Mapping the universe from a Christian perspective, one post at a time.
Monday, October 21, 2019
Man! What have your notions of Christianity and Women to do with Truth?
David Madison wants to know why any women remain within the Christian church. After all, the Bible is thoroughly antagonistic towards women, he claims.
Madison boasts a PhD in biblical studies from Boston University, so presumably he can do his own research. Instead, Madison rests his treatise (published on the Debunking Christianity website a few days ago) on the tattered reed of one of the most counter-factual pieces of exegetical hogwash I have ever had the guilty pleasure of defenestrating: Annie Gaylor's "Woman, What Have I to do with Thee?", a chapter in one of John Loftus' books. (Be fair, John. When you write well, as you sometimes do, I give you credit. Don't expect me to put a ribbon around a pig in a mud bath.) "The treatment of women is one the reasons John Loftus called his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. It includes an essay by Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee? Christianity’s War Against Women.” This is a solid piece of homework for putting women in their place—namely, as far away from Christianity as they can get."
Gaylor claimed that every single reference in the Bible to women treats them as either irrelevant or demonic. That inspired me to go verse-by-verse through the entire Old Testament and exegete what it actually says about women. What I found, even as a life-long reader of the Bible, amazed me. Gaylor was not even in the same galaxy as right. Numerous females throughout the Old Testament (and in the New Testament as well) play important and heroic roles. In fact, heroines strongly outnumber villainesses in the Old Testament. (I am pretty certain the percentage of women depicted as heroic is much higher than the percentage of men so depicted, though I haven't verified that in detail yet.) And not one single woman is described as "demonic," though as in real life, some women do of course take on the role of Lady MacBeth. (Tulsi Gabbard would not disagree with me about that!)
I painstakingly sifted through the entire Old Testament, book by book, quoting all important verses that I found relevant to how women were perceived. I also showed that unlike ancient Israel, in ancient Egyptian literature, the personalities of women (and men) really do seem to have been overlooked. So maybe in one respect, Gaylor was just one country off, not a whole galaxy.
I reflected again, in renewed amazement, on the absolute absurdity of some of Gaylor's claims two years ago, offering a rebuttal filled with concrete evidence from that survey.
The ridiculous assertion that OT women are all either marginal or demonic is only one example of the ludicrous claims she makes in that chapter. Gaylor even managed to portray the Wife of Noble Character in Proverbs, a smart businesswoman who is involved in charity and education on the side, as a poor, oppressed female. (Because she doesn't have time to hit the snooze button in the morning, as is true of most adults.)
Madison seems to accept Gaylor's claims without a hint of critical questioning. The Catholic leadership is "proudly, arrogantly, aggressively misogynistic," pursuing worldwide policies that "harm and degrade women." Protestants are merely more "nuanced" or clever in their fury towards women. All that reckless hatred towards half the human race flows directly from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures:
"One good place to start, in making the case to flee, is the Bible, the holy book that evangelicals now want kids to carry to school. 'I was truly shocked,' Gaylor points out, 'at what I discovered when I read the Bible cover to cover in my early twenties. "Sexism" is too breezy a term for the pathological sexual hatred to be found within the covers of a book touted as "holy." Like Nietzsche, after reading the Bible I felt the need to wash my hands.'” (p. 343)
I feel the need to wash my hands when I read Nietzsche. Indeed, Nietzsche's Zarasthustra advises:
“Do you go to women?Do not forget the whip!”
I would not trust anyone who favored the morality of Nietzsche over that of the Bible to walk my dog to the river and back safely.
Carefully reading the OT changed my mind about how women were perceived in ancient Israel.
There are difficult passages, true, about keeping wives of cities you conquer for yourselves, for instance. (Though getting killed, which happened to the men, wasn't the most wonderful option, either.) But those passages do not particularly stand out in the context of other ancient civilizations. What does stand out, is the numerous heroines: Sarah (yes, with her faults), Rebekah, Deborah, the Jewish midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and fast and fast they come at last, winning wars, saving lives, standing up against despotism and stupidity, helping to found nations.
