My posts for the next little while will be based on the book by Margaret Köstenberger called Jesus and the Feminists. Köstenberger’s book interacts with the writings of iconic feminist figures within the Christian context and evaluates them against Scripture. The key question is: who do they say Jesus is? I plan on summarising and reviewing the content and publishing my thoughts here. I’ve chosen to focus on this book because it is already proving extremely useful as I think through the influence of feminism on the world, and especially on how it shapes my own thinking.
Prior to this book I had picked up Kirsten Birkett’s The Essence of Feminism and found it to be less than persuasive. The argument that ‘feminism has ultimately made life worse for women’ is evidenced by social research which, while somewhat compelling, is easily countered by the authority of, er, my own experience. However naïve I may be, I am not convinced that Dr Birkett’s arguments and evidence are definitive. It is 2014 and we have entered the fourth wave of feminism, I have been swept up in a flurry of equal rights, a fight against rape culture and sexual objectification, and the brilliance of Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham via teh Interwebs. I get what she’s saying about marriage breakdown, and how difficult it is to juggle a family and career, and that it is not at all as liberating as it might have first seemed. But her interpretation of the data is just not true for me. Dr Birkett’s findings were deemed to be officially outdated.
If you are now sufficiently worried that I have adopted a postmodern worldview and kicked Christianity to the kerb for good, rest easy. I intend to blog through Jesus and the Feminists because the content is thoroughly biblical and the most useful resource I have come across yet. My experience may trump social research, but as a committed Christian it must give way to the authority of the Bible. It is also worth laying down my cards once and for all and saying my thoughts on this issue have been, and will be, determined by complementarian theology. What kind of complementarian theology? Let’s just say, Claire Smith is my homegirl (not in a we’ve-actually-got-some-kind-of-relationship kind of way but in a Different-by-Design-is-my-go-to kind of way). So if you thought I was some kind of radical just because I continually talk about feminism – sorry.
The question I have been defaulting to over the past few months is: can I be a Christian feminist? I’d like to clarify now that I have not actually felt compelled to call myself a feminist, and I never have – either in conversation or via this blog. My preoccupation with the subject has come with an increasing self-awareness that I tend to identify with feminism and because I think many other Christians do – sometimes without their even knowing it. Feminism has always had some influence on the church and on women, but it is again entering a new phase and it seems to me that many Christians, myself included, are accepting this progression with little evaluation. Case in point being Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations which was liked and shared on social media by the majority of the English speaking world, including conservative Christians. While I also had praise for Emma’s words, they were distinctly feminist. Is this, then, a new kind of feminism that Christians will accept? Or is it just that a feminist message from a famous actress with a UN backdrop is more palatable than a ranting Germaine Greer and nobody has realised it yet?
But I digress. Köstenberger begins with a short history of feminism’s interaction with the Church, outlining the various ‘waves’ of the movement, as they are known. Köstenberger mainly details events within the American context.
Interestingly, while I have always thought of the first wave beginning with the suffragette movement in the early 1900s, the church’s first wave interaction began with the Protestant Reformation. With the Reformation came a focus on individuals being able to read and understand the Bible for themselves – not just men, but women too. The impact of this was to raise the collective consciousness towards the value of women. Women began asserting their right to preach and teach and by 1849 feminist interpretations of Scripture had begun to surface.
(Aside: I find it so incredibly interesting that the Reformation sparked a ‘feminist movement’ long before the secular landmark of the suffragettes. Christianity has always, undoubtedly, uniquely valued women. I wonder to what extent feminism is ultimately derived from Christian principles – it is only in the wake of Christ that women have been deemed anything close to ‘equal’.)
Köstenberger attributes the second wave with the suffragette movement and states that it was initially very much driven by the secular world with the aim of establishing social and economic rights for women. Special mention is made of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan’s important works during this time. Meanwhile, feminist interpretations of Scripture began to develop within cultural and social contexts i.e. African-American and Hispanic communities, and issues of authority, patriarchy and sexism were addressed. By 1975-1983 the movement within the Christian context had grown so large that three general groups of feminists were identified (will be explained in later posts):
1. Radical feminists
2. Reformist feminists
3. Biblical evangelical feminists (egalitarians)
The third wave of feminism began in the 1990s, which is ‘characterised by an even more radical pursuit of feminine self-realisation completely removed from any guiding Christian principles’. Köstenberger does not have any focus on the third wave given it has little interaction with the Bible. I expect this would also be true for the fourth wave, and while my own experience has been within the most recent feminist renaissance, I find that the emphasis this book has placed on Scripture has allowed it to remain relevant even into that discussion. (Would be happy to hear of any prominent feminist theologians of the third/fourth waves you might know of).
Köstenberger’s chapter on the importance of biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) and accompanying appendix, are the reason why I found myself excited about this book. For months I have been reading article after article on feminism and trying to come up with answers, but have been at a complete loss. As Köstenberger ’s aim is to evaluate feminist theology against what the Bible actually teaches, she begins by reiterating the authority of Scripture and the utmost care one needs to take in understanding it. I haven’t been reading feminist theologians, but I think the acceptance and influence of feminist ideas means that you’re not far off the mark. In order to adopt feminism as a philosophy, or even sections of it, I think as a Christian you would then need to apply a feminist interpretation of Scripture. This is a dangerous thing to do.
This has seemed embarrassingly obvious to me in the past week, but it was refreshing to read and be reminded of all the same. A really big problem with the way I have approached this issue is that I have been asking: can I be a Christian feminist? Having Köstenberger put the Bible front and centre again made me realise that I was asking the wrong question. We should never bring our cultural bias to bear upon Scripture. I cannot turn to Scripture and interpret it based on feeling, or experience. I must let Scripture stand on its own merit, and speak to me of its enduring truth. I cannot simply look for feminism within its pages.
Before turning to the writing of feminists, Köstenberger grounds us firmly in God’s word and asks us to:
1. Reaffirm that Scripture is inerrant, infallible, authoritative, and divinely inspired. Only then will you be compelled to obey it despite personal preference or contemporary relevance.
2. Interpret Scripture by coming as close as possible to the actual meaning as intended by the author at the time of writing. If we do not establish authorial intent as the guide for interpretation, all interpretations will become valid, thereby nullifying any attempt at truth. i.e. we cannot just look for something in the Bible that seems to ‘match up’ with feminism, we need to do the work in understanding the Bible for what it is.
Here concludes part 1.