Chapter 2: Protestant Feminists and the Bible: On the Horns of a Dilemma by Mary Ann Tolbert

The Pleasures of Her Text
by Alice Bach

Chapter 2: Protestant Feminists and the Bible: On the Horns of a Dilemma by Mary Ann Tolbert

Mary Ann Tolbert is associate professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Virginia (English literature) and University of Chicago (biblical studies). She is the editor of The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics (Semeia 28) and the author of Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Fortress, 1989).

For many women the freedom to proclaim their own experience in the world and their own vision of the world as authoritative and legitimate, rather than marginal and deviant as patriarchy would have it, is the profoundly liberating dynamic of the feminist movement. However, for many feminists, and especially for many Jewish and Christian feminists, their own experience is often painfully split within itself because, to echo Elaine Showalter’s words,1 we are both the daughters of the male tradition, of Abraham and the patriarchs, of Jesus, Paul, and the Church Fathers, of our male ministers and rabbis, professors and dissertation advisors, and at the same time sisters together in a new consciousness, which rejects the submissive, victimized roles Western society, formed and molded by these two great religious traditions, has forced us, and generations of our foremothers and sisters, to play. Consciousness of the mutilation of minds, spirits, and bodies perpetrated for centuries on women by patriarchal misogyny demands not only our rage but also our absolute commitment to oppose and dismantle all the societal structures still supporting that misogyny. We cannot will away this new consciousness no matter how much discomfort it sometimes causes in our personal and professional lives. We can no longer teach or preach male history, androcentric ethics, or patriarchal biblical interpretations as though they were universals; we can no longer pledge unquestioning allegiance to existing religious hierarchies and institutions as though they actually served the whole family of Mother God rather than mainly the brethren. We cannot forget what we as feminists now know, any more than we can deny the degree to which patriarchal patterns continue to shape our lives and careers, either through our acceptance of them or through our rebellion against them.

This split within our experience, being both the heirs and the victims of patriarchy, is nowhere more apparent than in many women’s struggles to come to terms with the religious traditions in which they were born, raised, or formed. Short of throwing out whole traditions and developing entirely new religious systems, an option I believe all feminists must leave open, is it possible for feminists to extract the gold, silver, and clothing out of their religious lands of slavery without also keeping the manacles and chains, just as the children of Israel were successful in doing with Egypt (Exod 12:35-36)? In this essay I wish to explore that question specifically in relation to the struggles of women in one particular strand of the Christian tradition: Protestantism. I have chosen this group not only because it is the one I know best, having been myself raised in a Protestant denomination and having taught for the past nine years in a non-denominational, primarily Protestant divinity school but also because I believe that Protestant feminists encounter special problems related to their tradition that have not been analyzed sufficiently for their similarities and differences with feminists from other Christian and Jewish traditions to become clear, and such clarity may let us understand each other better and thus help each other more. This essay is only as an initial attempt at assessing these issues and, hence, in no way pretends to be a final or full explication.

The specific experience which inaugurated my thinking on this subject was the observation that many of my Protestant women students find difficulty in appropriating much current feminist biblical research and proposals for Women-Church or the ekklesia of women.2 They certainly comprehend the issues and are indeed eager to learn of and investigate the fuller, more central role of women in early Christian history, as feminist reconstructions are uncovering it. The difficulty arises, however, in drawing from such studies a definite praxis for them. There appears, in other words, to be some lack of fit between these feminist writings and their own concrete experiences. Since feminism, like all liberation movements, should always result in praxis, for the point is to change the world, not simply add to our knowledge about it, this difficulty in appropriation is in need of analysis and explanation.

In conversations, both formal and informal, with groups of students over the last two years, three general characteristics of the Protestant tradition consistently surface as barriers for many women in appropriating a considerable amount of recent feminist research. I would like to list and explain the problems caused by each characteristic briefly and then devote the remainder of this essay to a fuller exploration of the first, the role of scripture in Protestantism.

Problems in the Protestant Tradition

From the time of Martin Luther’s defense before the Diet of Worms in 1521, the first principle guiding the Protestant Reformation and the various groups growing out of it was the conviction of sola scriptura: "Scripture alone is the true over-lord and master of all writings and doctrines on earth."3 Although feminists cannot help but notice the patriarchal language by which Luther articulated this doctrine, the primacy granted to scripture and its authority over all human ideas, structures, decisions, and theologies continues to be one of the most potent influences in the religious formation of anyone raised in the Protestant tradition. While I intend to return to this principle and its ramifications for feminists later, even on a simple reading of it the reason why some Protestant feminists have difficulty dispensing with the text of scripture in favor of historical reconstructions becomes more evident.

The second characteristic of modern Protestantism that poses major problems for feminists is its striking diversity. One cannot speak of a Protestant view or position on anything; rather one encounters many views. Even the various denominations tend often to be split into several factions, so that, for example, one cannot talk about the Lutheran position but must say the Missouri Synod Lutheran position. This diversity is found not only in dogma and tradition but also in liturgy, church organization, and denominational structure. Such pervasive diversity tends to isolate Protestant feminists from each other, and women’s isolation from other women has always been one of the best weapons of patriarchal oppression: divide and conquer. Protestant women attempting to worship together, for instance, must begin by deciding whose order of worship to follow, whose hymnal to use, and whose liturgy to enact, so that our celebrations of sisterhood end up emphasizing our lives of separation. The actual number of feminists throughout all the Protestant denominations would prove, I believe, to be a substantial and highly influential body, but by dividing that body into separate groups of Methodist women, Presbyterian women, Disciples women, Baptist women, etc., and pitting each group against frustratingly different androcentric denominational structures, the numbers and influence of Protestant feminists have often been successfully marginalized. Indeed, so serious are the many differences in denominational structures and politics that Protestant feminists often do not even understand what their sisters in other denominations are facing and thus do not know how to support or help them. In such a situation, ideas of Women-Church or the ekklesia of women involve the visionary power of a longed-for "new Jerusalem"; yet, attempts to enact that vision tend only to underscore the reality of competing Protestant traditions that block unity.

Perversely enough, what little unity Protestant women were able to forge in the late sixties and early seventies in quest of the right of ordination in a number of denominations was quickly eroded by the very success of that campaign. Ordination itself has now become one more line of division among Protestant women, and one, I think, of the most dangerous, for it has the possibility of co-opting women into an androcentric hierarchical power structure rather than changing that structure.4 The difference in power, status, and authority between clergy and laity in most Protestant denominations is arguably one of the clearest examples of patriarchal patterning in the social organization of Christianity. Priests and ministers stand over their congregations as fathers over children, shepherds over sheep, holy people over secular people, in an obvious dominant-subordinate relationship. Some denominations, in fact, formalize this gulf between clergy and laity by enrolling clergy, not in the membership of the churches they serve, but rather in the area association of other clergy.5 Hence, the "church" for clergy are other clergy.

In past years many feminists hoped that as more women were ordained and filled parish posts, a different, more egalitarian model of ministry would emerge. So far, such has not proved to be the case. Sometimes ordained women feel they must act with greater authority and rigidity than their male counterparts to "prove" that they are really worthy ministers. Even more typically, ordained women find themselves assigned as associate pastors to a male senior minister, a situation which often quickly degenerates into the worst wife-husband dynamics. Nevertheless, however successful individual women may be in embodying their own vision of Christian ministry, the simple existence of an ordained class of women separate from lay women further divides and marginalizes any feminist influence. Clergy women tend to develop their own networks and organizations separately from lay women’s groups and find participation as equals with lay women in church groups or even in support groups difficult. Between denominational divisions and clergy-laity divisions, Protestant feminists are thoroughly isolated and robbed of effective power bases.

The third characteristic of Protestantism that thwarts feminists efforts is its emphasis on the individual rather than the community. In the early years of the Puritan settlement in New England, the right to vote was based on church membership, and church membership could only be won by each individual (male) being able to give a credible account of his personal experience of grace.6 Founded on the "inner-worldly asceticism" of the Reformation and refined by the Calvinistic doctrine of the unique worldly "calling" fashioned by God for each person,7 a staunch individualism occupies the center of the historic Protestant experience. The critical issue for salvation is the relation of each individual to God, not participation in certain groups or performance of certain rituals, although both of these latter actions have their places. It is this stress on the state of the individual soul that has encouraged the importance of conversion and revivalism in Protestantism. Moreover, this individual emphasis tends to foster a more private or personal vision of the good rather than a public or social one.8 Yet, for feminists it is vital to recognize the systemic nature of patriarchal oppression, rather than being totally occupied with its local and private manifestations. Asserting that none of us are liberated until all of us are liberated is not exaggerated rhetoric but the realization of the pervasive, systemic structure of oppression.

