Women, men and biblioblogging – the individual and the culture

Mark Goodacre’s comment on my last post combined with Colin Tofflemire’s on the first one made me realise that there is more that I want to say on this.

Mark is right that there are men biblibloggers who consciously and conscientiously link to the work of women. I have also had significant personal encouraging interaction from men bibliobloggers and my feeling is that this is on the basis of what I have to say, rather than on my gender. It is not possible to predict which might do this on the basis of their general theological position. Four that come to mind, with whom I’ve had interaction about my scholarship (as opposed to general friendly interaction -there are heaps more of these) are James McGrath, Tim Bulkeley , Mark himself, of course, and Mike Bird. I think that James is closest to my general theological position and Mike is furthest away. Certainly, if you look at the website of Highland Theological College, where he teaches, you would expect that he might have a bias against women leaders in the church, and he may well do, for all I know, but it doesn’t extend to not respecting the work of female biblical scholars on the basis of their gender.


The other man I meant to mention in the list above is Tyler Williams who actively encouraged me to do a Biblical Studies Carnival. Hard work, it was, but interesting.

So, my experience has not been that nasty, evil, misogynist male bibliobloggers won’t let me into the club. Jim West even let me into the Biblioblogger Big Brother house (although I wasn’t quite certain I wanted to be there).  OTOH, April has certainly become a target and heard stories of this kind of activity since she raised this issue and I know that Suzanne McCarthy has been attacked and marginalized. Perhaps I have been relatively immune because I am working on Gospel of Thomas so the more conservative bibliobloggers would not bother to read me and I haven’t addressed controversial-in-conservative-Christianity areas until now. I don’t know. In general, the guys didn’t target me for their misogynist attacks when I was studying theology, either.

I am saying that the general culture in the church, particularly in those parts of it from which the majority of male bibliobloggers seem to come, is such that women don’t try to enter the club. This culture sees women’s leadership and women’s scholarship as inferior to men’s, and even those people who don’t actually believe this at an intellectual level often have unexamined assumptions that mean that their behaviour isn’t congruent with their beliefs (as Colin said). It’s approach to the Bible reinforces those attitudes, as does its liturgical practices and it sees humour at the expense of women as perfectly acceptable.

So, I think that a number of the contributing factors to the serious underrepresentation of women in the biblioblogosphere come from the church rather than the biblioblogosphere. Linking to women bibliobloggers and increasing awareness of the work of those who are doing it will help, but not a huge amount. Naming personal attacks and inappropriate treatment in the comments sections of their blogs when you see them will also help, although it will make men who do it vulnerable to being considered outsiders themselves. However, I think that there also needs to be some changes in churches.

If you are a man who is actively involved in your church and think of yourself as egalitarian, I would encourage you to look at how you and your congregation act toward and interact with women and what messages your worship gives them about how acceptable they are. If you are a lay man and work outside the church, think about whether it’s different to the way you interact with your female colleagues in the workplace. If you are married, ask if the way you treat your wife in your home is different to the way she and other women are treated in the church. And then see if you can work out ways to change things if necessary.

Over the last century or so, the majority of members of congregations have been women, and a higher proportion of men than women have been relatively inactive, yet the majority of leaders have been men. When this was congruent with secular culture, it wasn’t such a problem.  However, now that the feminist movement has meant that women are treated significantly more equally in secular society, younger women are not going to be convinced that being involved in the church is such a good thing. If you can be CEO or in charge of the flower roster, which are you going to pick?

Women and worship

This is my third post on the general subject of why there are so few women bibliobloggers – as opposed to Christian women who blog – of whom there are many, many. My general thesis is that women are less inclined to blog on the Bible because the culture of the Christian church, especially the more “conservative” expressions of it, inculcates in them a feeling that their gender means that they have nothing worthwhile to say about biblical studies.

What we do in our worship also shapes how women view their roles. Marjorie Proctor Smith (I think she is a Methodist laywoman – teaches liturgy and worship at Perkins) in In Her Own Rite talks about the way we use language and space and the effect this has. In the more mainstream denominations, it is tradition for the minister to be up the front, raised up and often dressed differently.  When the one raised up is always male, this gives a particular message to women. It is interesting that in many of the denominations that still do not ordain women, the minister is referred to as Father.  A number of male clergy from other denominations (who know I am ordained) have suggested that I might like to call them Fr John (or whatever their name might be).  Sometimes I just ignore this and call them by their given names, like the male ministers do.  Other times, I suggest that they might like to call me Rev Judy. They never do. 🙂 However, if the person who is raised up is always male and it is expected that he will be addressed as “Father”, it adds an extra layer of authority to men that isn’t available to women. I never suggest that one of my male clergy calls me “Mother Judy” – only an idiot would invite the kind of response that that would evoke!

Elizabeth J Smith, an Australian Anglican priest who (amongst other things) writes contemporary words to traditional hymn tunes, talks about the power of hymns to shape our theology:

The theology I sing will be the theology I remember. Even the reasons I give myself for praying, believing, serving in the name of Christ are rehearsed in the words of the songs I sing. How much more, when a stranger puts me on the spot about what I believe, will the most fluent phrases I have for my faith be the words I have sung a dozen or a hundred times…

The language we sing will shape the church we belong to… the Australian English of public discourse uses gender-inclusive pronouns and plurals for lawyers, doctors, nurses, sales representatives and book keepers.

