Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: Lydia's Impatient Sisters

[Luise Schottroff. Lydia's Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.]

Yes, another work of feminist theology, reviewed from my non-Christian but politically sympathetic place as part of my social movement history work. This volume was of particular interest to me partly because I need to learn enough to be able to write a few paragraphs relating feminism in the context of 20th century Canadian Christianity to earlier Christian history, and partly because this book was translated from German by a colleague and political ally of the person whose words are the basis for my current chapter.

The book was not as useful to me as I'd hoped. Its feminist social history is done in the service of scriptural interpretation, which I knew in advance but did not completely understand. I found the unexpectedly tight integration of these two elements in the book to be politically admirable but practically challenging for my own purposes -- I would've found it more useful to have the history segregated out on its own. I also found the organization of the book to be difficult for me to understand. And it was hard to read in a lot of ways: it assumed knowledge of scripture that I don't have and it assumed knowledge of theological debates that I don't have. Because it came from the German context, the debates were not necessarily even the same ones that I have become at least a little familiar with in the last while due to my reading in this area.

And yet there was something very powerful about this book as well. Though it was not presented in a way that was pre-packaged and ready for my particular application, I found a lot of insight in her social history of the beginnings of Christianity. It gave me a sense of the social processes involved in those years in a way I've never encountered before.

And there is lots about the book that I find politically admirable. Her consistent effort to counter the tendencies towards theological anti-semitism (she describes it as "anti-Judaism") in much Christian theology, even today and even in some feminist circles, was impressive. Most Christian theologians talk about early Christianity as a break from Judaism, and then often in some way or other construct Christian virtues in contrast with supposed Jewish vices. She, on the other hand, argues that it makes much more sense to regard early Christianity not as arising in opposition to Judaism but as a religious and political movement within Judaism, with origins and practices similar to a number of contemporary movements and flowing from particular aspects of (the inevitably contradictory and complex) Jewish tradition.

I also appreciate the tight linkage Schottroff makes in her politics and her theology between feminist theology and liberation theology. Many people in both of those traditions do not particularly look to the other, or do so in ways that end up being largely nominal, and it has been strange and offputting to encounter that distance as I have done my recent reading. The commitment she has to integrating these has to do with her analysis of the roots of Christianity as a religious and political movement of the oppressed -- there were rich Christians even in the earliest years, but at that point the power within the communities/movements that comprised Christianity lay with the vast majority of people who were struggling against poverty and struggling against Roman imperialism. Many, of course, were also struggling to navigate gender oppression. And there are important ways in which the earliest Christian communities engaged in practices that were radically counter to these oppressions -- practices that are also radically counter to later dominant Christian practices and assumptions. She does not romanticize this origin, however. She recognizes that though there were important ways that the earliest Christian communities functioned counter to the very overt, legislated patriarchy of the ancient Mediterranean world, they were still sites of internal struggle around gender oppression. She does not pose them as sites of past perfection to be reclaimed, but as examples of possibility to inspire future struggle.

The thing I liked most about the book, despite the fact that I didn't find it totally accessible, was that it had fire. There was a powerful passion for justice motivating the author and pervading the text. That fire has not been nearly as common as I had expected in the works I've been reading recently, which has disappointed me. Even though it is not a tradition with which I can easily or completely identify, in the cases where I have felt that fire in the theology I've been reading, it has been inspiring.

Reflecting on that has made me wonder more about the state of the Christian left in North America today. I know it exists. I know there are rumblings within the evangelical spaces that have in recent decades been a base for the right. These aren't yet coherent and they aren't likely to go everywhere that we on the left might like, but my sense is that they are real and important expressions of discontent with some aspects of an oppressive status quo. I also know there are hidden corners within mainstream denominations that are leftist and activist, including in Canada's two largest Christian denominations, the United Church and the Catholic Church. And there are the smaller denominations with long histories of activism, like the Unitarians and the Quakers. And there are the even smaller groupings with quite radical practice, like the Catholic Workers. All of these clusters of activity exist, and I know that there exists out there some amazing work by feminists, liberation theologists, and others that go far beyond the mainstream of liberal denominations like the United Church in challenging believers to become a force for justice and liberation. But I don't have a sense of those social conglomerations in motion. What are they doing? What are they achieving? Whither do they move? How are that fire and the insights of texts like this one being mobilized to challenge right-wing and liberal Christians in radically prophetic ways?

I think I know the answer, unfortunately. I think the Christian left in North America is as fragmented and disorganized as the secular left. But my encounters with texts like this one that really do have that fire give me hope that feminist and liberation theologies can still play an important role in energizing struggles for justice and liberation in North America.

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

No comments: