No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

Taming Shakespeare

It hardly seemed credible, from what I heard in high school, that anyone would read Shakespeare if it weren’t required. I’m not completely naive, but I do wonder if we insist on introducing kids to the Bard before they’re ready for him. The real stumbling block is the unfamiliar words from the Elizabethan period. With enough regular reading they’re less of an obstacle to adults. Or should be. Or not to be. In any case, one of this year’s reading challenge books required that I read The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never read it before and kind of shied away from it because of the chauvinistic theme—Katherine has to be “tamed” by Petruchio so that her poor, sweet sister Bianca can be married. The overall theme is biblical—Rachel can’t be wed before Leah, so Laban declares. The play’s a comedy at the expense of women.

Those who know Shakespeare better than I question whether the playwright’s motives were as undeveloped as all that, but it is in keeping with the time. That’s not to excuse such patriarchal thinking, but we can’t rightfully blame people for thinking in the terms of their time. Yes, we now realize (except on Pennsylvania Avenue) that women and men deserve equal treatment. We are all human beings and should be treated as such, not as if one gender were somehow more important or better than another. In the Tudor Era, however, that idea had not yet caught on. The Taming of the Shrew contains clues as to why.

Perhaps the most reviled part of the play is Katherine’s closing speech as to why women should be subjected to men. Her reasoning is distinctly biblical. Indeed, the edition of the play I was reading took pains to point out the biblical allusions in the speech—primarily to letters of the New Testament. The fear, unaccountably real after all these centuries, is that we might go back to such thinking. The Bible, after all, doesn’t change much. The most conservative of society still read it in the King James, although the Bible Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew best was the Geneva translation. And, like the schoolchild reading Shakespeare, such conservatives need a little help with the language since words have changed their usages over time. They also may need some assistance realizing that not only words evolve, but so does our understanding of what it means to human. It’s not women who need to be tamed, Mr. Shakespeare. No, it’s quite the opposite.

Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.

Men Without Hats

Do you want to start an argument? Mention hijab in a Christian environment. Some tempers will likely flair. The idea that a patriarchal religion would tell women to cover themselves suggests something sinister, doesn’t it? The other day I came across headcoveringmovement.com. There are, as I have come to know, many Christian groups that consider Paul’s directive for women’s headwear as, well, gospel. Commentators still spar about why Paul insisted that women cover their heads in worship. Adding “for the sake of angels” only evokes more convoluted imaginations. As any stroll through Manhattan will reveal, many Jewish men also observe head covering. What is it with bare heads, gods, and angels?

No doubt, in cultures where men are expected to restrain themselves less than women, hair can sometimes be seen as sexually provocative. (I’m not excusing, just observing.) Most men will eventually experience nature’s tonsure in some form or another, and perhaps this knowledge makes feminine hair more alluring. None of this, however, answers the question. What is so hubristic about uncovered heads? I’m not authorized to speak about fashion, but I feel confident in asserting that in many periods of human history, hats were the norm. Look at old portraits. What did Martin Luther or John Calvin look like without their ubiquitous hats? Did they serve to cover bad theological hair days? Or was it just the climate? Distinctive hats have been used to identify social classes and professions. We still use the expression “putting on my [chose a noun] hat.” So what’s all this with head covering for women?

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…? – R.C. Sproul.” So states Headcovering Movement’s homepage at the date of this writing. There can be little doubt about what’s behind this scheme. I recall a phase when my mother wore headscarves to church. Many years later, even in high church Episcopalian settings I’ve seen women walk in with what looked like lace doilies on their heads. Is there an agenda here? I can’t speak for Muslims, but it seems that Sproul believes the rightful place for a woman is beneath a man. Theology in the service of chauvinism. Just try to read 1 Corinthians 11 and come out without a headache. The saint’s logic here is so confused that I want to pull my hat over my eyes. Or I would, if I wore a hat.

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Lady Madonna

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Among the paintings and prints in the Edvard Munch collection on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a rendition of his famous Madonna. I first saw a reproduction of this piece in a discussion of Christian art. The question, of course, was whether it could be considered Christian art or not. Munch was not known for creating religious-themed art. Angst was his more natural home. While not the only Madonna to pose naked, Munch predated the aging pop star by a fair number of decades, and named this piece after an icon of Catholic orthodoxy. The problem is the female body. Religion in the western world has pretty much always had difficulty dealing with embodiment. My generation grew up with Charlton Heston and any number of bare-chested, sculpted idols of manhood playing such characters as Tarzan, Ben-Hur, and Moses. Moses? Yes, even Cecil B. DeMille knew the draw of having a biblical hero bathed by a bunch of young, Egyptian women. We are used to seeing Jesus nearly naked on the cross—but Mary?

The issues tied to embodiment, although they effect every person who has a body, fall more heavily upon females. While there is little agreement as to the why, the excuse is often given that “man” is in the image of God and “woman” is derivative. In actual fact it seems more likely to me that men prefer an easy excuse for bad behavior. Biology sends a pretty strong reproductive message to most males, but, in the human realm at least, the larger burden rests with the females. By blaming the victims the male hierarchy—undeniable in the case of the church, as in many religions—insists that the female body is the problem. Males perform as God intended, thank you. But the reasoning is all backward here. Munch, if he intended this to be the Madonna, is problematizing the discourse.

