Friday, February 23, 2007

Sexism and the Christian Meta-Narrative

I'd like to address an issue that Phil S. raised in a comment to my recent post, A Meditation on Post-Modernity.

Phil S. wrote in response:

What many Christians are doing (including me) is to use the post-modern critique of modernism to show it to be just another meta-narrative and that its claims to universality are either greatly exaggerated or, worse, intended to submerge other meta-narratives by taking the high ground.
I am aware that many Christian theologians are now attempting to make this claim, and that is the entire reason for my original post, because I find this type of claim to be a real stretch. Post-modern philosophy when pushed to its extreme like this appears to me to break down.

Yes, we all have meta-narratives, but as human beings NO ONE can live without them. We might spend the majority of our lives unconscious of our meta-narratives, and unaware of their orientations of power, but we would live in utter chaos and dissociative states without them. For scholars to try to erase them from our reconstructive histories, or we from our persons, borders on the impossible. What would be the practical purpose anyway?

I think that we are stuck with meta-narratives and all the ugliness (and beauty) they bring with them. We can never have a narrative that is completely inclusive of the world. Nor we can ever escape their power, although I would like to think that we might be able to transcend the abuses of that power.

Saying this however does not mean that all meta-narratives bring with them the same abuse of power, or the same "universality." Most of our meta-narratives don't even attempt to apply to our common experience as human beings, an experience that transcends the views of any of our religions, social systems, or politics. The humanist or modernist meta-narrative came into being largely to escape the religious meta-narratives and their stranglehold on truth, their abuse of the power that their narratives fed (and still feed) them. In my opinion, the humanist or modernist meta-narrative is not "just another meta-narrative." Not all meta-narratives are "equal." It is the "higher ground," not for reasons of power or superiority or submersion of the "other", but because it is a narrative that allows for us to reflect critically as autonomous individuals and form more inclusive narratives of our world. For me this meta-narrative is essential to adopt as a historian of religion, because it allows me to operate critically, autonomously, and without religious prejudice or preferencing, creating a reconstuction of history far closer to what "happened" than any theological reconstruction might lend us.

Religious meta-narratives are particularly dangerous because they legitimate the oppression and violence as a divine ordinance, or a divine will, or a divine retribution.

Let me use an example that I personally experience: sexism and misogyny. The subjugation of women is woven throughout the Christian meta-narrative and its biblical texts beginning with chapter 2 of Genesis. The biblical passages have been used by mainstream Christians in our not-so-distance-past to keep women from having the voting rights of full citizens of the U.S. The Catholic Church still tells us that women cannot be priests because Jesus only selected male disciples and because women do not have male bodies necessary to represent Jesus as male priests do. Protestant denominations (and here I am not even thinking about marginal sects of Christianity, but the Southern Baptist Convention and other mainline Christian groups) recently revoked ministerial positions for women, or continue to exclude them from these leadership roles based on scriptural passages from Paul and the Pastoral letters. Women continue to be taught in mainstream denominations that God gave them "equal" but "different" roles from men, and that they should be satisfied with this because it is his will. Women continue to be taught in mainstream denominations that their voices should be silent, that their manner submissive to the men in their lives because Eve ate of the fruit not Adam (a reference that is made to 1 Timothy).

Certainly I am not naive enough to think that sexism in our society is completely to blame on Christianity, but Christianity's meta-narrative is the main meta-narrative in our society today that fosters and continues to feed the sexism as divinely sanctioned. And this is dangerous and morally bankrupt. It also holds the potential of becoming a "handmaid's tale" given the right social and political environment. And to me, a woman, this is utterly horrific to ponder.


Judy Redman said...

Sexism and misogyny is (are?) an interesting issue to raise, because a subordinate role for women is contained in the mainstream meta-narratives of many religions. It is there in mainstream Christianity (as I know from personal experience), mainstream Judaism, mainstream Islam, mainstream Baha'i. It is not an extremist position in any of these religious groups. I don't know enough about any other religion to make any sensible statement about it, but I don't think you can label misogyny as the sole province of Christianity, even though Christianity is the dominant religion in US (and Australian) society.

I agree, however, that religious meta-narratives carry with them the particular danger that they present their value systems as divinely ordained. It is very difficult to argue against someone saying "It's true because God says so". If your world view also says that really nasty things will happen to you in both this life and the next if you go against God's will, it becomes an extremely powerful meta-narrative. On the other hand, a religious meta-narrative that promotes equality and peace as divinely ordained is a more powerful tool for "good" than a non-religious one.

