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Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)

Susanne Scholz

Response

I would like to thank the members of the Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible Section for sponsoring and organizing this panel discussion on my three edited volumes. It is a great honor to me and my contributors. I also would like to express my collegial gratitude to the five panelists who agreed to spend time reviewing and commenting on the books. Thank you for your generous commentary, evaluation, and feedback. As the editor, I thank you in the name of all of us who contributed to the books. I also would like to mention my original co-collaborator, Rachel Magdalene. We started our work together in the summer of 2009 when Rachel realized that this is not a project for her to do all by herself. We were beginning to plan volume 1, telling everybody to submit their essays by the deadline, then the essays started coming in and I started the editorial process, but then Rachel’s professional life took a rough corner. In March 2012, we agreed that it would be best if I continued our work alone because Rachel had so much else on her plate. This was a difficult moment for me and I am sure Rachel felt worse. But this is what happens to feminist scholars! Life takes over. We support each other and pick up the pieces wherever they are and bring them to a conclusion.  Rachel, I thank you for your original effort to get this mammoth project off the ground, and I hope you are proud of what I made of it since March 2012. You stated in an email in February 2013, after I told you I had submitted volume 1 to the publisher, that it “warms” your heart to know that “the end of vol. 1” is at hand (email from 2-13-2013). I admit it was a ton of work to get the three volumes done. I am also very happy that “the trinity” is also available in paperback since this November. Hallelujah indeed.

Changing the course of thinking

Carol, thank you for your very generous appreciation of the three volumes. I love your statement with which I agree fully: “My, my, we women truly can change the course of thinking. And if we can change the course of thinking, how much more can we change the course of history, and the world in which we live with all creatures, both human and non-human.” It makes me happy to think that the three volumes encourage feminist, womanist, and mujerista scholars, in our various intersectional manifestations, to take ourselves and our own projects seriously, more seriously than any other tempting research opportunity perhaps, and to get busy in dialoging with each other. I am also fully on board with your idea that our scholarly dialogue will ask a lot of us. It will not suffice anymore that you or I or a third scholar interpret a text as each of us see it. Rather, we need to develop “feminist meta-methods approaches,” so that “similar and divergent views on a text can be heard together and pondered anew.” Because, as you suggest: “Only when different feminist methods, approaches, and perspectives simultaneously shed light on a text can the text be seen in all its spectral colors.” 

In fact, the third volume on methods taught me yet another dialogical component: what if we moved beyond our discipline’s text-obsessed focus to exegetical explorations far beyond the study of the text behind, within, or in front of the text and learned from other feminist methodologies? How about we learn to use feminist methodologies we do not yet employ in feminist biblical exegesis, such as “participatory research, ethnography, discourse analysis, comparative case study, cross-culture analysis, conversation analysis, oral history, participant observation, and personal narrative”[1]? Other feminist academic disciplines can teach us quite a bit on these kinds of inquiries into feminist knowledge as a contribution toward social change. Why have we as feminist Hebrew Bible exegetes limited ourselves to text-based methods so hegemonic in the field of biblical studies? Why have we not developed participatory research methods? Why have we not relied on comparative case studies or cross-cultural analysis in our work? Asked differently, why has feminist Hebrew Bible exegesis remained within the range of methods traditionally employed in the field of biblical studies and not attempted to boldly go where few Bible exegetes have gone before? I would like our feminist conversations to discuss these issues and questions. Carol, you are thus absolutely right in your assessment: I too consider Volume 3 “the crowning jewel” of the three-volume series. And I am the first to admit that in the early stage of developing the three-series volumes with Rachel, I was opposed to the third volume’s topic. I said: “An entire volume on ‘method’?  Rachel, what’s ‘feminist’ about that kind of volume?” When she left the project, I worried how I would pull off a volume that I did not really want to do. Yet, in the end, it was the best thing that happened to me. So yes, I fully agree with you: “The contributions (of Volume 3) that each feminist scholar makes…is unparalleled and provides a compendium of knowledge that showcases each method, each perspective.” Is it not amazing that feminist biblical scholarship, a field so obsessed with methods, has yet to produce more than one volume on its feminist use of methods? This is amazing in itself, and for sure feminist exegetes of all stripes need to put their heads together and critically assess their use of methods, the distinction to methodologies, and the distinction or similarities to the notion of hermeneutics. Although I do not yet pass the torch to anybody, I would hope that we will develop our feminist conversations and collaborations in a way that take seriously and build upon the foundation of these three volumes. 

