In preparation for an upcoming full Greystone course in Domestic Violence in Theology and Ministry, I’ve been working through a pile a volumes on the topic that I’ve read over the last decade or so.… More
Announcing a Greystone Theological Institute event this Thursday:
This one-day seminar will feature Dr. David Head’s survey of Milton’s work as a poet followed by a close examination by Dr. Mark A. Garcia of the bewildering yet influential seventeenth-century models of gender as well as Milton’s controversial teaching on marriage and divorce, which factored significantly in the work of the Westminster Assembly.
Cost: Donation only. Donations help cover the costs of running free events and programs. (Thank you for making your donation here.)
Mark Garcia and I are thrilled to announce the inaugural Lydia Symposium, to be held 16-17 September, 2016 at Greystone Theological Institute in Coraopolis, PA. We intend this event to act as an introduction to our work and an opportunity to engage with and hear from all those who are interested in investigating, discussing, and working towards solutions for issues facing Christian women. We are especially pleased that Dr. Rebekah (Becky) Josberger will be joining us as an invited speaker, delivering two talks connected to her work on the Torah and specifically the father in Israel. (You will learn more about her important work soon.) Please also note that I will be leading a roundtable discussion during this event, intended to provide opportunity for reflection and dialogue amongst attendees and presenters.
This event is free (Register here!), and we hope this will facilitate your attendance. It is our hope that supportive donors will subsidize this event. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to attend the event, please consider making a donation in whatever amount you are able. Even if you cannot attend the event, your valuable donation allows us to offer this and other events for free.
I hope to see you in Coraopolis in September.
If I had a flair for the dramatic, I would say patriarchy died on November 23, 2013.
There is some truth in that claim, though it’s a truth having more to do with the world of scholarship than the everyday realities many people live with. Instead of going that route, then, I will suggest that November 23, 2013 is one of the most important dates in the convoluted story of patriarchy in the world of biblical scholarship. It is at least a date students of the topic should try to remember.
On that date, Carol L. Meyers, Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, delivered her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Fernando F. Segovia, the SBL Vice-President, introduced Meyers with a truly impressive report of her accomplishments in scholarship over many years. Her address was titled, “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?” (later published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 1 :8-27; I will refer to the pages of the published article). She has published on the question in several places, and those familiar with the literature will know Meyers has long been at the forefront of biblical scholarship on gender and the Old Testament. But her 2013 address focused her thinking on the subject in a new way, placing it helpfully against the backdrop of scholarly work in various related fields.
In his introduction, Segovia highlighted several noteworthy features of Meyers’ career in biblical studies. Meyers entered the world of biblical studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the tumultuous heyday of the sexual revolution and political unrest. She started teaching at Duke in 1976, where she has continued to this day, and her now more than forty years of work bear the imprint of the rapidly changing ideology of feminism. “To my mind,” says Segovia,
“she represents an ideal signifier of the times — a product of and an agent in such years of transformation. In terms of faces and voices, she belongs to the first generation of women who break into the patriarchal world of the academy and the field of studies. In terms of method and theory, she stands with that circle of scholars who begin to reach out to other fields of study, such as the social sciences and feminist studies, for grounding and inspiration of the study of biblical antiquity” (5).
Her often-awarded, critically acclaimed, interdisciplinary publications bear this out. Her very many scholarly articles and essays, and particularly her highly influential 1988 study of women’s roles and everyday activities in ancient Israel, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford), and its later revision and expansion as Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (2013), remain important, even standard and representative examples of the best of feminist-oriented readings of the Old Testament. And they have proven valuable and insightful even for those scholars who work very far indeed from feminist ideology.
I introduce her at such length in order to make her credentials clear as a leading scholar shaped by, committed to, and fueling feminism in biblical studies. Arguably, then, as a representative and ground-breaking scholar identified with feminist hermeneutics, Meyers has as much interest as anyone could in the patriarchy reading of the Old Testament. After all, that critical, negative reading of Scripture’s allegedly patriarchal model of home and society is what gave feminist biblical studies its materials, its vision, its very raison d’etre.
And yet Meyers, the feminist scholar, argues that Israel and her sacred texts are not patriarchal, that examination of the texts themselves indicates “patriarchy” is misleading, and that therefore “patriarchy” in scholarly historical and biblical studies should be left behind.
In what follows I will outline Meyers’ reasons for reaching this conclusion, in which she is in fact far from alone, even among feminist scholars. But I will do so not because I believe Meyers represents the way forward for a more faithful understanding of the biblical text (she does propose an alternative which we will explore in our next post), but because such a highly qualified, scholarly voice against the idea of a biblical “patriarchy,” in the context of a programmatic, agenda-setting, state-of-the-question presidential address to SBL, should give us pause. And when we discover in the literature that hers is a conclusion long in the making, and has been voiced by a wide variety of scholars (both “conservative” and “liberal”), the “patriarchy” question becomes its own kind of educational window into biblical topics the wider literature has been exploring fruitfully for the last several decades.
Patriarchy as a Social Science Theory
Put most succinctly, “patriarchy” denotes the social-science concept of male dominance. In most dictionaries, patriarchy is a system of male power or authority in any form of social structure which, either as a matter of principle or only of practice, includes the relative or complete exclusion of women from that system of power. Meyers opens her lecture with a reference to its use as a descriptor in biblical studies for ancient Israel, a use which appears to date only to the late nineteenth century.
Incidentally, this timetable seems to hold true inasmuch as other scholars have noted how the impact of Darwin’s theories included the search for a biological grounding for traditional assumptions regarding the ontological superiority of males. Though Darwin himself never went the Social Darwinism direction, others quickly did, most notably Alfred Russel Wallace. As recently as 1973, Steven Goldberg, a sociologist at the City College of New York, published The Inevitability of Patriarchy, arguing along Social Darwinian lines for a biological interpretation of male dominance.
As Meyers notes, the term “patriarchy” does not appear in the Bible. It is a social science construct, not a biblical one. It derives, too, not from biblical studies at all but from other fields of study, and so its usefulness must be evaluated against the background of developments in those fields as well as growing knowledge of the ancient, and in our case especially biblical, societies to which the term is applied. Thus Meyers explores its use in the study of ancient Israel, and then notes challenges to the patriarchal model that arise from three areas: classical studies, research on women in ancient Israel, and feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ remarks along these same lines. Note that, for accuracy’s sake, I will follow her order and prose as closely as possible, and follow the survey with a few of my own remarks.
Patriarchy in the Study of Ancient Israel
Meyers notes that the use of “patriarchy” in the study of ancient Israel is rather recent and emerged within a clearly definable setting, namely nineteenth-century anthropology. The rise of historical criticism in biblical studies yielded a fresh interest in the social world of the biblical texts, but the challenges and apparent contradictions of the biblical materials proved so frustrating to scholars that they turned to the social sciences for help. This turn by nineteenth-century biblical scholars to the social sciences, says Meyers, “was the first of two ‘waves’ of biblical scholarship that turned to social-science disciplines” (10).
The anthropologists to whom the biblical scholars turned worked from an evolutionary perspective, assuming that human beings pass “through stages of development, from the primitive to the civilized.” Crucially, in the absence of direct evidence from ancient societies, they drew extensively from the then-available body of Greek and Latin sources to construct their theories about the development of family structures. Most scholars concluded from these Greek and Latin texts that the father must have dominated in the original form of the family, and they called this “patriarchy” (as, most essentially, father-rule), though they applied this term only to the family, not to society as a whole.
