It was 1851, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio that a former slave stepped up to the platform and became one of the most powerful voices for Abolitionism and Women’s Rights of the era. Her chosen instrument of liberation? The Bible. Without any historical, literary, or hermeneutical expertise she discovered in its pages a message that would turn a male-dominated culture on its head. As she declared in that famous “Ain’t I a Woman ” speech,
“…that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
Some may dismiss this as simply one voice crying out in the wilderness, but these are exactly the kinds of voices that the Bible schools its readers to listen to. The God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf. But to read a recent piece by Emmanuel Christian Seminary professor Christopher Rollston, one would hardly know that the God of the Bible had anything but evil in mind for women.
Before enrolling at Emmanuel School of Religion (the seminary’s previous name) ourselves, we attended Milligan, a small liberal arts college just across the street. It was here that a wise professor of philosophy taught us to call into question the language of “values.” Anybody can have “values” that don’t actually play out in the way that one lives life. More interesting are virtues and vices, the patterns of excellence and corresponding deficiencies of character that one shapes and learns in the course of one’s life. There are virtues appropriate to particular areas of living, virtues of general moral character, and intellectual virtues. Among this last group was the virtue of intentional listening, which our professor taught us was the willingness and patient capability not to take written and spoken language as pre-text for one’s own performance but as the articulated shape of another human being’s soul.
We point this out because a text like Rollston’s makes listening hard. As far as we can tell, his article seeks to reduce the Bible to something which simply degrades, excludes, and silences women. Even worse, because it is a ‘holy book’ it gives such mistreatment divine sanction. In making his case for the moral bankruptcy of the Bible Rollston seems uninterested in listening either to those he calls the ‘exceptional voices’ of Scripture (one of whom he identifies as the Apostle Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament) nor to the long and diverse history of Biblical interpretation which surrounds those texts he criticizes. He also chooses not to give voice to those alternative interpretations concerning women that are by no means novel but which have followed the Bible across the centuries as Rabbis, theologians, and ordinary folk have grappled with these sacred texts. Despite the fact that Rollston is himself seminary-educated and privy to the many ways the Bible has been understood throughout the ages, he seems to want us to believe that “what the Bible says” about women amounts to only what the most trenchant fundamentalists would today take to be its meaning. While Rollston believes he is showing us what some of the Biblical authors originally intended in their writings (and attempts such as this are important) in any tradition as rich as Christianity or Judaism speaking for these “original” voices amounts to speaking for only a few – even if an important few – among many. The Bible itself is a collection of voices expressed through innumerable stories, literary forms, and linguistic devices many of whom give voice to the dignity and integrity of women and other marginalized persons. Rollston seems uninterested in these other voices, however. He seems more concerned in perpetuating an especially constrictive (and ugly) debate about “what the bible says,” the rules of which have been drafted between fundamentalists and those who regard fundamentalist readings the only ones worth mentioning. If Rollston’s essay seeks for possibilities other than this, none of us have the power to discern them here.
The pity of such broad omissions is in the riches that Rollston discards. If only he could recall some of the readings that he most surely picked up along the way he might remember that some of the earliest stirrings of what would afterwards be called feminism happened through people’s engagement with the Bible. He might recall the strong mix of Roman and Biblical imagery that lent Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Defense of the Rights of Woman” its power. He might give a thought to the Quaker women who boldly stepped forward to preach the very Bible that Rollston blames for the oppression of women (they did not do so disingenuously). For that matter, he might remember that the early Church, Old Testament and all, was sneered at as a religion for slaves and women. These observations might lend a bit more nuance to his broadside.
To mention such examples is not an attempt to whitewash the history of Christian (or Jewish or Islamic) biblical interpretation. Throughout its long and complex history the Bible most certainly has been used to justify the marginalization of women. There are many scriptural texts that have been appealed to time and again to sanction male superiority and justify exclusion. And yet it is only historically responsible to note that this same text has, time and again, also been one of the most important sources for resistance to this same mistreatment. To borrow a term from the philosophy of history, the Bible has often if not always been part of a dialectic, moving in the name of the God who would order the world and at once moving in the spirit of a God who would take a stand in behalf of the oppressed. It was slave-owners who used the Bible to salve their consciences, and it was slaves and women who turned to the Bible as a guide and inspiration for social change.
