Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Bible Rarely has One Answer: Susannah Larry on "Is the Bible Sexist?"

On the first of February, Susannah Larry, Hebrew Bible scholar from Vanderbilt University, joined us for a discussion on the existence of biblical sexism. Larry began our conversation by saying that “the Bible rarely has one answer”. She used this logic to combat traditional biblical views of men, women, and the relationship between them.
First, we asked the question “what is a biblical woman?” Many different answers came from our biblical knowledge including: a seductress, a man’s property, an obedient wife and mother, a warrior. As Larry told us at the beginning, there is no one answer to this question. Certainly, examples of all these types of women can be found in the Bible. However, in order to compile some more concrete answer, Larry took us through a few examples more thoroughly.   
Of course, it makes most sense to begin with Eve, mother of all women. Part of the argument that women are to be submissive and even inferior to me lays with the creation of Eve as the second human. In the original, Hebrew the name Adam merely means “dirt being” and has no association with gender. In fact, the words for man and woman are not used until after Eve was created. This suggests that there was no gender in place until both man and woman were created.
With the most basic claims to superiority addressed, we moved on to the first sin. Eve is consistently blamed for the fall of man. The traditional story of the serpent and the tree of knowledge suggests that Eve was alone with the snake and, therefore,was solely responsible for the Fall. However, if we read Genesis 3:6 carefully, we see a small phrase that refutes this idea. In several translations, the verse reads “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate”. Once we take notice of this phrase “who was with her”, we can say that Adam was subject to the serpent’s persuasion and, therefore, equally responsible for the Fall of humanity.
As Adam and Eve were cast from paradise, God heaped judgement upon them. One such judgement is often used in the argument that a husband should be the head of the household. God spoke to Eve “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (NRSV Gen. 3:16). The fact that this was one of God’s judgements as he cast Adam and Eve from the garden suggests that God never intended for man to rule over woman. Inequality, then, is perhaps a sign of the falleness of the world.
Next, we should take a look at the concept of warrior womanhood. The Bible gives us a couple examples of female warriors. Deborah, as the judge of Israel, was a leader in her community. Jael caught the opposing general during war by wooing him drawing him into the false security of a bedchamber. She took this opportunity to kill him. In these two stories, the Bible gives us excellent examples of women who were able to lead and protect their people.
So now that we have some idea of biblical womanhood, what is biblical manhood? We could answer this multiple ways including: a macho warrior, a tender-hearted friend/lover, a sex-crazed hooligan, a devoted spouse. Most would agree that the Bible is ripe with examples of macho warrior men and that this particular type of man is widely celebrated. Devoted spouses and tender-hearted lovers exist and receive similar celebration. It’s safe to say that the warrior man is often more preferred by both men and women. However, it’s important to acknowledge examples of strong men that are also tender-hearted friends. The best example is the friendship between David and Jonathan. The two were very close friends and often “wept with each other” (NRSV 1 Sam. 20:41). When Jonathan died, David lamented the loss of his friend greatly, “greatly beloved were you to me” (NRSV 2 Sam. 1:26). The friendship between David and Jonathan provides a good example for men to know that it’s okay to be emotional towards other men.
With an idea of a biblical woman and a biblical man, we moved on to the idea of the ultimate relationship between two people: marriage. In our western society, we often view marriage as something to do when you are in love. In the Bible, there are examples of love matches; however, there are also examples of business marriages. In Genesis, we see Jacob fall in love with Rachel and work for her father so that he can marry her (Gen. 29:18). In Deuteronomy 22, we see an example of the terms upon which a woman may be given in marriage. The man who wants to marry will “give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife” (NRSV Deut. 22:29). We can see that marriage can be defined in a couple different ways. How we view it today depends on our own personal translation.
Let’s talk about a topic potentially more interesting to a modern audience than marriage: sex. So, does the Bible say that sex is reserved only for marriage? Not exactly. In Song of Songs, we have two lovers exploring their sexuality together quite plainly; however, there is no marriage mentioned. While certain translations choose to render the sex PG, others make the sex clear. In Ruth, Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) instructs her to “go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (NRSV Ruth 3:4). Here Naomi is attempting to gain security and protection for her daughter-in-law by having her sleep with a man. Why uncover his feet though? In the original Hebrew, feet is a euphemism for male genitalia. So we see that sex does happen outside of marriage in the Bible.  
After Larry brought us through these numerous questions, we still wanted to know “is the Bible sexist?” Well, it was written by men for men in a different time and a different culture. So, maybe. The book is comprised of many discordant voices. So, maybe. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the interpreter to determine the context and how to apply the scripture to individual lives.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Vagina Monologues


On our first week back at Wake-Up Wednesday, we were visited by three cast members of The Vagina Monologues. The play, written by Eve Ensler, will return for its 10th production at Tennessee Tech on February 15th, 16th, and 17th (for more information, see the link at the end of this blog). The proceeds from the performances will benefit a number of national and local organizations including Genesis House, Planned Parenthood, and The Tennessee Coalition for Women.
Holly Mills, librarian at Tech, began our conversation with her experience as a cast member of The Vagina Monologues. Fairly new to acting, Mills told us that she was, “not always good at standing up and shouting loudly enough to be heard.” She’s finding her footing, though, as she rehearses her monologue about a woman who had a good experience with a man and came to love herself as a result. While the concept of learning to love yourself through an experience with a man may seem foreign to young women today, it’s certainly something worth talking about. Self-love should evolve from a woman’s own being; however, sometimes we need a little help to see ourselves in a flattering light. Considering the sensitive material in The Vagina Monologues, we asked Mills if she was worried about performing the play in conservative Cookeville. She replied, “The older I get and the more polarized the country gets, I just say what I need to.” Good advice for all.

Robin Ridley, 1998 graduate of Tech, shared her unique experience as a transgender woman. As a member of a group often excluded from female-only activities, Ridley said “It’s particularly important to be included as a woman.” She is performing the trans monologue that was added to the play in 2005. Ridley told us that she entered activism through her transgender identity and serves as the face for transgender identities in the Cookeville area. We asked her what it was like to not be accepted among female feminists. The early waves of feminists were extremely anti-trans insisting that the transgender community were only men attempting to infiltrate the movement and often banning them from activities. Ridley offered us a scientific perspective on transgender people. Transgender people’s brain structure is more similar to their identified gender than their assigned gender. This is due to a complication during pregnancy. The hormones responsible for brain structures went awry while the hormones responsible for genital development worked correctly creating a disruption (for more information, see http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/gender-lines-science-transgender-identity/). These scientific explanations are important and incredibly enlightening; however, the thing to remember is the inclusion of transgender women in the fight against violence and oppression. One of the ideas of The Vagina Monologues is to bring together women from all walks of life. Ridley’s inclusion in the Cookeville production accomplishes this goal wonderfully.

Our last guest is a veteran of Wake-Up Wednesday. Jenn Ulschak, local ASL interpreter, gave us a more in-depth history of The Vagina Monologues and its activism work. Eve Ensler uses all the money raised through the performances of the play to fund events to stop violence against women. For example, she has built a safe-house in Kenya to protect nearly 200 girls from genital mutilation, a common practice in the area. Ulschak was honored to interpret at the Nashville Women’s March recently. She told us that she had learned of lateral violence at the march. Lateral violence happens when people on the same level (i.e. women) turn on each other rather than joining forces. Ulschak said that, “It really matters that we stand up against oppression.” I’d have to agree. She told us that she saw The Vagina Monologues in 2015 and it changed her life. Now, she has the chance to not only get back on the stage for the first time since high school but perform the play that changed her life. Ulschak’s monologue is about birth. She herself has had two natural births and recommends it to other women. The right to give birth to your children naturally is sometimes a tricky one. While I have no children of my own, I’ve run across this issue many times in my short life. When my little sister was born, I remember being horribly frustrated that I wasn’t allowed to see her or stay with my mom in the hospital. More recently, I came across a disturbing recollection of Diane di Prima’s first birth in the 1950s. She wanted a natural birth but was forcibly put out and not allowed to witness the birth of her daughter.

These issues are only three of the many that will be covered in The Vagina Monologues. Please join these incredible women and many more in Derryberry Auditorium for this year’s production. This week at Wake-Up Wednesday join us with Susannah Leary for a conversation about sexism in the Hebrew Bible.

Information about the Vagina Monologues can be found at: https://www.tntech.edu/cas/english/bdph/seasons