Not Only a Father

One of the things I have been doing recently instead of working on my thesis is reading Tim Bulkeley’s book Not Only A Father. You can, too – for free because it’s online as well as available in paper form – and the online format allows you to comment or ask questions along the way, which is fun.

Tim is a Baptist who has been a pastor in Britain, a missionary in Africa and an Old Testament lecturer in New Zealand and he has been thinking about the way we name God and its implications since he started work on his PhD in the 1970s. The book takes a careful look at what language Scripture actually uses when it talks about God (not only Father and not only male, but also Mother and female) and also at the implications of insisting that Father is the only proper title for God and that male imagery is the only proper imagery for God.

I am liking the content and I like the fact that I can make comments and ask questions as I go, knowing that Tim will read them and quite likely respond. I am not, however, a big fan of reading books on line – I still like paper, especially for reference material. The interface is a bit ‘clunky’, but the material is very, very worthwhile.

Why gender equality matters

Jenny Baker, over at Sophia Network drew my attention (well, not just mine, that of all her readers) to this post by Dave Westlake on gender equality. He says, amongs other things:

And I am really angry that some of them do see but don’t think it matters. I am tired of the patronising comments that women need to toughen up, not be so sensitive, learn how to take a joke.

I find it encouraging that I see Christian men making this kind of statement on a reasonably regular basis now – very different to the situation two decades ago, when I first started mixing in church leadership circles where it was left to women to point out the problems.

Dave’s post, however, is particularly eloquent. Its timing is also good – coming so soon after the Catholic church’s re-affirmation of ordination of women as a serious crime against canon law (but not, it hastens to add, at the same level as sexual abuse of minors by priests, even though the two things were affirmed as crimes against church law in the same document).

It causes me to wonder what kinds of things make people leave churches. Why do women stay in that kind of situation? I left my local Presbyterian congregation because I didn’t want to have to run their youth group and didn’t like the minister’s take that a pastoral visit to a hospital patient who turned out not to be Presbyterian was a waste of his time. I stayed away because of their increasingly narrow understanding of the place of women in leadership.

The Presbyterian Church of Australia, which I grew up in, ordained its first women ministers in the mid 1960s. Most of it then united with the Methodist and Congregational churches in 1977 to form the Uniting Church, but I remained Presbyterian because my local congregation did. A few years before that, when it agreed to have women elders, my home congregation joyously ordained (no, this is not a mistake – elders are also ordained in the Presbyerian church, at least in Australia) the 40 women who had been functioning as elders anyway. I moved and found that continuing Presbyterianism was much narrower in other parts of the country. When I felt called to ministry, the minister of my home congregation offered to arrange for me to be supported through the Presbyterian system if I wanted to, but advised me against it because he had already sensed the changing attitude and I chose to remain with the Uniting Church.

As time has gone on, the Presbyterian church has become more and more narrow on the issue of women in leadership. It no longer ordains women to ministry and in some states, it no longer ordains women as elders either. Because ordination is for life, they can’t “unordain” people, so they still have one woman minister in active ministry, but I do not understand why she stays. She has been treated abominably by many people in the denomination, although at the moment she is the senior minister in a congregation where her husband is assistant because that’s the way the congregation issued their call, so there are still pockets of resistance!!

But why is this important? Well, I like Dave’s explanation at the end of his blog piece:

In the beginning God made men and women. Both were equally an expression of his image, character and love. Men and women were commissioned together  for both child rearing and ruling. Then the fall happened and what was meant to be together got broken. The world has been crying ever since. Men and women were supposed to be together- equally. We still need to be together if we are to fully represent God, understand His will and live His ways. Male dominated leadership cannot do this. Strict gender based roles cannot do this. And when we belittle, marginalise, overlook and make life harder for women not only do we fail to represent God faithfully, we also destroy a little bit of  His image in one of his very loved children.

Maybe over the weekend I’ll return to blogging on Thomas or eyewitness testimony, but maybe not – I have a job application to write. :-(

Women in movies and the Bible

Yes, I know this is totally off topic,  for what I’ve been blogging lately and doesn’t have much to do with the gospel of Thomas, but it is my blog…

Akma has posted a link to a Youtube video on the Bechdel test for women in movies.

It encourages the viewer to ask three questions:

  • are there two or more women with names in the movie?
  • do they talk to eachother?
  • do they talk about something other than a man?

So, as Akma notes, a conversation about the weather would get the movie a pass in the test. An amazing number of the box-office successes fail, although they would certainly pass if the genders in the questions were reversed.

It occurred to me that the Bible in general would also fail the Bechdel test. Although there are many incidences where men with names talk to men about subjects other than women and quite a number where women (often nameless, though) talk to men about a range of issues, there are very few where women with names talk to other women about anything much. The two that come immediately to mind are Naomi and Ruth’s conversations in the book of Ruth and Elizabeth and Mary’s encounter while they were both pregnant. I initially thought that Hagar being sent out into the desert might qualify, but Sarah makes Abraham do that.

