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Women, the Bible, and Fundamentalist Gay-Bashing: Feminist Lessons in Biblical Interpretation

ELCA Assembly, August 2009

The following posting is a topical piece from my blog Bilgrimage, which was written in the aftermath of the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) to accept ministers in committed, monogamous same-sex unions.  Though the posting was topical, in that it addressed the controversy that ensued when the ELCA made this decision, I offer it here as a companion piece to my last posting at Open Tabernacle, about the ownership and interpretation of holy stories.  As the discussion following that posting suggests, the question of what the bible means and how it should be applied to our culture remains very much alive in the American context.  And so I trust that the following posting remains alive in its observations about this topic:

Last fall, as I followed the predictable fall-out from the decision of the ELCA to abolish barriers to ministry by gays in monogamous relationships, I became fascinated by the persistence of a strand of fundamentalism in American Christianity so unthinking and so easily disputed that one wonders why anyone bothers advancing its arguments any longer. 

A comment following an excellent posting by Michael Bayly on his Wild Reed blog about the ELCA decision illustrates the point I want to make about unthinking fundamentalism. In response to Michael’s persuasive, cogent, well-reasoned argument that how the Lutheran deliberation process illustrates what a living and growing faith is all about, a blogger wrote in to say,

When God created “man” he created Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and STEVE!!! Hello people. This is a direct form of disobedience to God. And this is happening in a Church, a denomination that professes to know the Word of God???? Please, God will have to deal with you guys…and it won’t be pretty.

That reply started me thinking about how it happened that I was raised in the heartland of American fundamentalism—the bible belt of the Southeast—and yet I somehow never managed to imbibe the views reflected in the preceding comment. To be specific: though I was raised in a family and evangelical religious tradition that took scripture with deadly earnest, I was never encouraged to fall into the kind of easy equation of culture with biblical norms that comments such as the one I’ve just cited presuppose.  It may just be that I never really had a chance, when it came to being persuaded that every jot and tittle of scripture should carry the same absolute weight in dictating how one is to live the Christian life.

My chances to be a card-carrying fundamentalist may have been spoiled early in life by some mighty disobedient women who actively scorned the jot and tittle school of bible-reading and the men who tried to impose it on them.. As I noted in a posting last August about how the word “obedience” seems fatally attractive to Catholic defenders of patriarchy these days, much of the rhetoric about obedience/disobedience is aimed specifically at women.

It’s women who are out of control, in the minds of patriarchal Christians, and the gays—whom the religious right imagines always as Adam and Steve and never as Madam and Eve—are just handy tools for keeping women tamped down and in their places. Gay-bashing is women-bashing under another name. The homophobic agenda is about a whole lot more than the gays. It’s about controlling the feminine, whose unbridled energy patriarchal Christianity fears above all else.

I grew up in a matriarchal family headed by a powerful grandmother who lost her husband when she was forty, and then managed to raise five daughters, a son, and a step-son in the lean years of the Depression. She managed to see two of those daughters sent through college and on into graduate school, and the other three to two-year business colleges.

My grandmother and her daughters were women who knew their own minds, including—and perhaps especially—when it came to the bible and religion. Like other Southern women of their day, they grew up bombarded by scripture. It was all around them everyday. You didn’t take a step from mending clothes of a Sunday to choosing a foundation garment without knowing that some scripture verse somewhere told you how to negotiate that step—usually with dire warnings about the consequences if you didn’t obey.

Everything, from how women dressed to how they comported themselves to whether they cut their hair and donned pants, had to do with the bible. And it was all generally prohibited. Particularly if it gave women any ounce of pleasure in lives full of child-rearing and husband-pleasing and money-worrying.

How do I know this? Because, as I grew up, I could not avoid hearing my mother and her sisters sitting with their mother and talking about what it meant to be women in a small Arkansas town in the first part of the twentieth century. And about the role the churches and the scriptures played in dictating the actions and attitudes of women. Or trying to dictate their actions and attitudes, to be precise.

I grew up in a “mixed” family whose roots were half Methodist and half Baptist. My grandfathers were both raised Methodist, both in families with long histories of Methodist ministers going back to the end of the 18th century, at the point when these families made the transition from Anglicanism to the Methodist church as they moved onto the frontier, where there simply were no Anglican churches. My grandmothers were brought up in Baptist families, and their church preference prevailed in both families—but not to the exclusion of other church influences when those were warranted.