This, however, is talking about how people live their lives, not how they analyse history. I think that analysing religious history using a religious meta-narrative is going to create a bias, whether it is for or against the religion that one is studying. I wonder how successfully one can disengage from that kind of meta-narrative, though, if one comes from within a particular faith system? Are you suggesting that it is only possible to do credible history of religion if you are an atheist/agnostic? Or is it possible to acknowledge the bias that a faith position brings and work with that?

Unknown said...

I found that even the faintest notion of a possibility that Mary Magdalene could have been the author of the Gospel of John has helped me address my own inherent sexism!

April DeConick said...


It has never been my position, nor will it ever be my position, that a person of the faith cannot also be a historian of religion.

What I am saying, however, is that the faith position has to be checked at the door so that the reconstruction of history does not become apologetic of the religious tradition or uncritical of the religious tradition being studied.

April DeConick said...


There are many ways to handle sexism within religious traditions. A starting point is acknowledging that the sacred texts are in fact culturally-determined. But this is a very difficult thing to do in Christianity (or any religious tradition of the "Book") because of the belief that the writings in the Bible derive directly from God, that they are somehow entirely God's speech channeled through human authors. This isn't the only Christian understanding of scripture (some understand the Bible to contain God's revelations along with human discussions), but it is a big factor that sets up an environment of power and oppression. The Bible has been used (and still is being used)against many different people by people of mainstream Christianity.

April DeConick said...


Or I wanted to also say that my post is not singling out Christianity as the sole province of misogyny. But that doesn't make it justifiable for Christian denominations to continue to oppress and deny women equal access based on an argument of divine sanction. In the U.S. the Christian meta-narrative about women is operational in a very negative and ugly way. I have experienced it myself, as have countless of other women I have talked to. Many have chosen to abandon the Christian tradition because of it. Certainly it doesn't have to be this way, but the only way I see real change coming about is from within the Christian tradition itself, voluntarily becoming self-reflective about the sexism inherent in its message. Some Christian denominations are doing this, but it is a real fight for them.

Loren Rosson III said...

April wrote:

My post is not singling out Christianity as the sole province of misogyny. But that doesn't make it justifiable for Christian denominations to continue to oppress and deny women equal access based on an argument of divine sanction.

As an outsider I don't believe it's my place to tell a religious group (such as Christians) what they can or cannot believe about such things. If they want to deny women the priesthood -- regardless of how sexist earliest Christianity was -- that's their business. Insiders, as you note, have two options: work to effect changes they deem necessary (all the more power to them), or say good-bye.

Judy wrote:

I think that analysing religious history using a religious meta-narrative is going to create a bias, whether it is for or against the religion that one is studying. I wonder how successfully one can disengage from that kind of meta-narrative, though, if one comes from within a particular faith system?

It's difficult but not impossible. Dale Allison, for instance, has proven more than capable of suspending his own Christian "meta-narrative" for the sake of history. I would not want to say that agnostics like myself have an easier time of it. I think all of us have to work hard at suspending our meta-narratives (for me, it's a liberal Unitarian one), especially those of us from western cultures. Philip Esler (a Christian believer) encourages us to disagree with the ancient authors we love so much and study, and to rejoice in that disagreement; to--

"understand them in their otherness, perceiving their horizon to be situated where it should be, separate from ours, with a separation that persists in spite of our conversation... For an 'I' to dialogue with a 'You' entails a respect for the alterity, the radical otherness, of the other; there is no need to try to reach agreement. It is our attitude to the other that produces genuine dialogue and communion" (New Testament Theology, p 87)

Esler is talking about the NT canon, but his approach should be extended to "forbidden gospels" or any religious text. Once we're free of the desire to use voices from the past, and even more importantly from alien cultures, to bolster our meta-narratives -- once we don't need our texts to say what we'd like them to say, for whatever religious or secular purposes -- the text seems to speak more clearly on its own right. Or at least, that’s what I've found.

Phil Snider said...

Dr. DeConick;

I just have a few comments on the last two posts and, for simplicity sake, I'm setting them here.

First, there is an irony in both of these posts that they are, in a sense, a response to my comment about the humanist metanarratives attempt to claim the high ground. I say irony because it strikes me that in repeating what are basically classic humanist arguments against the Christian meta-narrative, you've really only proven my point about how humanism relates to Christianity and why I raised the concern in the first place.

As you rightly point out, humanism arises as a response to the Christian meta-narrative amid the chaos of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century. This suggests that there is very much a polemical relationship between these two meta-narratives; a relationship which should cause both of us to take pause before we assume that we remain unbiased or impartial in our historical research.

Second, while I consider that you've been tarring the Christian meta-narrative (and, by extension, Christians) with rather too broad a bursh, I do have to concede that there is force to your critques of the behavior you cite as evidence of the delterious effects of Christianity on world history. We may debate on the degrees of responsiblity (and I do find them more complex than you appeared to in your initial posts), but I concede the faults of Christians in the past. I recognize the faults of Christians presently in supporting these unjust actions. I also suspect that we'll see more in the future. Christians are, after all, as prone to self-delusion as any other group, so we can be wrong and we often are.

