Feminist faith

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Words || Emma Jackson

“God is mother-sister just as much as father-son”
– Robin Mann, 1991

The Bible and religion have been a vehicle for justification and construction of a misogynist society throughout history. The example I find funniest of how the Bible is used to shape young women’s perception of their bodies and purpose is a YouTube channel that has videos detailing how to wear makeup in a God-honouring way and modest summer outfit ideas. Appropriate femininity tied in a neat bow by a cherry-picked Bible verse.

This image of a God-honouring woman never resonated with me- surely God valued me as more than how I wore makeup or that my butt was never displayed in too-tight jeans. At least that is what my parents told me, that my actions mattered more than my appearance. Even so, I still struggled with passages in the Bible that showed Jesus telling women the appropriate behaviour.

I have always felt confused by the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-40. Essentially the story is that Jesus is invited into the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha bustles around as host while Mary sits and talks with Jesus, but when Martha asks in frustration why Jesus doesn’t care that Mary had left all the work to her, Jesus replies that Mary had made a better decision by listening to him rather than busy herself with work. The story had always been confusing to me as it seems to go against a core value of Christianity, that of hospitality. I was also annoyed because I am often Martha in this scenario, and I have always been told that it is the correct role, not just by the Bible but by other books I read as a child.

My parents were also quite good at filtering the media we consumed as children, but something that slipped through was my near obsession with the series The Baby-Sitters Club. Mum actually had a meeting with my Year 4 teacher about her concern that I was reading nothing other than every Baby-Sitters Club book I could get my hands on, according to her she was genuinely worried about the impact they were having. And now almost 15 years later I think she was right to be worried. I did move on eventually to other books, but at the time, the reason I was reading these books was a desire for close friendships that I did not have in my own life. However, I can’t really quantify the impact these books had on my idea of what a ‘good girl’ looked like. It was a series that defined a girl by her ability to care for children, her appearance and her love life, and in order to find more you had to really read across the series. (Also, not for nothing I pronounced the word ‘sophisticated’ entirely wrong for years, so-fist-eyes-d, because I had only ever seen it written to describe the character Stacey). Clearly, I have some issues with how sneakily I had been socialised to believe this was my place in the world by something I was reading for enjoyment.

Un-learning the ways I have been socialised made me realise I needed to beef it out with those bits in the Bible I wasn’t sure about. Reading the Bible with a specifically feminist eye, it was the story of Mary and Martha that was changed the most, revealing why I had been so uncomfortable with Jesus’ assertion that Mary was right. I had been reading the story through the lens of my own internalised misogynistic belief that my role was with Martha in the kitchen. I realised Martha was not necessarily wrong to care for Jesus but that the story was centrally about Mary rejecting her expected household role. I had been confused because I forgot that Martha and Mary as women should not have been expected to drop everything and care for their (male) guest, but had as much right as all other disciples to sit and learn. Now, I am still uncomfortable that two women are held in competition and the ‘winner’ validated by a man, however the action of God-on-earth validating women as entitled to activities of faith is still a powerful statement.

Another revolutionary experience I had was re-reading the creation story in Genesis, you know the one, where God created woman from man’s rib (Genesis 2:21). I was sitting in Bible study unpicking how the Bible functioned as a piece of literature, specifically discussing how Genesis is told, and the leader said the most wonderful thing; that the word given to the first created human was a pun. You read correctly, a PUN. The word to name this new being is Adam, a play on the Hebrew word for earth or ground Adamah, essentially saying God created a groundling. Since then the name Adam has been a male name, and thus most Bibles will say that God first created man, but really this name is not specifically masculine, it’s just a pun. Most exciting for me was that there was no mention of the gender of this Adam, groundling, until God creates a companion, that there was no gender until there was more than one groundling. To me, it is entirely possible to say man did not precede woman because the first human was, in fact, genderless.

After my experience with the creation story, I was interested where else masculine translations had influenced how I was reading the Bible, so I asked around and read around. What I came to realise was that often it was the minimisation of feminine images of God that promoted a masculine God. One particular passage in the book of the prophet Hosea shows remarkably different interpretations with translations that seem similar. Hosea 11 describes God’s relationship with Israel as like that of a parent and child. Less mainstream translations recognise the specific motherly connotation of the Hebrew description of God nursing Israel, with mainstream translations using a more general metaphor of teaching a child to walk. Throughout Hosea there is no specific labelling of God as either mother or father, instead employing imagery that draws from both, but the small changes across translations makes it easy to project only a masculine image of God due to the avoidance of the feminine. The association of God with men allows the narrative of male power over women, as men are aligned closer to the divine than women. As Mary Daly said; “If God is male, then the male is God,” and I prefer, like Ariana Grande, to say “God is a Woman.”

I had never identified with a Bible that prioritised the masculine, and this helps explain why I have had so much trouble reading the Bible in the past. I often felt quite wrong in how I would approach reading the Bible when I was younger and in a large group, particularly when we would be taught the meaning of a passage, with minimal room to wriggle and confront and converse with the stories. My journey to understand the word of God was made easier when I accepted that today we will never know what the authors of the Bible were actually meaning, we can only guess because the veils of language and culture have become so opaque. I welcome disagreement with the Bible, as it gives me the opportunity to interrogate both it and myself, and as a result become closer to the narrative.

However, I also know that reading the Bible will only get me so far. I write this article off the back of also reading Jessa Cripsin’s ‘Why I’m Not a Feminist; A Feminist Manifesto’ which is a call to action for all self- proclaimed feminists who have become content to challenge the patriarchy only as far as it benefits them. Claiming that reading the Bible is a feminist act means nothing if the reading does not inspire action. My learning to be a feminist must happen alongside my learning to be Christian, and as much as they influence one another, feminism has more to offer when responding to current context. Reading the Bible through the lens of feminism reveals God’s desire for a world without systemic marginalisation of peoples based on gender, race, culture, class and ability, but feminism shows me how that manifests in this capitalistic society.