BY ELIZABETH SEGRAN
I recently visited the Tate Britain. In one of the galleries, I chanced upon a trilogy of paintings by George Fredric Watts that presents a complex portrayal of Eve. Painted in 1897, they are a stunning burst of color and light, depicting the female form in all of its beauty. In one painting, titled, “She shall be called Woman,” Eve is rising up from the earth, amidst billowing clouds. The two other paintings recount her fall from grace. In “Eve Tempted,” Eve is shown greedily consumed by her desire for the forbidden fruit, while in “Eve Repentant” she is seen crumpled in a corner, unable to show her face.
It occurred to me that the Eve Trilogy encapsulates some of the tensions between the church and the feminist movement. While the painting is virtuosic and aesthetically pleasing, it also conveys the somber message that woman is singlehandedly responsible for the Fall. This is the same narrative that the church has used to justify misogynistic practices for centuries. The narrative goes something like this: Woman gave into temptation, therefore woman is responsible for God’s wrath against mankind and she must, at the very least, be eternally relegated to her role as child bearer. Some have taken it further, arguing that women are a dangerous force and must be subjugated so that they do not cause further devastation.
This message was articulated explicitly by some of church’s fathers. Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”The Fathers of the Church – A New Translation, Volume 32, St Augustine Letters (204-270), trans. Sr Wilfrid Parsons, S. N. D. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc, 1956): Letter 243. Martin Luther was equally harsh towards women, writing, “If (women) become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there.”Davidson, Lisa Wilson. Preaching the Women of the Bible. (Chalice Press: 2006), 122. These are not obscure theologians, but figures who were central to the establishment of the modern church.
Understandably, feminists have taken on the church as an enemy. They have argued that the church’s misogynistic ideologies have been deployed to reinforce many forms of women’s subjugation. The key feminist texts have made reference to Christianity’s woman-hating tendencies. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969) both condemn the Bible as one of the founding texts of patriarchy. Even now, as the culture wars rage on, new conflicts arise between the church and the feminist movement. Recent battles have included the issues of abortion, contraception, and women’s place in family life.
I am interested in whether Christianity and feminism really are contradictory belief systems. At the outset, I would like to point out that it is easy to disingenuously cut and paste a range of conflicting ideas for the sake of appearing politically correct. I have no intention of doing this here. I simply ask whether mainstream Christianity is inherently misogynistic.
Much of this debate boils down to definitions. In the midst of the heated crossfire, there is often a lot of vagueness about what each party means by Christianity or Feminism (with a capital F). While these are multifarious ideologies, I think there are some basic definitions that can be agreed upon.
Protestant Christians generally subscribe to the Nicene Creed, which postulates basic beliefs about the historical figure of Jesus: his divinity, his death, and his eventual resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Additionally, Christians take the Bible to be their formative text. While many denominations assert that the Bible is inerrant, the extent to which differences in culture should be allowed to influence interpretation remains an open question.
Feminism is a response to deep-rooted social systems and ideologies that subjugate women. As such, it claims that women’s labor, their social relationships, their sexuality and the way they are represented in the media need to be reconsidered. Feminists disagree about what exactly counts as oppression and how this oppression should be countered; but as a group, feminists desire equality between the genders. As a fundamental concept, this is quite compatible with Christianity: Galatians 3:28 directly states that the sexes are equal under Christ.
Now we can consider areas of conflict. The majority of misogynistic beliefs based on the Bible have to do with the Old Testament and, as we have already seen, the figure of Eve. The church fathers who presented devastating attacks on womankind were offering a particular reading of Scripture. Every interpretation of the Bible is inevitably informed by culture and these offending authors were writing at a time when misogyny was mainstream. But I would argue that their interpretation is particularly flawed because they fail to distinguish between descriptions of women and prescriptions about how men and women should relate to one another. A negative portrayal of a woman does not warrant misogyny. Indeed, most male heroes in the Bible are deeply flawed, yet we are not encouraged to hate them.
When we move away from these second-hand sources and examine the text itself, we see that Jesus’ own interactions with women were far from patriarchal. He had several non-sexual relationships with female friends (Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene), whom he treated with respect and compassion. The Bible recounts him engaging with these women intellectually as well as emotionally: he often questioned the women’s positions and urged them to see things differently. The Gospel of John even recounts Jesus’ conversation with a lower-class, promiscuous Samaritan woman – a person whom Jesus treats with the utmost respect and love and through whom he brings an entire city to believe (John 4:1-42). He also defended another woman caught in adultery, pointing out the guilt of the men who desired to stone her (John 8:1-11). Throughout the Gospels, we see that his treatment of women was not so different from his treatment of men except for the fact that he only commissioned men to be his disciples. Still, women were much more central to the resurrection narrative: while men betrayed Jesus in his time of need, women stood by him as he was crucified, attended to his burial needs, and were the first to encounter his resurrected self.
In his preaching, Jesus did not present an extensive analysis of gender relations. However, in the Sermon on the Mount, he denounced adultery and called for men to be judicious when calling for divorce (Matt. 5:27-32). These positions are particularly helpful to women, who are more affected by infidelity in societies where they are financially dependent on men. (This is true today in developing countries.) Jesus makes small steps toward claiming rights for women. His behavior and words are at odds with the extreme misogyny articulated by Augustine and Luther.
It is important to remember that the Bible was written centuries before feminism emerged, at a time when patriarchy was normative. Given the culture in which it was written, the Bible radically usurped patriarchal values. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, younger sons are favored instead of the firstborn: consider Jacob and Esau, Joseph, King David, or even the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Also, monogamy is consistently upheld over polygamy, which was commonly practiced throughout the ancient Near East. Paul asserted monogamous marriage to be the norm, even relating it to Christ’s relationship to the church (Eph. 5:21-33).
While the Bible sheds some light on gender, I think we must acknowledge that it does not offer answers to every contentious issue in the modern context. The Bible has no explicit directives on contraception and abortion, for instance. On these thorny issues, Christians must rely on a code of ethics derived from a holistic interpretation of the Bible, rather than on specific injunctions. Christians have made persuasive arguments against abortion. Conversely, many Christians support the pro-choice position because they believe that outlawing abortions drives them underground – and illegal abortions are more life-threatening to women than legal ones. Ultimately, many of these decisions must be made on the basis of personal conviction rather than religious ideology. It would be helpful to all parties if we recognized that we must sometimes make moral judgments on the basis of wisdom and reason rather than direct prescriptions from the Bible.
Much of the church’s current animosity towards feminism comes from its suspicion of the sexual liberation movement of the 1970s. The movement encouraged women to take back their sexuality, which had previously been controlled by men, by being promiscuous and openly sexual. This outlook has been a central feature of the feminist movement for some time. However, feminists themselves are beginning to rethink their views on sexuality. There has recently been a spate of feminist books on how the hypersexualization of modern culture is disempowering to women. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, Wendy Shalit’s Girls Gone Mild, and Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked argue that for years, women believed that having casual, uncommitted sex would lead to their liberation, and yet practicing such a lifestyle has left women emotionally bankrupt and physically vulnerable. The research in these books indicates that many women today feel worse off after a lifetime of sexual encounters that have not given way to a committed partner.
Feminism is a work in progress. Christians should align themselves with those who seek gender equality so that they can actively contribute to the movement, instead of merely shouting criticisms from the sidelines.