Art, like holy writ, is open to interpretation. Munch did not explain his enigmatic Madonna, but like Leonardo da Vinci, lets the silent woman speak for herself. Scholars have long noted the multiplicity of Marys in Jesus’ life. At some points the Gospel writers leave a little too much inference up to the reader. It is pretty clear that Jesus had no trouble with women. But he was a singular visionary in a time when cheap blame was easily found. So Edvard Munch may have been following in the footsteps of the master when he portrayed the Madonna who accuses the world of double-dealing and false standards. It is an arresting artwork, and not for prurient reasons. What is being exposed here is a soul. She may be called the blessed virgin or the mother of God, but her gender is still castigated even by those who mouth such holy epithets. We may never know who Munch intended this to be, but we know she is every woman who has been repressed by the religion of men, yearning to be free.

Big Top

Being raised by a woman who staunchly kept her evangelical faith no matter what the world threw at her has undoubtedly left a deep impression on me. Over the past few years I’ve found myself reading the memoirs of girls raised in evangelical settings who’ve discovered truths often hidden from males in similar circumstances. Clearly one of those truths is that male privilege is the substrate for any kind of biblical literalism. I’ve just finished reading Donna M. Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl and once again I’ve seen the light. Before I read this book I’d never heard of tent revivalist David Terrell, but I had attended a revival or two with my mother in my younger years and I knew, at least in theory, the evangelist is less important than the message. So they would have us believe. What Johnson accomplishes, however, is no less than astonishing. She presents a portrait that neither condemns nor condones her erstwhile stepfather, although her childhood was frequently undermined by the perils that accompany being raised by a revivalist groupie, and particularly being a girl in that situation.

Plaintive and reflective, Holy Ghost Girl raises questions that evangelicals often leave hanging in the air, such as when Brother Terrell’s son asks why he has to go to school when the rapture will come any day. Why indeed? When a court order had been issued, Johnson describes the puzzlement of the evangelistic team as they tried to decipher the letter: “Dreams, visions, prophecy, and scripture, our primary tools for making sense of the world, offered no insight on how to deal with legal issues.” This sentence suddenly explained so much of my own youth that I felt as if I’d missed out on the class that informed evangelicals of what was expected of them. The rules of this world do not apply here. Men are superior to women and girls who question that do so at their eternal peril. This becomes clear as Johnson reveals while the story unfolds that Terrell kept at least two secret families hidden from his wife, and, more importantly, from his followers. When Johnson’s mother found herself pregnant by Terrell and her daughter asked what she would tell the kids when they grew up the answer was pat: Jesus will return before then.

The idea of being excited for one’s belief is admirable. Evangelicalism has made an industry of it, conflating emotion with spirituality. Biblical literalism will always exact a heavy cost on girls. Those of us who study the Bible professionally learn early on that the Bible reflects the social conventions that gave rise to it and that world was unapologetically patriarchal. That stain will necessarily accompany any form of literalism—the sexes cannot be equal when the Bible says it ain’t so. Herein is the dilemma of the girl raised in an evangelical world: to question authority is to risk hellfire, and authority rests with men. Those who insist on women’s equality are of the devil. Johnson, obviously, took that great risk of making a deal with the devil and became a normal person. All of us raised evangelical have to come to grips with such issues if we want to make a lunge for normalcy, but the cost will always be far higher for girls.

Eve’s Orchard

One of the innocent pleasures of autumn is apple picking. Not living in the country, many of us rely on the local orchards that open their trees and furrows to the public during the fall so we can feel once again in touch with nature. It may be only temporary, but this farm life is authentic and revitalizing – especially under a cerulean blue October sky. So it was that we joined our anonymous friends to pluck fruit and feel a part of the organic world away from laptops, palms, and cells. Picking apples always brings Eden to mind. In fact, no matter how secular the class I teach, if I ask students what picking fruit from a tree – usually I have to throw in the snake as well – represents, invariably most guess Adam and Eve. Of course, in the patriarchal world of the Bible, Eve gets the rap for taking the first bite, but a more sensitive reading reveals maybe this was what God intended all along.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Within a generation of the origins of Christianity, a negative spin had been placed on that fateful fruit. This was the willful disobedience of sin rearing its ugly head in Eden. Of course, Genesis does not refer to the act as a “sin” – the word first occurs in the story of Cain and Abel. The human striving for knowledge, for the prerogative of the divine, the sadder but more informed life, was now a matter of blame. In the Greco-Roman cultural milieu where men set the standards, woman became the harbinger of sin and decay. Adam stood chastely by, happily clueless until Eve insisted he try this brand of iniquity. Pure fiction. And yet it is this version that has retained cultural currency in the western world. Blame it on Eve.

The patriarchal version


So much of our reading of the Bible is based on prior expectations. Even Bible translators know that they can’t go too far a field from the standard that the KJV set. When western Bible readers first cut their teeth on English prose, it was the dulcet tones of Elizabethan English that captured their attention. And the mores of Shakespearean England combined with the harsh repressions of a simmering Calvinism led to a Bible choked with sin to the point that a little fruit enraged the creator as much as fratricide just a chapter later. The fruit had rotted on the tree, and women were to blame. Perhaps it is time that we recognize the filters before our eyes when we approach the Bible. If we can understand that the patriarchalism is not the point, but merely the cultural shading of the time, we can release the message that the fruit is good. The temptation was not to become evil, but simply to become human.