Ed. John Byron and Joel N. Lohr
Paperback, 249 pages
Reviewed by Anne Linstatter
This book provides a fascinating personal look at the faith journeys of eighteen biblical scholars. Like many members of Christian Feminism Today (CFT), some of these scholars grew up in contexts where Scripture was described as infallible or accepted as literally and historically true, from Genesis through Revelation. How these men and woman negotiated “the quest for the historical Jesus,” textual criticism, feminist criticism, and other changes in biblical study makes a great read for Christians today who have gone through some of these changes.
Two of the authors are friends of CFT: Phyllis Trible, who spoke at our 2004 conference, and John Goldingay, who, with his wife, attended our 2004 conference in Claremont, California. In fact, Phyllis gave me a copy of the book when I had lunch with her recently. She described her response when she was first invited to contribute her story to this proposed collection: “Who are the other women contributing?” she had asked.
“We don’t have any,” replied the editor.
“You need some,” she said, declining to be part of the project.
We sat at Pisticci, an Italian café and bar near Union Seminary in New York City, where she taught for eighteen years as the Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature. Her blue eyes widened as our gaze met and we considered the naiveté of such gender ignorance in the twenty-first century.
After she recommended three women Bible scholars, the final volume became six women out of eighteen contributors, including Phyllis. Note: she has been called the one who “more than any other scholar, put feminist criticism on the agenda of biblical scholarship in the 1970s” (John J. Collins in The Bible after Babel, 2005).
Her story describes being a student at Union in 1963 when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out, as well as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (followed by Plath’s suicide that same year). She taught in Japan and notes, “Out of the experience grew an inner conversation with Zen Buddhism and biblical faith. It endures.”
Later she taught in Boston and got to know Mary Daly as she was writing The Church and the Second Sex. When the two first met, Phyllis recalls Mary telling her, “You may teach the Bible as an academic discipline, but you can give no allegiance to it if you are a feminist.”
“In other words, I must choose,” Phyllis understood. “Yet I knew deep within that I could not and would not.”
“Now if this point of view, this rhetoric of impossibility, were true, then I was of all women most wretched,” she adds, echoing the apostle Paul in Romans 7:24 with the delicious humor that permeates this essay.
Belief in God has itself been difficult at times for some of the authors, who discuss their doubts frankly. Morna D. Hooker writes beautifully in this regard. “I had learned that faith and doubt were by no means incompatible,” she writes. “Indeed, the very nature of faith is surely that we have not yet arrived. For me, faith is the willingness to explore, and preaching is a way of sharing in the quest with others as we set out into the unknown, aware that, however unlikely it may seem, God is with us.”
The question of how God can allow suffering enters John Goldingay’s essay as well as Phyllis’s. He and his wife suffered for forty-three years with her multiple sclerosis.
Phyllis returns to the story of Jacob wrestling with God to conclude, “What, then, makes for faith? My answer: wrestling with words/limping to light.”
“Evolving Approaches to Biblical Authority in the Context of Feminism” are recounted by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld in her story. Like many CFT members, I use a variety of approaches to biblical texts without being clear on how feminist interpretation has changed in the last fifty years. Reading Katharine’s account of her changing techniques and tools helped me see that in 1974 we were using “traditional historical-critical mode”: re-reading problem texts, seeing where they were open to better readings, and noting where they applied to ancient contexts and should not be universalized.
Katharine mentions three other familiar tools: “setting pro-women texts against anti-women texts; focusing on broad theological themes; relating the situations of women in ancient and contemporary cultures.” She then adopts Letty Russell’s concept of “authority in community,” which she later modifies by learning from the global women’s community, concluding “every reader of the Bible brings the expertise of life experience to the community.”
Because some of these scholars began as fundamentalists, their growth beyond the inerrancy view of Scripture comes up repeatedly in these essays. “[W]ords like ‘inerrancy’ are inadequate descriptions of what is going on in the Bible,” writes Scot McKnight. “There is an inner dialogue at work” among the various books of the Bible, he continues. Each text interacts with the others, “sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing” the previous texts.
Donald A. Hagner adds that Harold Lindsell’s view in The Battle for the Bible “refuses to face the reality of Scripture as God has given it to us.”
To conclude, I would like to contrast this wise and illuminating set of faith stories with the anti-faith campaign of New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman. I heard him speak a few times and was impressed by his obsession with literal discrepancies among the four gospels and textual errors in the Bible.
Bart was taught inerrancy as a young Christian at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. When he later discovered discrepancies and struggled with the problem of evil, he gave up his faith. Books like 1 and 2 Timothy, which most Christians now regard as not written by Paul, he regards as forgeries. Unlike the authors in I (Still) Believe, he carries an anger at the Bible for not being what he thinks it should be.
Why does one person, such as James D. G. Dunn, revise his understanding and decide to accept “The Authority of Scripture According to Scripture,” whereas another throws out belief in God? Morna Hooker notices that “All too often, faith in God becomes self-centered—a constant concern with my faith, my understanding or lack of it—whereas true faith is trust in God, and . . . cannot be destroyed, since it is not our own, but depends on Christ, who is himself faithful.”
One caveat: these essays are written by scholars and at some points become less personal and more wrapped up in the history of Bible interpretation. I’m so interested in peering inside someone else’s mind that I can swallow a dose of hermeneutics, but you may have to pick and choose as you read.
© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today