That said, I also believe that the Christian meta-narrative offers us the resources to see that injustice and act against it. That is, I could construct a perfectly good critique of religious (or any other type of) war, purely out of the Christian meta-narrative.Some Christians will agree with me and others won't. That is part of living in a living tradition means. There is debate and there is conflict even with in a tradition.

That brings me to my third point. Many of those who are most uncomfortable with the Christian meta-narrative see it as a monolithic structure which bears a marked resemblance to the Religious Right in the U.S. on theological steroids. And, of course, some Christians see the humanistic meta-narrative as a pinko godless plot from Satan. I'm exagerrating here for effect, of course, but we can't see any meta-narrative as a monolithic entity.

Within a meta-narrative (I really do prefer the term tradition), there are a plethora of different takes and interpretations of the basic narrative. So, This is why, say, post-modernity is really a radicalization of the humanistic hermeneutic of suspicion turned back on modernism. Similarly, feminism is merely one take on the humanistic meta-narrative, even though it has some strong issues with the assumptions of modernity in general.

Similarly, in Christianity, I am writing in a strain heavily influenced by a blend of Anabaptist ethics, Catholic ecclesiology and evangelical theology. That make me rather hostile to religious wars (I'm a pacifist) and sexism (of course, women have been exploited and continue to be. Of course, we need to address it). This is why I wasn't all that upset at the critique you leveled against Christianity because I agree these are all problems. I am criticizing it on the inside, you are doing so from the outside.

I don't ask anyone to be a Christian here or adopt my beliefs. Yet, what I sense from the repeated statements that I check my faith at my door before I do history is that I'm being asked to do the equivelent (stop being a Christian or adopt a humanistic belief system), at least for the purpose of history writing. I deny that is necessary. What I do say is that you (all) should decide on my reliability as a historian based on what history I write. As fun as historiographic discussions are (and this one has been fun), that is the real proof of the pudding, isn't it?


Judy Redman said...


First, I should have said something like "It sounds as though you might think that it is not possible for anyone other than an atheist/agnostic to do credible religious history, but I don't think this is your position." Sorry.

Second, one of the problems, at least for me, about the concept of checking in one's Christian (or other religious) meta-narrative is that I'm not sure that it's exactly like baggage. I think it's more like broken windscreen glass. Once the windscreen on a car is broken, small pieces of glass keep appearing out of vents etc for years, no matter how carefully you vacuum.

I think what I do is more like the process advocated in reader-response criticism. That is, I try to ask what characteristics of me and my social location might affect how I interpret the text. I don't much like reader-response as a sole methodology because I think it can become unhelpfully subjective and introspective, but I think the concept is useful.

April DeConick said...


Wow, I rather like the image of a broken windshield and shattered glass.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think what women are taught in mainstream denominations depends on the denomination. The Catholics, as you mention, are stuck in a misogynistic paradigm, but the UCC church I've been attending had, until recently, a lesbian pastor.

I don't think there is a single Christian meta-narrative. For all the examples of violence and misogyny that you can find in Christianity, you can also find examples of inclusion and peace. To cite "Jesus Camp", as in your previous posting, as an example of "the" Christian meta-narrative is to ignore the multiplicity of threads that exist within the faith. The "Jesus Camp" Christians no more speak for all Christianity than Marcus Borg does. Just as there is both beauty and violence to be found in the Bible, there is also beauty and vileness to be found within the diversity of Christianity. It seems to me that "Jesus Camp" Christians can easily serve as a straw person for those who want to reject Christianity out of hand.

April DeConick said...

This isn't about rejecting Christianity. This is about facing the fact that its meta-narrative based on its scripture is sexist and androcentric. Now some contemporary Christian denominations have chosen to face this front on and reinterpret the scripture in ways that relieve the misogyny and allow for women to play key roles in leadership. But this is an interpretative move to reassess and rethink the meta-narrative. But the meta-narrative itself remains sexist.

Mystical Seeker said...

My point is that there isn't "a" single meta-narrative in Christianity. Citing "Jesus Camp" as proof of what that supposedly unitary metanarrative while neglecting the counter-examples of non-sexism within Christianity is to be selective and it doesn't give a fair representation of the richness of diversity within the faith. I think it is perfectly reasonable to point to the threads of sexism that exist within Christianity and to critique them, particularly because they have had a predominant role within Christianity. But predominant is not the same as exclusive. My problem is with the suggestion the use of the singular definition article. To say that sexism represents "the" meta-narrative is not giving an objective picture of the faith.