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Escaping Biblical Literalism
For most of the two thousand years of history since the birth of our Lord, the Christian church has participated in and supported the oppression of women. This oppression has been both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious. It has come primarily through the church's ability in the name of God to define a woman and to make that definition stick. It was grounded in a literalistic understanding of Holy Scripture thought of as the infallible word of God and produced in a patriarchal era.
Patriarchy and God have been so deeply and uncritically linked to gender by the all-male church hierarchy that men have little understood how this alliance has been used to the detriment of all women. In a unique and intriguing sense, the parts of the Bible that have contributed most to this negativity have been the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. These stories, far more than is generally realized, assisted in the development of the ecclesiastical stereotype of the ideal woman against which all women came to be judged. The power of these birth narratives over women lies in their subtle illusions and romantic imagery. Those biblical passages that contain obvious prejudice against women can be quickly confronted and easily laid aside. But subtle, unconscious definitions and traditional unchallenged patterns resist so simple an excising. So it is that through these passages of Holy Scripture the picture of a woman known as "the virgin" has found entry into the heart of the Christian story, and from that position she has exercised her considerable influence.
I want to challenge publicly and vigorously this view of both the Bible and the virgin tradition and sexual images that gather around the stories of Jesus' birth. But I want to do this quite specifically as a Christian and as one who treasures the Scriptures. That task represents for me a willingness to walk the razor's edge of faith. I intend to claim the Bible as my ally in the struggle to end the oppression of women. I also intend to celebrate Christmas each year using the traditional readings and symbols of that season, but I will seek to free that birth tradition from its destructive literalism. I do not believe that Mary was in any biological sense literally a virgin. I do not believe that someone known as a virgin mother can be presented with credibility to contemporary men or women as an ideal woman. I do not believe that the story of Mary's virginity enhanced the portrait of the mother of Jesus. To the contrary, I believe that story has detracted from Mary's humanity and has become a weapon in the hands of those whose patriarchal prejudices distort everyone's humanity in general but women's humanity in particular. But before examining the birth narratives specifically, it is necessary to look briefly at the Bible as a whole.
I am amazed that given the knowledge revolution of the last six hundred years anyone can still regard the Bible as the dictated words of God, inerrant and eternal. This claim, however, is still made with effective power and still finds a fertile field in the hearts of many who refer to themselves as simple believers. It is this audience to whom the television evangelists direct their appeal. These electronic "preachers of the Word" offer to their legions biblical security, certainty in faith, and even superiority in their sense of salvation. In return, their supporters provide the evangelists with a following that can be translated into political power and enormous financial resources. Neither the political power nor the financial resources are always used, history has revealed, in a responsible way.
In recent years I have been given the opportunity to engage two of America's better-known evangelists in televised debates about the Bible. I am for them an interesting study, for I grew up as a biblical fundamentalist and had the content of the Bible made a part of my very being. I have read this wondrous book on a daily basis since I was twelve. The remarkable biographical detail of my spiritual journey is that when I ceased being a fundamentalist I did not cease to love the Bible. The Bible remains today the primary focus of my study. I am therefore a strange phenomenon, at least in Christian America. I am known as a theological liberal. Yet I dare to call myself a Bible-believing, Bible-based Christian. Such a combination is, for many, a contradiction in terms.
When I hear a public person suggest that the Bible means literally exactly what it says, I am so amazed that I have to remind myself that some seven decades have passed since the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee...Born of a Woman. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.