Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.
Chapter 7 of Philip Jenkins is ‘Women and Men’
Another terrific thought-provoking chapter – this time on the role of women within Global South Christianity.
Jenkins argues here that the impact of Christianity on women’s lives is impressive – across the board from educated intellectuals to ordinary women.
The big idea here is that Christianity is a liberating force for women with socially progressive and even revolutionary implications.
Now before unpacking evidence for such a view, Jenkins does give space to acknowledge that all too often Christianity takes forms that are anything but liberating for women. Korea is an example of where the Confucian ideal of the ‘good woman, submissive, pious and unquestioning’ is taken as prescribed by the Bible.
The famous Pauline passages, that continue to cause debate in the West, are commonly used to limit women’s roles and reinforce cultures that are already patriarchal in character. Motherhood and domesticity are prized and taught, often with the exaltation of bearing male children.
Yet, says Jenkins, such attitudes are being seriously challenged by African and Asian feminist reading of the Bible, especially in how they interpret biblical texts like Ruth, Esther and Mary’s Magnificat.
Yes at times this takes on a fairly radical intellectual tinge with overtly political overtones. But Jenkins argues at grassroots level, among the poor in Africa and Asia “the rise of Christianity has, in an amazingly short time, effected dramatic changes in gender attitudes.”
Jenkins puts it memorably:
“leaving women to pursue domestic piety through Bible reading is like forbidding a restive population to carry weapons, while giving them unrestricted access to gasoline and matches.”
The Bible is a radical and dangerous text which challenges conventional cultural stereotypes of women:
– An emphasis on faithful monogamous marriage in cultures that prize male sexual promiscuity.
– Biblical concepts of masculinity radically challenging ‘male machismo’ – such as the duty of the man to love his wife as Christ loved the church in Ephesians 5.
– An emphasis on charismatic gifting opening up ministry to women as the Spirit alights on whomever he wills. This ‘gender blind’ Spirit enables women to preach, prophesy, evangelise, and heal. Africa particularly has a vibrant tradition of women prophets.
– Jesus himself:
- for example the story of the women suffering with bleeding in Luke 8 is not interpreted as just a sad medical condition, it means she is ritually unclean. Jesus breaks blood taboos and affirms women who are often relegated to the background because of menstruation or pregnancy.
- Jesus’ many parables and actions of spiritual inclusion of outsiders including the Samaritan woman at the well and the inclusion of women like Rahab and Tamar in his family tree. Such inclusion is profoundly radical in societies where women are imprisoned by cultural restrictions.
– Challenging the practice of female circumcision as it is discovered that the Bible does not endorse such a ritual.
– Affirming women’s sexuality as in the Song of Songs (instead of seeing it as something shameful)
– Resisting the sexual exploitation of women as made in the image of God
– The Bible gives ‘permission’ for women to talk about and previously taboo subjects like rape, incest, abuse and AIDS, at last allowing space for stories to be heard.
– The Bible’s teaching to honour widows seems a historical curiosity to a Western reader but in the Global South is it a matter of life and death. Since property belongs to the man, a widow can find herself and her children stripped of possessions and livelihood after her husband’s death. In some African societies she must have intercourse with her husband’s brother to excise spirits. In other societies she is treated like the ‘living dead’ under a curse. Widows in such cultures need protection, inclusion and inheritance rights. Here, a story like that of Boaz caring for and protecting Ruth by marrying her speaks powerfully of an alternative hope for the widow.
Repeatedly reading this book, you are struck by the sheer freshness, revolutionary power and good news of the Bible as it challenges and undermines negative and destructive cultural beliefs towards women.
And this chapter raises questions about Christianity here in Ireland, esp the evangelical variety.
How would you describe attitudes to women within Irish evangelicalism? What has been your experience (especially if you are a woman). Is the church challenging negative cultural attitudes to women by following through on the Bible’s affirmation, liberation and inclusion of women?