November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
February 24, 2014
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
—1 Timothy 2:12–15 KJV
The body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identity of God’s child.
—Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”1
The Woman, Being Deceived
I chose Yale over Harvard for my MDiv in order to wrangle with scriptural texts, taking the advice of one spiritual mentor at Emory (a Yale man who loves Karl Barth) that I should learn the traditional Western canon of patriarchal Christianity, even if my primary goal as a feminist was to dismantle it. My other spiritual advisor at Emory was a Harvard graduate, and she had taught me to long for Jesus’s body and blood at the Lord’s Table. As a United Methodist preacher’s kid, I felt cozy in local congregations, but before worshipping at the little chapel at Emory, I had not fallen in love with the particular intricacies of either liturgy or tradition. Christianity was my language, but I hadn’t fully engaged my brain to think through the grammar of my own mother tongue. Yale occasioned that, and my first truly heady, heartsick exegesis paper was on the passages traditionally read to prohibit women from presiding at Communion. My teaching assistant for my New Testament class was a member of the churches of Christ, a denomination that does not formally recognize women’s ordination, and I wrote the paper as much for him as for myself. The center of that paper was a close reading of First Timothy.
Around that same time, a friend at the downtown United Methodist church in New Haven had rocked my world by declaring that she wanted our denomination not merely to tolerate her lesbian sexuality but also to celebrate it—in itself and for its own sake—at the altar. My friend and I were grieving together one of the many decisions in the 1990s that solidified the Methodist position against gay and lesbian marriage, and yet the idea of celebrating a woman’s sexuality per se at the altar startled me. My mind sped quickly, almost imperceptibly, along these lines: Celebrating commitment? Check. Christians are all for commitment. Celebrating monogamy? Check. We are all for monogamy. Fidelity? Check. Fidelity, faithfulness, and finding the courage and trust to flourish daily together? Absolutely. But celebrating women’s orgasms? Danger, Will Robinson! Systems.Overload.Cannot.Compute.Cannot.Compute.
That reaction is far from idiosyncratic. In fact, I think that anxiety about women’s sexuality and reticence about the power of a confident, celebrating woman is part of what fuels efforts to keep women from speaking up and flourishing as clergy and as teachers in the theological academy. It can lead some Christian women and men to internalize the sentiment in First Timothy that women should be silent. And as I have argued before and will argue here, it can contribute to the heretical notion that the work of birthing and raising holy babies, not the work of Jesus Christ, is what saves us.
The First Timothy text is helpful as a kind of Rorschach test. It is a stark missive, providing a severe contrast to the idea that Christians can celebrate a woman’s sexuality as an extravagantly profligate gift. And that friend at First and Summerfield Church in New Haven was naming the contrast just as sharply. Lesbian sex is not productive in the sense that lesbian sex cannot produce more people. Although lesbian couples do the dishes and wash laundry and drive in carpools and weed the lawn, they also, as busy schedules and desire permit, have nonprocreative sex, and their sexuality does not involve men. So their unions are an extreme test point of what Rowan Williams has called “the body’s grace.”2 To celebrate a woman’s sexuality, brazenly unmoored from purpose and patriarchy, is a significant Christian witness.
The silencing of women in First Timothy has to do with how Christian women are to understand their bodies, their sexuality, and their place in the Greco-Roman world. Later in the letter, the author addresses the spectacle of young- and middle-aged women living unattached to men and unburdened (so to speak) by childbearing. Indeed, women were often widowed young. Pheme Perkins characteristically puts the point plainly: “because most were married in their early teens to older males, women who did not die young could expect to become widows.”3 It had become sufficiently common in Ephesus for Christian widows to refuse to remarry for the author of First Timothy to insist that widows are not eligible to be holy singletons until they are over sixty. The letter centers on the danger of false teaching, and the teaching that occasioned the missive was very likely about women’s bodies, in particular their productivity and their relation to the Roman system. In one of only two uses of Eve in the New Testament, the author of First Timothy divides up what Jesus was supposed to have joined: salvation in the new Adam applies to men, whereas women still have work to do—specifically, the work of reproduction. Women’s power to refuse their appointed roles within the patriarchy must have been pretty darned dangerous to warrant such a heresy.