Meyers notes three figures who were especially important to this development. The first of these is the English classicist and law professor Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888), who published on ancient (i.e., Greek and Roman) law. He examined and enlarged the classic notion of patria potestas (“the father’s power”) as an instance of “paternal despotism,” arguing that the father had vitae necisque potestas (“power of life and death”) over his servants, wife, and children.
The second figure Meyers mentions is the Frenchman Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges whose 1864 book on the family stresses that the word pater (father) means absolute authority, not just biological paternity, and is practically synonymous in meaning with “king.” As Meyers explains, De Coulanges claimed that the father held all judicial authority in the household and a woman was considered a “mineure” (a minor) with no household authority whatsoever.
The third figure Meyers notes is Lewis Henry Morgan, an early American anthropologist and lawyer whose 1877 book, Ancient Society, explicitly linked the presumed patriarchal family model of the Greeks and Romans to the family type of the “Hebrew tribes.”
Shortly after these scholars did their work, Bernhard Stade, a prominent German historian and theologian (and founder of the biblical studies journal ZAW), published in 1887-88 a two-volume history of Israel which is as much social and political history as anything else it purports to be. Meyers suggests this “is probably the first publication by a biblical scholar in which the terms ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal society’ are used for ancient Israel” (12). It is a work deeply influenced by the new social scientists and their assertions regarding the Roman patria potestas and paterfamilias. “Stade’s reconstruction of Israelite society and religion,” says Meyers, “had a significant impact on biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, where Julius Wellhausen was among those whom he influenced” (12).
After nearly half a century of strange silence on this front, a new wave of interest in social scientific models of ancient Israelite society emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, but now with a focus on prophecy and apocalyptic movements rather than the household. (Meyers refers to Robert R. Wilson, “Reflections on Social-Scientific Criticism,” in Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David. L. Petersen [ed. Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards; SBLRBS 56; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 507–10 for discussion of why this is the case.) An exception to this shift is Roland de Vaux whose Ancient Israel (1958, 1960; in English, 1961, rep. 1997) became a classic. De Vaux repeated many of the older assumptions regarding Israel as patriarchal, including the notion that fathers held the “power of life and death” over their wives and children.
Major studies and reference works from this period (so formative for twentieth-century evangelical biblical studies and its new interest in ancient Near Eastern contextual topics) contain similar assertions drawn from the older social scientific model. Meyers points to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1976) and the entry for “father” in the first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1974) as examples. In addition, Max Weber’s 1921-22 work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), which Meyers says “was arguably the most important sociological work of the twentieth century,” likely contributed to this growing consensus on Israel’s patriarchy (13). Weber influenced the great Old Testament scholar Martin Noth and, it appears, Norman Gottwald as well.
From here, the number of scholars repeating the patriarchy descriptor for Israel multiplied throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first, including such recent examples as Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager (2001), the Pentateuch volume of the Dictionary of the Old Testament (2003), and the article on households in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2006).
However, Meyers explains that “adherence to the patriarchal model did abate somewhat in the late twentieth century, perhaps because studies of women’s roles in ancient Israel had begun to contest aspects of the patriarchal paradigm” (14). She points to the entry on “family” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD) (1992), the Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin work Social World of Ancient Israel (1993), the chapter on the monarchic period in the 1997 book Families in Ancient Israel, and the essay on marriage and family in ancient Israel in the 2003 publication, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World (IVP).
As I will note again at the conclusion of this post, I suggest it is a shame that Meyers does not give more space and attention to this last essay, which is by the evangelical biblical scholar Daniel Block (we will return to Block’s work at some length in our next post). She notes correctly that Block
“takes to task interpreters who consider certain biblical narratives to be ‘normal expressions of patriarchy,’ asserts that ‘father’ does not mean ‘ruler,’ and proposes that the term ‘patriarchy’ be avoided altogether” (14).
Despite these dissenting voices, Meyers notes that feminist biblical scholars have persisted with the “patriarchy” reading, and points to several familiar names in feminist biblical studies such as Phyllis Bird (particularly her entry on women in ABD 6), Alice Bach, Esther Fuchs, Kathleen M. O’Connor, and Sharon H. Ringe. Importantly, though, these more recent feminist voices reflect a second wave of the patriarchal model in which the original application of the term to family structures only has been expanded to become a societal structure. In this second wave, patriarchy became a model pervading family as well as all social structures driven by ideologies “that have enabled men to dominate and exploit women throughout recorded history” (so stated by highly influential Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, cited by Meyers [15 n. 47]).
“In sum,” says Meyers,
“the concept of patriarchy taken up by Hebrew Bible scholars in the nineteenth century still influences the understanding of Israelite households. We still see references to patriarchy and the appearance of paterfamilias and pater potestas. And the all-inclusive concept of male dominance and concomitant female victimhood, as articulated by second-wave theorists, appears in the publications of many feminist biblical scholars” (16).
But Meyers believes this understanding is no longer justified. She argues that “developments in three areas… challenge its appropriateness as a descriptor of Israelite society.” Again, these three areas are studies of classical society, research on Israelite and biblical women, and third-wave feminist theory. I will summarize Meyers’ treatment of those developments more briefly than I have summarized her presentation so far.
Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Classical Studies
In classical studies, where the concept of patriarchy originated, the challenges to the model have been monumental. As early as the 1960s, reports Meyers, scholars were noting that the idea of the Roman “all-powerful pater familias” doesn’t fit reality. “Perhaps most
important,” says Meyers, “was the realization that different areas of household life cannot be lumped together; that is, male control in one area does not necessarily mean control
in all areas,” and the idea of a father’s life-and-death power was also shown to be a conceptual abstraction rather than a fact of social history (16).
Most significantly, says Meyers, in the 1990s the growing guild of historians of classical societies, no longer made up of legal historians as in the heyday of patriarchy’s scholarly life, demonstrated clearly that the traditional view of patriarchy is not supported by the social and cultural realities evidenced in the texts. Instead of focusing only on legal texts, as the earlier generations of scholars had done, scholars were now examining a broad range of materials, including ones from daily life, and the result was a widely different picture of fathers and their power from the one that had become conventionally assumed to be true.
Meyers points especially to the 1994 work of Richard Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge). One important outcome of this scholarly development was the recognition that “the relationship between a man and his wife in Roman society did not involve the same absolute authority that a father may have had over his children,” and that “the term ‘patriarchy’ does not apply to the husband-wife relationship.” Instead, evidence examined by Saller and others, including Xenophon’s treatise on household management, points to the managerial authority or power wielded by Roman women in their households, “sometimes even ‘exercising authority over her marital partner'” (18).
Feminist archaeologists have themselves also challenged the patriarchy model. Meyers summarizes their findings (in words which remind us of recent historical scholarship on the roots and development of twentieth-century evangelical patriarchy). She says these archaeologists dismantled the older patriarchal reading of the Roman household and showed that
“capitalist Victorian household patterns, in which the workplace was outside the home and men had control over their wives and children dependent on their earnings, had been superimposed on premodern societies in which the household was the workplace for all family members.”
Though I won’t go into detail here, Meyers then documents the work of classicists who also challenge the more expansive view of patriarchy as applicable to society and its institutions. These scholars, working with texts, inscriptions, and iconography, have demonstrated that women were not in fact excluded or subjugated in the ways formerly thought.
Challenges to the Patriarchal Model in Scholarship on Israelite Women
Recall that the scholarly concept of patriarchy originated in a reading of ancient Greek and Roman households, a reading that has been found wanting. What, then, of the ways that concept was transposed into the biblical materials?
Meyers participates in the (in my view questionable) practice among biblical scholars of treating biblical materials as windows into ancient social realities. (While it is of course reliable and valuable for these purposes to an extent, I would argue that the Old Testament is redemptive revelation for God’s covenant community, not a history of Israel in a social-scientific or any other scholarly-conventional sense, and this unique ontology of Scripture means it cannot be treated the same way other texts are.) Nevertheless, Meyers accents features of biblical scholarship on the Old Testament that have dislodged the conventional patriarchal reading of the Israelite household.
Meyers also deploys the results of archaeological research, particularly gender archaeology — a discipline which, as Meyers notes, is concerned with people, their domestic and social lives as men and women, rather than only their artifacts and dwellings. Meyers provides an extensive report on findings regarding household remains, the contributions of women to household life, the forms of their activities, and their areas of responsibility. She concludes, with specialists in the field, that women had managerial roles in ancient Israel, supervising the personnel and resources of their own households and occasionally across households (21). They were not the oppressed and powerless women of patriarchal expectation, subjugated to males in all aspects of household life.
More significantly, of course, are the biblical materials themselves. These materials support the same conclusions reached in other disciplines. Meyers briskly points to the managerial agency of women in some legal stipulations of the Covenant Code, in narratives, and in Proverbs; notes the two legal stipulations (Ex. 21:15, 17) which mandate capital punishment for offspring who strike or curse mother or father; includes the narrative of Micah’s mother (Judges 17) wielding decision-making power of various kinds; mentions Abigail (1 Samuel 25) using resources on her own initiative without consulting her husband and exercising diplomatic skill in talking with David; and notes, too, the Shunammite narrative (2 Kings 4 and 8) and the Proverbs 31 woman.
I could wish she had pointed to other, arguably more pertinent examples, and had explained the relevance of these more fully, yet those who read the literature will recognize that her examples function more like indexes to available scholarship than arguments on their own. Reading her list one thinks immediately of specific examples in the literature where these passages are developed at length along these lines. And it should be granted that, against the backdrop of the real history of patriarchy as a concept and hermeneutical model, the mere mention of them does indeed go a long way toward putting at least some errant assumptions to rest.
Meyers’ conclusion is fairly straightforward, even predictable in light of this story of the most relevant scholarly developments over the last century:
“In sum, gender archaeology and biblical texts together provide compelling evidence for the managerial power of Israelite women in the household setting. In addition, the use of bet ’em (‘mother’s household’) as a counterpart to bet ‘av (‘father’s household’) in several women-centered passages also suggests women’s household authority. The term ‘patriarchy,’ as a designation of general male domination and the oppression of women, would thus be inappropriate and inaccurate. Identifying female agency challenges the idea, embedded in the patriarchy model, that women were helpless victims of a male-dominant system” (22-23).
Meyers goes on to note other familiar examples in the Old Testament of women’s community roles, both professional or leadership positions and “lay” ones, their contributions to politics, culture, and their religious activities.
Feminist Challenges to the Patriarchal Model
Further, Meyers also outlines ways that “third-wave” feminist theorists have sought to correct the mistaken assumptions of their earlier, “second-wave” forbears. Interestingly, this has included feminist criticism of patriarchy as a notion resting on a “naturalized” view of women’s inferiority, and according to Meyers and the scholars she cites, the residue of this same notion are present in earlier feminist readings of the evidence. Related to this is the mistaken assumption that if patriarchy, or something approximating it, can be found somewhere it can thus be found everywhere: the universalizing error. Recent feminist scholars have pushed back against this uncritical superimposition of patriarchy upon the ancient world. Just as there is a universalizing tendency, so there is also a tendency to flatten out differences: the assumption that household roles and dynamics are monolithic has also been challenged.
Finally, (though Meyers notes other arguments), and maybe most surprising to those who thought they knew what feminism was, some feminist scholars are pointing out that gender isn’t everything: what may appear in the biblical texts to be a difference in role or function along the lines of gender may not be gender-related at all, and it’s irresponsible to assume that it is. There may be other factors (racial, economic, social, family, health, etc.) which account for things we see in the evidence for particular cases.
Taking Meyers’ presentation into view, we can summarize that she argues that patriarchy should be discarded because, as a
- scholarly convention rooted in the mistaken nineteenth-century reading of classical Greek and Roman texts,
- itself limited in a myopic way only to select legal texts read with legal eyes,
- absorbed from the nineteenth-century ascendance of the evolutionary social sciences, and
- translated into the very different discipline of biblical studies as part of an effort to describe biblical and ancient Israelite realities (rather than being itself a directly biblical notion),
it has proven to be
- incompatible with the wider evidence of the classical texts and artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome,
- incompatible with the wider evidence of the artifacts of ancient Israel,
- incompatible with the Bible’s own vocabulary and descriptions of male and female roles and activities,
- and thus inaccurate, inadequate, and misleading.
Some Brief and Transitional Reflections
As a confessional presbyterian and a Reformed theologian, I differ with Professor Meyers on a wide range of matters, in this area and others. These include our views of Scripture, authority, evidence, gender, and ethics. Neither do I find her alternative to patriarchy sufficient, either to move past the problems inherent to the “patriarchy” model or to more faithfully describe the witness of Holy Scripture. I will come to this matter in the next post. Still, I suggest that her analysis is worth our very careful consideration, not least because her work as a highly regarded feminist scholar in biblical studies means her arguments push against the grain of her own scholarly world in a rather fundamental way.
I offer the following concluding remarks for consideration:
Firstly, Meyers’ definition of “patriarchy,” accurate as it is at the level of dictionary definition, is not as helpful as one would like. It is understandable that she begins its story in the nineteenth century, and that context is undoubtedly immensely important for understanding much of what has functioned as a conventional assumption in many religious circles. Still, as scholars of this development appreciate, the nineteenth-century change amounted to a shift from a “naturalized” notion of masculine superiority to a biological one afforded by Social Darwinianism and its disciples.
But what about that older, preceding, “naturalized” notion? And what about versions of patriarchy to be found in other ancient cultures, such as India and China? To understand the patriarchy topic fully, one must account, too, for the longstanding (though hardly universal) assumption of an ontological superiority of the male, an assumption which is inescapably present in many patristic, medieval, and early modern theological and philosophical texts. To be sure, this is very complicated topic, and it is important to note quickly that we must not confuse this older religious model with today’s very different evangelical patriarchies, but the difference is itself something requiring scholarly exploration. This background, however, is largely overlooked by Meyers and the majority of feminist scholars who treat the idea as though it were in fact birthed a little more than a hundred years ago.
Secondly, and only apparently in contradiction to what I’ve just said, patriarchy — as an assumption that this is what the Bible is teaching prescriptively in some way — is in fact very young, and the nineteenth-century episodes recounted by Meyers (not the older, pre-modern iterations of male superiority) are in fact the ones most proximate, in terms of pedigree, to patriarchal readings found among evangelicals today. The reference works produced in this period up to the mid- to late twentieth century were formative in their effects upon evangelical biblical scholarship, and those reference works were themselves (and sometimes still are) dependent upon an erroneous older scholarship which should be recognized as such.
Lastly, too much feminist scholarship confuses the topic of patriarchy with any notion of uniquely male responsibility or authority. This is worse than unhelpful, and ensures a growing distance between our vocabulary and the beauty of the biblical witness. The value of this scholarship is in exposing the roots, the originally limited but eventually expanding applications, and the liabilities of the “patriarchy” term and model. It serves well to alert us to ways we must rethink our assumptions.
But it does not point the way forward. If scholars working on biblical domestic materials (feminist or not) would consider more patiently the work of Daniel Block and others, perhaps more of the scholarship would appreciate another way of reading these biblical texts. Perhaps they, and we, would see how, biblically, the error of confusing the male role with a role of power is both anticipated in the biblical texts themselves, as well as fruitfully and beautifully overcome.
It is overcome, I will suggest, by a graciously reordered mode of domestic relations which does not in any way involve the displacement of the divinely-ordered unique responsibilities of the husband and father. And I suggest this alternative to the now defunct patriarchy model can be articulated most compellingly not only with a view to quality work in biblical studies but also within a confessional Reformed theological framework of gender and family relations.
We will note some of the important work done along these lines in the next post in this series.
The curtain has been drawn. The questions have been sharpened, the stakes clarified, and the issues focused. And the dust is starting, it seems, to settle. Now — now — is the time to stretch our reading to the other side of this debate, to add Davidson to Davenant, Block to Bavinck, Collins to Cyril, Milgrom to Monothelitism. Now, in short, is the time for those who are able to begin to attend to the large and important scholarly literature in the areas of gender, sexuality, marriage and divorce, abuse, and related areas in the same way we ordinarily attend, with delight, to the literature on other theological topics.
The discussion underway, after all, needs to go somewhere constructively. Having worked in these areas intensively for the better part of the last decade, I can’t help but hope that many will do so. Has this debate led to better reading in the doctrine of God? Likely so. But those who now know Ayres on the trinity might also consider picking up Loader on sexuality. Have we rediscovered the deep wisdom of the early Reformed orthodox who taught with profound nuance about trinitarian relations? Undoubtedly. And those who know Muller on Reformed Orthodoxy might now also take some interest in the longstanding scholarly discussions over the status of women in biblical legal texts. Those who know Gregory of Nyssa on the trinity could now also read him on gender. And so on. No, not everyone needs to become a scholar of such things, but some familiarity goes a long way. Pretend it has to do with the extra Calvinisticum if you have to, but take an interest. Become generally familiar with a body of literature that is arguably at least as relevant and useful for everyday life as most of the other things we study. The fruit of many years of scholarship are ripe for picking, and the ears of many have been newly opened to the urgency of these topics. Having been awakened to the importance of these areas of life and fellowship, perhaps now is the prime opportunity to advance understanding along positive lines.
It is important to remember why this recent trinitarian debate began. The original concern was not trinitarianism per se, or more specifically subordinationism as a lone controversial idea, but the translation of trinitarian subordinationism into prescribed norms of marital, domestic, ecclesiastical, and societal patriarchy. As the subordinationism debate now seems to be resolving somewhat, I suggest that we keep in view the need to be positive rather than only negative. Rather than content ourselves with having learned more of what we should not say and do along these lines, I ask us to account now for the great need of our time, which is to take steps in the direction of what we should say and do.
This is all the more important in light of the collapse of complementarianism as a useful category. Like some others, I no longer identify myself as a complementarian, not because I reject the complementarian conclusion on ordination to certain church offices, but because the term itself has come to include many ideas and commitments I do not and cannot share. Whatever one’s position in these debates, the usefulness of “complementarian” and “egalitarian” is now rather narrowly limited to the question of female ordination to certain church offices. Even then, however, the terms are arguably far too risky to be serviceable because they are regularly confused with certain specious arguments used in support of those conclusions. Much complementarian scholarship has proven to be question-begging and weak while other examples have been strong. Yet the same can be said of egalitarian scholarship in both respects. Rejecting bad arguments for complementarian conclusions on the ordination question, therefore, is not the same as rejecting that complementarian conclusion. Again the same holds for egalitarian scholarship which one may find compelling on any number of points without thereby being “egalitarian” as a result. Sound scholarship cannot hesitate in the very democratic rejection of bad scholarship of any sort and from any source. It proceeds with a willingness to be perhaps most critical of those with whom we know we agree in the end. It is not only the conclusion that matters, after all, but the way there as well.
What now, then? I offer a few remarks here to open a series of posts on our thinking and practice “after patriarchy,” itself an idea which requires careful explanation (and will receive it starting in the next post).
Firstly, the positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy as a program or vision for gender relations must be driven by careful, informed thinking of a biblical and theological sort, and fueled by wide reading, humble conversation, and patience in prayer. As I have said on many occasions in conversations with those who labor in church contexts, the debates over gender relations, spousal abuse, divorce, and the like are among the most immediately consequential debates the church has. Unlike certain debates over, say, the varied functions of the Mosaic law or even subordinationism itself, the outcome of these debates immediately affects real people on the proverbial ground. We must tread very carefully, for lives are ruined or reclaimed by our behavior here.
For this reason among many others, the positive alternative we propose in the context of this recent subordinationism debate must be of a certain sort. Most urgently, perhaps, it must not be driven by cultural pressures, as reactions to complementarianism often are. Critics of those who demur from complementarian patriarchy often assume that objections to that model must be driven by the sexual revolution of our day and age. “There you go again,” they say, “letting the world tell the Church how to think.” Usually they are wrong, but sometimes they are right, and the possibility is always there to err in this direction. I cannot put this strongly enough: in proposing a better way, we must not be driven by mere cultural pressures toward inclusivism, gender confusion, and the like. To listen to the cries of the culture is one thing, to have our thinking determined by cultural pressures is quite another.
Neither do we have to be in order to point to the better way. The positive alternative to complementarian patriarchy is better, but not because it is more fitting in our world today, not because it is more agreeable to contemporary sensibilities, and not because it solves all our problems and answers all our questions. It is better because it is more faithful to Scripture and the gospel. Only if this is true can it be better at all. And in fact a vast amount of solid biblical and theological scholarship over the last several decades warrants — no, demands — the responsible and patient reconsideration of some ideas the complementarian patriarchalists have taken for granted. Not only is it possible to suggest ways forward that are more faithful to Scripture and our Christian confession in biblical and theological terms; it is also a wonderful time to do so. The nature of recent research across the confessional spectrum, the advances in understanding of the tradition and of certain key biblical texts, and the astonishing availability of high quality resources put us in a position of great opportunity to do this work. (See the bibliography to come here soon.)
Secondly, we must not forget that arguing biblically and theologically, in a relentlessly humble and listening way, means being willing for Scripture to require the conclusion we least wanted to reach. This is the way of integrity, and I have been blessed to see it happen in many brothers and sisters who have revisited these questions themselves in recent years. (Speaking for myself, I have often been haunted by mistakes made on this front in the first years of my own pastoral ministry. I have also learned I am far from alone in this.) This is also the way of lasting success: rather than simply translating the gender idols of our society into Christian terms, speaking and thinking responsibly with the grain of Scripture puts the Church in the best possible position of strength for dealing faithfully with those rapidly changing cultural pressures.