I am not saying that Protestant feminists tend to be self-centered and concerned only with their own pain, whereas non-Protestants are universalistic in their aims. It is just that the heavy value placed on the individual in Protestantism may encourage a shorter vision, focused on more immediate and limited objectives, like, for example, ordination or the election of a woman bishop, or on ad hoc responses to blatant instances of discrimination. Such short-term goals are obviously important, but they cannot substitute for a more broadly sustained social and systemic critique of oppression in all its various forms. African-American Protestant women have been much less distracted by this individual bias than their European-American sisters, perhaps because their double oppression, both racial and sexual, forces a broader assessment of the causes and structures of oppression in Western society and perhaps also because the social function of the Black Church in a segregated society and its roots in African tribal culture have served to mitigate the privatizing influence of Protestant individualism. Greater conversation between African-American and European-American Protestant women might be one way of keeping the longer-range issues of oppression more clearly in view.

Since in the traditional Protestant formulation each individual was to work at her or his specific divine "calling" in the world as a holy person, separate orders of religious men and women were discouraged. The model of a women’s community, allowing greater independence and communication among women than society at large generally permitted, was essentially lost to Protestant women by the Reformation.9 Instead, woman’s divine "calling" in the world as wife and mother was emphasized. Unlike Catholic women, Protestant women have had little opportunity or encouragement to define their religious identity in relation to other women or even to see that model as a possibility, for orders of Protestant nuns are rare. The religious identity of most Protestant women is defined primarily in relation to the family unit. Hence, Protestant individualism has acted also to stress Protestant familialism: the family as the focus of worship and Christian formation (as, for example, in "The family that prays together, stays together").

This familial emphasis has been so inculcated in many Protestant women that attempts to organize women-only retreats, worship services, or even meetings raises conflicting emotions in people otherwise committed to feminist issues. To exclude husbands, brothers, and sons even from those essential events required for women to raise their own level of consciousness, to learn how to support each other, or to begin to bond together to overcome generations of isolation seems to some a violation of true Christian love and discipleship. However, these actions are seen as violations mainly because for most Protestants the family has been made the ideal focus of one’s religious identity. To the degree that ideas of Women-Church or the ekklesia of women inevitably demand some amount of separatism, Protestant women often find them difficult to harmonize with their own tradition.

While each of these three characteristics of Protestantism has serious implications for the future of Protestant feminists, their combined weight may explain why the most important and compelling formulations of a feminist vision for contemporary Christianity have come by and large from the Catholic community.10 I in no way mean to denigrate the important contributions of some Protestant feminist theologians and biblical scholars,11 but any fair appraisal of the scene would have to acknowledge the wider role of women formed by the Catholic tradition. If Protestantism is to be challenged and changed by feminism or, to put it another way, if Protestant feminists are to find some means of remaining in their tradition, the many problems raised by the role of scripture, Protestant diversity, and individualism must be addressed in a serious and sustained fashion. As a first step in that broader discussion, I would like to examine the role of scripture in Protestantism and delineate possible feminist responses to it.

Sola Scriptura

Deeming it the sole authority in all matters religious, the early Protestant reformers used scripture to purge what they viewed to be a decadent and decayed Church. Scripture liberated them from the teaching of the Church Fathers and from the ecclesiastical structures which had developed over 1,500 years of Church life. Since according to Luther not even the revelations of angels could supercede scripture,12 all authority was vested in the Word of God, including the authority to interpret itself. Thus, elaborate allegorical readings were to be rejected, and the task of minutely studying scripture in order to establish its own meanings was begun, a task upon which we are still engaged almost 500 years later.13 For Protestants, the central and unavoidable problematic posed by the role of scripture is its authority, but exactly what that authority entails varies from denomination to denomination and indeed is often a hotly contested issue within denominations.14 So, rather than beginning with theoretical debates over authority, an argument which I will eventually have to enter, I wish to begin with the simpler question of functions: how does scripture function in Protestantism?