“Between the books of Genesis, which begins the Bible, and Revelation, which concludes it, there are approximately three hundred Bible verses or stories that explicitly mandate women’s inequality, inferiority, or subservience…One does not need to be a prophet to predict how poorly women fare in the biblical scheme of justice.” (p. 345)
I'd like to see that list. Having gone through the whole Bible, apart from a few minor NT works, I don't believe this. If you are willing to cherry-pick without scruple, I suppose one could maintain that the writers of the Bible have it in for women.
Now Madison continues in his own voice:
“One of the most repellent of the antiwoman biblical themes is its refrain that women are ‘unclean.’ Women are depicted as once-a-month outcasts who menace society and must do penance for those natural functions of their bodies that ensure the continuation of the species.” (p. 346)
Oddly enough, some of the same passages also mandate cleansing for men related to "natural (sexual) functions of their bodies." Israelis were instructed to "do penance" for excretory "natural functions" by doing it outside the camp and cleaning up. Those who touched blood of animals that die naturally, also need to clean up. Did Ms. Gaylor and Pastor Madison overlook those verses? Or do only verses which apply to women imply sexual bigotry?
Either one has to conclude that God has it in for everyone who has bodily processes, or that someone held the odd notion that bodily castings might carry some harmful agent, so people should scrupulously clean up after themselves. Yes, these were also rites which imply spiritual purification, but they applied to both sexes. It is absurd to read these verses as some sort of special curse upon women.
"Thus it is the Lord himself who is offended by menstruation; that is, the male deity as imagined—and represented—by the patriarchy. This text sets the tone for the drumbeat of three hundred damaging texts."
This sets the tone for the strange blindness of these two writers. They see what they want to see, and ignore the rest. It's called cherry-picking, and it is why I am determined, in this project, to take a systematic account of the data, when possible.
"Leviticus doesn’t get much traffic. Yet the Bible remains the charter document of the Christian faith; it is an icon in most churches—on the altar, and in every home. As befits the Word of God, the Gideons have given away more than a billion copies.
"How come women haven’t tuned in to how dreadful the Bible is for their cause? Historically even they have embraced it as a holy book—as the charter document—despite minimal acquaintance with its content. John Wathey has identified the patriarchal formula for success; when cherishing holy books, he points out: “…it does not matter what they say. As long as they are perceived as imparting divinely inspired instruction and wisdom, they will evoke in readers the infantile solace and comforting emotions of a small child receiving help and instruction from a parent—the less comprehensible, the better.” (p. 133)
As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, skeptics of this ilk first deride Christianity for insulting women, then insult women themselves.
Female believers are infants. They don't know any better, and don't want to know better. Poor babies, they haven't actually read the Bible for themslves and seen how horrible it is.
Gaylor speaks of her mother, as we will see; let me say something of mine.
In her active days, Mom was deeply involved in the Bible Study Fellowship. She took her female friends to attend, delving deeply into the Word of God. She arose early in the morning with Dad and read the Bible together and prayed.
Madison must think Mom very dull. But I think Madison dull, buying into Gaylor's ridiculous claims so easily without subjecting them to a scintilla of critical questioning. The question remains what the Bible actually says, and then what impact it -- and Jesus of Nazareth, and his followers -- have had on the world. I'll take the evidence as I have found it, and make the case that Jesus has liberated billions of women around the world.
"Women: read the Bible. Men, read the Bible . . . "
Here we reach our one point of agreement.
“ . . . discover “the pathological sexual hatred.” It’s there, in that revered book on the altar."
Lots of things can be found in the Bible, especially by fanatics. But like Mom, I like to read the Bible systematically, with the life and teachings of Jesus as my chief interpretive principle.
Madison then talks about Gaylor's mother, who crusaded for abortion, and was enraged to find Christians quoting the Bible lined up on the other side. Well, yes, Christians quoting the Bible do often stand up for the innocent. Like Harriot Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, provoking the end to slavery in the United States. Like missionaries in China, fighting foot-binding and opium sales. Like founders of schools for girls in Japan and India. Terrible thing, that Christians quoting the Bible have caused such a fuss and upset the Powers-That-Be.
"Conservative Christians may scream wildly that this charge is unfair. They don’t hate women at all! They love their wives, daughters, sisters. But it’s a strange kind of love that—shall we say, paraphrasing the apostle Paul—insists on it’s own way in exercising male power over female bodies."
