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Feminist scholar examines marginalization of women in the Bible

January 27th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

Story & Photos by Heidi Hansen

LOGAN—Read the Bible suspiciously and ask hard questions—that was a the advice from a feminist religious scholar Wednesday afternoon as she discussed “What the Bible Doesn’t Teach You” at the Merrill Cazier Library.

Susan Shaw, a Women and Gender Studies professor at Oregon State University, addressed a group of 86 USU students and faculty members on feminist interpretations of the Bible.

“Methods of interpretation allow the Bible to speak to multiple audiences,” Shaw said. She added that hard questions should be asked: “Does it advocate marginalization? Or does it help us?”

When feminists read the Bible, Shaw said, the focus is on unmasking the ways patriarchal notions are embedded in the text, and analyzing structures of power. It’s generally not about asking what the text says, but about going into the Bible and trying to make sense of it.

“Women have come to accept the worldview of male interpreters instead of asking questions,” Shaw said.

For example, Shaw said that the Bible and biblical studies marginalize feminine images of God, such as descriptions of God as having a womb and giving birth, but these accounts are pushed aside in favor of titles like Master and Lord. She urged her listeners to ask why.

Shaw recently taught a workshop titled “Bad Girls of the Bible,” focusing on characters like Eve, Delilah, Jezebel and Vashti. The central question was, “What can contemporary women learn?”

“In challenging these stories, we can see the way our own lives are limited by them,” Shaw said.

“Feminism provides a way to fulfill both the Bible’s and women’s goal of liberation,” she said. The “bad girls of the Bible” are her friends, Shaw said, and that she will continue to read the Bible suspiciously, ask hard questions and work towards peace.

Ann Austin, director of USU’s Center for Women and Gender Studies and organizer of the event, said she was thrilled with the turnout and was pleased by the questions students were asking.

“There were things said by Dr. Shaw that could have made people in the dominant religion angry,” said Austin, a professor of childhood development. “Instead, people were able to take a different point of view and reflect on it. They’re using the university for what it is: a place to learn.”

Brianna Anderson, a 19-year-old freshman from Salt Lake City, said she found the lecture interesting. She said she has “no strong religious ties, so it was nice looking at the Bible in a different way.”

Shaunzi Byron, a sophomore history major, said she found Shaw’s interpretation of the common Biblical story where Jesus steps in to stop the stoning of a women accused of adultery particularly interesting. Shaw had said this showed that Jesus looked upon men and women as equals.

“I always thought of it as Jesus taking compassion on the women,” Byron said. “I never looked at it as something Jesus did to break the patriarchal order.”

“I agree that we can take different interpretations of the Bible and that we can learn things from different churches,” Byron said, although she said she couldn’t agree with all the specifics of Shaw’s lecture.

“Maybe I haven’t learned enough about the prostitutes in the Bible,” Byron said, “but I’ve never taken the view that prostitutes were forced into it. I thought they were just prostitutes.”

During the lecture, Shaw had offered the interpretation that female prostitutes in Biblical times simply accepted the patriarchal view of themselves as sex objects, and were often forced into prostitution.

Shaw said she was raised on Bible passages that limited who she could become because she was a girl. In her childhood Southern Baptist culture, education was encouraged, but also feared. Shaw’s minister warned her that in seminary she would be told the Bible isn’t true.

However, in her seminary studies she never lost faith in the Bible, but gained faith in women. When her classes took up the topic of women in the ministry, she said she was put off by a classmate who refused to be part of the discussion.

“He had broken a vital rule of Southern culture: thou shalt not be rude,” Shaw said.

When a male friend told her, “Susan, I’ll be praying for you that you don’t get messed up in this women and ministry stuff,” Shaw said she became a feminist.

Shaw, who now belongs to the United Church of Christ, said she has little to say about the role of women in the Book of Mormon or in the LDS faith. However, she said she is curious to learn more and has been asking friends like Austin many questions.

Austin, who is LDS, answered that she is “disappointed in the number of women in the Book of Mormon,” but said that she “loves” the roles of women who do appear in the Book of Mormon. For example, she said she loves the story of Queen Sariah, who is heartbroken when her husband dies. Austin said she sees this story as a true declaration of love.

But Austin acknowledged that in the Book of Mormon, “women are usually shown in relation to men” just as they are in the Bible.

Shaw said she prefers the new, revised standard edition of the Bible because it is more progressive, but suggests that people read multiple translations and even look to multiple religions for truth.

“At best we have hints and guesses of the truth,” Shaw said. “How could any human institution understand the whole of God? That’s an arrogance Jesus would have been horrified at.”


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