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Religion, Theology and Self-Improvement Sundays: Women, Religion, Theology and Society Part 3

For many, the primary source for the description and explanation of the nature, structure and function of the female is the Bible. For centuries, and particularly in the last millennium, human beings - primarily men, have consulted the pages of the Bible in an effort to seek to understand and develop a world view that includes the proper, ideal and/or appropriate relationship between human beings and between human beings and God. Central to all of this has been the female.

And many involved in this effort have not had the best of motives as their hands and minds interacted with scripture. Some even mistranslated, misinterpreted and developed theologies that offer a view of the woman that is in direct contravention to that which is offered by God, in the scriptures, and through his prophets, messengers and representatives.

These individuals - overwhelmingly males - were wickedly motivated and used the word of God to justify a worldview that would have women in an unnatural position in society; one of disenfranchisement, immorality and unrighteous servitude. Others, during this timeframe, who handled the scriptures, were ignorant of what was before them and still others were sincere, intelligent and wise in their scholarship.

Today, many have begun to challenge the traditional or historic views of Biblical interpretation as well as the theologies and influential commentaries that have been used to justify the role of women in the church as well as in society.

One such person is Bishop Shelby Spong who authored a book " Born Of A Woman" which rethinks the Virgin birth and the treatment of women by a male-dominated church" His work touches upon the origin of the concept of what a woman should be in the minds of many today.

Here is a quote from the first page of his book:

"For most of the two thousand years of history since the birth of our Lord, the Christian church has participated in and supported the oppression of women. This oppression has been both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious. It has come primarily through the church's ability in the name of God to define a woman and to make that definition stick.

It was grounded in a literalistic understanding of Holy Scripture thought of as an infallible word of God and produced in a patriarchal era. Patriarchy and God have been so deeply and uncritically linked to gender by the all-male church hierarchy that men have little understood how this alliance has been used to the detriment of all women.

In a unique and intriguing sense, the parts of the Bible that have contributed most to this negativity have been the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. These stories, far more than is generally realized, assisted in the development of the ecclesiastical stereotype of the ideal woman against which all women came to be judged. The power of these birth narratives over women lies in their subtle illusions and romantic imagery.

Those biblical passages that contain obvious prejudice against women can be quickly confronted and easily laid aside. But subtle, unconscious definitions and traditional unchallenged patterns resist so simple an excising. So it is that through these passages of Holy Scripture the picture of a woman known as "the virgin" has found entry into the heart of the Christian story, and from that position she has exercised her considerable influence.

Each year at the Christmas season she is brought out of the church and placed in a position of public honor for about two weeks. She is dressed in pale blue, portrayed with demure, downcast eyes, and defined in terms of virgin purity. No female figure in Western history rivals her in setting standards. Since she is known as "the virgin", she has contributed to that peculiarly Christian pattern of viewing women primarily in terms of sexual function.

Women may deny their sexuality by becoming nuns, or women may indulge their sexuality by becoming prolific mothers. But in both cases, women are defined not first as persons and second as sexual beings but first and foremost as females whose sexuality determines their identity.

This means, in my opinion, that the literalized Bible, in general, and the birth narratives that turn on the person of the virgin in particular, are guilty of aiding and abetting the sexist prejudice that continues to live and distort women even as late in history as these last years of the twentieth century."

Bishop Spong makes a point worth consideration, especially in light of what we wrote last week. We can approach it with a question.

Is the ideal woman as the scholars and theologians and believers in religion have understood it in terms of the Mary figure(s) in the Gospels the same concept of "woman" that originated in the mind of God?

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, October 29, 2000

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