We "scream," do we? I guess all those women who also oppose abortion also scream, and also wish to "excersise power over female bodies?" Or maybe they're stupid, too?
Our concerns about abortion couldn't possibly have anything to do with the desire to save innocent lives? That's what we think. Given that Christians HAVE often stood up for the marginalized against the powerful, and given that many who oppose abortion seem to not only like women, but be women, is that interpretation really so far-fetched? You're in a poor state when you have to put the worst possible interpretation on the motives of those you disagree with, to make your point. Are Madison and Gaylor afraid to consider even the possibility that most who oppose abortion do so for sincere and respectable reasons? Might that possibility threaten some portion of their own hearts they do not wish to examine? I will raise those questions as questions, rather than as dogmatic assertions, as G & M do about folks on our side.
Back to Gaylor again, citing Loftus' book:
“It is absolutely vital for women’s advancement, for equality, for women’s personal safety, and women’s right to full ownership of our own bodies, to keep dogma out of law, to secularize government, to divorce state and religion.” (p.358)
We have a secular government. But its key principles were informed by Christian dogma from the beginning. Nietzsche, whom Madison quoted earlier, ought to have taught him that: it was precisely the Christian concern for the marginalized which Nietzche blamed for the weakness of western civilization, its failure to properly worship the Super Man. Madison is cutting off the very ground that he stands upon.
“The harm, the uncertainty, the panic, the denial of a constitutional right that the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentalists and their legislative spoke-persons have caused women, in just this one area of civil rights, is incalculable.” (p. 355)
Madison begins to wrap up his case by citing 19th Century feminists who disparage the impact of Christianity, such as Elizabeth Stanton:
“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded women…Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, ‘Thus saith the lord,’ of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us that as Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of the woman, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? We want to help roll from the soul of woman the terrible superstitions that have so long repressed and crushed her.” (pp. 357-358)
And in 1890, Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote:
“In order to help preserve the very life of the republic, it is imperative that women should unite on a platform of opposition to the teachings and aim of that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom—the Church.” (p. 358)
But that "enemy of freedom" was, at that very hour, laying the foundations for free institutions around the world, through the missionary movement. (Robert Woodbury shows that Missions were in fact the key factor.) Individual missionaries were offering women education after centuries or millennia of being denied, in India, China, and many other countries. Missionary doctors were healing millions. Missionary farmers were introducing new crops. Missionary statesmen were agitating against foot-binding and sari (widow-burning), forced prostitution, female infanticide, and the imprisonment of women in the home.
And these two ladies, like Madison and Gaylor, hold up their skirts and skip away. "I see NUUUUTHING!" As Sargeant Shultz put it.
"The carefully groomed (and false) image of savior Jesus is one root of 'the terrible superstitions that have so long repressed and crushed her,' and misogynistic theologians have done their part to create 'that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom—the Church.' But is anything worth putting up with, to get in on the grand prize, eternal life? It would seem so. From the inside, it’s hard to recognize magical thinking, especially as learned from preachers and parents. Hence we see women doing their darndness to become priests. Given the history of the church and its charter documents, go figure."
History is complicated. You'll find villains in every group. But as a generalization, this version gets things exactly backwards.
"Let’s get back to Jesus for a moment. The title of Gaylor’s essay is actually a Jesus quote, sort of. The text is John 2:4, when Jesus is with his mother at the Cana wedding feast; she tells him that the wine has run out. He responds ,“Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?” That’s the King James Version, and it sounds rude. But it’s a tough line to render into English; the Greek reads, literally, “And says to her Jesus what to me and to you woman.” The New RSV reads, “And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” No surprise, to tone down the rudeness, the paraphrase version, The Message Bible, reads, “Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine?” Woman becomes mother.
"But the blunt King James Version that Gaylor used for her title does reflect basic Bible attitudes: “Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?” This is a putdown. The men of the Bible—and the men who push Bible authority relentlessly—have endorsed the “pathological sexual hatred.” Both the women and the men of the world can do without it now."
Jesus called his mother "woman" once. Man, what a terrible thing to say! And if we make use of a misleading old translation, why the resulting quote epitomizes the uh, case that uh, Gaylor has made . . .
Woman! And man! What have either of you to do with a dispassionate, fair-minded search for truth?