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Background stories

Mr. W and I had the privilege of reading bedtime stories to the children of some friends the other day. The three books we were presented with were quite charming – beautiful illustrations, gently wholesome messaging (friendship, courage, the joy of reading, and the importance of keeping libraries open) and, best of all, one of them rhymed. Only, no joke, of the twelve or so characters across the books none were female, with the passing exception of somebody's unnamed mother.


In conversation about the new Star Wars (which I haven't seen yet), I heard it suggested that there were 'too many women'. So, I went and, with the help of IMDB and key stage 3 level maths, I found out that, of the entire cast, 25% were female, while of the top 12 characters, 40% were. Granted, headcount may or may not be a good proxy for screentime, but still: 'too many', as too often (see, e.g., research about perceived and actual speaker ratios), meant 'a larger minority than we're used to'.


'Friends' was already huge when I reached an age where my parents began to feel like it was easier to turn a blind eye to some of the TV programs they disapproved of than to ban them outright. And who (apart from my parents) didn't adore it? Years later we would realise that, actually, New York isn't near-exclusively populated by white middle class people, and our self-reassurances that Ross had a black girlfriend in one season would do little to assuage our retrospective discomfort.


Star Wars again. 'The Force Awakens', with its jubilantly overt feminist messaging, coincided with (and catalysed) an episode of considerable 'awakening' of my own. It became an instant all-time favourite, and I was confident that the strange absence of women of colour must surely be a blip that would be rectified in the sequels. By the time I'd seen 'Rogue One' that confidence was waning; the trailer for 'The Last Jedi' was enough to sap what was left of my hopes for the franchise.


Before all this sighing triggers my chronic hyperventilation syndrome (oh, too late) how about a breath of fresh air: 'Hidden Figures' – a film about three mathematicians who made significant contributions to the success of NASA during the space race. Only, because those mathematicians were women, and because they were black, it took five decades of obscurity and six years of research for their achievements to be brought to light and honoured. On which note, after all:


The stories that get told loudest and the manner of their telling are rarely true-to-life. What they are true to, usually, are existing power arrangements. Because it's people with power – status, money, opportunity, connections, education, liberty – who get to tell the most stories; and it's other people with power – high-volume consumers with disposable income and free time to spend – to whom the stories are mostly told. And because stories themselves have power – to shape our collective understanding, aspirations, expectations and assumptions – it's a self-reinforcing spiral: the powerful are incentivised (as well as enabled) to centre stories that legitimate and fortify their power.

It happens in entertainment and the arts; it happens in the media and in coverage of current affairs; it happens in history and the 'annals' of scientific and technological progress. And, guess what, it happens in religion and theology, not least in Christianity.

For the two thousand years that the church has existed so far, it has been almost exclusively men who have had the education and opportunity to teach, lead and 'do theology'. Indeed, it's been widely believed that only men are authorised to perform these roles. The resulting narrowed read on the Bible has produced translations, interpretations and "canons-within-the-canon" that centre men's stories and experiences and elevate passages that seem to endorse the continued exclusion of women from the opportunity to contribute to our collective understanding (cue self-reinforcing spiral).

Mind you, at first glance this might not appear to be much of a stretch. The human writers of the Bible were themselves mostly (if not all) male; they used words of their own choosing, in the languages available to them – inevitably embedding their cultures' pre-suppositions and arrangements of power. A cursory skim-through can quickly seem to confirm its reputation among skeptics (and conservative Christians, it sometimes feels like) as a collection of yet more books about men, by men, and for men.

At which point, the impulse of many is to slam it shut and have nothing more to do with it. And possibly to urge other people to slam it shut too. But, as someone with more than a cursory skim-through to go on, I'd like to urge instead a closer read...

The male bias of the Bible is unsurprising, for reasons already hinted at. It's hard to see how it could have been otherwise, without by-passing the lived realities (i.e. the social opportunities and expectations) of the communities with which God interacted, or by obliterating the personal voices of those writing it down – neither of which seem consistent with the non-imposing, self-emptying, incarnational nature of God as described by those voices.

What is surprising (and telling) is the abundance of counter-narrative that survives this bias: at every stage of Israel's and the early church's history, women were chosen, as well as men (and in comparable roles), to participate in God's plans and purposes. But you have to be looking to see them...