Womanism is feminism

And then Wil, thank you for your astute comments. I agree entirely with your reminder that womanism is feminism. We are talking “umbrella terms” here and not divisive terminology. I could also live with using womanism from now on, although my sense is that at the moment womanism is the term mostly preferred by African American feminist and women scholars.  Could I call myself a womanist without being charged with appropriating a term not meant to be used by a diasporic German, naturalized US-citizen, white-European, post-Holocaust feminist exegete? When I originally learned about the US-American politics of terminology in Bev Harrison’s and Delores Williams’s course on Feminist and Womanist Theologies and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary back in the mid-1990s, I remember very well the heated debates between the black and white US-American feminist and womanist students of theology. Several of the white women cried and several of the black women got very angry.  The classroom was often in upheaval over terminology, concepts, and who can say what.  Perhaps we need to find this kind of honesty with each other again, but then perhaps we just need to find collaborative and dialogical projects because I agree with you: “(womanist) biblical scholarship does not begin with publication or discovery.” In my view, it begins with relationships and conversations about issues that matter to individual participants or groups of participants. But participants are needed! And let me tell you, especially for volume 1, it was no easy feat to find willing contributors. In fact, Volume 1 was perhaps the hardest to put together.

Wil’s last two questions might encourage such a collaborative and dialogical project. She asks: “How is woman defined, particular now that we have expanded (our) non-binary understandings of gender?” And: “Can we define woman without being cis-arrogant or trans-antagonistic?” In fact, I do not think we can research the concept of “woman” or “women” in the plural anymore in our Christian-right’s culture without clearly articulating why we study “woman” or “women” in the Bible. Otherwise, we essentialize the concept and accommodate our biblical readings into a biologically situated, heteronormative, and religious-right agenda.  I would welcome our conversation, our dialogue, and even collaboration on this highly relevant question: How shall we as feminists, as womanists, and mujerista scholars read biblical texts with womanist, feminist, mujerista concerns in mind?

Challenging the status quo

I would like to address yet another issue that is dear to my feminist biblical heart and that also shows up in Christl’s, Tyler’s, and Monica’s comments.[2] It has to do with the institutional power of academic gatekeepers who have cemented their exegetical superiority and authority by ignoring innovative exegetical developments, including feminist exegesis. The hegemonic architecture of academic and religious institutions is not friendly to feminists in any field but the ease with which feminist Bible scholarship is sidelined is remarkable. I also observe that potential feminist interpreters often choose to advance their careers by following the path of least resistance. They avoid having anything to do with feminist biblical exegesis or explicitly feminist topics. Sometimes, they move into essentialist work on biblical women, and as a result essentialist books are common today. They disregard critical gender theories, and they reinforce the common misperception that feminist exegesis focuses on biblical “women.”  Thus, it is obvious that not every biblical interpretation on women, gender, or sexuality advances feminist and queer aligned thought and exegesis. Esther Fuchs has probably written the most on this exegetical trouble. In several publications, she explains that the essentializing, naturalizing, and universalizing hermeneutical assumptions, prevalent in scholarly treatments on biblical women, are rooted in neoliberalist thought.[3] Unsurprisingly, such scholarship is welcomed in neoliberal, corporatized, and technocratic institutions of higher education and the publishing industry. As Henry A. Giroux describes the effects of these forces when he states: “Four decades of neoliberal policies have resulted in an economic Darwinism that promotes privatization, commodification, free trade, and deregulation. It privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between the rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, and it fosters a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not an unchecked selfishness. Since the 1970s, neoliberalism or free-market fundamentalism has become not only a much-vaunted ideology that now shapes all aspects of life in the United States but also a predatory global phenomenon.”[4]