Although within the diversity of Protestantism generalizations are somewhat suspect, it seems justifiable to say that most Protestant worship centers on scripture: in public ceremonies, scripture readings and sermons based on scripture (though occasionally the connection between the scripture and the sermon may be rather tenuous) form the heart of the service with other liturgical elements (prayers, music, or eucharist) sharing greater or lesser amounts of attention; in private devotionals, scripture reading and prayer are the essentials. Scripture, then, for Protestants becomes the primary medium of communion with God; if Catholics commune with God mainly through participation in the sacraments, and especially the mass, Protestants Commune with God through scripture. Neil Hamilton’s assessment of scripture is representative of the Protestant perspective: "God, who is the Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for a certainty spoke in these writings, and this same God continues to speak through their witness. The New Testament is where to go to listen for the ‘call.’"15 The crucial images have to do with "call," "speak," and "listen." For Protestants, the Bible is not simply a source of knowledge about God or the early Christians or the Hebrew people; it is, rather, a source for experiencing, hearing, God or God-in-Jesus in each present moment of life.

Nevertheless, Protestant feminists along with their Roman Catholic and Jewish sisters must also acknowledge that this same Bible is often misogynistic and anti-Semitic, thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal, and seeped in ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic mythology.16 Indeed, along with many of the so-called "classics" of Western literature, the Bible continues to exercise over women, and other oppressed groups like homosexuals, a form of "textual harassment,"17 appropriating social discrimination into textual structures and categories. To excuse the Bible, or other "great" Literature, for these acts of textual violence on the grounds that they are simply reflecting the social ethos of earlier cultures is either to underestimate the continuing power of these alienating images or to approve tacitly the existence of oppression in times past just because they are past.18 Jewish and Christian feminists, and especially Protestant feminists whose religious formation has been so permeated by scripture, are thus faced with a difficult dilemma: honesty and survival as whole human beings requires that we point out and denounce the pervasive patriarchal hierarchies of oppression, both social and sexual, that populate the Bible, and yet at the same time we must also acknowledge the degree to which we have been shaped and continue to be nourished by these same writings. How are we, then, to understand "the same Bible as enslaver and liberator"?19

Feminist Responses

At present the predominant feminist scholarly response to biblical androcentrism is to use the text, not as an authority in and of itself, but as a source for reconstructing the history of women in early Christianity or Judaism.20 This approach, which understands the Bible as prototype rather than archetype,21 has many advantages: it employs a well-recognized mode of analysis, the historical-critical method, with appropriate feminist modifications;22 it frees feminists from the chains of extant textual formulations by judicious appeal to the disciplined exercise of the "historical imagination"; it reveals the androcentric biases of most male reconstructions of early Christianity or Judaism by proving that the available evidence does not inevitably lead to the conclusion of women’s marginality; it empowers a new vision of an egalitarian community by uncovering the leadership roles and full participation of women in the historical development of early Christianity and Judaism; and it unequivocally asserts the damaging patriarchal tone of scripture as a whole and thus allows women to reject its "textual harassment" and shift the locus of revelation from text to history and from ecclesial authority to women’s community. Moreover, influenced by the Protestant principle of returning to the purer origins as a corrective for current degeneration, historical reconstructions of early Christianity or the historical Jesus have always sprung from overt, or more often covert, reforming aims.23 Feminist reconstructions are indeed no more of an advocacy stance than other reconstructions; they are simply more honest and open about their advocacy than white, male reconstructions have tended to be.

Along with these definite advantages, the feminist response of historical reconstruction has, as does any well-defined perspective, a number of limitations. All historical reconstructions face the difficulty of establishing which point in the historical origins ranks as the purest and thus possesses the authority to stand in judgment over later degeneration. For Luther, the New Testament period as a whole held that authority,24 but for later historical critics considerably narrower slices of that period are demonstrably purer, be they Paul’s missionary activity, the historical Jesus’ ipsissima verba, or the egalitarian movement called forth by Jesus. These contending points of historical authority are often related — not surprisingly — to the advocacy stances that generated the reconstruction in the first place and have perhaps served to return some of the flexibility of interpretation to scripture that was lost when the historical consciousness of the Enlightenment dethroned allegorical interpretation. However, if one hopes that by moving from ancient androcentric texts to historical reconstructions one has escaped patriarchal biases or reduced the polyvalent text to the objective, unitary truth of history, one is greatly mistaken: reconstructions are just as subject to advocacy and just as polysemous as any text has been.