…So the church needs songs where believers are not simply ‘brothers’ and where (despite widespread reluctance to change the words of existing songs) it is not only good Christian ‘men’ who rejoice with heart and soul and voice in Christmas carols.  The church needs songs that will celebrate not only the particularity of the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a Jewish man born two thousand years ago, but the revelation of the living God not merely as He Who Should be Obeyed but als as She Who Must be Enjoyed. (Elizabeth J Smith. “Crafting and Singing Hymns in Australia” in Stephen Burns and Anita Monro (eds) Christian Worship in Australia.  Strathfield, St Pauls Publications, 2009. 183-4)

She goes on to say that the Bible passages that come most readily to mind are those that we sing, but that the passages of Scripture that have been set to music are traditionally quite limited. My observation is that music that comes from the more conservative churches also uses exclusive language for both human beings and God – often the male triumphalist God language that Brian Wren (English, Anglican) critiques in What Language Shall I Borrow?

All this goes to reinforce the unconscious sexism and misogyny highlighted by Colin in his response to my last post. Regarding women’s theological input as unacceptable, irrelevant, is seen as quite normal in some/many churches by both men and women.

Experiencing women’s ministry on a regular basis helps overcome some of this, but lots of people haven’t. Although my denomination has been ordaining women for a long time, I still meet people who have never met a woman minister before. I still lead worship and have people say that they have never experienced a woman minister leading worship before. I will never forget doing the eulogy for an international student who had been found dead of a drug overdose in a park some two hours’ drive from the campus. The funeral director (aka undertaker for those in North America), an Anglican, had made it quite clear that he thought that the priest presiding at the funeral was stark staring bonkers to have invited me to take part (I actually knew the girl and he didn’t, but the parents wanted a Catholic funeral). As I left the crematorium chapel, the funeral director said to me in a tone of utter amazement “You actually know what you’re doing, don’t you? You did a good job!” At least he was honest enough to admit that he’d been wrong, albeit somewhat tactlessly. Lots of women just get the hostility, not the apology, and one of the characteristics of the blogosphere is that many people feel free to express opinions and ideas electronically that they would never dream of saying to someone in person, so being a female biblioblogger is risky.

There is a discussion going on at the moment about April’s plan to link to as many women bibliobloggers as she can in order to draw attention to their work. There is some feeling among (male) biblibloggers that they link to people whose blog interest them and gender plays no part. However, I would suggest that in this world of information overload, we have to find some method of limiting what we read and personal bias plays an important part. Men (and women) who have had significant experience of the kinds of things I’ve posted about recently are likely to disregard women bloggers more often than men bloggers because they have inbuilt biases that say that women don’t know about bible and blogging with no evidence that your work is being read is rather discouraging.  Which is probably another reason why there are so few women bibliobloggers – and this is something that a linking program might help.

Women and the Bible

Yesterday, I said I’d try to talk about the Bible and its effect on how women function in the church. I think I want to broaden this post a little, but I’ll see how I go.

I think it’s true that when pushed to justify their behaviour, most people will defer to some sort of higher authority. For Christians, this higher authority is usually  God’s will as revealed in Scripture, with or without reference to the tradition of the church. People who believe that they have a divine mandate for their behaviour are less likely to change it than those who appeal to a less powerful authority for justification for their behaviour.

The Bible in its Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts is seriously androcentric. Most English translations make it even more androcentric. Phylis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides an impressive set of examples of how this is so – how female images in the Hebrew text are “degendered” in English translations.  Her Texts of Terror gives some chilling examples of how Christian Scripture is not just androcentric but also misogynist.

How a particular church views the status of Scripture has some significant consequences for the place of women in their communities today and, as I suggested yesterday, I think that the place of women in a particular church community will influence how likely she is to become a biblioblogger. A church that believes that the stories in Scripture are socially located and a reflection of the culture in which they were written will have a very different approach to one that believes that Scripture is literally word-for-word Gods’ word and true in that form for all time. I don’t think that anyone actually takes the Bible word for word literally, but many people say they do.  There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (NRSV)

Even when we still want to stand by some of the Levitical laws, we tend not to think that death by stoning is an appropriate punishment for breaking them, although that’s what the Bible often suggests. And I don’t think that many Christians think that it is OK to offer to throw their virgin daughters out to be raped by a crowd of rowdy blokes in order to protect visitors, as Lot did in Genesis 19.

Nevertheless, if you see Scripture as being socially located etc, you will be more inclined to look at what it meant in the context of the time in which it was written in trying to work out how to apply it today, and thus to critique the androcentricity and misogyny. If you consider it to be literally true, you are less likely to think about the fact that Scripture in general seems to say that it is OK to treat women badly and ask what that means for how you live today.  This is not to say that all members of all conservative churches are misogynist. Scot McKnight is an example of someone from a reasonably conservative branch of the Christian church who has gone into print (in The Blue Parakeet) to argue for a more egalitarian treatment of women and as a professor teaching at a university level tries to instill confidence in his female students.