Perhaps this is another contributing factor in the lack of women biblibloggers? In addition to the long tradition that has excluded women from leadership in the church, perhaps many of us have internalised from the Bible an idea that our voices are of no interest within the church?

Our language has moved on a bit . . .

. . . and this is good!

I just started reading Norman Perrin’s The kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus, (1963) Philadelphia, Westminster Press and his language is driving me crazy! He is clear and lucid etc, but he uses “man” and “men” as inclusive terms at every turn. My vote for most irritating so far is on p18 : “The high point of this development is the rabbinical conception of an act of obedience whereby a man or a people take upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of God.” I cannot imagine why anyone  would compare “a people” with anything other than “a person”. This occurs on a page that is nearly 1/3rd footnotes and has four other instances in the main text where he uses “man” or “men” to refer to human beings in general.

Perrin was, however, a person of his time. Now, even in pieces written by people who see no point at all in attempting to make their lanugage gender inclusive with respect to human beings, the rate of man/men to denote all people is much lower than it is in this book of Perrin’s.  Our language is becoming more inclusive through usage as well as intent, I think, and I’m encouraged that this is happening.

Why? Well, because our language shapes the way we think. This has, of course, been the argument of people who are trying to change racist and sexist language for decades and is typically dismissed as “political correctness” by their opponents.  However, some work that has been done by psychologist Lera Boridski in her labs at Stanford and MIT has demonstrated that it is true. In her article “How does our language shape the way we think?” and a number of other articles available from her website, she traces the effects of differences in the way different languages express concepts on native speakers and people who have been taught to speak them as second languages. Gender issues are not her primary focus, but she does touch on them. People who translate between languages are aware of the problems that are involved in translating some concepts between languages, but I found this bit fascinating:

Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.

It would seem to me that this kind of work provides concrete evidence for the argument that it is important that we say “people” or “women and men” rather than “men” because it does affect how people of both genders conceptualise themselves in their relationships with other people.

This morning, I grabbed my copy of  Brian Wren’s What Language Shall I Borrow? (Wren, Brian A. 1989. What language shall I borrow?: God-talk in worship : a male response to feminist theology. New York: Crossroad) to lend to a friend whose interest was piqued when I introduced a Wren hymn in worship a little while ago with a comment about Wren’s hymn-writing. I was waiting for my husband to be ready to leave for church, so I started reading it for the first time in well over a decade and ended up regretting that I’d promised to lend it. His language usage is in stark contrast to Perrin. He talks about the effect that male gender language has on our concept of ourselves, others and God, but without any “proof” other than common sense. Boroditsky and her associates are producing empirical evidence for what common sense and personal experience have been telling us for some time.

So, having got that off my chest, I’m hoping that when I go back to Perrin I can ignore his expression and concentrate on the meaning of his words because what he writes makes sense. I will, however, continue to encourage the people I mix with to speak more inclusively, because speaking does change how we think.

Women in biblical studies

A while ago, there was a flurry of interest in why there are so few women biblibloggers (see my contributions, which link to others) and I suggested that part of  it is the way the church operates – that while women are present in the church in significant numbers, their voices are still under-represented. As I was going through my Endnote library, it occurred to me that there weren’t all that many women in my bibliography. Having done a lot of reading in psychological literature for my work on eyewitness testimony, I got the impression that this wasn’t so in psychology so I decided to see whether my feeling was justified. It was.

Of the roughly 400 authors represented in the biblical studies part of my Endnote library, 15 or 4% are women. Of the roughly 300 authors represented in the psychological part, 70  or 23% are women. It seems as though the proportion of women bibliobloggers is a reasonable mirror of the proportion of women who write in the area of biblical studies.

I have material dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century in both biblical studies and memory, although eyewitness testimony research only really got going in the early 1970s, whereas Gospel of  Thomas research got going about a decade earlier, which will bias the results somewhat. The reason that I have around 300 authors in the psych area (only a minor part of my research) and 400 in bib studs is that the majority of psychological literature has two or more authors while the majority of biblical studies material has only one. There are at over 550 bib studs items and only 162 psych ones.

So, for those of you who are interested, the women authors included in the biblical studies part of my Endnote library are:

  • Barbara (Ehlers) Aland
  • Kamila Blessing
  • Madeline Boucher
  • April DeConick
  • Majella Franzmann
  • Morna Hooker
  • Karen King
  • Eta Linnemann
  • Betsey Fordyce Miller
  • Elaine Pagels
  • Pheme Perkins
  • Ann Nyland
  • Susan Nidritch
  • Luise Schottroff
  • Mary Ann Tolbert

I am well aware that this is not an exhaustive or carefully controlled study and that I am working in a “fringe” area of biblical studies, which may not be an accurate reflection of the more mainstream. Given the difference in proportions between the two fields, though, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that biblical studies has lagged a long way behind psychology in enabling women to exercise their gifts as scholars.

