Wednesday, August 26, 2009

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

As I continue to follow the predictable fall-out from the recent ELCA decision to abolish barriers to ministry by gays in monogamous relationships, I’m 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.

(I’m also fascinated that the Eric Reitan article at Religion Dispatches to which I linked yesterday has attracted the attention of a homophobic activist who is a former Republican politician in Florida, and who has appeared in police records and the media with charges varying from having beaten his pregnant wife with a wooden coat hanger to threatening to beat the s—t out of a woman during Mass after he had accused her of supporting gays. Christian “orthodoxy” seems to be upheld today by some less than noble characters. But that’s another story.)

One of the comments following an excellent posting by Michael Bayly on his Wild Reed blog a day or so ago illustrates my point about unthinking fundamentalism. In response to Michael’s persuasive argument that how the Lutherans debated and made their momentous decision illustrates what a living and growing faith is all about, a blogger named jasonbradyut in Colorado writes in,

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.

And that reply has me thinking. It may just be that I never really had a chance, when it came to recognizing that every jot and tittle of scripture carries the same absolute weight in dictating how one is to proceed in living the Christian life.

My chances to be a card-carrying fundamentalist may have been spoiled early in life by some mighty disobedient women who scorned the jot and tittle school of bible-reading and the men who tried to impose it on them.. As I noted some time back in a posting 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, 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 I could not avoid hearing my mother and her sisters sitting with their mother, as I grew up, 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 attidues of women. Or trying to dictate their actions and attitudes, to be precise.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, 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. 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 Jane 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 together, sang, prayed, 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 of a Sunday. 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, 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; it seemed, never “for”) with long lists of scripture verses to back them up? They 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.

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.

And 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 action. 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 jasonbradyut types of the world, 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 those bibles open.