In that long-lost exegesis paper for my course at Yale, I connected dots from feminine pronouns and epithets in First Timothy to the writer’s descriptions of false teachers and then to the seeming reversal of that writer’s perspective in Galatians 3:28 and Romans 3:28 and finally to the stern words for widows to remarry, and I concluded—in harmony, it turned out, with plenty of other feminist scholars—that there were groups of Christian women encouraging one another to live their faith outside the gender rules whose observance was a condition of religious tolerance within the Roman Empire. While it may have been acceptable in the Roman Empire for women to be used as virgins during various cult rituals that served subtly or overtly to reinforce caste hierarchy and male power, most widows of any age couldn’t easily pass themselves off as virgins. Christianity was arguably, at this time, more subversive than serviceable to the basic paterfamilias system that made up the empire itself, and as a result the early church authorities felt so pressured to prove that their new sect was amenable to Rome that they shoved aside a true fundamental—that both women and men are saved by faith in Jesus Christ—and squished the witness of women.4 They so feared the overarching hierarchies of empire, that they pushed aside, for example, the way that Jesus welcomed Mary and Martha to sit with him and his disciples, the way that women found in Jesus a different meaning for their beautiful bodies than reproducing soldiers, slaves, or citizens. It isn’t really exaggerating the message of First Timothy to say that the author tells widows to shut up, get married, and have more babies.
The Gospel of Lysol
Granted that a lot of nonsense has been talked about the politics of eroticism recently, we should still acknowledge that an understanding of our sexual needs and possibilities is a task of real political importance—which is why it is no good finally trying to isolate the politics of sexuality-related “issues” from the broader project of social re-creation and justice.
—Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”
The paper was a solid, Yale-worthy, close reading, and I paraded my hard-won A around for a while. But I had a sense even back then that my close reading of old words had been driven by new questions I had brought to the text. And I knew that any helpful sermon on First Timothy would require a close reading of the ways that Christian women are taught to imagine their own bodies within corporate capitalism. That was one route into my second book, Conceiving Parenthood, which is modeled in part on Marshall McLuhan’s classic The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man.5 The book’s title is blunt, but McLuhan’s commentary on the ways that images and worded messages shape perceptions of real people’s bodies is subtle, and he offers more interrogatives than declaratives. McLuhan’s intent is not so much to correct his readers’ vision, or to offer the Truly True Truth as an antidote to the Lying Lies of Avaricious Advertising, but to help readers notice the interpretations of reality as they ping off or seep into their brains.
For example, reading Mechanical Bride helped me to make a way through the bizarre kaleidoscope of Lysol douche advertisements that appeared in women’s magazines in the mid-twentieth century. The marketing of liquid Lysol as a vaginal douche created, took advantage of, and exacerbated fears that women’s bodies, in particular our vaginas, are “indelicate” (a quote from one advertisement), even repulsive (a fair description of one of the drawings). Lysol antiseptic was the solution. Another anxiety prompted by the advertisements was the fear of pregnancy, as the advertisements implied there were contraceptive qualities in the little brown bottle. Careful to avoid any language that would violate the Comstock laws against distributing contraceptive information through the US Postal Service, the little Lysol booklets heavily implied that Lysol could act as a spermicide. As I have said in many a lecture on these advertisements, the chemical burns that resulted from using the stuff may have at least acted as a deterrent.
My book Conceiving Parenthood is in part about the ways that women’s bodies and women’s children were judged dissolute and chaotic, or disciplined and well ordered.6 All discourses of Western culture have something to say about a woman’s vagina and a pregnant woman’s womb, and I tried to raise questions among Christians about how mainstream messages of what counted as normal, clean, and wholesome not only characterized some women and children as abnormal, nasty, and broken but also used anxieties about purity and respectability to sell women a false gospel. For different reasons than those motivating the writer of First Timothy, Christian women were again told that the way to justify themselves was through their orderly, well-timed production of citizens. The way to erase the taint of Eve, which was written onto their very bodies, was not through receiving the copious, blood-red gift of Jesus Christ but to present themselves as controlled, pure, and spotless by way of Lysol and other domestic products, products scientifically verified as markers of patriotic productivity.