The neoliberal policies of privatization, commodification, deregulation, and “financialization”[5] have had a profound impact on higher education today. They decrease democratic education and reduce the value of critical thinking, as Giroux observes:

“The neoliberal paradigm … abhors democracy and views public and higher education as a toxic civic sphere that poses a threat to corporate values, power, and ideology.… Similarly, critical thought, knowledge, dialogue, and dissent are increasingly perceived with suspicion by the new corporate university that now defines faculty as entrepreneurs, students as customers, and education as a mode of training.”[6]

In short, the market-driven corporate dynamics of higher education instrumentalize academic work for commercial purposes and financial gains. It includes neoliberal scholarship on biblical women and thus pertains to feminist (biblical) scholarship. There is little incentive to expand teaching and research into particularly innovative and creative directions that do not foster, advance, and communicate hegemonic views on the Bible and gender. 

Nevertheless, feminist biblical scholars must continue developing biblical studies as an international, interreligious, interracial, and intercultural intellectual field of research. We need to provide critical insight into the structures of domination as they pertain to biblical interpretation. We have to consider the intersections of gender, race, class, physical abilities, nationalism, colonialism, or heteronormativity, and we should provide intellectual rationale and analysis to global struggles for justice. We also need to insist on developing biblical studies as an academic location that critically investigates the manifold sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious conditions that require feminist change. We have to articulate sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and religious alternatives, and recognize existing divisions, including those based on gender, as asymmetric power relations that have profoundly defined, limited, and distorted the interpretative work in biblical studies. It is thus urgent that we collaborate with each other and to do whatever we can to build institutions and research agendas that open up spaces for the next generation of feminist Bible scholars, teachers, and readers. Tat-Siong Benny Liew calls for “intercommunal conversations across minority groups,”[7] and womanist exegetes, Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace, affirm “that interpreting sacred texts cannot be done independent of the communities with whom we read and to whom we are accountable.”[8] In my view, feminist exegetes need to be part of these conversations. We need to be connected to our communities of accountability. In fact, many feminist and genderqueer Bible scholars have already reached out and engaged in this kind of “multipolar or multicentric” discourse, despite the difficulties of establishing it within our own institutional locations. In sum, those of us creating feminist alternatives to the kyriarchal status quo in biblical studies need to insist that biblical studies is feminist biblical studies, and vice versa, even when some universities, colleagues, and publishers ignore, sideline, or marginalize feminist biblical studies even today. 

 


[1]Nancy A. Naples, “feminist methodology”, in George Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (vol. iv) (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 1701–6, here 1702.

[2] For full disclosure, I did not receive the review of my three colleagues on time to develop my specific response to their comments. 

[3] For an introduction on neoliberalism, see, e.g., Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4] Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2014), 1.

[5] For the latter dynamic, see the important analysis by Costas Lapavitsas, Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Versos, 2013).

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] Tat-Siong Benny Liew, “What Has Been Done? What Can We Learn? Racial/Ethnic Minority Readings of the Bible in the United States,” in The Future of the Biblical Past: Envisioning Biblical Studies on a Global Key, ed. Roland Boer and Fernando F. Segovia (Atlanta: SBL, 2012), 282-283.

[8] Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace, “Introduction: Methods and the Making of Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse, ed. Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016), 15.


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Susanne Scholz, Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA.  She is the author and editor of fifteen books.  Most recently, she published The Bible as Political Artifact: On the Feminist Study of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis (Fortress Press, 2017) and the second revised and expanded edition of Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Feminism, Gender Justice, and the Study of the Old Testament (T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2017).  She is the series editor of Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts, published by Lexington Books, and she can be contacted at susanne-scholz.com.   


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© Susanne Scholz, 2017, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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