Making the 'best' of feminist theology

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Susan Shaw

Now as they went on their way,
[Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”

Martha and Mary stand on opposite sides of a deep divide that separates conservative and progressive Christians: fundamentalists and evangelicals want women to serve in the home like Martha, while progressives support women’s right to be active and equal followers of Jesus, like Mary.

“Unfortunately, from a feminist perspective, those on the Christian Right have been much more successful in the mass communication of their ideas about women than have progressives,” said Susan Shaw, a Research Fellow and director of both Women Studies and the Difference, Power & Discrimination Program at OSU.

Not only is there a split in the bibilical interpretation of the role of women, said Shaw, but public discussion about women and Christian faith also suffers from “bifurcation.” On one side is the “fundamentalist/evangelical pop theology about women that utilizes literalist readings of the Bible to teach women’s submission to men, women’s primary role as wife/mother/homemaker, and women’s exclusion from ordained ministry.”

On the other side is “feminist theology which is highly academic, rigorous, complex, and mostly inaccessible to general readers.”

To tackle this split, Shaw is writing a new book, Choosing the Better Part: Women, Faith, and Feminist Theology, aimed at making the best of feminist theology and biblical criticism readily accessible to the general public in a way she hopes will be both appealing and challenging.

In general, said Shaw, religion has played an increasingly prominent role in cultural conversations over the past few years, resulting in much public discussion over significant issues of concern to men and women alike. That this has not been true for a discussion of women’s role in Christianity has left a gap in the discourse.

Popular writers on the fundamentalist, conservative side of the issue of women’s role, she said, tend to “rely on theologically shallow, antifeminist assertions and clichés to argue that women’s happiness and fulfillment come from a formulaic submission to conservative notions about women, which they cast in the guise of liberation under God.”

On the progressive side, the arguments are mostly above the heads of readers without some theological education.

Shaw’s book will focus on topics typically found in a work of systematic theology—the Bible, Christology, moral and ethical decision-making, eschatology—as well as on issues of particular importance to women, and will use language intelligible to all. The book will begin with a discussion of the place of doubt.

“I will make the case that a true, living Christian faith is rooted in questioning, struggling, and not-knowing and that certainty and fear of intellectual rigor in matters of theology are really the antithesis of faith. I will examine the popular antifeminist writings that encourage certitude over inquiry and submission over agency.”

In later sections, Shaw will discuss feminist interpretations of biblical passages and feminist alternatives to tradition, with the goal of helping readers use interpretive methods that go beyond biblical literalism or traditional historical criticism.

In a section devoted to examining traditional theological doctrines, Shaw will emphasize the importance of language and metaphor and look closely at practical implications of theological doctrines in women’s everyday lives. The role of women in the ministry is another key area, in particular, “the current ‘women’s ministries’ movement among evangelicals, which purports to provide women avenues for ministry while emphatically excluding them from ordained ministry and the pastorate.”

Reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual assault, war, poverty, family and other ethical issues important to women will be examined through the lens of feminist theology. The book will conclude by exploring the relationship of Christian women to environmental issues.

“By examining feminist biblical criticism, theology, church history, and ethics in an engaging and accessible way, this book will provide an alternative to readers, women in particular, who are seeking more progressive ways to understand and live their Christian faith but who lack the tools to do so.”

Susan Shaw is the author of God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society and Storytelling in Religious Education.