“Does it ever bother you that the Bible was written by men?”
My parishioner disclaimed the title of feminist, yet she asked the question. In the conversation that followed, I began to understand that what bothered her was not first of all the Bible and its authorship but the worship and practice of the church in general, and her sense that these had no real purpose in her daily life. Her question simply unlocked the broader range of her concern. There are many gates into the fields of grace. Feminist questions about the Bible may open some of them.
Can feminist questions about the Bible open the gate to its relevance?
For some in our flocks, the Bible is a living and life-giving Word: It refreshes, comforts and inspires. But for others, it remains an arid desert, confusing and unpalatable. Both women and men may be put off, not only by sexist language, but also by bloody Old Testament sagas, gaps in cultural/linguistic understanding, or dense passages of law or theology. Still others, like sheep, avoid the rough terrain and are content to huddle in the well-trodden green pastures of Psalm 23 and a few other familiar oases.
Yet what is the task of the shepherd if not to feed the sheep with a wholesome and well-balanced diet of God’s Word? We face the same dilemma every responsible parent faces at mealtime: Do I give my children what they want or do I give them what I think is good for them? What good will it do them if they won’t eat it anyway? How much do I bow to fashion or popular demand?
Some argue that the popular demands of a secular feminist agenda have trickled into women’s perceptions of God and church, threatening traditional structures and interpretation. Some even claim that such infiltration has hastened a decline of interest in the church and its teachings and tools. On the other hand, those who work toward a church enlarged by many views may fear that feminist, womanist, or liberationist scholars may be too parochial, leading others into restricted canyons—narrowing vision instead of broadening it.
I would suggest instead that feminist or womanist interpretations may unlock the relevance of the Bible for Christians of either gender. The writings of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Phyllis Trible and Renita Weems, for example, bring the Word of God to bear on current pressing issues of women’s social invisibility, violence toward women, and the power of community. They use the tools of scholarship to bring the Word of God powerfully home to challenge and engage the reader. They reveal the relevance that is present but veiled.
Can feminist questions about the Bible open the gate to its authority?
Assuming the hungry soul has tasted the relevance of the text, on what grounds may she accept it as authoritative? Lutherans have steadfastly maintained that the individual believer can discern the saving truth in the Bible without benefit of specially trained intermediaries. However, the Church also has the responsibility to preach the Gospel in its purity (Augsburg Confession, Article VII). One might hope there would be no contradiction between the soul food of the individual and the doctrinally balanced meal laid out by the Church. Still, interpretations vary. Bible interpretations traditionally propounded as “pure Gospel” may feel oppressive to the individual.
A feminist approach, relying on experience and internal validation of truth, may free the individual to make her own interpretation while opening her to new sources of insight. For example, while my mother and grandmother prized Esther as a “lovely, loyal and obedient wife,” I value her as courageous, resourceful and intelligent enough to outwit a very powerful man.
Theologian Letty Russell’s Feminist Interpretations of the Bible makes the case for a “shared authority” by which readers may act as partners in the task of interpretation, weighing what is received with what rings true to one’s own knowledge of the world. In such a yoking, authority loses its power to oppress. From such partnership, all can grow.
Can feminist questions about the Bible open the gate to its power?
People inside and outside our churches are hungry for meaning that gives life. We believe that such food is available in the Bible. But no food can nourish unless it is eaten. The Word cannot move in people’s lives unless it is heard and read. And unless it is perceived as relevant and authoritative, that will not happen. As my parishioner’s question about biblical authorship unlocked her real concern about her religious practice, feminist questions can unleash the power of God to save.
But there is more. In a sense, what is best in these “new” interpretations is what has always been with us. For centuries, faithful men and women have come together in groups, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance as they feed on the Word of God and find in it the satisfying of their hunger and the quenching of their thirst. The power of God is released in community. Feminist scholarship simply reminds us of this old and simple truth. God comes to us to feed us, but instructs us also to feed one another. As we join in this endeavor we are transformed by the Word.
Lives are transformed as the reader meets, in familiar or far-flung fields, the power of the living God. By carefully considering the insights encountered by God’s people looking to the Word for nourishment, we can share in the ongoing renewal of our faith. And we can trust that God will lead us in the paths of righteousness¾not just those that are safe and familiar, but also those that lead toward new vistas of understanding, hope, and strength.