Thursday, July 21, 2011

Biblical Feminism, If Any

This Sunday past, I encountered a Sunday School lesson from the Old Testament that attempted to demonstrate the feminist leanings of said text. I say 'encountered' to be, more or less, polite. Thankfully for all involved, I was there to save the day, disrupt the proceedings and disabuse all involved of such notions, the essence of which I shall now relate.

Like most Sunday School lessons, it revolved around the reading of a passage, and then a discussion of what the thing 'meant.' The passage was fairly long, obscure, and involved, so rather than quoting it in full, I'll give the executive summary. It can be found in Judges chapter 4 for those interested.

The Israelites are at the low point of one of their spiritually rebellious phases, and a Canaanite king has conquered them. They have 'cried out to God' to bail them out of a mess of their own making once again, and God sends a message to a prophetess named Deborah, who is presently a judge of the Israelites, that if they attack the army of the Canaanites, He will see to it that the Israelites prevail.

Deborah delivers the message to the military commander of the Israelites, who is skittish about attacking and refuses unless Deborah accompanies him. Ironically, the commander's name is Barak. (I know it's a tired cliché, but you just can't make this stuff up.) Deborah informs him that because of his timidity, the glory of capturing Sisera, the enemy commander, will not fall to him, but instead Sisera will fall into the hands of a woman.

The Israelites attack, and rout the enemy. The enemy commander flees to an allied Canaanite camp and hides in the tent of a woman there named Jael. She shelters him as he requests, but upon his falling asleep, decides to betray him and kills him by pounding a tent stake through his head with a hammer.

Yikes! But that's what it says.

This passage was taken to support a basic 'women's lib' message that the Bible supports a model of equality between the sexes in terms of assuming leadership roles. Unfortunately, the leader (who, to his defense, did not get to choose the subject matter of the lesson) allowed me to express my own opinion, at which point I derailed the entire thing, and probably upset a few poor, meek souls in the room.

The two problems most people have with reading the Bible is, firstly, that they have almost no historical or cultural context because they lack background reading in ancient history, and secondly they don't read the Bible itself enough to even develop some meager sense of its atmosphere from within, either. It is easy to see how someone could come away from this passage with the basic feminist message -- look at these two incompetent men, one for whom the assurances of God aren't enough, doesn't want to take responsibility for his own role in the tribe, and who has to have his hand held by a woman to do his job. The other flees from battle like a coward and dies like a coward hiding from his enemies in a woman's tent. Isn't that what life is like! Men are cowards and shirkers, and without women to look after things, their affairs would immediately go to pot. Note that that is not what the class leader said. He took a more moderate stance that the story was an illustration of how women could be just as competent as men in leadership roles and ought to be considered equals.

At the minimum, whatever your take, of the two sexes the women definitely come off looking better. If you wanted to take some passage from the Bible to the uber-feminist level, this one would be a good choice. However, one would have to come to that conclusion by reading the story in an absolute vacuum. I'll save some counter-citations for later, and focus on the context of this story.

First of all, it helps to have an idea who the Canaanites were. In a nutshell and to be fairly blunt, they were a hodgepodge of savage, demon-worshiping, human-sacrificing tribes who worshiped gods like Baal Moloch the Destroyer and Baal Zebub (modern spelling -- Beelzebub), Lord of Flies and Corruption. These are the 'foreign gods' whom the Israelites were worshiping, and child sacrifice and the other abominations were some of the bad habits the Israelites were guilty of picking up from their neighbors. Needless to say, this had a tendency to put them on a bad footing with God, and also tended to result in a bit of moral decay within the Israelite community. The Israelites went through wave after wave of these falling away periods, and notably, the period of this story was at the bottom of one of them.

Ergo, it kind of makes a lot of sense that the men of Israel were shirking their duties. It also makes a lot of sense that a Canaanite leader would be something less than a tower of virtue. In other words, this is not to be taken as a model of 'how things are supposed to be' or even 'how things usually are.' It is a story of how things can turn out when a society has become decadent and rebellious towards duty and almost nobody is behaving the way he is supposed to. The men of the story bring shame upon themselves and the women get forced into roles that aren't appropriate and are often unflattering to them. I don't think that even a feminist would want to spend her time with a man either babysitting him or smashing his brains out. Ok, maybe in a few extreme exceptions.

