The Bible Beneath The Bible

"The litmus test for invoking scripture as the word of God must be whether or not biblical texts and traditions seek to end relations of domination and exploitation."

From “Bread Not Stone:
the Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation”
by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, b.1938

Feminist theology begins with the experiences of women, of women-church. In our struggle for self-identity, survival and liberation in a patriarchal society and Church, Christian women have found that the “Bible” has been used as a weapon against us but at the same time, it has been a resource for courage, hope and commitment in this struggle. Therefore, it cannot be the task of feminist interpretation to defend the Bible against its feminist critics but to understand and interpret it in such a way that its oppressive and liberating power is clearly recognised.

A feminist hermeneutics cannot trust or accept “Bible” and tradition simply as divine revelation. Rather it must critically evaluate them as patriarchal articulations, since even in the last century Sarah Grimké, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had recognised that biblical texts are not the words of God but the words of men. This insight particularises the results of historical-critical scholarship that the “Bible” is written by human authors or male authors. This critical insight of a feminist hermeneutics has ramifications not only for historical scholarship but also for our contemporary political situation because the “Bible” still functions today as a religious justification and ideological legitimisation of patriarchy.

To speak of power is to speak of political realities and struggles although we might not be conscious of this when we speak of the power of the Word. The “Bible” is not simply a religious but also a profoundly political book as it continues to inform the self-understandings of American and European ‘secularised’ societies and cultures. Feminist biblical interpretations, therefore, have a critical political significance not only for women in biblical religion but for all women in western societies.

The “Bible” is not only written in the words of men but also serves to legitimate patriarchal power and oppression in so far as it ‘renders God’“ male and determines ultimate reality in male terms, which make women invisible or marginal. The interconnection between androcentric language and patriarchal power becomes apparent when we remember that in 1850 an act of Parliament was required to prohibit the common use of they for sex-indeterminable references and legally to insist that "he" stood for "she." At a time when patriarchal oppression is on the rise again in American society and religion, the development of a feminist biblical hermeneutics is not only a theological but also a profoundly political task.

The controversies that have surrounded a feminist interpretation ever since Elizabeth Cady Stanton planned and edited “The Woman’s Bible” indicate that such a feminist challenge goes to the roots of religious patriarchal legitimisation. The recent, often violent, and seemingly irrational reactions to the “Inclusive Language Lectionary” amply prove this critical political impact of feminist biblical interpretation.

Writing in the “Washington Post,” James J. Kilpatrick makes his point succinctly: “It is probably a waste of time, energy and indignation to denounce the latest efforts to castrate the “Holy Bible,” but vandalism of this magnitude ought not to go unremarked.”

If language determines the limits of our world, then sacred androcentric, that is, grammatically masculine, language symbolises and determines our perception of ultimate human and divine reality. Those who protest an inclusive language translation as the “castration” of scripture consciously or not maintain that such ultimate reality and authority are, in the words of Mary Daly, “phallocentric.”

From its inception feminist interpretation of scripture has been generated by the fact that the “Bible” was used to halt the emancipation of slaves and women. Not only in the last century but also today patriarchal right-wing forces in society lace their attacks against women’s rights and freedoms in the political, economic, reproductive, intellectual and religious arenas with biblical quotations and appeals to scriptural authority. In countless pulpits and fundamentalist television programmes, such patriarchal attacks are proclaimed as the word of God while the feminist struggle for women’s liberation is denounced as “godless humanism” that undermines the “American family.” Yet the political right does not simply misquote or misuse the “Bible” as a Christian feminist apologetics seeks to argue. It can utilise certain scriptural texts because they are patriarchal in their original function and intention.

Feminist interpretation, therefore, begins with a hermeneutics of suspicion that applies to both contemporary androcentric interpretations of the “Bible” and the biblical texts themselves. Certain texts of the “Bible” can be used in the argument against women’s struggle for liberation not only because they are patriarchally misinterpreted but because they are patriarchal texts and therefore can serve to legitimate women’s subordinate role and secondary status in patriarchal society and church. While some of us have maintained that feminists must abandon the “Bible” and biblical religion, here I seek to argue why feminists cannot afford to do so. We have to reclaim biblical religion as our own heritage because our heritage is our power. At the same time, I insist that such a reclaiming of our heritage can only take place through a critical process of feminist assessment and evaluation.

Reclaiming the “Bible” as a feminist heritage and resource is only possible because it has not functioned only to legitimate the oppression of all women: freeborn, slave, black and white, native American, European and Asian, immigrant, poor, working-class and middle-class, Third World and First World women. It has also provided authorisation and legitimisation for women who have rejected slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, colonial exploitation and misogynism as unbiblical and against God’s will. The Bible has inspired and continues to inspire countless women to speak out and to struggle against injustice, exploitation and stereotyping. The biblical vision of freedom and wholeness still energises women in all walks of life to struggle against poverty, unfreedom and denigration. It empowers us to survive with dignity and to continue the struggle when there seems to be no hope for success.

A critical feminist hermeneutics of liberation therefore seeks to develop a critical dialectical mode of biblical interpretation that can do justice to women’s experiences of the “Bible” as a thoroughly patriarchal book written in androcentric language as well as to women’s experience of the “Bible” as a source of empowerment and vision in our struggles for liberation. Such a hermeneutics has to subject biblical texts to a dialectical process of critical readings and feminist evaluations. In order to do so, it insists that the litmus test for invoking scripture as the word of God must be whether or not biblical texts and traditions seek to end relations of domination and exploitation.

In short, if we claim that oppressive patriarchal texts are the word of God then we proclaim God as a God of oppression and dehumanisation. The question is indeed “theological” in the strictest sense of the word, requiring not only a new naming of God but also a new naming of Church and its use of scripture. Such a process of naming transforms our metaphor of scripture as “tablets of stone” on which the unchanging word of God is engraved for all times into the image of bread that nurtures, sustains, and energises women as people of God in our struggles against injustice and oppression.

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