Thirdly, the positive alternative must be restrained and careful, not reckless and reactionary. The destructive effects of patriarchy in recent decades have left our churches full of wounded, confused, and hurting men, women, and children. The faces of the problem we have on this front are very, very many. Yet we must take great care not to confuse the painful anecdote with the theological answer. Given the recent interest in rejecting unhelpful and unpersuasive models of complementarian patriarchy, we should acknowledge the temptation to identify with every idea, book, blog post, or social media remark which affirms women in some way, no matter the context or circumstances. Sometimes those affirmations are useful and sober; sometimes they are not. To avoid the dangers of reactionary error, the most responsible and well-informed voices need to be clear that, for example, our rediscovered sensitivity to the dark reality of spousal abuse does not mean we do not need to be very careful in identifying spousal misconduct as “abuse.” Our most responsible reading of what “submission” does and does not mean should not somehow entail, for our thinking or our rhetoric, that Scripture does not in fact teach that wives should “submit” to their husbands in the Lord. The fact of nuances and richness in biblical teaching on the grounds for a valid divorce does not mean divorce has limitless grounds (it does not), that divorce is no longer a significant problem in our day (it is), or that divorce ever takes place without the serious sin of at least one, though maybe only one, spouse (it only ever does). In these examples and many others, we must be painstakingly careful not to confuse our rejection of a bad idea or framework with the acceptance of every possible opposing one.
Put differently, it is important not to over-reach in interpreting the recent exposé of the deficiencies of subordinationist trinitarianism. Importantly, the rejection of subordinationist trinitarianism as a ground for male-female relations does not entail the rejection of any theological rationale for gender relations. Related to this, our vigorous rejection of distortions of headship need not include our rejection of the very notion of head or the neologism of “headship” itself. In my view, it requires instead our thoroughgoing reformation of the notion in the plentiful light of authoritative Scripture.
The opportunity is before us to take steps in the direction of humble faithfulness which serves Christ and his church well. We must remember that the most faithful thinking and practice in service of women and children in the church is also the most helpful and faithful service to its men. To a great extent, the reformation of our thinking about women and children in the home and church, marriage and divorce, and many related issues, is also the reformation of our thinking about Christian men. There are theological reasons for this which we will soon explore.
Next in this series, we will look at what has happened to the idea of marital and societal “patriarchy” in biblical and historical scholarship, its origins and elusive meaning, and why patriarchal complementarians are apparently the last to realize that this social-scientific convention has been abandoned (and rightly) by just about everyone else.
In an insightful recent post, Christopher Cleveland explains “Why the Trinitarian Controversy Was Inevitable.” Cleveland’s diagnosis is perceptive, and I would like to extend it somewhat further and also suggest a way forward in terms of the opportunities our situation presents.
Cleveland points to the neglect, and in some quarters the rejection, of properly theological work which lasted decades. This neglect was fueled by distrust of the categories and doctrines of traditional dogmatics, which more and more frequently were run through the filter of modern reconstructive (in fact destructive) criticism. No doctrine emerged from the filter unscathed; everything was reconsidered and the commitments belonging to a new and better “orthodoxy” was up for grabs.
In reaction to these developments within liberalism, conservatives predictably and importantly pushed hard on the doctrine of Scripture itself. Alongside an arguably antinomian and conversion-type model of “salvation by grace,” evangelicalism became, in essence, a position taken on the Bible question, particularly on the nature and authority of Scripture. The Bible question was also, of course, in many quarters a culture question: to affirm the Bible meant ipso facto to take certain positions on a range of cultural, political, and domestic questions. To fail to line up meant coming under suspicion for your doctrine of Scripture, not only your politics. Yet, in this recognizably cultural mode, within the world of twentieth-century evangelical theology, Reformed and otherwise, the doctrine of Scripture was the issue.
This rallying, unifying cry around the doctrine of the Bible resulted in a variety of phenomena the fruits of which account, at least in part, for our situation. (That I note only negative consequences below is dictated by my aims in this brief post. I certainly see many enduring positive consequences as well.) These phenomena include theologians trained primarily or exclusively in biblical studies rather than in traditional dogmatics, itself not necessarily problematic except that its role in the recent malaise of evangelical theology requires that we account for it. Another fruit of that bibliological center was a host of evangelical biblical scholars who translated a “high view” of Scripture’s nature and authority into a particular hermeneutic of Scripture controlled by ancient historical and grammatical, yet conspicuously non-theological or ecclesial, concerns. The result was a great deal of helpful material on ancient biblical and non-biblical history, the grammar of biblical and cognate languages, linguistics, and the like, yet little to no meaningful connection of the task of close exegesis to the theological story and categories of the Church catholic. There are wonderful exceptions to this trend, of course, both individually and institutionally, but they stand out precisely as exceptions.
What, then, about those categories of ancient orthodoxy? They seemed more and more remote from the presumed concerns and issues of the biblical texts themselves. Buying unwittingly into a rather deep liberal theological conviction that the history of the Church’s theology is a truly separable (rather than distinguishable) entity over against the “real” world of the biblical materials, evangelical “theology” widened the gap between the “historic orthodoxy” it was ostensibly interested in defending and the actual materials, vocabulary, and categories of that orthodoxy. As Cleveland remarks, “The problem is that in the rush to defend Scripture, there was not a concurrent push to defend traditional orthodox doctrinal categories.”
And without that push, without that ecclesial and orthodox consciousness, how could we know where transgressions of that orthodoxy occur, at least outside of the increasingly narrow (and ultimately collapsing) confines of the doctrine of Scripture’s “high authority” and nature? There was now a conspicuously wide culture gap between the Church historic and the Church contemporary, even in the work of theology where such a gap would seem most effortlessly closed. The gap was there, and widening, because we could say a lot about inspiration and inerrancy and evidence and authority, but we no longer spoke the language of the Church, and so we could no longer hear or understand what the Church catholic had long been saying. In the end, it became possible for a big name or two in the evangelical world of bibliological-cultural orthodoxy to push for a version of complementarianism that is rooted in a departure from Nicene orthodoxy, and for no one in that world to notice.
Dissatisfaction with this modus operandi is anything but new; there have always been dissenting voices. The dissent has grown louder with the growth of biblical, historical, and theological scholarship generally. For instance, the more we have learned about the role of the ecclesial community in the very development, organically and formally, of the Bible itself as canon, the more we began to fear that our ostensibly very high view of the Scriptures may in fact prove to be ironically unbiblical. Cleveland appropriately points out, too, the dissonant and welcome voices of several modern (and generally Reformed) theologians who argued in recent decades against the grain for a return to theology in terms of its classic categories and interests.
He also draws attention to one of the most significant developments of the latter half of the twentieth century: the work of scholars like Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Carl Trueman who have exposed the cataclysmic failures of various older, ahistorical readings of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, particularly late medieval theology and Reformed Orthodoxy. Today’s theologians and churchmen are discovering the strong, organic, positive ties of the Reformers to the texts and ideas of the patristic and medieval — yes, medieval — eras, and most significantly the similarly strong, organic ties of the post-Reformation periods of confessional orthodoxy to all that came before (not just Calvin and Luther). They are learning of the great diversity of the Reformed tradition historically and confessionally, and of the kind(s) of unity forged in the midst of and without denial of that diversity. They are learning the importance of reading critically yet charitably and humbly outside their own tradition, and reading to learn and not merely to dismantle. They are learning, too, of the difference it makes to read Scripture with the Church in ancient-catholic and (not but) confessionally Protestant fashion, and how far away we have drifted over the years from the discipline of doing so.