And this sense of holy regiment shaped the ways that women perceived their work of controlling the little bodies under their tutelage. One of the examples of this is the way that mothers were taught to toilet train their babies and toddlers; mothers were taught to shape their children’s brain-to-genital connection to habituate them to produce a bowel movement at the same time every morning. Without such regimentation, authorities warned, boys would grow up to be poor workers, unable to participate fully in the newly industrialized economy of our nation. As within the Roman Empire, women’s bodies and the fruit of our wombs have been part of a larger project in the United States. And, as with the author of First Timothy, Christians who were intent to prove the faith serviceable to national progress preached a gospel of responsible parenthood. Christian women who refused to allow their bodies to be scripted according to the dictates of corporate capitalism were, during the twentieth century, portrayed as scandalous, just as those inconveniently independent and vocal women in Ephesus were when they provoked First Timothy’s grim repudiation of the gospel.
Pregnancy as Punishment
If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be.
—Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”
The editors of this journal asked me to write an essay about women’s bodies with a short epistle of my own at the core. I called that original missive “Pregnancy as Punishment, or, When the Pro-Life Movement Is Evil.” I tried there to name a related way that women in the United States come under the policing of our vaginas and our wombs. Here is a slightly edited version of that missive:
Some religious and political leaders have cynically tapped into our fear of sexual anarchy as a means of promoting the pro-life movement by combining two elements of Christian thought. There is a subterranean (but sometimes right-smack-in-your face) anxiety that some Christian men and women have about sex without consequence. And there is a current running within Christianity that suggests that sexuality is dangerous unless it is channeled toward a clear and discernible purpose beyond the two people beloved by one another. Different writers in the Christian tradition have emphasized varying purposes for sexual desire, but some Christians seem to focus in almost exclusively on one: pregnancy. Sexual desire is God’s way of making babies, so the implicit argument sometimes goes, and if I experience desire apart from that purpose, I have failed to give God God’s due. But the form of this logic distorts the matter. If one begins with the root anxiety that sexuality is anarchic unless purposed, then the answer of “child” becomes punitive; parenthood becomes the price that women and men must pay for desiring their beloved.
This is a twisted up version of a significant strand in Christian body politics, and it distorts the witness that children are a gift, not a due consequence. When this strand starts by being twisted up by a fear of women’s sexuality, children are a due punishment for desire, an act of justice that, if circumvented, supposedly can turn God’s creation into a ghastly mess of wanton abandon.
I have to give credit where credit is due. My oldest daughter identified this anxious version of body politics years ago at a pro-life event where I had been invited to speak. She was about twelve at the time, and she was sorting through her own sense of sexuality. I had done a fairly good job, I pray, in conveying that her body is not dangerously ridden with desire but beautifully created by a God who wants her to know joy. Yet in conversation with the men at the event—and men significantly outnumbered women at this particular event—she picked up on the sense that, for too many of them, pregnancy is retribution for sexuality itself. She picked up on the fact that too many of the men there had a kind of loathing about sexuality and a sense that sexuality without due consequence is the root of many other evils. She used the term creepy to summarize the event. And she was right. It was creepy.
This way of thinking may be particularly attractive during times of generalized fear over matters that don’t have a fig to do with whether or not a woman wants to have nonprocreative sex with her beloved. When people can’t find work, when elders have a sense that things are changing too fast, when more and more of my neighbors speak a different language than I do, when we fight two brutal wars that seem to have resolved nothing, well, maybe at least we can make women who have sex pay their due. I’m not saying this is a conscious, front-of-my-brain sort of impulse. It is often buried deep down in the moral gut of the Christian imagination: restore societal order by making this one core fact of life simple again. Sex = Baby.
And in the visceral logic of this thinking, cutting social programs for women and children may, for some pro-life people, make perfect sense. After all, they think, why should we be forced to pay for a person’s inability to control his or her sexual desire or for a community’s inability to properly discipline the desires of its people? Children are the consequence of urges, and people should pay for their urges—they should pay for their own children’s food, education, and care. Our communities, neighborhoods, and culture have become wanton with sexual anarchy, and the right way to correct this is for people to bear more babies and begin to deal with the due consequences of their sexual anarchy. This is the pro-life version of the “your child, your choice, your responsibility” economics that I described in Conceiving Parenthood as a constant danger of pro-choice liberalism.
The American Fever Dream and Holy Austerity
Nothing will stop sex being tragic and comic.
—Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace”
Since the editors of this journal wrote to me with their request, I have been experimenting with a complicated question, touching on it mentally like I might touch a sore tooth, checking to see if the pain is exactly where I thought it was the last time I checked. That question has to do with 9/11, sexuality, and a sense of divine punishment. This intersection of bodies, sexuality, and culture is much less obviously and recognizably icky than the Lysol douche advertisements or the draconian regimentation of potty training in an earlier era.
This semester, I am teaching students who were adolescents or in their teen years when that mass-televised mass-atrocity was committed, and we have been thinking together through a complicated book by Susan Faludi called The Terror Dream in which Faludi suggests that mainstream responses to the trauma of 9/11 have to do in part with shame.7 She names in particular the shame that a broad swath of people in the United States felt about masculinity, as a sense of American invincibility was felled with the towers. Faludi links this sense of loss with its reactionary antithesis, in the ubiquitous media representations of Todd Beamer and other first responders as John Wayne-style indefatigable heroes. But I also keep thinking about the popular image of Jesus as sacrificial warrior—a Jesus who, with arms outstretched and face stoically resolute, has protected his followers from being treated as mere meat. Indeed, a visceral part of mainstream American Protestantism is a sense that we will not be treated as animal sacrifices to quench any god’s thirst for retribution. Yet what does it mean to this culture that we watched one another, on screen, being burned alive, falling, pushing, crying, seeming to all the world as lambs to the slaughter? To layer image upon image, where was the Lamb of God there? Where was God the Father who no longer requires human sacrifice? Where was the Lamb who, by way of the ultimate sacrifice, became the warrior? My livid, sore tooth question is whether the trauma of 9/11 opened up the possibility among many mainstream Christians in the United States that we had done something to deserve the chaos that ensued. Pat Robertson unabashedly suggested we had been removed from divine protection because God was ticked about our “self-indulgence,” our sexual immorality, and the ways we had veered from the authoritative, patriarchal ordering of the paterfamilias.8 I wonder whether he was saying plainly an idea that has become a haunting undertone of mainstream Christianity ever since.
I have a related question about how anxiety over sexual chaos has been exploited and channeled after national trauma. The scenes around 9/11 might be characterized as medieval: people suffered in horrifically undignified ways, ways that middle-class people in North America are just not supposed to suffer, and the scenes were shown on televisions across the heartland, where boys and girls watched with teachers and parents, again and again, as the unimaginable happened to people who looked like them. There are various patterns of bodily punishment connected to medieval scenes of horror in the mainstream, popular imagination. Thanks perhaps more to Monty Python than actual history, I can think right off the bat of three: plague, torture, and witch burnings. I have written recently on 9/11 and torture and, a little while ago, on plague. Along with Stan Goff, I need to write more often about ways that fears of sexual anarchy have led to an obsession with controlling women’s sexuality.9
How are fears about self-indulgence and divine punishment connected to medievalphilia, or love of all things medieval, and femmephobia, or fear of things perceived as feminine?10 In the future, I intend to layer my close reading of First Timothy with a focused interpretation not only of Lysol’s gospel of disinfected vaginas but also of various iterations of new monasticism. In the midst of cynical, self-serving calls by the 1 percent for more economic austerity, young Christians could be gathering to create holy mischief, claiming our right to debt-free education, livable wages, and abiding partnerships of joy, equality, and creativity. But instead, the publishing world is churning out more missives of self-denial and mutual self-sacrifice. There are ways to connect the popularity of a show like Game of Thrones, with its stoically celibate Night Watch heroes, to various calls for young adults, particularly white evangelicals, to find a cause that embraces austerity or simple living.11 There are ways to connect the revamped adoption of old-school trends like head coverings, quivers full of children, and women who agree to be read but not heard.12 A sense of national shame about failed icons of masculinity is, I believe, contributing to new forms of gender binaries and conformity. And although she published the novel in 1986, it turns out that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a useful guide for today. Two of the first moves of the new, totalitarian regime in that dystopia are to ban women from reading and from engaging in anything akin to sexual joy or real intimacy. The core text of that world is First Timothy.
