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Rebecca Todd Peters
The set of essays presented in this book represent a clear and powerful call for transforming biblical studies in ways that de-center traditional models of biblical scholarship that continue to promote positivist approaches masquerading as objective under the guise of defining their work as critical-scientific inquiry.
As a scholar outside the field of biblical studies, I learned a great deal from this book about some of the specific internal struggles to transform biblical studies. That said, there was also much that is all too familiar in the struggles of feminist, queer, post-colonial, womanist and other minoritized scholars in transforming and updating the theories, methods, and agendas of our respective guilds. In fact, even the idea of scholarship as protected, controlled, and policed by guilds is a notion that signifies hierarchy, authority, and bygone eras of centralized male power and authority. Or perhaps not so bygone? Or, maybe just not as bygone as we would like them to be.
While my positionality outside the discipline of biblical studies might make my interest in these internecine wars seem curious, I read Scholz’s call for transformation to reach far beyond the boundaries of biblical studies. In fact, I think her interest lies in deconstructing many traditional boundaries altogether. For, as she states in the introduction, her aim is to “further the agenda of cultural criticism in biblical research from a feminist hermeneutical stance” (p. xvi). Reading her work as a feminist social ethicist, the project of cultural criticism that centers The Bible as Political Artifact is not just a project of Bible scholars.
In fact, if we take seriously Scholz’s attention to the importance of bringing “biblical literature ‘back’ into the intellectual debates on today’s social, political, cultural and religious issues, and to release the Bible from its academically isolated, undervalued, and privatized space” (p. 22) then it will require a far more collaborative, engaged, multi-disciplinary space that invites not only biblical scholars and ethicists to the table but also political scientists, feminist philosophers and economists, sociologists, anthropologists, not to mention our activist friends and people who desire to read the Bible together for liberation and transformation. What could be more feminist?
Scholz’s scholarship is acutely relevant in the context of a postmodern world that is struggling to discern what it means to live in “a secular age.” As questions of authority and truth roil across the political and social stages of many of the world’s people, the question of who and what hold authority for people today is a separate question from how moral and political authority have shaped the world in which we live. Even as we debate what role religion should play in our contemporary socio-political world, we cannot let that distract us from a deeper awareness about the role that religion, and particularly Christianity, has played in shaping our contemporary world.
In Western countries with a political and social history of Christianity, the influence of biblical stories, traditions, and traditional theologies associated with that Christian legacy are often not obvious or evident to people and communities that have become either more secular in orientation, values, and upbringing or that come from different religious backgrounds and cultural orientations. Nevertheless, the roots of Western jurisprudence are directly traceable to legal traditions, values, and practices associated with Christianity. Likewise, social and cultural norms and mores are also deeply influenced by Christian biblical stories, traditions, and values associated with them – even when contemporary publics are not aware of those connections.
One of the fundamental principles of my work as a feminist Christian ethicist is that, unless and until we identify and make people aware of how the Bible is being used in culture and society, the Bible will continue to be used to restrain and oppress women in invisible and deeply damaging spiritual and material ways. Scholz’s scholarship on rape, which has sought to challenge traditional interpretations of biblical rape and to transform biblical scholarship on rape, is a clear witness to this principle. While this type of scholarship will look different for ethicists than it will for biblical scholars, there is a great deal of room for partnership and collaboration along the way.
Even as there are many areas of contemporary life that have been impacted by traditionalist and misogynist interpretations of the Bible, there are few that have been as ignored by scholars as the debate about abortion in the United States. Regardless of the fact that abortion is not mentioned in the Bible, the public debate about abortion in the US is deeply shaped and marked by how the Bible is and has been used in culture and society to shape attitudes about women and women’s social roles.
Bringing the principle of critical cultural biblical awareness to bear on the topics of pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion allows us to see how valuable Scholz’s work of furthering critical biblical scholarship informed by minoritized perspectives is for our social and political world today. With this in mind, I will highlight three insights from her work that might be productive in helping to reshape the contentious debate about abortion in the United States.
First, Scholz’s ethical genealogies of Biblical interpretation can help trace how the framework of justification came to dominate and shape abortion discourse in the US (p. 181). One critical task of feminist social ethics is to engage in social analysis that helps people recognize and identify the social problems and factors that shape situations of oppression. In analyzing the contemporary landscape of abortion politics and debate in the United States, identifying the dominant framework that shapes how we think and talk about abortion as a framework of justification allows people to recognize that this dominant framing of the discourse is biased against women from the outset.