Sexism and other forms of bias/prejudice

Possibly we are fairly much all over the issue of women in the bibliobloggosphere, but…

April DeConick posted about the insidiousness of sexism. I agree. Men who in general are amazingly supportive of women’s equality with men will occasionally come out with some comment that is based on sexist stereotypes of the roles of men and women in society. This doesn’t make them anti-women – it simply means that there are areas of their thinking that haven’t overcome their social programming. Women can also be sexist – and they can have sexist attitudes that are biased against men but they can also pigeon-hole themselves and other women on the basis of their gender. Men can also limit themselves and other men on the basis of gender. The thing is that we have all been taught to differentiate between people on the basis of gender since we were very small. Some do it more often than others and some think it’s perfectly OK and just the way God ordained it, while others don’t.

Racism is the same.  I used to think that I was pretty much immune to stereotyping based on race until I went to the sixth birthday party of my friend’s son.  He came over to tell me something about what Andrew had done.  I asked which one Andrew was and was told “the one in the red jumper”. As well as wearing a red jumper, Andrew was also the only Chinese-ethnicity child in the room and I would have said “the Chinese boy” – although it turned out that both he and his parents had been born in Australia. I have no particular negative stereotypes of Chinese people, although I do tend to expect them to be more polite in general and more respectful of older people in particular than is the average Australian.

That incident, however, caused me to stop and think about how often I actually do make judgements about a person based on their race, or socio-economic status, or job or even gender. I do it somewhat more often than I’d like, but I try very hard not to and I try very hard to get to know people at least a bit before I make judgements about them.  Doesn’t always work, of course, because I’m not perfect and because sometimes I just don’t have time to get to know people. We all stereotype, all the time.  We would go crazy if we had to stop and assess every chair-like object for ‘chairness’ before we sat on it and every table-like object for ‘table-ness’ before we put things on it. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the person in the department store wearing a shirt with the store’s logo on it is, in fact, an employee of the store and most of them would become quite irate if every customer said “Excuse me, do you work here?” before they asked a question about the store.

When this becomes a problem is when these assumptions are used to limit people or when they are used as a basis for hatred and discrimination. If someone has gifts/skills that enable her/him to do a particular task, her/his gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic background etc should not stop her/him from doing it. If we consider a particular gift to be of God and worthwhile in one person, surely it must be of God and worthwhile in all? And even if you don’t think gifts come from God (perhaps on account of being atheist), the worthwhile argument still holds.

As you will recognise if you have been reading this series of posts on this blog, I have been suggesting that a significant part of the reason for the lack of women bibliobloggers is that the church as institution has held onto sexist understandings of the role of women significantly longer than has secular society. One of the things we can all do to combat it is to examine our attitudes and try to avoid any that limit people on the basis of their gender. A bit of positive discrimination can’t do any harm, either, as long as it’s not patronising, grudging or designed to show someone up in a poor light. In other words, I don’t think it’s helpful to say things like “this surprisingly good post by a woman blogger….” or “I guess, in order to get the femi-mafia off my case, I need to add some women…” or to highlight the post of an inexperienced and unqualified woman together with those of some of the giants in the field (unless the woman is holding her own amongst them, of course!)

And now, I plan to resume posting mainly on GosThom and early Christianity. At least for a while. :-)

How women operate in churches

As I have been thinking about the issue of women bibliobloggers, I remembered that about ten years ago one of my colleagues noticed what seemed to be a discrepancy in who gets most “air time” in church meetings. He decided to do some research during our annual Synod meeting and kept a record of how much speaking time people had. The way that representation works in our church means that Synods have roughly equal numbers of lay and ordained people and they try to ensure that at least one third of the participants are female (which tells you something about representation straight away).

He corrected his statistics for numbers present and found that male clergy took up by far the greatest speaking time in meetings – far more time than would be expected from the proportion of them present. Next came lay men who also took up more than their share.  Female clergy more or less held their own and lay women largely sat and listened. Because only about 20-30% of our clergy are women, my guess is that about half the lay people were women to get the one-third female overall figure right.  And, of course, more than half the members in congregations are female.

In the course of this discussion, it has been noted that the proportion of women studying in seminaries (we call them theological institutions) and doing course in studies in religion in secular universities is significantly higher than the proportion of female bibliobloggers.  Perhaps those who teach in these places can tell us, though, how much the female students participate in class discussions when they are not delivering papers? I suspect that the dearth of women bibliobloggers is a mirror of how women students participate in class discussions and church meetings.