Women in medieval Europe who were accused of witchcraft were often those who were variously unmoored from hierarchy and patriarchy, whose bodies were not clearly controlled in some way by obeisance to male domination, in particular male domination rightly ordered by the feudal system that was Europe’s attempted rehash of the Roman Empire.13 I think that any reading of First Timothy within mainstream evangelicalism in the United States today has to reckon with the fact that many Christians are haunted by a similar pattern of anxiety over female power and sexuality. Even a well-funded and coordinated publishing industry like the Nerf ball that is Christianity Today cannot create whole-cloth, out of thin air, a trend that doesn’t stick to the Velcro of a niche market’s imagination: there must be some stickiness there for the books and articles to, well, stick. And I think the resurgence of complementarianism, that worn out idea that boys are made of snips and snails while girls are made of sugar (with a tasteful bit of spice), is sticking in part due to a misplaced desire to be pleasing to a god who seemed, on 9/11, to have gone missing.
Rather than burn a few witches, we try somehow to make our sexuality cohere, purposefully, to a tallied order of the universe. Men should take control of their metaphorical sword and stop masturbating to porn;14 women should stop speaking so loudly in public, what with our hopelessly distracting bodies and seductive voices and such. So the implied and sometimes very explicit argument goes. And then maybe God will make sure we never, ever have to live through another 9/11.
It was a bad bargain on the part of the author of First Timothy to trade salvation in Jesus Christ for the measured technicality of gender conformity in the Greco-Roman Empire. It is still a bad bargain today, whether we are bargaining with the authorities of a secular empire of enforced austerity or with a god who seemed either impotent or absent on our day of national shame. So regardless of whether or not Rowan Williams has recanted his affirmation of the profligate, vulnerable, resilient beauty of your body and mine, and regardless of whether or not any other ecclesial authority with a fancy hat gives me permission to preach or teach, I am going to keep speaking to my beautiful, scared, hopeful students, even about vaginas.
1. Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” originally delivered as the 1989 Michael Harding Address, reprinted at ABC Religion and Ethics, August 24, 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/08/24/3301238.htm.
2. Williams, “The Body’s Grace.”
3. Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament: An Introduction (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012), 290.
4. See “Family Life,” PBS: The Roman Empire in the First Century, http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/family.html.
5. McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (New York, NY: Vanguard, 1951).
6. Hall, Concieving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007). The section on Lysol begins on page 66; see especially the advertisement reproduced on my page 77.
7. Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2007).
8. Robertson, “Press Release: Pat Robertson’s Statement Regarding Terrorist Attack on America,” The Official Site of Pat Robertson, http://www.patrobertson.com/pressreleases/terroristattack.asp.
9. Please do take the time to click on the following Monty Python links; it is important to laugh at the absurdity of medieval misogyny and to recognize that now is again a time to find solace and strength in laughter. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kllZsaNGtVg, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSe38dzJYkY, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp_l5ntikaU. Also see Hall, “ Torture and Television in the United States,” Muslim World 103, no. 2 (2013): 267–286, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/muwo.12012/abstract and Hall, “The Trinity and Moral Life: Julian’s Trinitarian Logic of Love and Contagion,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity, ed. Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 493–504, http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199557813.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199557813-e-37 for my work; and, finally, Goff, “Church and Witches,” Chasin’ Jesus, May 22, 2013, http://chasinjesus.blogspot.com/2013/05/church-witches.html.
10. See Cristen and Caroline, “What Is Femmephobia,” Stuff Mom Never Told You, http://podbay.fm/show/304531053/e/1349726254 for a discussion of femmephobia.
11. See http://www.themartyrsproject.com/ and http://www.thesimpleway.org/.
12. See Luma Simms, “Uncovering the Head Covering Debate,” Christianity Today, September 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/september/uncovering-head-covering-debate.html?paging=off; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiverfull; and Tony Reinke and John Piper, “Do You Use Bible Commentaries Written by Women?,” Desiring God, March 27, 2013, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women.
13. Keith A. Roberts and David A. Yamane, “The Conflict Perspective: Witch-Hunts and Women’s Roles,” supplementary materials for Religion in Sociological Perspective, 5th ed., http://www.sagepub.com/rsp5e/study/resources/82986_11pe_3.pdf.
14. See this clip from the Promise Keepers for more context: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtpT3BssQDo&feature=youtu.be.
Amy Laura Hall
Amy Laura Hall is a pastor, activist, mom, scholar, and writer.