Anyone who had the appropriate background for reading this story would have immediately seen that.  There would have been no confusion on the point that this was not 'typical' or 'model' behavior.  They would have gasped at the disgraceful, 'unmanly' behavior of the men and recognized the story as being laden with irony -- ironies which are absolutely necessary to understanding its message. They are, in a few words, the whole point, and if you don't 'get' them, you might as well forget about understanding any of it. These kind of ironies, especially role inversions, saturate the Bible and were probably a big part of what made these stories memorable and interesting for so many centuries. However, to the uninitiate, 'it's all Greek.' They don't see any of this and approach the story the only way they can -- naively. Yet there is this attitude that 'if you'll just explain it to me, I'll get it.' Right. And if I just explain French to you right quick, you'll be speaking it – just like that!

That's not how things work.

Even I am lousy when it comes to these things. One big reason I don't read the Bible that much is because it confuses me. I appreciate the effort, but honestly, I think 99.9% of Christians would be better off putting their Bibles safely in a box somewhere and spending the rest of their lives reading C. S. Lewis. Their children might be able to branch off into philosophy, ancient history and the writings of the church fathers, and maybe after a few generations, their great-great-grandchildren could dust those old Bibles off and have a reasonable chance of understanding them. Note that I would include myself in that description – and that I do read a lot of C. S. Lewis.

And much as I hate to admit it, I'm not such a manly man, either. I can sympathize with not wanting to lead an army against a force I thought to be superior to mine. I'd rather not lead an army at all. Or even fight for that matter. But in so many ways, that is exactly the point. It doesn't much matter what roles we happen to fall into in life, including the roles of man and woman, it is our job to properly fill the role that we have been given whether we like it or not. That is part of sucking it up and 'being a man.' Or woman. Rebelling against our roles is the antithesis of virtue, as most people instinctively understand when they see -- or worse, undertake themselves -- an act of cowardice, or betrayal, or dishonesty. It feels of physical revulsion.

Right now, and in so many ways, most people seem to be in some kind of bubble of 'Decadent Americanism.' Every culture has such bubbles that interfere with their ability to connect with reality, especially of basic human lessons coming from outside cultures – like the ones in the Bible – but America's cultural bubble seems particularly dense at this time. It is the decadence, I'm sure. It is a sign of The End. In this same class I heard a charitable mission being described going to some locale in Africa, where – apparently! – men typically don't do any work and goof off all day while their wives take care of everything.

If this is surprising news to anyone, well, welcome to your bubble. I have heard exactly this same description applied to multiple nations and societies -- Vietnam and India in particular come to mind, as reported by a Chinese and a fellow Indian, respectively. The fact is, that situation, far from being an exception, is likely the rule. For most places most of the time, it is 'normal.' But even knowing that, most people still respond incorrectly. They assume that the men are dominating the women and forcing them into a subservient position. Perhaps in some cases, but probably not in most. To be done properly, domineering normally requires uncommon zeal, dedication and energy. This is usually best supplied by an element of shameless and overbearing self-righteousness. These men, like most, are probably just lazy. They probably aren't all that suited to oppression, at least as most people understand the term.

More often, in my opinion, investigation will show G. K. Chesterton's explanation to be the correct one -- that the women have repeatedly prodded their men to get to work like they are supposed to, and the men have disobeyed.  Done often enough, and the women stop asking. And when men shirk the proper roles given to them, such as in supporting the family, or in leadership, or doing the work, or whatever, the work inevitably falls to the women. Filling the role of a shirker may be sometimes be necessary, or laudable, or even heroic, but what it is not is ideal.

And now we get to brass tacks. The Bible as a whole, and this passage in particular, emphatically do not support the notion of women in leadership positions as male equals or equivalents as some kind of ideal. If one would like to make a philosophical 'bigger picture' argument about the thing being taken in some spirit of whatever, well, there might be anything or nothing to any particular theory. But it will not be the straightforward interpretation. Taken as a whole and in context, the Bible is pretty clear.  You may have whatever opinion you like on the matter, but the Bible does not support the feminist equalitarian position.

