about the impact of what starts with the Bible and/or within the church rolling out across contemporary culture in attitudes, values and politics.
Her:meneutics (a borrowed play on the word I admit); the study of interpretation, the discovery of and the appropriation of meaning has been developed in feminist thought, theology and biblical studies in a seriously groundbreaking way by the academic and theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. It is her and her work that I think of when I see Rachel Held Evans’ impact.
Schussler Fiorenza significantly challenged not only the content of the Bible texts which have often made for uncomfortable reading where women are concerned but the way the Bible had been interpreted itself, she famously introduced the idea of a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ when approaching scripture & it’s subsequent teaching & application. When I discovered her I felt three things: reassured that she was writing what I had struggled to put into words, blown away by her radical challenge and intelligence and grateful so grateful that she had made it possible for me to be sitting there in my study reading and learning theology, hermeneutics, feminism, the Bible and liberation.
How can feminist biblical hermeneutics situate its readings of the Bible in such a way that they do not reinscribe the patriarchal discourse of subordination and obedience? How can feminist biblical interpretation challenge the totalising rhetoric of right-wing Christian neo-fundamentalism… and simultaneously empower women and other marginalized persons in their struggles for freedom, justice and well-being? Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said
Schussler Fiorenza wrote about female theological students who had been advised to refrain from using the word hermenuetics in their essays, who asked questions that betrayed a ‘theology anxiety”. She wrote of wanting to empower young women who had been told that because they were women that they weren’t capable of interpretation, of reading the Bible critically, who were not included. I know that Rachel Held Evans or myself weren’t among that generation of young women, but we’re among them today and I’m sure that Rachel would stand with me in thanking Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others like them for making tomorrow (the release of A Year of Biblical Womanhood) possible; for inspiring women around the world to seek God, seek scripture, to recover tradition, to engage politically and culturally.
I am acutely aware at this stage in my life and my faith that the words that are moving me and resonating with me most right now are written by females and female identifiers. Those who have had to fight so much harder to get a place at the table, to prove their theological and scriptural fluency and who speak from experiences of exclusion, limitation and marginalisation. I’m a massive believer in learning from oppression and the oppressed, I truly believe that it is this and these who should and do lead us.
(Of course I remain conscious that we white women writing from and/or within a Western evangelical context carry privilege and our marginalisation is not usually comparative to others, but the benefit and beauty of some of the work started by Schussler Fiorenza and others is that many women with many voices have since joined the conversation.)