More seriously, rooting authoritative revelation in a particular historical moment suggests that those groups not participating in that moment are somehow less worthy than those who do. Just such an assumption has undergirded the second-class status assigned to women by Christian patriarchy, for, so one argument goes, since Jesus chose twelve men as his disciples, women should not now be ordained as priests or ministers. While feminist reconstructions have done much to explode the patriarchal myth of women’s marginality in early Christianity, the underlying assumption that historical participation is a necessary prerequisite for full status in the present has not really been challenged. Hence, other groups who cannot reconstruct their historical participation (as, for example, certain racial groups, homosexuals, handicapped people,25 etc.) still face disenfranchisement. Unless male and female are seen to be the most basic categories of existence and thus, establishing the presence of both in the formative history of Judaism or Christianity empowers all people of whatever other identity groups, retaining the importance of historical participation will inevitably continue to relegate some people to marginal status.

Finally, from the perspective of Protestant feminists, reconstructions of the leadership roles of women in early Christianity, although adding vital elements to our formerly solely patriarchal picture of early Christianity, does not address the pressing question of how to work with biblical texts as they stand, considering their central function in Protestant worship and religious formation. Furthermore, in excavating the text for history, reconstructions by-pass, and consequently fail to explain the curious dynamic experienced even by many feminists: reading admittedly androcentric, occasionally misogynous, texts can still fill women with the passion for and vision of liberation. How is it that texts that negate the experience of women and define them as "other" are also texts that women continue to wish to claim as their own — and not out of ignorance but out of the realization that they have actually experienced these "negative" texts as liberating? Raising this last point suggests another direction for a feminist response to scripture, not as a substitute for historical reconstruction but as an additional alternative to it: the exploration of gender in relation to the reading of texts.

Gender and Reading

Various analyses of what is involved in the whole process of reading have dominated the debates in literary-critical circles during the last decade as interest in so-called "audience-oriented" or "reader-response" criticism has grown.26 Feminist literary criticism, beginning in this country in the early 1970’s with Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, has now entered those debates by raising the question of the relation of gender to reading. Although the "canon" of literature faced by feminist literary critics is rather more malleable than the one faced by feminist biblical critics, many of the same issues (e.g., the invisibility of women writers, misogynous characterization, and thoroughly androcentric texts) arise in both. Indeed, the stages through which feminist literary criticism has developed since the early 1970’s reveal a striking correspondence to feminist biblical interpretation. Elaine Showalter suggests that three stages in the progression of feminist literary criticism can be perceived:27 the first stage "concentrated on exposing the misogyny of literary practice"28 both in its negative, stereotypical image of women and in its assumption of women’s lesser status as writers and critics. From Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible to Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex to collections of essays on the plight of women throughout church history, like Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Religion and Sexism to analyses of the textual violence against women in the Bible, like Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, one of the earliest and continuing tasks of feminists in religion has been to document the overwhelming misogyny of Western religious traditions.

For feminist literary criticism the second phase "was the discovery that women writers had a literature of their own, whose historical and thematic coherence, as well as artistic importance, had been obscured by. . . patriarchal values. . .29 The recovery of the tradition of women as writers was and remains one of the most important contributions of feminist literary critics. This reconstruction of women’s literary tradition parallels the discovery and reconstruction of women’s leadership roles in the birth and development of Judaism and Christianity, the current predominant feminist response to religious patriarchy. For many literary critics, establishing the roots and tradition of female literature remains the most vital contribution feminist scholars can make to the battle against patriarchy. For others, however, although such reconstituting of the literary universe must be pursued as far as possible, the end result will still be unsatisfying because patriarchal values and institutions not only ignored the women who did write, they actually prevented many talented women from writing at all. Similarly, after every fleeting hint in scripture of the historical role of women in biblical times has been tracked down and every story involving women characters has been explicated, the sum total will still be only one coin in ten,30 the other nine manifesting the androcentric economy. Patriarchy and misogyny are not simply textual entities; they were and are cultural, social realities that fix definite limits to the participation and power of women in every age, including our own.