Like almost all ancient wisdom, and practically all wisdom of all civilizations of all time except for the little Western eye-blink that we presently occupy, the Bible operates under the assumption of differing roles for different people in different relationships with one another, and in propriety in behavior according to role. The key word in that sentence was 'assumption,' and in any culture these are legion and often not spelled out. You just have to know them.  It then goes on to give lessons, histories, and parables in terms of these ideals, including and especially lessons in which characters have refused to submit to their duties.

In general, the Bible ascribes role-reversals such as Deborah's to periods of decadence, like the one depicted in this narrative. Isaiah describes one of the woes of 'God's people' who are in disobedience to Him that 'children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.' (3:12) I do not see how this description could be interpreted as a positive one for feminists. In the New Testament, Paul describes roles within the church where women may lead, but these are limited and circumscribed. Generally, it is expected that men should lead, as leadership is a role more ascribed to men as a rule.

It is the modern 'liberated' West that has idealized women in the roles of men, men as children, and children as adults. And it is the modern 'liberated' West that finds itself confused. Those indolent African men may not be behaving themselves, but at least they are not confused about the matter.  They know better. The problem with the West's understanding of all of this and the offense it causes originates, once again, in decadence. It lies not with the stars, but with ourselves.

And like most problems, it has many sources, one of the most perplexing that we seem unable to think about these situations rationally. Chesterton outlines an interesting problem of modern thought I would never have thought of -- the problem of trends versus doctrine. Modern thought has largely abandoned doctrine in favor of trends, in his mind because of the rise of the theory of evolution. Thus otherwise intelligent men do the equivalent of noticing dandelions growing in a field in the springtime, and then concluding that because they grow they will certainly one day be larger than skyscrapers. The tendency to think in trends erodes the notion of specific, inflexible assertion and leads to extremes and absurdity.

Today, most people cannot deal with supposedly conflicting Biblical notions of female roles and social status, such as the supposed contrast of what I have described here with the idealized wife found in Proverbs, chapter 31. They are too accustomed to dealing with any notion of the status of women, or status in general, as an either-or proposition. Either men are to be high-heel licking commie homosexual equalitarians, or wife-beating Johnny Talibans. Any position staked out in between is taken to be a disingenuous guise for one or the other. Equality is taken to be an absurd absolute and in every particular, or else it is nothing but a shade of abominable oppression.

Ironically, the class leader started off the talk with a reference to Michelle Bachman, who, on reflection, could not have been a more apt example of a modern version of Deborah, though I'm sure he had not quite intended it in the way I do. I do not much follow these things and have no desire to, and I will confess up front that I know absolutely nothing about her except that she is considered a leader of the Tea Party. For all I know, she might be the greatest candidate ever to hit the ballot. If so -- good for her, and everyone out there should vote for her.

But do not forget that we are a decadent culture, as Israel was in the time of Deborah. I am not the first to notice that the Tea Party has an inordinate number of women leaders. Good for them -- but for shame for the rest. For shame for all the millions of Baraks that will only back her and vote for her to lead them, rather than being leaders themselves. For shame for the men of the Tea Party, hiding their opinions behind the skirts of these assertive women like so many Siseras, to avoid the darts of their enemies.

For shame that these women will be taken away from critically important duties that will influence the fates of their children and families, for the sake of such a relatively petty and futile thing as influencing the political fate of a nation. For shame that the abuses of the American political system will be heaped upon their already overburdened shoulders. For shame that they will dirty their hands in fighting more appropriate to men. For shame that our nation has reached the point that it asks this of its women.

I could go on much longer – and probably be much less politically correct about it. But you get the idea. Deborah and Michelle Bachmann might well be heros, but the last thing they are is models. It is perfectly reasonable and appropriate to celebrate single mothers who overcome hard circumstances, especially when they are not of their own choosing, but conservatives are not supposed to be celebrating single motherhood itself.

These are not ideal circumstances. Nobody should be confused about that.

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