Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kristin Kobes Du Mez's "A New Gospel for Women"

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is an associate professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin College. She received a Ph.D. in American Religious History from the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include the intersection of religion, gender, and sexuality in American history, with a particular focus on women in American Protestantism from the nineteenth century to the present.

Du Mez applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, and reported the following:
What if it was Adam’s choice, and not Eve’s, that led to humanity’s fall into sin?
What if women’s submission to men is the work of the devil, and not the will of God?
What if Christian patriarchy is in fact man’s rebellion against God?
What if the Apostle Paul didn’t tell wives to submit to their husbands, and women to be silent in church?
What if redemption means the liberation of women?
And what if Christians have gotten their theology wrong because of mistranslations of the Christian scriptures? And men have perpetuated these mistranslations for centuries on end by doing everything they could to keep the work of Christian theology out of the hands of women?

A New Gospel for Women tells the story of Katharine Bushnell, a woman who asked these very questions over 100 years ago. Part history, part biography, and part theology, this book introduces Bushnell to modern audiences and provides an overview of her remarkable feminist theology.

Page 99 occurs just after the book switches from historical narrative to a description of her theology. Bushnell was an internationally-known anti-trafficking activist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it was through this work that she repeatedly observed seemingly respectable, Christian men committing acts of unspeakable cruelty against women. Ultimately, she concluded that “the crime is the fruit of the theology”—that Christian theology itself, as it had been handed down through the centuries, must be to blame. Rather than abandoning Christianity in its entirety, however, she turned to the original languages and set out to expose a long tradition of misogynistic biblical translation.

Page 99 offers a sample of her early work, and her sharp wit:
In addition to contesting familiar passages on female authority, Bushnell examined a number of other instances “where sex affects the English translation.” She discussed, for instance, the account of the “dukes of Edom” in Genesis 36, where in verse 14 Anah was introduced as the daughter of Zibeon, but ten verses later, and again in 1 Chronicles, translators had depicted Anah as a male. “We illiterate women are able to spell out the fact that several of these dukes were women!” Bushnell asserted, “Yet we are called upon to prove that women have ever ruled to any extent, or can rule, or were meant to rule, according to Bible teaching or history; and I answer that when woman’s sex is snowed under without protest between the beginning and end of a single chapter, by careless translators who take it for granted that men are doing almost everything that is done, the case is singularly hard to prove.”

In a similar vein, Bushnell pointed to the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), which was translated as “minister” or “deacon” in each instance where it referred “to an office held by a man in the church,” but was rendered “servant” in the single instance where it referred to a woman (Romans 16:1), despite the fact that it was “distinctly [stated] that this is her rank in the church—an ecclesiastical order.” Bushnell also drew attention to Romans 16:7, where Paul mentions Junia as being “of note among the apostles,” a fact that both Chrysostom and Origen accepted as clear evidence of the existence of female apostles in the early church. To Bushnell’s dismay, however, modern commentators had “found themselves able to master the difficulty with one masculine flourish,” arguing that “if Junia is a woman she cannot be an apostle, and if Junia is an apostle he [she] cannot be a woman!”
But page 99 is just the tip of the iceberg—the rest of the book describes Bushnell’s dramatic revision of the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis through Revelation. And it asks how it was that Bushnell and her work have been all but lost to history. Its larger story, then, revolves around the relationship between Christianity and feminism, past and present. And, in light of the growing popularity of Bushnell’s writings among evangelical Christians in the global church today, it reflects as well on the future of Christian feminism.
Learn more about A New Gospel for Women at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue