In this chapter, Johnson is clearly writing for readers who are not familiar with the tools of feminist theology. She illustrates four different practices with a different story. Telling Hagar’s story by lifting up elements that are plainly in the biblical text yet, somehow, rarely preached exemplifies “recovering lost memory.” Mary Magdalen provides a terrific example of “rectifying distortions”: How … did the first apostolic witness become a whore? (149). The virgin martyrs of the early church offer a case study in “reassessing values” inscribed onto the stories of women by the male patriarchal gaze, which could even categorize Perpetua, a nursing mother, and Felicity, a newly post-partum mother, as virgins! Importantly, this section not only revisits the meaning and value of virginity, but questions “the theological legitimation of suffering” (155) associated with martyrdom. Perceiving, honoring, and telling the stories of the many women who are mentioned but not named, as well as those who are not even mentioned but whose existence is implied, is a means of “reclaiming the silence” about women’s lives in our texts.
In the final section, she identifies these practices as “outflying sparks” of the more comprehensive reading strategies used in feminist scholarship, which I summarize as: suspicion of the patriarchal and androcentric biases in the text; reconstruction of details and gaps informed by the social sciences; kerygma that insists the Good News must indeed bring justice for the oppressed; and liturgy that proclaims the joyful and sorrowful and glorious and ordinary stories of biblical and ecclesial women in prayerful community.
(Brief) Reflection & Further Resources
The title of this chapter sounded suspiciously squishy to me, but it turned out to be an interesting chapter for me to read, because I’ve studied or blogged about a number of the cases she mentions here, and am familiar with these practices and strategies. (Gee, I guess I am a feminist theologian after all!)
Johnson references Phyllis Trible’s work in Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: this is a terrific book, especially for interfaith women’s groups. You can hear Trible’s 2014 Kellogg Lecture Justice for Foremothers: Hagar and Sarah online – I just listened to this last weekend.
There’s a tremendous amount of information about Mary Magdalen online (gathered in this case by proponents of women’s ordination, but don’t let that put you off the material). I’ve blogged about the Construction of Virgin Saints and Perpetua and Felicity before. My favorite quote from the martyrs section was by Kathleen Norris:
The virgin martyrs make me wonder if the very idea of girls having honor is a scandal,
if this is a key to the power that their stories still have to shock us, and even more important to subvert authority, which now as in the ancient world rests largely in the hands of men.
(Norris, The Cloister Walk, 192; quoted on p153)
The National Festival of Biblical Storytelling that I attended a few years ago, one of the workshops was offered by a group called Women of the Well, who took an imaginative reconstructive approach to biblical women’s stories — rather like midrash. They performed a beautifully moving dialogue between Hagar and Sarah, imagining each woman’s joys and hardships from her own point of view, the conflict between them, and exploring the possibilities for reconciliation.
Q8a: What do you think of these practices and strategies for reading scripture and ecclesial texts? Do they strike you as legitimate, reliable, dubious, ..? Do you think you would find them helpful?
Q8b: Any comments on the stories of Hagar, Mary Magdalen, the virgin martyrs, the anonymous women as told in these ways? What appealed to you, disturbed you, made you think?