Academic Engagements With Course Materials

What are the major issues in Letty Russell’s Introduction?

In Letty M. Russell’s Introduction to the series of theological essays in Liberating the Word

, she expresses a need for a discussion of ways in which women and men can “liberate the word to speak the gospel in the midst of the oppressive situations of our time.” Engaging in such a discussion, she writes, will provide “fresh insights” into ways to find “nonsexist interpretations” of Biblical passages and stories. This discussion is needed she believes, because feminist scholars have found “a bias in all Biblical interpretation” and those scholars call for “clear advocacy of those who are in the greatest need of God’s mercy and help: the dominated victims of society.”

And so, it is clear in the first few pages that Russell — and the material to follow — take issues with the Bible, but she is fully aware of the fact that it was written “in the context of patriarchal cultures.” And moreover, Russell’s Introduction alerts the reader to what is also to be found in the book, controversy vis-a-vis the Bible, as the pages turn.

What are the major issues for Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza?

Fiorenza begins her essay (“The Will to Choose or to Reject: Continuing Our Critical Work”

) with a poem by Emily Dickinson — in which the poet show “great pride and self-confirmation” in terms of “transcending the patriarchal condition” and moving “from unconsciousness to consciousness” (p. 125). This poem, and her interpretation of it, is a prelude for Fiorenza’s view that some women (“as self-identified women”) have no choice but to “leave behind” the “patriarchal biblical religion” and instead create “a new feminist religion” on the fringe of “patriarchal religion and theology.”

In portraying the best of all worlds for women and their need for religion, Fiorenza utilizes the word “ekklesia” (Greek for “public gathering” where citizens are free to choose their own “communal well-being”), which can also be translated as “women-church,” or, as a “political-oppositional term to patriarchy” (p. 126).

And what does “patriarchy” mean to Fiorenza? She insists that it isn’t just a word to define (and protest against) male power over females. She wants readers to know she isn’t she isn’t just writing about “male oppressors and female oppressed.” Rather, her view of “patriarchy” is as a basic descriptive model for “feminist analysis” and encompasses not only “sexism but also racism and property-class relationships” (p. 127).

For example, in a patriarchal religion, “all women are bound into a system of male privilege and domination” — that’s a given, in her definition. And she doesn’t seem overly angry about that fact, though it clearly needs addressing, in her view, beyond what has been said and thought about it in the recent past.

But beyond that view, she writes that “impoverished Third World women constitute the bottom of the oppressive patriarchal pyramid.” She sees her feminism in terms of a universal view, in which it is important for women to “identify as women” and therefore overcome the arbitrary separation between white women and black women, rich and poor women, Jewish and Christian women, and so-forth.

That having been said, on page 129 she launches into what appears to be an attack on the Bible; the original focus or concern of feminists, with reference to the Bible, she says, is that “the Bible was used to halt the emancipation of women and slaves.” And today, the “political Right” carries on that crusade against progress for women by attacking feminists in the “political, economic, reproductive, intellectual, and religious spheres” — and they do it by quoting the bible in order to lobby against shelters for battered women, among other things.

What are the options suggested by Fiorenza; what do I think of her viewpoints?

Fiorenza offers four points in terms of suggestions for women: one, that women who love the Bible can’t be written off as “un-liberated,” and there are stories in the Bible that don’t promote raw male authority over women; two, there should be careful review of Biblical texts, a test, to determine which have “feminist liberating content” and which do not; three, a new theology needs to be created, in which the Bible in order to fight back against conservatives using Scripture against the women’s movement; four, text must be found and embraced which keeps alive the victories of biblical women who “acted in the power of the spirit”; and five, the Bible should be understood as a “structuring prototype of women-church, rather than as a definite archetype.”

My thought is that Fiorenze has given a great deal of time and effort into reviewing much of the Bible for passages, lessons and parables that offend today’s women; I wonder what she believes today about the conservative Christian movement, which is far more politically potent then it was in 1985, when this book was published. Indeed, I would think that the path today’s feminist should follow is not so much continuing to be repulsed by ancient Biblical writings, but rather, to get organized against the continuing marriage of “church and state” that conservative Christians pursue and fine-tune. When a presidential campaign — responding to a conservative Christian movement — promotes issues like a constitutional amendment against “gay marriage,” rather than raise other far more important issues like poverty, health care, global warming, it speaks volumes about what progressive movements should be paying attention to.

What are the major issues for Elsa Tamez?

Elsa Tamez, in her essay — “Women’s Re-reading of the Bible”

— believes she sees in the Bible’s texts “clear, explicit cases of the marginalization or segregation of women” (174) in many places. The part of the Bible that promotes “old-time antiwomen customs of Hebrew culture” has been declared sacred (175), she writes. And perhaps more serious, because Biblical passages have had the stamp of God (“thus is written the word of God), the Bible has “been used to reinforce the position of inferiority” that women have been placed in “for centuries.”

The fact that the “inferiority of women” has become “sacred law” through the Bible’s tenets, and that some Biblical texts actually “legislate the marginalization of women,” is repugnant to Tamez. There is, “on occasion,” she writes (176), no other way to interpret the Bible except as a putdown of women.”

And although she also believes that when “First World radical feminists” reject the Bible, it is “an exaggerated reaction,” she nonetheless puts forward the notion (177) that it is “about time to reformulate the principle of Biblical authority.”

What are the options suggested by Tamez; what do I think of her viewpoints?

Tamez (178) suggests women should be “gaining distance” from the texts that are most familiar, and read the Scripture — in particular those passages that are not ingrained in the consciousness of the faithful — from a woman’s perspective. The fresh passages will hopefully contain “new women-liberating aspects”; and thus, women, “as victims of sexist oppression,” will see “with less difficulty those aspects that directly affect them” (179). Her viewpoints, while valid for the most part, assume that women could actually intellectually remove themselves from the “sexist” and patriarchal tone of the Bible, which is stretching credulity. But what might work better is for a group of female theologian-scholars to actually re-write many important parts of the Bible, and publish their work as an alternative to the Bible. And rather than it being what some would perceive as an attack on the Bible, which would not be well-received by many Christian men and women, it could be a polished and pertinent serious of non-gender-focused stories from the Bible; and those stories would be told with the proper philosophical and theological emphasis, as inspiration to men and women of faith.

What are the major issues for Simon S. Maimela?

This writer’s initial concern (141) — in “Black Theology and the Quest for a God of Liberation”

— is the fact that “black theology” is making an attempt to be a “critical reflection on the historical praxis in which powerful white Christians dominate and oppress powerless black Christians.” And in a general way, Maimela believes that black theology has as a goal, to “inspire and arm oppressed blacks in their struggle for liberating transformation of unjust racist social structures in which they live.”

Maimela beats the drum of militancy against the fact that the “Christian faith has been and continues to be used as an instrument of legitimizing” the economic and social domination over blacks by “white people.” (His protest sounds very similar in tone to the writing of Fiorenza, who argued that the Bible legitimizes the oppression of women.) Black Christians have become “suspicious,” Maimela writes, of white theologies that have “unashamedly have given tacit support to the privileged status of white people in relation to people of color.”

On page 146 Maimela asserts that “white theology” often overlooks the political and economic interests of “oppressed persons of color,” and therefore, “white…

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