This kind of knowledge does not come, however, through surveys and introductory classes. It does not come from seminary classes using a comprehensive textbook but no primary sources. It certainly does not come from a video series from the favorite parachurch organization expounding on the so-called five points of Calvinism. No, it comes only by dealing with the texts themselves, and by reading those who live in them rather than read about them. It comes, then, by listening first rather than rushing to speak, listening to the texts themselves. Further, unlike so many edited collections of essays pumped out by evangelical and Reformed presses, it means listening to those who may be unknowns in the populus of our church circles but are in fact the experts on the topic. These are the ones who can truly teach us from the deep depths of their years of working rigorously and patiently with those texts. The present generation of churchmen and teacher-writers involved in these public debates are no longer content to read about Augustine, but read Augustine, and probably a widely recognized expert in Augustine, too. If they are determined to add their voice to a public debate about the meaning of a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, they are not content merely to refer to Calvin or to Matthew Henry on the passage, but they read the tradition as well as the best contemporary research, and appreciate what the real questions are. Or at least they know to do so. Those who don’t are now fairly quickly and easily recognized.
What does all this mean in terms of the opportunity before us, particularly in the Lydia Center’s areas of research and teaching? If the current trinitarian debate over a version of complementarianism was inevitable, what does this mean for the next stage of faithful thinking and practice? I do, after all, believe it poses great opportunities. I offer three for now for your consideration.
Firstly, debates on these topics (and others) within church bodies and faculty meetings are now possible at a richer and more substantial level of discourse than was previously the case. For the emerging generation of scholarship-oriented church leaders and writers, debates over the particular dynamics of marital relations are no longer decided by, say, the quotation of 1 Cor. 11:3 and the word “head” or Eph. 5:22 and the word “submit,” as though this settles things. There is a fresh appreciation for the danger of such simplistic appeals and for the integrity that belongs to a patient, informed, and circumspect (because churchly) reading and use of Scripture.
Secondly, as capable scholars and responsibly informed teachers who are largely unknown to the hoi polloi have regained some traction in the Church’s labor (a growing number of them happily working as pastors rather than as professors), debates are no longer decided by appeal to personalities. Here I choose my words with care. The historic practice of appealing to a figure in the context of public debate remains valuable, yet I suggest we may be witnessing a slow return to an older way of doing so. It is more complicated that I am suggesting in these few remarks, but as in the tradition generally, appeals to human authorities are now again valuable principally as they function as appeals to a distinctive and well-informed argument or position that figure represents. Put negatively, it is no longer compelling, and in fact is now clearly counterproductive, simply to refer to personalities in a debate as though it carries sufficient weight to end that debate, whether they are admired pastors or conference speakers, teachers, or writers. Because it is now (again) the argument itself that matters, at least more and more often the most compelling appeal to a figure will be to a true scholar of the question, not simply to an admired person.
For example, in the last couple of weeks we have seen how the inserted names, and sometimes voices, of publicly known and admired figures such as Dr. Mohler have proven not to be compelling and arguably counterproductive. Why is this? Because even though he is highly regarded on many church and culture fronts, Dr. Mohler’s views have been measured against the texts of the tradition and the ideas that belong to that tradition, and found wanting. His name is not enough. No name is enough anymore, and this is a healthy development. For many people of an earlier generation who cut their theological teeth at the parachurch conference or the popular Reformed or evangelical presses where names are everything, or who have traded in their associations with influential names in this or that institution, this shift can be rather jarring. An appeal to Jay Adams may begin or contribute in some way to a debate on marriage or divorce, but thankfully it no longer ends one.
Lastly, for decades (but not much longer than that) serious examination of the classic questions of sexuality and family was handicapped by the quiet assumption in conservative circles that the forms and framework of modern western domesticity on the one hand, and the forms and framework of prescriptive biblical sexuality and family life on the other, are one and the same. The chasm-wide difference between the two has long been known to students of these topics, yet the popular misconceptions have survived and persisted despite this. But it is now possible to attend to the highly important questions of sexuality, gender, marriage, divorce, “headship,” abuse, children and related matters as properly theological questions. Now (mostly) on the other side of the decades-long dominant (western, English-speaking, cultural, and church) sociologies which masqueraded successfully as theology in this area, these questions may enjoy meticulous, patient, and properly theological investigation on the terms of the Scriptures and of the Christian tradition.
This meaningful return of the categories and voices of the theological tradition to the table of serious inquiry into sexuality and family means the opportunity to consider, say, divorce as a properly theological question, which it is. It also means the return of Holy Scripture itself — not a bare historical text awaiting our archaeological digging skills, but the living canon of the living Church, whose voice(s) we need.
It also means more hopefully that, despite our anxiety and listlessness in the midst of this contemporary sexual revolution, the Church, dutifully sanctified and reformed by and according to Holy Scripture, may in fact be in a position to survive this cultural upheaval with something to say, both to it and to herself, as the Church. She may yet summon her resources, old and new, and speak positively and constructively of the way of Christ and the way of faithfulness as the only way of human hope and wholeness. This project, at least, is what the Lydia Center is formed to try to help along.
In her 2013 Journal of Biblical Literature article, “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of עמה in Genesis 3:6b,” Julie Faith Parker documents the curious omission of “[her husband who was] with her” (Gen. 3:6b) from many English translations. She carefully explores the biblical text, commentaries, ancient sources, grammars, fifty English translations, and translation committee reports. A well-organized chart documents eighteen out of fifty translations where she has discovered the phrase is missing. The guilty translations in the list include influential and familiar editions of the Bible: Wycliffe, Coverdale, Douay Rheims (both 1609 and the American text of 1899), Challoner, Moffatt, the RSV (1952), New Berkeley, New English Bible, Living Bible, Today’s English Translation/Good News Bible, Bible in Basic English, JPS New Tanakh, the Revised English Bible, Robert Alter (1996), The Message, and the Contemporary Torah (2006).
This omission is not the result of variations in the original biblical texts. As Parker notes, the Hebrew word is undisputed in the MT, and ancient textual witnesses all include it, with the noteworthy exception of Jerome’s Vulgate. And the omission is a critically important one. Without this phrase, the reader is left with the impression that Eve sins alone. Parker is generally persuasive in her argument that the translators appear to be motivated to excuse the man and blame the woman. This certainly comports with history of early and medieval Christian imaginings of the Eden saga, alongside which we see a tradition of female inferiority developing. Jerome’s infamously low view of women may be an example of this, particularly since both the MT and the LXX from which he worked include the phrase, and yet his Vulgate does not. (Readers should consult Parker’s article for a refreshing note from Robert Alter, who had also neglected to translate the word in his edition. In 2011, Alter e-mailed Parker on the matter, saying “I should have written ‘with her’ but didn’t realize I had skipped the word. Thank you for pointing this out.”)
However, the theological consequences of the omission which Parker has capably documented reach more deeply than matters of translation and Edenic mythologies. Without appreciating that Adam was in fact “with her” when Eve was tempted, we lose a critical feature of his sin: he failed to act upon his charge as the priestly guardian (Gen. 2:15, priestly samar) of sacred space, namely, the garden-temple and especially Eve herself. Just as Genesis 1-3 is in many ways written through the lens provided by the center of the Torah, Leviticus, so the Eve of Genesis is conspicuously framed in terms of the Levitical woman (cf. Lev. 12, 15); she is therefore a kind of sacred space requiring priest-like protection and care. Adam’s failure is of the order of a priestly failure to protect sacred space from defilement.
This, in turn, fits the overall biblical trajectory of the eschatologically-ultimate, feminine sacred space which the faithful husband protects and cares for, and who is his glory: from Lady Zion to Lady Wisdom (especially of Prov. 31) to the Church-Bride to Mother Jerusalem, old and new. Without Adam’s presence and failure in these terms, we lose much of what Gen. 2-3 teaches regarding the divine design for fruitful, faithful relations of a husband toward his wife. Indeed we lose much of how Christ is himself the faithful Adam of his Bride, the Church.
