Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Jesus was a Feminist

[Leonard Swidler. Jesus was a Feminist: What the Gospels Reveal about His Revolutionary Perspective. Plymouth, UK: Sheed & Ward, 2007.]

As I recently wrote my work means I will, for the next little while, be reading some material about relationships between feminism and Chrisianity. I do not identify as Christian but it is part of what has shaped me, so I am eagerly anticipating the challenge of responding in meaningful, respectful ways to writing that I relate to much differently than to most of what I review on this site. (For more about where I'm coming from in this area, read this.)

Leonard Swidler is a liberal Catholic who published an article of the same title as this book in 1971. It received a lot of attention, particular from feminists and pro-feminists in various Christian denominations who were coming to feminist consciousness and struggling with how that related to their faith. Much has been written in the intervening decades, and Swidler himself consciously moved on to writing about other things as increasing numbers of feminist theologians have intervened in their faiths, but he recently decided to revisit the topic and treat his original thesis in more depth.

The book is divided into three sections. The first provides integrated analysis of the situation of women in the ancient world and how Jesus talked about, taught to/about, and related to women in that context. Then follows a detailed, passage-by-passage analysis of all major mentions of women in the four gospels. The book ends with a briefer treatment of passages about women in the rest of the New Testament, and a very quick survey of the misogyny that came to dominate Christian theological writing in the centuries immediately following the era of the New Testament.

Swidler reaches a number of conclusions. He declares Jesus (whom he refers to at Yeshua) a feminist. He asserts that the Gospel of Luke was based on a proto-document that he hypothesizes was written by a woman, and that the gospel usually attributed to John was based on a preliminary document by (and produced by a nascent faith community organized around) Mary Magdelene (a biblical figure). He says that without women followers and their efforts, Christianity would not at all resemble what it is today. And that Jesus' feminism was quickly supressed in the generations that followed him and is only now being rediscovered.

As I said, this kind of work is new to me. One implication of this novelty is that it was not always clear to me what in Swidler's text is idiosyncrasy and what is accepted practice in the field. The exceedingly close reading of the four gospels, apart from being repetitive and disjointed at times, felt to me like a very peculiar way of relating to text. It was like a cross between a certain kind of orthodox Marxism and a fussy lawyer with a practice in contract law, but not that either. Sometimes the arguments made in this way felt plausible. Sometimes they really didn't. I'm no stranger to reaching broad conclusions by actively relating written words to the contexts that produced them and in which they are read, but doing that at two millenia distant seems potentially sketchy.

I also wonder about the politics of projecting language and concepts and categories back so far. That's an issue when looking back 50 or 100 years too, which is the timeframe I'm more used to dealing with, but it seems to me it looms larger as distance increases.

A minor example of this is one extremely unconvincing line of argument Swiddler uses for Jesus' feminism. He takes a number of paired characteristics that are stereotypically associated with masculinity and femininity, demonstrates that Jesus exhibited both in each pair via quotes from the gospels, and concludes Jesus was androgynous -- that is, exhibited the full range of human characteristics -- and therefore embodied the feminist imperative to overcome the patriarchal, hierarchical, gendered dualism represented by those paired characteristics. I have trouble believing this approach demonstrates much of anything, though. You could probably find quotes from any person with a reasonably documented life that "proved" the same thing, regardless of their politics or practice of gender. More significantly, though he makes a big deal in the text of how these characteristics are socially constructed, he takes no account of how "normal" ways of doing gender must therefore be historically contingent so you would have to figure out how gender was organized way back then to even think about doing this sort of analysis in a meaningful way.

I also wonder about the implications of projecting "feminism" back 2000 years. Certainly there were gendered relations of power back then; they ebbed and flowed with social change; and there was struggle related to them, albeit organized very differently than in, say, twentieth century North America. Such a phenomenon needs a label and what better name than "feminism" and "feminist"?

At the same time, using those labels too uncritically seems pretty dangerous to me. It risks flattening the real and important differences in context. If we do that, we end up with a poorer understanding of the past and a less grounded sense of how the past might be relevant to the present. Moreover, using "feminist" in this way is one ingredient towards framing the basic quesiton as "Was Jesus a feminist?", and getting a binary yes or no answer that has little room for understanding what that really means. Applying that label gives us the illusion that we understand what it means, when really we should assume that we know almost nothing about how it might be applicable 2000 years ago without close examination. Instead, the book should ask, "How did Jesus' teaching and practices contribute to undermining patriarchal relations in his era, and how did they leave patriarchal relations undisturbed or even reinforce them?" This lack of nuance through dehistoricizing use of the term "feminist" was made even worse because the author said little about the political content of the feminism he embraces in the present, so we have to guess what exactly is being projected backwards.

The main approach Swidler uses to show that Jesus deserves the label "feminist" is to contrast his words and actions as recorded in the gospels with the existing norms of the society in that particular time and place. This avoids rather than addresses the issue of what complicity Jesus and his teachings might have had in patriarchal relations, if any. I'm a firm believer that you cannot end up with good analysis unless you make a point of considering not just virtue but also complicity. However, provided the contextual material is accurate -- and I don't know enough to say either way, but I don't see why it shouldn't be -- then the book does successfully demonstrate that Jesus' approach was considerably more open to gender equality than the social context in which he was operating, or than most Christian theologians and churches since that time. This is not an unimportant conclusion, and could be a useful tool as feminists and their allies within various denominations struggle for reform. Still, a less historically flat approach to the analysis could potentially yield a lot more insight.

Also of concern is the danger of theological anti-semitism contained in this approach. Now, I don't know much about theology, so I probably would have trouble telling theological anti-semitism from my elbow, but from what I understand one way that it has historically manifested is by Christians emphasizing the great things that Christ brought by denigrating how Jewish culture/religious practice did things before that point. A very common example is the simplistic "Old Testament = barbaric and brutal" vs. "New Testament = compassionate and enlightened" dualism that is so much a part of much Christian-derived commonsense about the bible, and is even reflected in widespread figures of speech. Though Swidler explicitly says at one point that he is not intending to do this sort of thing, I think it is at least possible that he ends up doing it anyway. And this is partly because or organizing the book around a fairly one-dimensional question and a fairly flattened, dehistoricized usage of the word "feminist," whose applicability is evaluated as a sort of gold-star, presence or absence, merit badge sort of thing...that approach invites the simplistic understanding that implicitly denigrates Judaism.

In terms of Swidler's other conclusions, I'm not sure I'm qualified to pronounce upon them in any definitive way, but I certainly have gut reactions. His arguments about the authorship of two of the gospels were interesting -- I found the one about Luke quite uncompelling, though the one about John, which he refers to as "the Fourth Gospel," to be somewhat more plausible. I'm not sure he really proved his point about the essential role women played in Christianity becoming what it is, but I'm not really sure he needs to because it seems patently obvious to me -- no large-scale human endeavour would ever have amounted to anything without the labour of women. And his observations about the misogyny that quickly took centre stage in Christain theological writings seem similarly unoriginal but accurate.

So I would say -- again, keeping in mind that I am not approaching this as an expert -- that this book does some sound and politically useful work, but it also includes some stuff that feels less sound to me, and is politically troubling.

A couple of final observations: It was interesting to see how this book illustrated the fact that patriarchal relations are socially constructed, historically contingent, and imposed, even though there are ways that it does not deal with such things in as nuanced a way as I would like. This interests me because of how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that existed before 1970 was uniformly and ahistorically patriarchal, and it is only through struggle since then that any changes in the primordial patriarchy have been won. But lots of things that we easily project back from the middle-class white U.S. of the 1950s to the entire rest of human history were imposed in specific times and places by specific people, and have always been the subject of different sorts of struggle. In the case of this book, Swidler shows that some of the most blatantly sexist aspects of Christianity, which generations have been told were "just how things are," were not natural, not inevitable, not inherent in the religion, but imposed in an active way.

It was also interesting to see to see the occasional flash of evidence of the growth of Christianity as social process -- the fact that there were nascent faith communities, often organized around a leader or small circle, which grew and gradually cohered into "the church" through active conflict and negotiation, or were expelled into heresy. I'd like to learn more about that process, if for no other reason than because it seems pretty clear that these early Christians could organize like nobody's business.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Leonard Swidler said...

First I want to thank you Scott for taking my book "Jesus Was a Feminist" seriously enough to give it a lengthy review.

As you note, almost forty years ago in the article I wrote I defined a feminist as some one who treats women as equal with men, and if necessary breaks social taboos. I of course believe that I sustained my argument that Jesus was a feminist in that sense. Hence, I so not think it an anacronism to so describe him.

In your review you seem to wish that I had written a book about gender relations in general at the time and place of Jesus. Such a book may well be a laudable desideratum, but my not having written it is not, in my judgment, a valid critique of the book I did write.

What do you think?

Pax! Len Swidler

Scott said...

Hi Leonard!

I'm honoured that an author of one of the books I've reviewed has chosen to leave a comment. Thanks for reading and thanks for responding!

You make an important point about how I responded to your book. I do try to be aware of and transparent about the ways in which me coming to a given text with a particular background, particular politics, and particular goals shapes how I respond to it. And I do try to distinguish between a book not reaching its intended goal and that goal not being what I need/want/would like.

You may be right that my review of your book was informed to a certain extent by not adequately teasing those two things apart.

However, I don't think it's quite that simple. I think it is also legitimate, in responding to a book, to take apart its stated intent a little bit and think critically about it rather than just accepting it. For instance, I certainly wouldn't dismiss in a blanket way the use of the term "feminist" in discussing things from 2000 years ago, but I think you and I probably have different political sensibilities about what exactly it might take to do that most appropriately. Or to give another example, I think it is entirely appropriate to neither dismiss nor take up uncritically any given author's use of a term that is contested and complicated like "feminist" -- one author's use cannot help but exist in dialogue with the ways that other authors and movements employ the term. I could come up with other examples as well.

So, yes, I can see why there is a certain extent to which some of my criticisms are unfair, but there is also a significant extent to which it is not about wishing you wrote a different book so it would better fit my needs but about thinking through what I would see as necessary to make the claim embodied in the book's title. And I certainly have not taken the time to fully work out what that would be for me, just some initial thoughts. And I think for me to be really satisfied that such a claim had been thoroughly defended -- leaving aside the contentious issue about whether "feminist" is a politically appropriate label for anyone with gender privilege, rather than "pro-feminist" -- would require a different kind of examination of the context in which Jesus was operating. Not an entire "book about gender relationships in general" at that time and place, but a different kind of look at the context.

That said, I generally try to treat books as jumping-off points, or as one entry into a never-ending conversation, rather than as a finished whole that either passes or fails. I definitely found your research and close analysis of the texts to be important and insightful, and surely a necessary foundation which other scholars will take in various different directions.

Thanks again for stopping by and responding!