Given the finite limits of historical reconstructions, a third phase of feminist literary criticism has recently begun that demands "not just the recognition of women’s writing but a radical rethinking of the conceptual grounds of literary study, a revision of the accepted theoretical assumptions about reading and writing that have been based entirely on male literary experiences."31 I am proposing the need for just such a phase of radical revisioning of the accepted assumptions concerning scriptural interpretation and authority in feminist religious circles. Feminist revision, in Adrienne Rich’s words, is "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction."32 One such "new critical direction" is reading the old androcentric texts of the Bible as women, out of the experience of being women in a patriarchal world. The texts themselves are not discarded nor are they used only as mines for a few precious glimpses of women’s history; they are rather to be re-read from a new perspective, that of women reading as women. Much recent feminist literary criticism has been charting the course for this kind of revisioning by exploring the relation of gender and reading.33

Such revisioning begins with the insight that readers make meaning. Scripture never has — nor ever could — interpret itself. Claims of that kind have been used to mask the institutional biases of authorized interpretations. Even the history of modern biblical research reveals the degree to which various scriptural interpretations are colored by the concerns and predispositions of each interpreter.34 While one may wish to take a moderating position that views the meaning of a text as the interaction of reader and text rather than simply the action of the reader,35 it nevertheless remains obvious that readers propose the meanings of texts which other groups of readers must then evaluate for themselves. That those evaluations occasionally result in a consensus of opinion indicates a second major aspect of the reading process: readers do not make meanings ex nihilo. Readers in every age are controlled to some degree in the meanings they construe by the dominant conventions of reading and writing governing the period.36

Moreover, these conventions, usually absorbed during each person’s educational and cultural development, are rarely discussed openly; they are rather the conventional "frames" orienting all other intellectual intercourse and are often referred to as one’s critical "sensibility" or "taste." They guide the way writers of an age write and readers of an age read, if they wish to be judged as good writers or perceptive readers. Realism, historical consciousness, and objectivity are conventions that have shaped modern discourse in the last two centuries, although objectivity is finally beginning to fade under the attack of psychoanalytic and Marxist ideological suspicion. It is also evident that conventions shift from age to age so that what passed as reliable and intelligible discourse in one period may be rejected by another. The striking demise of allegorical interpretation since the Enlightenment is a prime example of such a shift. Yet, both the intricate four-fold allegorical method of the medieval period and the historical-critical method of the Enlightenment are conventions of reading quite foreign to the periods in which most of the biblical texts were written.37 Consequently, while it might be possible to reconstruct some of the conventions governing the writing and reading/hearing process of Hellenistic literature and thus gain some insight concerning how the New Testament texts, for example, might have been read/heard by their earliest audiences,38 such a procedure has not been the major concern of religious establishments for the very good reason that the biblical texts are assumed to have contemporary rather than simply antiquarian relevance.39 So every age has seen in the biblical texts the reflections of their own concerns, issues, and dilemmas.

The realization that readers make meanings acts to relativize all interpretations of biblical texts and should allow women to reread them as women in open challenge to the dominant androcentric or patriarchal readings of the establishment. Only, unfortunately, it is not that easy. Though many of the conventions molding the writing and reading processes of various ages have indeed altered, at least one convention has stubbornly resisted change: the view that the ideal reader and the ideal writer are always male. Feminist literary critics by raising the issue of gender in relation to the conventions of reading have demonstrated the dramatic power of "male as norm" on the history of Western literature and on the generations of women schooled in its image.40 Since the male has been presented as normal and universal with the female as marginal and deviant, women have been forced to learn male language and identify — against themselves — with the male experience. As Judith Fetterley argues:

Though one of the most persistent of literary stereotypes is the castrating bitch, the cultural reality is not the emasculation of men by women but the immasculation of women by men. As readers and teachers and scholars, women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of whose central principles is misogyny.41

The long-term effects of the immasculation process on women, Fetterley asserts, "is self-hatred and self-doubt"; "Intellectually male, sexually female, one is in effect no one, nowhere, immasculated."42 What is true of the Western literary tradition is even more true of the Western religious tradition. That the biblical texts are overwhelmingly androcentric forces women to identify with a male perspective (e.g. Jacob getting Leah when he wanted Rachel; David wanting Bathsheba and plotting the demise of Uriah; Jesus choosing twelve men as disciples, etc.) in order simply to follow the story-line; we must, in other words, imagine ourselves as male in order to fulfill the conventional role of reader. In the case of scripture the underlying message is that to be addressed by God, to be a full member of the divinely created universal order, we must pretend we are male and consequently pretend that we are not female.