It appears that the omission of the phrase from many early modern translations informed the rapidly embraced mythology in which Eve’s sin was taken as an example of feminine inferiority and folly. On this reading, Eve should have stayed by her husband’s side but foolishly wandered off, and it was because of this that the serpent was able to exploit her in her moment of vulnerability. The serpent took advantage of the woman’s independent move away from the side of her protective, stronger man. With the Hebrew phrase of Gen. 3:6b, such a reading is impossible; but without it, as the history of theological anthropology and marriage theory shows, it’s a compelling image ready to be deployed in the service of generalized accounts of the alleged intellectual and spiritual differences between men and women. As a misunderstanding of the Genesis scene, it is quite deeply rooted in the English-speaking conscience because of Milton’s gripping and — as far as biblical understanding goes, fatal — portrayal of Eve’s temptation in Paradise Lost exactly along these mistaken lines. Despite many other ways in which Milton is thought to represent the cause of reform for women’s status and rights, his account of Eve’s fall is, in this instance at least, the example par excellence of imagination untethered by what is in fact the real biblical text.
Where, then, did we get the idea that Adam wasn’t there? The early modern version of Eve’s fall is familiar to us, but the hermeneutical roots of the omission are in fact much, much older. Parker notes a wide range of examples of this reading of Genesis, ancient and modern, Jewish and Christian. While researching Matthew’s divorce material I, too, came across a very early instance of this curious reading. In the very early Protevangelium of James (late 2nd c.), the author casts Joseph of Matthew 1 as an Adam-figure confronted with a newly soiled Eve, writing (from the imagined perspective of Joseph):
(13:4) Who has set this trap for me? Who has done this evil deed in my house? Who has lured this virgin away from me and violated her? (13:5) The story of Adam has been repeated in my case hasn’t it? For just as Adam was praying when the serpent came and found Eve alone, deceived her, and corrupted her, so the same thing has happened to me.
The relationship between this reading of Genesis and the history of theological models of male and female merits close investigation, but will have to await treatment elsewhere. But for now, I suggest the consequences of the curiously missing Adam merit attention.
For more on the Genesis passage, on Milton, and on the ancient and modern features of this gender and theology question, join the Milton class this summer or the Theological Anthropology class starting this fall.
The Plight of Pompilia
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Anthony Esolen’s (characteristically) outstanding book, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (ISI Books, 2007), should rush to the top of your reading list. I often recommend the opening essay, “To Be Pompilia, Not the Fisc: Browning and the Irony of Humility,” to ministerial and theological students. It is a meditation on Robert Browning’s long poem The Ring and the Book, a stunning, unnerving lesson in the ethics of reading — texts, persons, situations, anything. Esolen’s essay on Browning’s poem is on my mind today as I reflect on another recent story about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini. More on that shortly.
As Esolen masterfully explains, Browning’s poem exposes a great and chronic human weakness: our laughably tragic inability to read others accurately. In this strange tale we discover that this inability is seldom due to a lack of sufficient information, as we all would wish, but to something more sinister: pride.
Set in seventeenth-century Italy, the poem weaves together the lives and (mis)fortunes of figures both religious and comical. Pompilia, purchased in secret as a baby by Violente, the childless wife of Pietro, is pushed to marry young and well in order to secure financial stability for the house and prevent discovery of the family secret. Guido–as Esolen says, “no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege”–proves suitable enough in the eyes of Violente and Pietro, despite a wide rage of physical and moral deficiencies. Taking Pompilia as his own, the greedily ambitious Guido thinks he has married up. In fact he has been tricked, Pompilia’s family’s wealth proving far more mirage than reality. The sting of bitter disappointment leads him to torment Violente and Pietro, driving them to Rome, leaving young Pompilia alone to suffer at the hands of the monster, Guido.
In time her parents return, seeking revenge on Guido in the only form available to them: they tell him Pompilia is not in fact their daughter, and therefore he has no claim to her dowry. Furious, Guido falsely accuses Pompilia of being an adulteress, and takes steps to lure her into questionable relations with other men, including a local priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. But Caponsacchi, having only seen lovely Pompilia once and from a distance, resists the ploy and Guido is foiled.
What, then, of Pompilia? She pleads for help, first with the governor, then with the archbishop, but to no avail. Finally she turns to her only remaining hope: Caponsacchi, and sees in him, finally, a true man. He rescues her, hiding her away in Rome where he looks after her, but Guido finds them. The coward Guido is met by valiant Caponsacchi, sword in hand, ready to protect Pompilia. But Guido’s men pin down Caponsacchi’s arms, and it is Pompilia who grabs the sword and moves toward Guido. Guido flees from the girl and to the courts, where the verdict is the non-verdict of the stalemate, and justice is delayed.
Guido learns soon after this that Pompilia has borne his child but named him after a recently canonized saint, providing no link to Guido. Insulted and outraged, Guido, ironically assuming the name “Caponsacchi” to gain entry to the family home, murders Pompilia’s parents and injures her with a dozen stabs. Now the real trial in the story takes place, and Browning’s message becomes clear. Esolen writes,
The priest and Guido testify; and Browning provides us with the ‘opinions’ of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls ‘Tertium Quid,’ the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney–worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.
These words recall Esolen’s description of the governor and archbishop, whom Pompilia had earlier entreated without effect: “But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.”
They have no ears to hear. But this is not only true of the characters in the story: it is Browning’s question to the reader. Do you have ears to hear? The story surges forward, stage by stage, through further tragicomical scenes of human beings thinking they know, but not knowing, and showing themselves the fools for it. And with each overconfident read, the tentacles reach, the net spreads, and Pompilia withers.
Browning’s vivid description of the poisonous swirl of “knowing” confidently yet wrongly is compelling for its familiarity. The devolution at the heart of Pompilia’s social relations and the members of her religious community is common to all tormenting dramas like hers. Incriminating appearances are enough for the simple-minded; skewed and incomplete trial arguments satisfy others; “where there is smoke there must be fire” is the ignorant thinking of many; “it takes two to tango” is the assumption of most; and the ultimate legal stalemate satisfies no one. The prosecutor (the eminent Fisc) and the defense attorney are, says Esolen, “worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.” They have no ears to hear. Guido is convicted, sentenced to death, and appeals to the pope, Innocent XII. Reflecting at the end of his days upon his many years of ministry, wondering what fruit, if any, will come from his labors, the pope sees through the layers of Guido to the surly, sinister, seditious snake beneath, and sends him to his death.
Only the priest Caponsacchi and the dying Pope emerge as wise from the widespread rubble of slanderous, cancerous, and ultimately murderous folly in the story. They are exposed as wise by their relationship to the purity of simple, suffering, quiet, notoriously scandalous yet innocent Pompilia herself. The end of Pompilia is resurrection, at least in part, in the form of her ironic vindication through the luminous virtue of her lonely yet truly wise supporters. The end of the foolishly confident accusers and the cooly neutral “Tertium Quid” is, for the reader, shame.
Browning’s tale teaches readers, in a most disconcerting way, about the contortions of wicked dishonesty, the mixed-up realities of a seldom black-and-white world, and the difficulties for any one person to read another person rightly.