Rollston may of course respond that he was not speaking of the history of Biblical interpretation but only of those specific texts in their original historical contexts. The question remains, however, when speaking of issues of such vital importance as the place of women in the Bible, is such a limited reading ultimately adequate? Would we, for example, consider this same kind of reading of The Declaration of Independence to be fair? Rollston accuses the Bible of being “written by men and for men.” Could not the same be said of that founding document of the American republic? Its enshrined declaration that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was certainly not intended by its authors to apply to women and slaves, and yet this document stands today as one of defining texts for modern liberty and equality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just to cite one memorable example, grabbed hold of that document’s powerful phrases (and those of the Bible) to combat the injustices perpetrated in his own day. Rather than dismiss the Declaration as a document by slave-owners for the sake of slave-owners, King (among others) saw in the document a spiritual force, one that could turn against even its original situation for the sake of a better America.
If one were to ask how The Declaration of Independence should be evaluated concerning the question of women’s rights certainly one would find it necessary to consider how it actually has been used throughout its history of reception and interpretation. One would need to ask how this document was read as part of a tradition of law and a history of social change. How did it come to be read differently amidst changing conceptions of personhood? It would also be important to recognize that this document, while “foundational” and “normative,” is also “living” for what it is believed to say grows and changes as part of the history of those people who are committed to it. Generations turn over texts like The Declaration of Independence and The Bible as they are presented with new challenges and discover in them new possibilities and new self-understandings. That is in part what makes these texts exceptional.
What we find lacking in Rollston’s comments is not only a willingness to listen to history but also to theology. For persons of faith the Bible is always read as part of a larger collection of beliefs, actions, and ways of life. Certainly there are those who neglect this larger picture, but they do so at the expense of intellectual breadth. Rollston seems to assume that reading the Bible by separating it from its context of faith and speaking of it as an isolated artifact is the only way that’s worth mentioning. But surely this is questionable. Approaching a text that people claim to be holy because it is an important part of their lived relationship with God, and then reading it by bracketing out this relationship, is odd. Surely the faithful’s confessions as to the nature of God should be taken into consideration when interpreting texts that are attributed to him. For example, when asking whether “the Bible marginalizes women” certainly it is also important to ask, “And what does the God of the Bible charge us to do concerning those who are marginalized?” The answer to this is one that anyone who has spent time in Sunday School should be able to answer. This response, of course, doesn’t get the Bible off the hook, but it certainly shows that the matter is much more complex than whether the Bible deserves a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” when it comes to women.
Concluding Rollston’s article we were left wondering whether Rollston had really lost sight of such basic observations in the rarefied air of specialized ancient history (he is one of the world’s leading authorities in his field) or whether his apparent ignorance was feigned. Either possibility is a painful one, an indictment of the scholarly guilds’ prominence in the life of the seminary as much as a warning in the person of Rollston. Either way, in Rollston’s article, there’s no history, and there’s no theology. But finally, there’s no reverence. And reverence (despite the fact that it is often scoffed at today) remains one of those postures that is most important for listening well. Certainly one would expect that an atheist writer like Richard Dawkins would ridicule the Bible as a litany of backward and offensive opinions. Reductivism is the modus operandi of the irreverent because it enables them to level their own best attacks against said reductionist reading. But Rollston is one of the main teachers of Old Testament at a seminary, a place dedicated to the training of Christian ministers and leaders of faith. This is a seminary in a tradition that holds the canon of Holy Writ to be not only the core of Church authority but also the primary the critiquing agent of theology, that which can call into question any doctrine or ideology or practice of the Church. Rollston’s public attack on the text of the Bible therefore amounts to a radical rejection of his very professional raison d’etre.
Throughout our theological and pastoral training at this same seminary we were schooled to understand the Bible as a complex, multi-layered, and hermeneutically “open” book. It has been subject to diverse conflicting interpretations as it has been read throughout countless cultures and historical settings. It has been appealed to for just about every cause around which people have rallied. It has been wielded by the powerful to sanction their power, but it has been upheld by the powerless as a source of strength and resistance. And yet, in all its complexity, its troublesome and awe-inspiring character, almost never have readers so readily dismissed it. What we found so disconcerting about Rollston’s essay is that it seemed to encourage such dismissiveness. He “listened” to the Bible in order to condemn it. Ultimately we found it difficult to believe this was not an effort to marginalize the Bible itself from its revered location as the central moral guide for people of faith. In doing this Rollston expresses little of that virtue which we have been speaking of and which has been so central to the cultivation of the Biblical faiths: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
[Update 9/19/2012: Nathan Perry has posted an interesting “atheist response” (his phrase) to our piece at his site. I encourage our readers to take a look.]