Since the immasculation process begins with the earliest experiences of reading and culture, women must now consciously work to exorcise "the male mind that has been implanted in us."43 The first step in the feminist radical re-reading of scripture is, then, to become a resisting, suspicious reader, to refuse to agree to the "male as norm" role assigned to the reader by androcentric conventions. Because the male identity has been so thoroughly embedded in our experience, accomplishing this first step will require women to help each other read together in a new way, naming the androcentric perspective each time it appears and hence freeing ourselves to see it for what it is. Such an action assumes theologically that revelation and authority do not occur in the Bible, nor did they occur once upon a time in some historical past; rather, revelation and thus authority come now in the present experience of the believer, who with others begins the task of re-visioning the past in order to live as a full human being in the present and in the future.

Can the response many feminists have had of experiencing liberation in androcentric biblical texts be explained by the immasculation process? Surely, some of it can, for by submerging our female reality and identifying with the male, we can, like Moses, lead our people to freedom or we can, like the disciples in Matthew, receive the commission to spread the gospel to the world. However, I suspect there is more to this response than immasculation alone accounts for. If androcentrism assumes male as universal, feminism in rejecting that assumption must be careful not to reject the universal as part of female experience as well. As Sandra Gilbert has pointed out, feminism and humanism should not "be mutually contradictory terms."44 Some androcentric texts — not all — clearly do touch authentic human desires and experiences: hopes for liberation, love, companionship, integrity, justice, and peace — what Patrocinio Schweichart calls the "utopian vision." These "male texts merit a dual hermeneutic: a negative hermeneutic that discloses their complicity with patriarchal ideology, and a positive hermeneutic that recuperates the utopian moment.

Thus, the second step in the feminist radical re-reading of scripture in the case of some, not all, biblical texts is to retrieve the genuinely liberational ideology that gives to them their basic emotional power. In order to perform this hermeneutic of recuperation, certain reading strategies may prove useful. Schweichart proposes that feminists use role reversal in reading some texts. Imagining Jesus and the twelve as women and a man anointing her head with oil (Mark 14:3-9) gives an entirely different, almost satiric, feel to Mark’s story, suggesting perhaps that a heavier sexual stereotyping underlies the episode than one might suspect at first reading. Alternatively, substituting a female synagogue leader and a female prostitute for the Pharisee and tax-collector in Luke’s parable (Luke 18:9-14) alters the story’s emotional effect and point not at all, providing an insight into its more universal claims. Other such strategies will need to be worked out as women re-read biblical texts as women.

Entering biblical texts from a new critical direction founded on a conscious understanding of both the thoroughly androcentric nature of the texts and the freedom of women as readers to make their own meanings provides another option in addition to historical reconstruction for Jewish and Christian feminists, and perhaps especially for Protestant feminists, to deal with their scriptural traditions. It has the advantage of being a way to work with the texts themselves, acknowledging their patriarchal disposition but resisting their destructive marginalizing of women while at the same time attempting to retrieve the utopian or truly liberational ideology embodied in them. It is, anyway, a place to begin.



1. Elaine Showalter, "Toward a Feminist Poetics" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) 141.

2. See Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983) 343-51; and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).

3. Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms as formulated in the Smalcald Articles, as translated and cited in W. G. Kummel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, trans. S. Gilmour and H. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972) 20.

4. On the problems with ordination, see Sara Maitland, A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).

5. For example, United Methodist clergy are members of their conference and Presbyterian clergy are part of their presbytery; neither are members of the congregations they serve.

6. See the discussion of this practice and its downfall, first in the Bay Colony in 1691, and then elsewhere in New England in N. Q. Hamilton, Recovery of the Protestant Adventure (New York: Seabury Press, 1981) 16-23.

7. Ibid. 10-15.

8. Hamilton argues that the division between private and public understandings of the church’s mission is the single most enervating controversy in Protestantism; see ibid. 1-5. The pervasive influence and danger to North American culture generally from our passion for individualism, when what we need are communal solutions to pressing social problems, has been superbly analyzed in Robert I3ellah, Richard Madsen, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

9. See the excellent discussion of the losses and gains of women in the Reformation in Jane Dempsey Douglass, "Women and the Continental Reformation" in R. Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) 292-318.

10. Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, to name but three, have contributed extensive foundational work of great diversity, clarity, and depth.

11. Certainly Sallie McFague and Letty Russell in theology and Phyllis Trible in biblical studies have provided major feminist studies.

12. "It is the Word of God that is to determine an article of faith — nothing else, not even an angel." In Luther’s Diet of Worms address as cited in Kummel 21.

13. For a discussion of the relation of the Protestant Reformation to the beginnings of biblical historical-critical scholarship, see ibid. 20-39.

