Where are the women?

Feminism, like all advocacy, is centrally about absence and presence. It is about recognizing that people who have been ignored and marginalized are in fact right here, and there, and everywhere. And if women are not everywhere, feminism asks, "Where are they?"

University of Chicago theologian David Tracy has called feminist scholarship "the next intellectual revolution." Cullen Murphy's new book, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), details the study of the Bible by the past century of American feminists. His account features both leading scholars, from Bernadette Brooten to Elisabeth SchŸssler Fiorenza, and popularizers-cum-agitators, whether Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the last century or Mary Daly in our own. In the style he has honed as managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Murphy gives us vivid glimpses of the people behind the publications.

As a respected journalist, Murphy naturally would pride himself on comprehensiveness—especially because marginalizing, much less ignoring, anyone involved in this matter would be egregious. Alas, Murphy's book does marginalize or ignore anyone who is not in the broadly liberal tradition of biblical studies. The absence of any feminist scholar who takes the Bible as divinely inspired revelation—and there are such people—is a poignant absence indeed.

Evangelicals in particular are conspicuously invisible. Alvera Mickelsen and Gretchen Gaebelein Hull—widely known in evangelical circles—show up in Murphy's bibliography but not in his text. Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary appear only as part of the rŽsumŽ of Karen Jo Torjesen, a former evangelical who left a teaching position at Fuller in unhappy (and unexplained) circumstances. Indeed, Murphy positions himself clearly as he tags Fuller Seminary with the epithet "very conservative."

The absence of evangelical principles is no small matter for liberal feminist biblical studies itself. One brief example from Murphy's roster will have to do. Let us select one of the best-known works of feminist exegesis by someone who declares herself a friend of the Bible, namely, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress, 1984), by the estimable Phyllis Trible.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann endorses this book in the foreword, extolling Trible for getting "the interpreter-expositor out of the way so that the unhindered text and the listening community can face each other." Brueggemann continues, "The method utilized here makes very little, if any, imposition on the text. … [T]here is no special pleading, no stacking of the cards, no shrillness, no insistence."

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Well, let's see. Facing the first page of the first chapter, the reader encounters an extraordinary graphic: a sketch of a tombstone, with Hagar's name inscribed above an epitaph, "Egyptian slave woman." Below this is the text, "She was wounded for our transgressions; she was bruised for our iniquities." Before Trible has even begun her exposition of the Hagar story, therefore, it might appear that the deck has indeed been stacked by the invocation of something other than "the unhindered text."

Among her helpful insights, Trible often seems to be looking for trouble. For instance, as she concludes her study of the unnamed concubine who is raped, murdered, and dismembered at the end of the Book of Judges, Trible pronounces, "Truly, to speak for this woman is to interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition because they have shown her neither compassion nor attention." She goes on to praise the subsequent stories of Hannah and Ruth as showing "both the Almighty and the male establishment a more excellent way."

Yet what would feminist exposition look like if it saw God as the ultimate Author of the Bible? Trible thinks the Bible's refusal to name this woman dishonors her. But perhaps the anonymity is a device to underscore her insignificance in the eyes of the violent men in the narrative rather than to imply that she is insignificant in the eyes of God—for how can a Christian believe such a woman could be insignificant to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Trible suggests that such horrors are described in Judges in order to buttress the case for kingship under Saul or David—both of whom went on to commit atrocities of their own. But, again, a narrator who is inspired by The Narrator would be heard instead as confirming Trible's own point: that sin is vile and vigorous, and no mere political scheme will compensate for resistance to God's law. Such a lesson does not show the Bible to be misogynistic but quite the opposite.

Phyllis Trible, it should be remembered, is among the most conservative feminist scholars Murphy surveys. What comes across again and again in such liberal scholarship is an absence: the absence of God as Author of Scripture. Without the unifying force of a single authorial voice holding it together, the Bible can indeed fall apart into a welter of apparent contradictions and scandals.

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To affirm the presence of God's voice in Scripture is automatic for evangelicals. At the same time, most evangelicals have not been so quick to affirm the presence of women. And so we might pause to consider another conspicuous absence in the discussion of women and the Bible, namely, the lack of impact more than a generation of feminist studies has made upon most evangelical theology.

In our churches, of course, and in popular writing and speaking, the contemporary feminist movement has garnered a great deal of attention. Congregations and denominations have split over the ordination of women, and whole organizations have been founded to campaign for one or another viewpoint on gender. But beyond the political question of which sex plays which roles in the church or in the family, feminist thinking seems yet to find a home in evangelical theology.

Even among those who seem most open to contemporary currents in theology—whether process thought, liberationism, postliberalism, and so on—and who call for renewal or "revisioning" of evangelical theology, feminist analysis is scarcely evident. But if good fruit can be harvested from these nonevangelical theological fields, why not from feminist studies?

What about the female figure of Wisdom in the Bible? What about the female imagery used in the Bible to depict divine care for God's people? How would a feminist point of view help us consider any one of a number of issues, whether congregational life (beyond leadership issues), or apologetics, or the use of money?

Evangelicals affirm the orthodox belief that God is not sexual and is neither male nor female—or, perhaps better, that God is imaged in both male and female human beings together. We affirm that doctrine readily, and then go ahead and depict God as male. Not "mostly" as male, the way the Bible indeed does, but always as male. As a rule, it seems, evangelicals never depict God as female, even metaphorically and rarely even as transcending the categories of male and female. But the Bible does.

Many of us do something similar in our treatment of each other. We are happy to affirm for the record that men are not inherently superior to women, that male and female together are created in the imago dei. But then we act as if males really are superior: superior to lead in church and home, even superior to actually represent all human beings (as in the so-called generic language of "mankind").

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Where are the women? More basically, where is the female, the feminine, the "not-male"—in the Bible, in our churches and families, and in God?

If evangelical feminist scholarship is strangely absent in accounts of contemporary feminist theology, it is also true that any feminist thought is strangely absent in most contemporary evangelical theology. Yes, we must resist extremes such as lesbian marriages and Goddess worship. But our fear of that ditch must not keep us in a hypermasculinist ditch on the other side.

If we will listen, however critically, to contemporary feminist scholarship, it will help us to recognize how much the Bible really does have to say about women and the feminine—not "according to Eve," to be sure, but according to God.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College and author of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford).

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