The justification, which begins with the assumption that abortion is morally wrong, therefore requires women to offer justification for their decisions to end pregnancies. Historically, four reasons have generally been accepted as justifiable reasons for abortion, what I call the PRIM reasons - Prenatal health, Rape, Incest, and Mother’s life and health. The fact that abortion is morally acceptable in some cases means that the real social question is not whether women can have abortions, but which women and for what reasons? In this way, requiring women to justify their abortion decisions functions as a form of social control to policewomen’s reproduction and to deny women the same full moral agency and bodily autonomy that men enjoy.
One of the foundational beliefs supporting this position that abortion is morally wrong is the idea that women have a moral obligation to bear children. There are a number of cultural tropes associated with traditionalist interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis, tropes like:
- Women were created to attend to men’s needs
- God ordained that men should rule over their wives
- Women are deceptive, seductive, and sexual creatures
- Childbearing is women’s punishment for disobeying God
However, my strength as a social ethicist is focusing on the social analysis – tasks like identifying and naming the justification framework and deconstructing the cultural arguments that support it; and documenting the ways in which this framework is being used to harass and punish women, particularly poor women, young women, and women of color. While I identify and discuss aspects of how the Bible has been used in these debates, there is a great deal of opportunity for collaboration and deepening of my analysis and critiques that could come with the kind of ethical genealogical scholarship Scholz develops in chapter 8.
In examining three very different interpretations of Hosea 2:2-23, Scholz illustrates the value of tracing the ethical genealogies of biblical interpretation. In the first, grounded in historical criticism and linguistics, Hans-Walter Wolff presents a supersessionist interpretation of the text that focuses on God’s power to establish a new covenantal relationship creating what Scholz calls a “theo-culturally dangerous meaning of the Old Testament poem” (p. 183) The second, by feminist scholar Gale Yee focuses on the gendered aspects of the poem which allow Yee to highlight the insidious nature of describing the relationship between Yahweh and Israel as a battering relationship (pp. 183-185) The third interpretation, by post-colonial scholar Tania Mara Vieira Sampaio is developed in dialogue with Brazilian women who make their living as prostitutes. Reading from the perspective of prostitutes offers a radical rereading of this text that views the financial independence that accompanies prostitution as essential before husband and wife can reconcile and renew their covenantal relationship.
This model of tracing the ethical genealogy of interpretation could help shed light on and potentially challenge the power of these cultural tropes about women, women’s social roles, and traditional gender roles that can be traced back to the creation narratives in Genesis. Breaking the phallogocentric symbolic order of male sexual privilege that undergirds the dominant framework of justification that shapes abortion discourse in the US will require more work by Biblical scholars that seeks to speak to broader audiences in ways that challenge misogynist interpretations of these narratives and the cultural tropes that have arisen from centuries of patriarchal interpretations.
Second, examining the Biblical interpretations that the Christian Right make about abortion offers sociological insight into who anti-abortion Christian leaders are and what kind of world they seek to impose on American women (pp.180-181). The anti-choice movement is notorious for their use of the Bible in supporting their political position that abortion should be criminalized. Scholz has argued convincingly (following Bourriaud) that in our postmodern world, we cannot claim that interpretations are right or wrong (p.180). While we can certainly offer alternative interpretations of the texts that they use or even offer an entirely different theological argument for supporting women’s right to end a pregnancy, if we affirm the postmodern hermeneutic of interpretation, there isn’t really any legitimate basis for denouncing anti-choice interpretations as wrong.
However, I’m not sure that is really such a loss. In fact, Scholz offers much more interesting avenues for thinking about how to address the Biblical interpretation of anti-choice Christians. One of her claims is that interpretations provide sociological insights into the world of the interpreter. She says, “biblical interpretations are access points to examining who we are. Rather than telling us what the Bible says, they are sources for critical interrogations about the world” (p.180).
If we approach Right-wing Christian interpretation of the Bible from this perspective, we are able to see that their interpretations tell us precious little about scripture but loads about who they are and what kind of world they seek to impose on American women. Traditionalist Right-wing Christians believe that there is a divinely ordained sexual order where men are the heads of households, wives submit to their husbands, and sex belongs only in monogamous marriage. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has argued that, “Patriarchy is good for women, good for children, and good for families. . . the question for us is not whether we will have patriarchy, but what kind.” Moore calls the faithful to more biblical patriarchy which he describes as “a loving, sacrificial, protective patriarchy in which the archetypal Fatherhood of God is reflected in the leadership of human fathers, in the home and in the church."