14. See the recent discussion of the issue of authority in James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980).

15. Recovery of the Protestant Adventure 3.

16. It was the Protestant need to have the New Testament continue to speak to the present coupled with the recognition of its deeply mythological nature that influenced Rudolf Bultmann to develop his de-mythologizing program; see R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribners, 1958).

17. This wonderful phrase was coined by Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982) 119.

18. For a good discussion of these issues in relation to the Western literary canon, see Lillian S. Robinson, "Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 105-121.

19. It was with these thoughts that I concluded an earlier article on the Bible and feminism; see "Defining the Problem: The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics," Semeia 28 (1983) 113-26.

20. The major reconstruction for early Christianity would be E. Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her.

21. Ibid. 33-36.

22. The use of the historical-critical method may not be totally advantageous, for feminists have yet to evaluate carefully what patriarchal assumptions may lie behind certain aspects of this method (for example, its adversarial nature, in which one proves one is right by showing everyone else to be wrong).

23. See, e.g., Joachim Jeremias’s claim that recovering the words of Jesus was the only way to "invest our message with full authority" in The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribner’s, 1963) 9.

24. Actually Luther himself rather doubted the authority, both historical and theological, of four New Testament books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), thus beginning a Protestant tradition of seeing a "canon within the canon;" see the discussion in Kümmel 23-26.

25. The issue of handicapped people in relation to the New Testament is difficult: people with physical and mental disabilities are numerous in New Testament stories, but their affiliation with Jesus in the gospels is always indicated by their healing. What, then, of handicapped people who are not healed, who are still blind, deaf, and mute? What is their relation to Christianity?

26. Two excellent collections of essays covering the broad spectrum of audience-oriented criticisms are S. R. Suleiman and I. Crosman, eds., The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) and J. P. Tompkins, Reader-Response-Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

27. The following discussion is drawn from F. Showalter, "Introduction: The Feminist Critical Revolution" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 5-10.

28. Ibid. 5.

29. Ibid. 6.

30. See the use of this parable in P. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 200-202.

31. Showalter, "Introduction" 8.

32. Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision, College English 34 (1972) 18.

33. The importance of gender issues for reader-response critics may be seen in the interesting discussion of I. Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982) 43-64. New articles are constantly appealing in the area of gender and reading. Recent anthologies in E. A. Flynn and P. P. Schweickart, eds., Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); N. K. Miller, ed., The Poetics of Gender (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); and J. Spector, ed., Gender Studies, New Directions in Feminist Criticism (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986).

34. See, e.g., the modern history of parable scholarship in relationship to the specific interests and backgrounds of the scholars themselves, as discussed in N. Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 89-181.

35. Among audience-oriented critics, such a position would be represented by a critic like Wolfgang Iser (see, e.g., his The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978]). Although such a position makes practical sense, it is very difficult to argue theoretically, for in Iser’s case one must argue that a text is both determined and undetermined at the same time. Holding both poles together is almost impossible, so that Iser’s theory tends to alternate between a text-centered perspective and a reader-centered perspective, as many of his critics have pointed out (see, e.g., Culler, On Deconstruction, 75-76).

36. For theoretical and practical discussions of the importance of conventions, see J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975) 113-160; idem, On Deconstruction 31-83. and S. Mailoux, Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

37. Actually, allegorical interpretations probably bore a closer similarity to the typical and universalistic formulations of Hellenistic literature than the particular and historical conventions of contemporary discourse.

38. For an attempt to accomplish this type of literary-historical analysis, see my Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

39. Some modern experiences of reading the Bible might be clarified, however, by comparison with ancient conventions. For example, I have wondered whether the difference between the dominant ancient convention of using totally reliable narrators and the dominant modem convention, fostered by the modern novel and psychological character development, of using unreliable narrators and shifting points of view might predispose modern readers of the Bible to "hear" those texts as more authoritative and infallible than other stories they read.

40. See, especially, E. Showalter, "Women and the Literary Curriculum," College English 32 (1971) 855-62; idem, "Towards a Feminist Poetics"; and J. Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

41. The Resisting Reader xx.

42. Ibid. xxi, xxii.

43. Ibid. xxii.

44. "What Do Feminist Critics Want? A Postcard from the Volcano" in F. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 32.

45. P. P. Schweickart, "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading" in E. A. Flynn and P. P. Schweickart, eds.. Gender and Reading 43-44.