Sarah the Matriarch

The name Abraham means 'father of nations'; God's promise to multiply and bless Abraham's descendants (Gen 12:1-3) is oft-cited throughout the Old and New Testaments and is understood to be where Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and a number of other monotheistic religions 'all started'. What is rather less remembered is the fact that God made a strikingly similar promise about Sarah: "I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." (Gen 17:16b) In an age and culture fixated on the continuation of the male family line – where men who could afford to simply acquired as many wives and concubines as it took to produce male offspring – it is striking that God's plan involved a particular woman as much as it involved a particular man. [1]

Miriam the Liberator

Moses was appointed by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan (Ex 3). Most Sunday school alumni could probably tell you that, due to Moses' social anxiety (Ex 4:14-16), his brother Aaron was sent along too. But how many would think to name their sister, Miriam, as co-leader with them? "I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam." (Mic 6:4) She appears in the story less prominently (compare, e.g., the two verses in which she leads the women of Israel in celebratory song, with the 18 verses spanned by Moses' corresponding celebration), but still she appears.

Deborah the Judge

After 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the liberated Israelites finally entered the Promised Land, where they were ruled on and off by a series of ad hoc military leaders. These would arise in times of crisis, rescue Israel from its current oppressors, and reinstate justice and peace. For the time being. The Book of Judges mentions 12 such leaders, 11 of whom were male. The other (the fourth in sequence) was Deborah, who "held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim" (Judges 4:5). Two whole chapters (Judges 4-5) tell how she commanded (and accompanied) an army into successful battle against a Canaanite king who had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years, and record her victory song. [2]

Huldah the Prophet

When Israel and Judah (initially united) became monarchies, the king would typically send for a known prophet if ever he wished to 'inquire of the Lord' or to have someone intercede with God on his behalf. Josiah's reign coincided with the ministry of Jeremiah – one of the most significant prophets in Judah's history, with his name on a sizeable Old Testament book. Nevertheless, when Josiah discovers the forgotten Book of the Law, it is to Huldah that he sends for advice (2 Kings 22:13-20). The seven verse story, repeated in 2 Chronicles (v22-28) is her only mention in the Bible, and yet here is a woman who heard from God and counselled royalty. She pronounced peace in Josiah's time on account of his penitence, but judgement to come. "So they took her answer back to the king." (2 Kings 22:20b)

Mary the Sent

'Everybody knows' that Jesus had Twelve Apostles, and that they were all male, right? Well, the word apostle (which means 'sent') is used less restrictively in the New Testament letters, being applied by Paul to himself and others not mentioned in the gospel accounts [3]. Accepted definitions vary, but typically include an encounter with the risen Jesus and a direct commission to tell others about him. One clear candidate by this definition is Mary Magdalene – a close friend of Jesus before his death; the first to see him alive, according to John's gospel, and the first to be sent to announce the resurrection (John 20:11-18). Because she "went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’" (John 20:18), the Catholic church has given her the title of 'Apostle to the Apostles'.

What more should I say? Time would fail me to tell of Shiphrah, Puah, Rahab, Jael, Hannah, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Abigail, Shallum's daughters, Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, Anna, more women named Mary, Martha, the woman who had had five husbands, Tabitha, Phoebe, Priscilla, Philip's daughters, other women identified only by their relation to men who nonetheless had part and purpose in the things that God was doing ... and so on. Their inclusion feels almost begrudging sometimes, as though the writers felt awkward mentioning them: they often get fewer column inches than their male counterparts, and they are less frequently cited elsewhere in the Bible. It has been temptingly easy for readers since to filter them out as anomalies which mustn't be allowed to disrupt the 'clear' messages of scripture. But remarkably, and (in terms of what it says about God's perspective on things) deeply hearteningly, they are indelibly there.

[1] Abraham already had a son, by Hagar – a complicated and uneasy story which raises plenty of other questions! (Genesis 16, Genesis 21)

[2] Which is not to say that the Bible's portrayal of Deborah is not problematic. Jenni Williams' book God Remembered Rachel has a fittingly uncomfortable chapter on the ways her story is used to reinforce patriarchal norms: in Judges 4 her warrior status is given primarily in order to shame a male warrior; in Judges 5 she appears to collude with the objectification of, and violence against, fellow women.

[3] Possibly including, depending on one's rendering of the grammar, a woman named Junia. Who many are suspiciously quick to argue was actually a man named Junias. Whilst also stressing the alternative grammar rendering just in case. Because it's important to cover all bases. This both illustrates my point and complicates it.

[Thumbnail image cc from Rob de Vries on Flickr].