While it is certainly the case that Christianity has a deep history of patriarchy, racism, and misogyny, it need not be held captive to that past. Over the past century, feminists, people of color, gender-queer minorities and other people who have chaffed under the traditionalist white Christian vision of gender and social control have steadily challenged and rejected oppressive norms that harm people and violate human rights. It is the case that many people have left religion behind because of this traditionalism and the racism, sexism, misogyny, and intolerance they have experienced in organized religion and particularly within Christianity. At the same time, multiple movements of liberation theology have grown up within Christianity. These movements have shaped robust theological visions of Christianity that challenge the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and power of traditionalist versions of Christianity. In fact, there is such a stark difference between traditionalist Christianity and progressive Christianity that historian Marie Griffith has described these two versions of Christianity as “two virtually nonoverlapping religions.” Scholz’s work helps make clear that the most influential battleground is not in determining who has the “right” interpretation of scripture but rather in helping broader publics recognize and understand how the Bible is being used by different groups of Christians and helping people to see how these different interpretations offer different visions of what is holy and sacred and how we are to care for each other and our world.
Third, reading the Bible with women who have abortions can offer a transgressive hermeneutic of empowerment. Much like Sampaio read the text of Hosea with Brazilian prostitutes (ch. 8), reading the Bible with women who have had abortions holds the key to recognizing the profound moral wisdom and care with which these women approach questions of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting.
While I have not yet read the bible with women who have had abortions, I know that they have a lot to teach us about motherhood. Studies consistently show that women who have abortions weigh a wide variety of factors as they consider what to do when faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. In fact, 50% of women who have abortions report at least four contributing factors that they evaluated in considering their pregnancy. Most of the women who have abortions do so precisely because they are acting responsibly in recognizing their inability to mother a potential child in ways that reflect justice, wholeness, and abundant life.
In saying no to a particular pregnancy, these women are often saying yes to other visions of wholeness and abundant life – sometimes for existing children, sometimes for families or marriages, and sometimes they are saying “yes” to a vision of a whole and abundant future life for themselves. The fact that 60% of the women who have abortions already have children means that they know what it takes to mother. As one woman who already had two children stated, “There is just no way I could be the wonderful parent to all three of them and still have enough left over to keep the house clean and make sure the bills are paid and I’m in bed on time so I can be at work on time. It’s impossible.” Most of the other 40% will go on to have children later in life. But what if they don’t go on to have children? There are a growing number of women (and men) who do not want to have children, who do not feel called to the sacred task of parenting or who do not feel that the world needs more children given our growing population.
Reading the Bible with women who had an abortion offers the opportunity of opening up multiple new ways of thinking about pregnancy, gestation, prenatal life, childbirth, adoption, parenting, and many other issues related to reproduction and reproductive justice. Reading the Bible with these women could offer important insight into new ways to interpret the scripture that could contribute in meaningful ways to the socio-political debates that are ravaging the United States and could provide important contributions to the essential task of changing how we think and talk about abortion. The criminalization of abortion will only harm the most vulnerable women and pregnant people in society. Elevating the voices of women who regularly experience cultural silencing, damnation, and violence as a result of their reproductive decisions has the potential to contribute to cultural transformation.
While my remarks here have focused on abortion, that is illustrative for my larger point. What is exciting about Scholz’s work is the invitation for collaboration and for reimagining the tasks and methods, not just of feminist biblical scholarship, but of our collective work as feminist/womanist/mujerista/queer/postcolonial activist-scholars who understand our work to be more about social transformation than academic respectability. The points I have highlighted offer glimpses into the value-added potential that we offer to each other when we think beyond the academy and allow ourselves to dream a new world together.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
 One of the most important tasks in Christian social ethics has been to examine how scripture has been used to enact, reinforce, support, and continue the oppression and subjugation of women and other minoritized groups of people. In fact, this work has been an essential aspect of liberation and social transformation in the work of various forms of liberation theology.
 Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis: Beacon, 2010.
 Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, Boston: Beacon, 2018.
 Russell D. Moore, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Lynchburg 49, no. 3 (September 2006): 576.
 Ibid., “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Lynchburg 49, no. 3 (September 2006): 575.
 R. Marie Griffin, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. New York: Basic Books, 2017, ix.
 Lawrence B. Finer, Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, and Ann M. Moore. “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives.” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 113.
 Ibid., 116–117.
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Rebecca Todd Peters, Santiago Slabodsky, Carol J. Dempsey, Susanne Scholz - Reviewing “The Bible as Political Artifact: On the Feminist Study of the Hebrew Bible” by Susanne Scholz A Panel Discussion at the SBL 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA (332,7 KiB)
Rebecca Todd Peters,
is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Poverty and Social Justice Program at Elon University. Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. She is the author or editor of eight books including her most recent book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (Beacon Press, 2018). Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has been active denominationally and ecumenically for more than twenty-five years and has represented the PC(USA) as a member of the Faith and Order Standing Commission of the World Council of Churches for the past fourteen years. She received the 2018 Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary in recognition of her work on reproductive justice and poverty and economic justice and is currently a Public Fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)