This post was originally a discussion paper for my Feminist Theology 2 class in my PhD work.
The Bible has long been called “The Word of God”. Often included in the discussion are descriptors such as as “infallible”, “divinely inspired”, “perfect” and “only”. But for Christian Feminists, accepting the Bible as the only word of God, or the infallible record of those divinely inspired causes pain and exclusion, and raises more questions.
The Bible has often been used to oppress women. Ranging from exclusion from church leadership to domestic abuse, certain selections are held up in defense of androcentric and even evil choices of the human patriarchy and tradition in the place of power. We have, in our churches, decided that the passages dealing with multiple wives and slavery are clearly no longer applicable in today’s society. However, these same churches struggle to deal relevantly with homosexuality, violence, and the role of women. The Church must stop assigning cultural acceptance or dismissal to only certain parts of the Bible. Either we interpret it all through the lens of what is freeing, loving and life-giving, or we do not. Either we state that all of the Bible is the product of the world that it reflects, which is not the world we live in, or we do not. Many modern Christians are trying to pick and choose the passages that defend their positions, as un-Christlike as they may be, while dismissing others on the basis of history. This double-standard of Biblical reading and interpretation cannot be allowed to continue in our churches.
Sandra Schneiders reminds us in her essay that language is a “human phenomenon” (38). And as such, the Bible is inherently human. She writes “Because the text is human language giving voice to human experience of God in Christ, as well as to the experience of the early community in all its weakness and sinfulness, the text, even though it is inspired….is as capable of error distortion, and even sinfulness as the church itself” (49). The modern Church’s and modern Christians’ inability to recognize the above leads to harmful teachings and beliefs on women in leadership (in the church and civic lives), the gender (or lack thereof) of God, and the inferiority of women. This continues into oppression of other groups, including homosexual men and women and minority races.
As a language construct, Word of God is a metaphor. Much of what happens in the Bible is a metaphor, or a parable. That is, words or stories spoken to impart meaning and message, rather than to be taken a literal truth. Many Evangelical Christians hold that the Bible is literally, rather than metaphorically, true. Schneiders writes “The idolatrous result of this literalization can be traced through church history in the patriarchalization of Christian faith” (39). She reminds us that “Obviously, God does not literally speak, but the metaphor word of God certainly intends meaning. Its referent, what it points to is the entire domain of reality that we call divine revelation that is, the self-disclosure of God as it is perceived and received by human beings” (39). Revelation requires interaction between God and people. It is again this human element that cannot be considered untainted or infallible.
All language must also be interpreted. We interpret, as I often tell my students in choreography, based on what we bring with us. The audience’s own past experiences and biases influence what they see and hear. Even what they ate or didn’t eat, and the events of the day, before coming into the theatre influence what they view and, ultimately, what they interpret. Every audience member sees a slightly different dance, a slightly different play. It is tied up in their own personal, embodied experiences. No playwright or choreographer can ever fully know how their work will be received, a point that Schneiders makes about Biblical texts (48).
Schneiders writes, “Essentially, interpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). It is this evanescence that I love about live art. No performance is ever the same. It is why actors and dancers can continue to “do the same thing” for 8 shows a week- it is never the same, because the energy shared between audience and performers is always different. In the same way, we encounter texts differently. We can reread the same passage at different points in our lives and discover different meanings, based on personal experiences and experiencing it with the people around us. Schneiders reminds us that this is important because “...it implies that a text does not have one right meaning…” and that “...meaning is not ‘in’ the text, but occurs in the interaction between text and reader…” (47). Importantly, “the reader makes a genuine contribution to the meaning rather than being simply a passive consumer of prefabricated meaning” (48). It is this act of interpretation that gives hope to me as a Christian feminist. The meaning of the texts lie with us. We are responsible for researching, communicating and embodying meaning from the Scriptures that is inclusive, life-giving and freeing. We can accept the Bible as a human construct of communication with the Divine. In it we can see other human interpretations, and bring our own. And we can, ultimately, determine its meaning in our lives.
Schneiders, Sandra M. (1993) "The Bible and Feminism: Biblical Theology" in Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins.