View from the Pew
Theologian offers feminist view of Bible
The minute the Gospel writers finished their accounts, there was probably a scribe standing up to interpret the previously written text. In this age of prolific publishing, there are literally hundreds of books putting this spin or that on the Bible.
Even when it makes a believer uncomfortable, the continuing interpretation of the "good news" is a good thing, says theology professor Ellen Wondra.
Jesus himself interpreted God's word: "He picked what parts (of Jewish law and prophets) he would quote," said Wondra, a theology and ethics professor at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. An ordained Episcopal priest, she teaches and writes on feminist theology, interpreting Scripture to put women in context.
Wondra will lecture here next weekend. "The Authority of the Scripture: Who Gets to Interpret It and How Do We Know They're Right" will be her theme at a lecture at 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at St. Clement's Episcopal Church. It is free and open to the public. She will lead a workshop on feminist theology Saturday at the church, for which reservations are required.
The feminist view is "a matter of reading the Bible text in a particular way that makes it clear that women are indeed full participants in God's work in the world," Wondra said yesterday in an interview. The Bible writers told about "a relationship between God and a social order that is generally focused around men, so it is mostly men who get talked about. That just means that women are not being talked about. What we do is start by recognizing that women were there, and how do we read that. What begins to be clear is that even though women are not talked about to the same extent as men, they are there all the time, and they are active."
One example is the story of Jesus' followers realizing that he had risen from the dead. All four Gospels tell that women were the first to know, when they found his tomb empty. But that didn't count until Jesus appeared to the male apostles.
Another example is the story of Jesus feeding a crowd with a few loaves and fishes. The account says 5,000 were fed, not counting women and children, said the author of "Humanity Has Been a Holy Thing: Toward a Contemporary Feminist Christology."
Having many interpretations out there opens the Bible to people, she said. An example is the story of Moses in which "God gets the slaves out of Egypt and gives them this land and everything's fine," by the old mainline viewpoint. "If you read the same story in terms of indigenous people, they see God took these people and turned them into invaders. The land of Canaan already had people living there. It has a whole different meaning depending on what community is hearing the story."
If that sounds like a reference to current conflict in the Middle East, that's nothing new. "The Bible has always been read in the light of history and world events. It always has to speak to us here and now, about our lives," Wondra said. An interpretation needs to follow through, looking at "how do we combine all these ways of hearing the story ... in a way to enrich everyone's understanding of the Bible."
As to the speech title, how does an interpreter know she's got it right?
"The way you know is being in extended conversations with other interpreters as well as with history ... and by how we actually live our lives, what kind of people, individually and corporately, we are expected to be.
"You don't end up with an absolute. It leaves us with something ambiguous. That is what's hard for a lot of people. It makes things less certain ... but it gives them more of a rich texture. It leaves more space for more people to say, 'I can see myself as part of the story rather than being written out of it.'"
Even people who say the Bible must be taken literally, no questions asked, do their own interpreting "because they do not take everything with the same weight. They select a certain idea. ... That is what everybody does. We go look for something that speaks specifically ... and often forget to look at the larger picture. We all need to come clean about what we are picking and why."
Wondra believes humans won't ever write the final, ultimate, definitive meaning of the Bible.
Interpretation will continue in each new age. "It's not going to be wrapped up until the end of time."