To an extent perhaps impossible for people to understand today, church was a social occasion for people—and, in particular, for women—in small Southern communities well into the twentieth century. It was one of the few shows in town. It was a chance to get away from household drudgery for a few blessed hours every week, to sing, to wear such finery as one could muster, to interact with other members of the community and swap the gossip that oils the machinery of life in any human community.

My aunts, several of them, went to both Methodist and Baptist church services every Sunday because those were the two shows available to them, and because they felt equally at home in both churches. We have letters from a cousin of their mother who grew up in the same town, recounting what had taken place in the annual revival meetings of both churches around the turn of the century one summer.

The Methodists had their campground, the Baptists their protracted meeting. Cousin Janie Byrd had gone to both revivals, and had thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Her letters about the meetings brim with gossip and stories of the rural relatives she had seen at the meetings, who had driven their buggies and wagons in from the countryside to attend the revivals. The glorious feasts of fried chicken and cakes and pies. The recipes for delicacies swapped at these gatherings when extended families talked, sang, prayed, cried, laughed, and ate together.

In such a culture, it was impossible not to be bombarded with scripture. From all directions. From any and every religious tradition around.

And so one learned quickly how to read the bible, how to interpret it, and, perhaps more importantly, what to do with it—particularly if one was a woman subject to constant instruction by the men who carried the bibles around and stood in the pulpits on Sundays. What my aunts did with the scripture verses urged on them by both Methodist and Baptist pastors was interesting, indeed, and has—I now recognize—given me a lifelong perspective on how to read and use scripture.

They listened attentively. They wrote down what they were told. And then they came home and put the notes into the family bible and did not look at them again.

I know this, because all the notes were still there when I was a child, along with locks of hair from each child when his or her hair was first cut, tied up with ribbons, and saved for posterity, as well as obituaries of relatives clipped from newspapers and flowers from their coffins, carefully dried next to the obituaries.

Faded slips of paper in each aunt’s handwriting, with titles like “Against Painting the Face,” followed by careful lists of scripture verses that they had been instructed to heed and memorize, to guide them in the tricky business of being Christian ladies in a world going to hell in a handbasket because of its refusal to adhere to what the bible dictates. Because of its disobedience.

What struck me as I unfolded those carefully annotated slips of paper against face-painting and hair-bobbing and smoking and wearing men’s clothes was how little—how absolutely not at all—any of this careful male religious instruction had made any impact on a single one of the women in my family. Inform my mother and her sisters (and my grandmother as well) that painting their faces was a “direct form of disobedience” expressly forbidden by the Word of God, and they’d have looked at you as though a hole had just opened up in your head.

They would have been horrified at the thought of going to the grocery store without checking their lipstick, patting on a little powder to freshen up the coat they had applied early in the day, and perhaps checking their mascara. Painting your face? What does the bible have to do with that aspect of being a lady, pray?

And the other carefully proven prohibitions (it was always “against,” in the teaching of the churches they attended; never “for”) with long lists of scripture verses to back them up? These prohibitions obviously didn’t work, either, since my mother and three of her sisters smoked, and all wore slacks when the occasion demanded with ne’er a thought of biblical norms.

They’d have found it ludicrous if you told them that the bible dictates that men are to be men and women are to be women, and that means that women ought not to wear “men’s” clothes or to take over “men’s” role of ruling the roost. And it would never have occurred to them to consult a pastor or a bible before having their hair styled. They had learned from their mother, who was forbidden by their father to cut her hair as long as he was alive, that women did what women wanted and needed to do, even when men dictated otherwise and used the bible to back up their dictates.

My grandfather’s hair-bobbing prohibition was less about religious strictures than his old-fashioned (he was born in 1869) belief that women were more comely when they had long hair arranged artfully on the top of their heads. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s beautiful auburn hair was also thick and heavy, and having it piled on top of her head and held back with pins caused her severe headaches, which went away immediately after my grandfather died in 1930 and she had her hair cut.  And there definitely were many men in the community in which my family lived who quoted the bible to prevent their wives from cutting their hair, at this point in history.

Women did what women had to do, regardless of male prohibitions, religious or otherwise. No matter how many bible verses were quoted against them. At least, they did so in my family. They took careful notes. They wrote down the list of verses that attacked their womanly wiles.

Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln

And then they took those lists of verses and put them into the family bible and never looked at them again. Because they had the important business to engage in, of actually putting what the bible really said and really meant into practice. Like raising children, taking care of husbands, tending to sick family members and friends, helping needy members of the community, grieving with the bereaved.

It’s a pity that the the type of male bible readers represented by the comment at Wild Reed which I cite above, who are legion and so vociferous as they remind the rest of us of the price we’ll all pay for being disobedient and ignoring the prolific prohibitions of their bibles, never had the chance to meet the women of my family. Or the many women then and now very much like them.

Had they done so, they might see the world very differently. And that altered perspective might do them a world of good, when they crack their bibles open.

On the ELCA, its polity and decision-making processes, and its decision to ordain openly gay ministers in committed, monogamous same-sex unions, see the excellent work of Obie Holmen here at Open Tabernacle, as well as at his Spirit of a Liberal blog.


7 Responses

  1. Thanks Bill! This article by you had me in stitches laughing. My dear mother must have had a sermon at sometime in her life about what women could wear or not wear, because she never wore slacks, always wore a skirt. She never forced any of her six daughters to do the same as she did though. She knew that there was no way we would obey it, nor was it practical to wear a skirt when riding a bicycle. Deep down I think she knew that God didn’t care if women wore slacks or a skirt. But she still chose to wear a skirt at all times. Choosing is one thing, but dictating is another.

    After both of my parents died I took one of their old Catholic Bibles from the 1940s and I noticed that underlined was a line in Leviticus that women should not dress like men. It is so sad that any religion would use scripture and writings from an ancient culture and take the literal meaning of it as “God’s Word” but unfortunately people go to that extreme without thinking. As well, as Terrence points out in his recent article, even the Pope will take a line from the Bible and proclaim it as reason that we must obey, but at the same time completely ignores the other “abominations” that the text says, such as shaving one’s beard.

    Religious men for too many years have subjected women to this sort of dictation for how they must attire or appear. Jesus says, “do not judge by appearances only.” But, people still do, and fundamentalist probably more so because they make appearances to be more important than the person.

    Personally, I’ve always loved to wear make-up. I would have loved to have met your Aunts and relatives. No Bible verse or proclamation from anyone will stop me either from putting on lipstick or mascara. We know that Moslem women are shrouded in a cloth of black down to their feet and their heads covered and their complete face hidden with only their eyes showing. Very similar, as I think about it, to the habits the Sisters used to wear.

    Certain strict orthodox or fundamentalist Jewish sects make their women shave their heads and wear wigs when they marry and the reason is so they will not look attractive to other men. They cannot wear bright colors, or slacks. For special occasions I believe they can wear lipstick, but it cannot have certain non-kosher ingredients in it, because it might be ingested. The wigs look so real, so what is the point here, other than what you say, and I agree, to keep women in line and subservient, small, belittled, treated like second class people, not worthy even to use their own judgment or thinking in what they can wear.

    This sort of thing has been going on for too long in all of the religions. It is just another reason for people to be fed up with religion altogether. A lot of men & women see through this sort of thing now. If scripture is essentially abused in this way to control women, put them in their place below men, I can only surmise that the men have lost their way on the road of their Faith and need to concentrate on the central heart of their Faith, not this control freak abusive mentality against women.

  2. Butterfly, thanks so much for a fascinating response. I hadn’t heard before of any instances where Catholic families got hung up over that Leviticus passage about women dressing as men. What that shows you is how much evangelical Protestant folkways and religious ideas have crossed over into American Catholicism.

    You’re right, there’s been tremendous abuse of scripture and of other theological ideas in many religious traditions, to keep women in their places. The amount of energy expended in churches to control women has been astonishing–and it still goes on, as we can see with Rome’s fixation on American nuns right now.

    Thankfully, many women simply go on living, refusing to let themselves be controlled, even if they conform outwardly. And as they simply go on living, they often fulfill the real demands of the scripture in exemplary ways simply by doing what women have often been expected to do: raise families, care for the sick, tend to the elderly, teach, and so forth.

    The men in Rome and in the bishops’ palaces could learn a great deal about living the Christian life from those they regard as lesser human beings!