It was certainly important to me that the professors where I studied theology evaluated our contributions on the basis of their academic worth, not on the basis of whether we were male or female. They also challenged students who made sexist comments, didn’t use inclusive language and so on. This was also important in my formation as a minister and as a biblical scholar.

I indicated at the top that I thought I wanted to talk about more than the Bible. I think what happens in worship also has an important role in forming women who are confident to have their biblical scholarship voices heard in the blogosphere and I will look at that tomorrow (or the next day).

Women Bibliobloggers (or lack thereof)

This issue of why there are so few women bibliobloggers has raised its head again in the biblioblogosphere at a time when I am rapidly sinking under a load of the work that I get paid to do so that I can afford to study. Please therefore excuse me for failing to link to all the people who are discussing this and for not acknowledging who said what. Kudos, though, to Pat McCullough for highlighting the issue. I don’t all that often hear men asking this kind of question an we women get sick of asking it for ourselves.

Before I say what I have to say, let me give you some background.  I was ordained by the Uniting Church in Australia in December 1987. My church, which formed in 1977, has always ordained women. Two of its parent churches, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches had been ordaining women since the mid sixties. The Congregational Union in Australia ordained its first woman in the 1930s – internationally, it was the late 1800s. On the surface, my denomination has a pretty good track record with respect to women in leadership.

While I was training, some of the male candidates felt it was OK/their duty to explain to the female candidates why it was against God’s will for women to be ordained. The congregation where I currently worship has had two previous women ministers, one for 9 years. It currently has a woman minister. I have been attending worship there for some eight and a half years while I have been working as the denomination’s chaplain at the university. Significant numbers of members of the congregation still refer to any generic minister as “he”. I recently had a conversation with the chair of a “search committee” (we call them joint nominating committees) from another congregation who told me that a number of members of their committee did not want a woman because the person who has just left to join another denomination was a woman. I have never heard anyone suggest that they should not get another male minister because the previous man had done something they didn’t like – even serious misconduct.  They just say that the last guy was a dud!

The general consensus amongst Christian churches in Australia is that my denomination is so liberal as to be hardly Christian and yet there is still significant misogyny observable and even more if you scratch below the surface. Although we have a significant proportion of female clergy and quite a few of our lay leaders are also female, most of our gatherings are very “blokey”. Men have very loud voices and they pray and sing loudly. Which is why you can have a nicely balanced choir with 7 sopranos, 5 altos, 1 tenor and 2 bases. (Many men also take more than their fair share of seats in aeroplanes, but that’s probably got nothing to do with biblioblogging). 🙂 My church often feels like a men’s club.

Some time back, someone did a list of bibliblogs that described them according to their theological positions as well as their frequency of posting. I appear not to have bookmarked it, but  it confirmed my impression that by far the majority of well-known bibliobloggers are theologically more conservative, which means that they are also less likely to be female. One of the other chaplaincies on my campus is Evangelical and although they ordain some women, these women are not allowed to teach men, so they are girls’ school chaplains or women’s and children’s ministers. One of the women leaders used to run a bible study group in the meeting room next to my office.  I didn’t always agree with her theology, but she was a great group leader and an excellent teacher. The men’s group thought it was just perfectly OK to disrupt her group by playing pranks, like locking her out. At team meetings (which I overhear), there is almost always a “pick on the female leader” segment aimed at making whoever is currently in the position feel small and stupid.  I actually don’t think this is deliberate. The guys are for the most part genuinely nice people, but their culture simply values women’s input on serious faith issues less than it values men’s. If, every time you open your mouth you’re ridiculed, it would take an incredible amount of self esteem and courage to put your thoughts about Bible out there on the web.

As I suggested on April DeConick’s blog, I think that another problem is that in many families where both partners work full time, there is an uneven allocation of housework and childcare at home.  This is well documented in the literature, and it means that women tend to have less time and less headspace than men to blog. If you are going to blog serious theology, you need headspace (this was pointed out by another woman blogger who rarely blogs theology despite having academic qualifications therein).

I am different. I grew up in an egalitarian family. My mother taught me to cook and my father taught me to fix cars. I went to an all girls’ school where we were told that we could do anything we wanted if we worked hard enough. I was in my early twenties before anyone whose opinion I respected told me that there were things I couldn’t do because I am female. My husband has been the primary care giver for our children ever since they were born. He recognised my call to ministry and was prepared to support it.  This has limited his choices in life.  April is also different. I don’t know about her family and educational background, but she didn’t have a child until she had already established her academic career and from what I have observed, she does have a husband who is willing to share the household chores and child care fairly evenly. This is not the case for many of my female colleagues.

If real life doesn’t overtake me again, tomorrow I will make some comments on the place of the Bible, which I think is really important.

I will close by saying that I really wish I had known about the Emerging Women blog when I was doing my Biblical Studies Carnival.  I really struggled to find women to link to, but here some of them were!!