On Feminism, Sexualization, and What it Means for the Church to be Countercultural
February 20, 2013 Leave a comment
My friend and scholar Dr. Jeanine Thweatt-Bates has published an essay in the newest issue of New Wineskins magazine. In it she addresses everything from feminist interpretations of the Bible to the way that churches sexualize young girls through the ways they talk about virginity to what it would mean for the Church to finally be countercultural in regards to the treatment of women. It is well written and highly provocative. Please go check it out.
On feminist readings of scripture:
Last Sunday I taught the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders a lesson on the Ten Commandments. We read them in their entirety from Exodus 17, and they read smoothly (mostly) all the way through the last one, the one that commands us not to covet our neighbor’s donkey, slave, or wife. It’s not that that’s the only difficult commandment to explain to 3rd-5th graders (age-appropriately defining “adultery” on the spot was an unexpected challenge). But what was so difficult about this last verse was the smooth way it equates all these categories of property that Thou Shalt Not Covet. Your neighbor’s stuff: donkey, slave, wife. This time, the difficulty wasn’t that the kids demanded an explanation, like they did when I had to explain adultery wasn’t some ancient form of kidnapping. It was worse: my kids didn’t notice anything wonky about talking about a wife as a form of property.
The problem wasn’t the text. The problem was the text wasn’t a problem.
One of the things perceived as “dangerous” about feminist theologies is the way that they generally insist on reading the biblical text critically. Rather than taking for granted that this last commandment suggests, first, that God’s okay with treating wives as property, and second, therefore we should too, feminist theologies suggest that biblical texts at times contain genuinely problematic elements that we ought to identify as problems, in order to be faithful readers of the text and faithful followers of Jesus. And while this strikes many in the Churches of Christ as dangerous in some slippery-slope way, it’s not at all new. We do this pretty much automatically when confronted with those vengeful bloodthirsty imprecatory psalms. We’re not about to go dash babies against rocks because God apparently seems okay with that in a biblical text—because it’s obviously problematic. To read that text faithfully, we have to identify that as a problem. So why is that so hard to do when it comes to women—women’s status, women’s roles, women’s callings, women’s gifts, women’s voices?
Here’s my thesis. It’s hard because the attitude that women are basically the property of men (fathers, husbands) so explicitly stated in the tenth commandment is still more or less the prominent attitude in our culture today. It’s hard to call it a problem in the text, in the church, because it’s hard to see the problem, at all. Fish in water.
On sexualization in the church:
I’d rather highlight something that bothers me even more than the silencing of women in our assemblies. That is, the way in which our churches participate in the wider culture’s sexualization of women and girls—the way in which our churches participate in teaching that the ultimate value of women lies in being a desirable object.
As a mother of two girls (6 and almost 2), the issue of early childhood sexualization has been a concern of mine for a few years now. There is excellent work being done on this…Bringing attention to the ways in which toys, clothing, and media construct a seamless transition from “little princess” to “little diva” to “sex object,” starting with pink onesies and ending in thong underwear, these authors aim to educate parents and others about the ways children are being sexualized in our culture.
What do we teach them, these little princesses, in our Sunday Schools? Are we giving them the tools to resist the powerful messages that they are supposed to be cute, quiet, sweet, cooperative, helpless…sexy but virginal, desirable but out of reach, flirty but untouchable?
No. We’re not. Instead, we’re teaching them an inverted version of the world’s message of sexualization. Recently Rachel Held Evans asked, “Do Christians idolize virginity?” In short, yes. Instead of available objects of sexual desire, we teach girls to be unavailable objects of sexual desire. Symbolized by promise rings and pledges and whatnot—that pink God’s Princess Bible is the innocent beginning of a very dangerous lesson. What we don’t do is teach our girls—and boys!—that there is any possibility for women to be something other than an object of sexual desire. Available (for shame!) or unavailable (praise the wise virgins!), they remain objects of desire.
On what it would mean for the church to be countercultural:
That’s not countercultural.
What would be truly countercultural would be teaching our children that they are all, every single one of them, created in the image of God, and that no one created in the image of God can be reduced to an object of someone else’s desires. What would be truly countercultural would be a community demonstrating the reality of the equality of male and female in Christ.
God calls us—our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our women—to more than being the pure objects of the male gaze. God calls women to embody the divine image. This means we must teach the children in our churches to see girls, and women, as more than objects of desire, but as agents of God’s will and work in the world. And when the church finds the courage to affirm and value women’s agency in the church and in the world—that, finally, will be truly countercultural.
You can read the entire article here.