    • Bill, thank you for your response. The Protestant influence might have come from the fact that my mother’s side of the family is from the South in Atlanta, Georgia. One family member was a Trappist monk in Georgia. So, very Catholic. That is quite fascinating to me that my Catholic family was so influenced.

      Yes, that is what a lot of us women are doing – “simply go on living.” It’s a long road with many hills and valleys, times of shadows & light, but there are Angels with us helping us along the way. We certainly don’t see Rome stepping in to help the Angels out.

      The men in Rome don’t know what they are missing.

  3. Butterfly, that makes sense: if Catholics encountered biblical fundamentalism anyplace in the country in the past, and were influenced by it, it was likely to be in the South. I think that, though there was much stress on dressing “moderately” and “chastely” for American Catholic women in other parts of the country, the theological and cultural reasons given for that weren’t biblical quotations about women dressing as men.

    Which makes it interesting that so many Catholics today are willing to buy versions of biblical fundamentalism now, when it comes to gay people and same-sex marriage. The Catholic tradition has long since rejected biblical fundamentalism on the whole. But it selectively uses it now in its alliance with the American religious right vs. gay folks.

    And as this happens, I take heart from those who have just gone on living and doing what they know is right–and what’s really the heart of scripture. Thanks for being part of that example to me.

  4. Bill, this blog is helping immensely to understanding how fundamentalist use scripture as a weapon of abuse for its own narcissistic convenience for rationalizations for evil against their neighbors who are female or gay. They are clinging to an oppressive spirit in their judgments and the end result of oppressive interpretations of scripture can only be oppression towards others. It is also the way to self-oppression and negative spiritual growth.

    Jesus’ teachings are not about oppression, but about expanding our notions of love. God is love, and if we get this notion of God as Being Love we can then take the next steps in our Faith that will bring us closer to Love. When Jesus uses the scriptures I don’t recall that He had an oppressive spirit towards others. Christianity would not have flourished or survived this long with that being the message of oppression. The message crying out in the scriptures is one of mercy, compassion and love for us all. The simple rule of Faith is to not oppress others, but to love thy neighbor as thyself, as you already know.

    Fundamentalist lack the central key to unlocking the true meaning of scriptures, the notion that God is Love, that would open the doors of Faith to a life of lasting Hope and a love for our neighbors which brings the Lord’s Peace into this world.

    • Butterfly, I’m glad the discussion is helping–and yes, you’re pointing to something I wanted to highlight, when I wrote this article.

      This is that scripture is misused when it’s used as a weapon to abuse and oppress others. When it’s selectively and conveniently used in that abusive and oppressive way. As you say, the “central key” is love.

      I remember seeing, some years ago, a fascinating interview of Rev. Criswell, pastor of what was then the largest and most powerful Southern Baptist church in the nation. It was often called the Vatican of the Southern Baptist Convention, because of its wealth and power.

      Criswell spoke in the interview about how ever jot and tittle of the bible was absolutely, literally true and divinely inspired. He used his literal reading of the bible to beat up on this and that group.

      And then the interviewer said, “I’m happy to hear that you believe every word of the bible is literally true and should be followed literally. So you must believe in Jesus’s statement, ‘If you wish to follow me, go, give what you have to the poor, and come follow me.'”

      At that point, Criswell suddenly became a non-fundamentalist, and told the reporter that Jesus’s statements about the poor and wealth had to be interpreted and understood in their historical context–and that they don’t bind Christians today.

      Selective, convenient–and cruel.

      • Oh, I agree with you that fundamentalist have a way to be “selective, convenient-and cruel” especially towards gays. I read Leviticus this morning again and if we take the word of fundamentalist as “truth” then there are many who would be stoned to death and it would include a lot of heterosexual men who cheat on their wives. Some very famous names come to mind who would be dead now if fundamentalist truly believed “every jot and tittle of the bible was absolutely, literally true and divinely inspired.” We would also still have burnt offerings of animals if one were to take the scriptures extremely literally as they do. I am reminded that Christians are not circumscribed either.

        Anyone who is serious about their Faith in God, will go to the scriptures, and will be able to see these things as well and understand that the fundamentalist select whatever they wish in the bible to use as a weapon against others. If they cannot see this, they are not thinking, and if they are not thinking they have not wisdom from God to speak of His truth.

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