To pile on, Browning subtly yet irresistibly pushes us to acknowledge the folly of our own all-too-confident judgments, and the moral catastrophe of flawed, hasty conclusions. Yet he will not leave us even there. The poem depends on our appreciation of one great moral lesson above all others: darker than simply “getting it wrong” is moving others to do so as well. The Ring and the Book is more than a warning against impatient folly in judgment. With a series of interlinked baited hooks, the reader is led into complicity. The reader hears often from the ignorant yet confident know-it-alls, and listens in on apparently sensible and pious discourse that imagines every “rational” possibility yet never assumes the place of Pompilia (it is only sensible to think they must both be at fault to some degree, believes the “Tertium Quid”). The poem ruthlessly treats the thinking, interpreting, assuming reader as, for far too long, always potentially and probably complicit in the folly, which is itself a stirring indictment of those who lead the way to folly for others.
To Be Naghmeh, and Not Only Saeed
This brings me back to the Abedini situation, one which troubles many, as it should. The story has been told and retold now, and with evident continuing public interest. Persecuted preacher in an Iranian prison, the prayers of the saints, the release of the martyr, the homecoming, the stunning marital abuse allegations, the moral trickiness of reporting the “rest” of the story. But this only makes it easier to forget, dangerously, that this is not merely a story; for Naghmeh, it is a reality. The asterisk by Saeed Abedini’s name concerns a person, not a minor detail. Exactly what reality is impossible for blog and newspaper readers to know with the kind of certainty easily found among pundits and would-be trial judges. Yet for this very reason, among innumerable others, the storyteller must be wildly conscientious in telling the tale.
The question to ask is simple. Does the storyteller give us ears to hear? Yes, invariably, but to hear whom?
In our last post on this evolving saga, instead of providing a verdict of our own, we deliberately drew attention to the way the story has often been told thus far. This remains our concern. We may put the matter this way. Since the disclosure of the marital abuse allegations, the public identity of Saeed Abedini commended in print and online has persistently been one with a center and a circumference: at the center, the near-martyr and imprisoned, persecuted preacher in a hostile foreign land. At the circumference, the accused and–in at least one legal context, the admitted–wife-abuser whose wife remains afraid of him. This remains the public Saeed Abedini. Center, and circumference.
And the center has held thus far. Perceptive observers of the western evangelical machine are not surprised that the center of the Abedini portrait remains his identity as imprisoned, faithful preacher. The American evangelical soundtrack has long been Bonnie Tyler’s, “I Need A Hero,” after all, and we have found a candidate who fits the profile of what we most admire in a Christian. The public evangelical sense of familiarity with and affection for Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks, at least partly, to the same hero-longing.
But here is the rub for the journalist, the commentator, the writer. A story only works to the extent the reader is successfully invited into a degree of sympathy with one or more characters (or none, as sympathy either with the author or the anonymous observer). Reading the stories that continue to flow regarding the Abedini situation, this is what we discover: In the myriad choices made about names to use, titles to include, headlines adopted to capture attention, details to proportionate, and on and on and on, writers continue to link the reader with Saeed, and not with Naghmeh. Browning’s Pompilia reminds us, though, that these choices have moral status.
In the Abedini case it’s a costly move, prompting hard questions. When it’s a story like this, when the stakes are this high if we get it wrong, what kind of reader should Christian storytellers want to create? One who identifies with Pompilia, or with the Fisc? The Ring and the Book is a clarion call to ask hard questions about our storytelling. Are we certain of the real Saeed Abedini center, and of the circumference? Might it be that the allegations are true, and that what we thought was the circumference proves to be the center? Should we sound like we are justly confident? What is the cost of being wrong, not only for us, but for Naghmeh, who may prove to be a Pompilia in this dark tale?
The Christianity Today Interview
On April 24, Christianity Today published an interview with Saeed. In some ways it escapes the criticisms inherent to the foregoing. In other ways, however, it illustrates our concerns.
Firstly, to the considerable credit of the interviewer, Katelyn Beaty (CT print managing editor), “the topic” is not avoided as it has been in other outlets. Mr. Abedini is asked about the status of his marriage, what he means by “false accusations” in light of his 2007 guilty plea of misdemeanor domestic assault, and if he has anything of which to repent in his marriage.
Secondly, the interview is printed as a series of questions with Mr. Abedini’s apparently unpolished and unedited responses. This encourages readers’ confidence that we have access to his genuine reactions. But out of 18 questions, I see only six that clearly concern the specter of spousal abuse. The six questions are these:
What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?
You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?
Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.
You don’t remember going to court in 2007?
Did you go to jail in 2007?
Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?
The opening question of the interview asks Mr. Abedini what life has been like for him since prison. Another question asked in the flow of the six pertaining to the abuse allegations, but not included in them, focuses on whether Mr. Abedini feels more support out of jail than when he was in. These two early questions lead the reader to join with the interviewer on the path of interest in how Mr. Abedini feels.
The question regarding felt support prompts Mr. Abedini to describe the abuse allegations as a matter of great confusion: his longtime praying supporters are now justly confused about the man they’ve been praying for, and the churches around the world who rejoiced at the news of his release are confused as well. Mr. Abedini attributes this confusion completely to Satan’s mission of ending Gospel proclamation and killing Christian joy at Saeed’s release. (As an aside, despite what some have suggested, it does not appear that Mr. Abedini clearly attributed his wife’s allegations themselves to Satan. In the flow of his remarks, connecting Satan to the resulting confusion appears to be more in view.) The remaining interview questions explore Mr. Abedini’s thoughts on the living conditions of his imprisonment, his contacts with family during his imprisonment, his perseverance, the future of Christianity, and revival. The impression left for the reader is that it was no longer possible to ignore the abuse allegations, and so they were fronted in the interview, and yet the important material continues to be the inspiring stories of Christian heroism and hope for evangelical renewal in the world. Center, and circumference.
Thirdly, the interview is mysteriously titled, “The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.” “Answers”? Mr. Abedini does no such thing. “Addresses” may have been slightly more accurate, “denies” much more so; either option certainly would not have suggested a definitive response the way “answers” does. From the printed title, the reader should expect that the article puts all those pesky abuse concerns to rest, when in fact the concerns are given precious little weight. As another blog noted,
What both fascinated and horrified me about the Christianity Today interview is the title, ‘The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.’ Saeed simply denies all allegations, attributes them to Satan… and the interviewer apparently assumes that Abedini is telling the truth. He’s a Christian hero, after all.
Lastly, then, we must ask of Naghmeh in this interview. Literarily and personally, as a character in the real world depicted by this exchange, where is she? She is not in the story’s details so much as in the air, the environment, the world that the interview commends. There is no mention of an attempt to interview Naghmeh, no exploration of what her experience or feelings may be, no interest in what her own hopes for evangelical renewal may entail. (Perhaps, after all, they would include hope for greater church and public support for abused spouses of professing Christians.) When the story is told the way the CT interview tells it, with whom is the reader led to identify? Is the reader expected to “know” that this abuse allegation “stuff” is, yes, out there, but almost certainly not as serious as it’s made out to be?
At least this much seems clear. In accounts like this, we readers are repeatedly invited to an imaginary table where we sit with Saeed but not with Naghmeh. If writers allowed for the possibility that the reality behind the allegations is that serious, thereby at least withholding judgment until more is known, would they tell this story the same way? Would they continue to tell a story of asterisked heroism, or would it become asterisked spousal abuse?
To be sure, there remains a Christian hero in the story being told, and it is not Naghmeh. The intractable, stubborn challenge for the reader, the listener, the observer of these stories is that human pride that pretends, always, to “know” what’s really going on here, and thus in figuring out how to read this ongoing saga, and all others, as Pompilia, not the Fisc.