As those who are on my email list know, I read a really interesting book last week. (If you want to join the email list, click here to join and you’ll get a pdf of original lore Brigid resources as well 🙂 )
But back to the book. It’s called The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (that’s not an affiliate link or anything, just straight to amazon!) I was interested in it, because I’ve always felt the message we receive from the Catholic Church about women’s roles in the Church has been more about control and submission than about Jesus’ message. And as Christians, surely, Jesus should matter more than a group of aul fellas? Beth Allison Barr might come from an evangelical background, but she’s had similar feelings as I have. The difference is, she actually got off her backside and wrote a book about it.
Barr is a historian by trade, so the book appears to be well researched to me. She covers women in the early church (Yes, Brigid is mentioned as being ordained a bishop :D), women in medieval times and women in (predominantly evangelical or what I would consider fundamentalist Protestant religions) in the modern church. She also traces the different ways the church – mostly the Roman Catholic Church, but post Reformation she includes the Protestant churches as well – has changed over time to keep women in control. For example, in the early church, it was quite clear that Jesus has removed all barriers, to quote Paul (yes, I know, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day) “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And there were a lot of female leaders in the church in the early days – the early Christian church was one that focused on the oppressed, the downtrodden, the poor, etc. Jesus was for the underdogs.
But, then Patriarchy got in the way. And Patriarchy is a clever little shit, adapting and changing as women get better at navigating it. For example, in the early church, women were encouraged to give up family and children, to hold God first and foremost in their hearts and minds, in effect to become as like men as possible. (Barr explains this comes from early understandings of women as imperfect men – honestly, how the human race has survived so long, I don’t know….) But post-Reformation, way more emphasis on the man being the head of the household as God is the head of the church came about. And the role of women became increasingly confined to the home, as wives and mothers, leading to the current situation in Protestant circles, or at least evangelical circles, of discussions being held about whether women should be allowed to work outside the home at all and women not being allowed to teach teenage boys in Sunday School. It seems very strange to me.
I will say, despite all this, Barr has an engaging and informative writing style. I detest most of the attitudes she’s writing about, and will fight to my last breath that men and women and non-binary people should be treated the same, but until we get there, things should be put in place to help the oppressed reach equity. But Barr goes in depth explaining about how the Scriptures have been translated with different agendas in mind; how the Bible has been used and abused to support different agendas; how even certain texts are cherry picked to force a particular message; how ever St Paul is misquoted or quoted out of context. I’ll give an example. Here’s a verse that’s frequently quoted to keep women from being ordained or speaking in church, etc, etc, etc
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:34–35
But here’s the thing. The next sentence could offer a redemption for Paul:
What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? 1 Corinthians 14:36
As in, what the hell are ye thinking? Why should women be silent? But of course that bit isn’t ever quoted cos it changes the whole meaning of the section. It’s possible I’ve misjudged Paul, but honestly, he’s been used to hammer women for centuries at this point. I have more than a strong aversion to him, despite learning the above sections.
That’s just one example of how the Bible and Scriptures have been used to oppress women. There’s loads of them! And I think most of them are in this book. If at times, you feel that you want to know better how did we get from being “all one in Christ Jesus“, to a system of patriarchy and hierarchy and oppression – this book goes a long way towards explaining it – even for Catholics. Because while the church has been around for 2 millennia, if not in its current forms, the Reformation only happened in the 16th century, so really, for most of Christian history, there was pretty much only 1 show in town for Christianity, for the majority of people. And the Reformation brought a lot of good things with it, even for the Catholic church. The Counter Reformation is a fascinating time for the church and well worth reading up on.
But for this book – it’s worthwhile reading if you want to see how one particular text/ group of texts can be subtly and not-so-subtly altered to suit an agenda. As I said to my email list earlier this week, it’s something we all need to be aware of. Even the translations of Irish lore, as incomplete as they are, were translated with particular sensibilities in mind. We need to be careful of this whenever we read something – critical thinking basically. What’s the agenda behind the writer or translator of this piece? What context, historical, political, whatever, are they writing in? What are they trying to achieve here? What purpose are they working towards?
Even my blog here, it’s worthwhile thinking about what my aims are… (OK in my case, I’m usually rambling about whatever’s going through my head, but still, critical thinking is good practice!) Why do I write what I write? Why does this interest me? Why do I feel the need to share it?
In this case, it’s because this book is really interesting and helped me understand how women’s roles have changed and developed over time in the church, in Christianity and in the world generally. Understanding power structures and how they are applied is extremely valuable in the modern world and this book might help us understand the historical methods used for oppression, so we might recognise similar antics now and in the future.