Saturday, August 27, 2011

What I'm Reading This Semester

I have had a few requests to post the books I will be reading this semester for my two doctoral seminars. Although we'll be reading additional articles as assigned by the professors, these are the primary books we'll be digging into. I'm pretty excited, as a theology geek should be.

The first seminar I'm taking is called American Studies for Theologians, led by Dr. Anthony Smith, author of The Look of Catholics, a study of portrayals of Catholics in popular culture from the Depression era to the Cold War. He's an important scholar in the field of American Studies, particularly as it pertains to religion in 20th Century America. This course is intended to equip theologians with an additional research skill in cultural studies. The following consists of our book list thus far. If you're interested, you can find all of them on Many of the older works (toward the top of the list) are classics in the field of American studies.

- Alan Trachtenburg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age.
- Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century.
- Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of Culture in the Twentieth Century.
- Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.
- Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
- Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945.
- Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
- Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.
- Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture

The second seminar I'll be taking is called Feminist Theology and Ethics, led by Dr. Jana Bennett. She is the author of Water is Thicker Than Blood: An Augustinian Theology of Marriage and Singleness and she is an important up-and-coming Catholic feminist moral theologian. This course is intended to survey the broad field of feminist theologies to enable future research that takes into account questions of gender. As with the above list, some of these books are considered "classics" in the field. If you have questions about any of them, feel free to ask.

- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
-Jean Bethke Ehlstain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought.
- Beth Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
- Michele Schumacher, Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism.
- Mary Henold, Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement.
- Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key.
- Lisa Isherwood, The Power of Erotic Celibacy: Queering Heterosexuality
- Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace.
- Amy Laura Hall, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.
- Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatum.
- Lisa Sowell Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics.
- Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2

Now that I've provided what I think is a suitable background to the Proverbs 31 woman, considering historical and cultural issues, as well as matters of import within the book of Proverbs, its time to turn from background to interpretation and application.

I revealed at the end of the first post that I do not think this text was originally intended as a "job description" for housewives, as it tends to be used today. Instead, I think it is a picture of wisdom in the domestic sphere (although the use of the phrase "domestic sphere" is anachronistic here). In this way, the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is an equally appropriate heroine for women as for men, who are seeking to live in the fear of the Lord.

With that said, I do not think it is wrong to apply Proverbs 31 in ways that speak to the lives and choices of Christian women today. Just because I've chosen to given prime place to cultural context, I am not thereby ruling out the passage's applicability to today's women. (Some of my more conservative friends will tend to assume that because I emphasize the culturally embedded nature of the biblical texts that I am going to rule out the application of the text to today's context. But, as a Christian, I accept the biblical canon as God's word for us today, with implications and applications for every generation. Just because I come to conclude different interpretations and applications of biblical texts than my conservative friends, that does not mean I'm not taking Scripture seriously.) Indeed, my hope is that the cultural context will provide needed guidance for the most appropriate ways (one might even say wise ways) to apply Proverbs 31.

The first step, I think, on the road to applying Proverbs 31 is to consider how this passage is situated within the entire biblical canon. That is to say, we should read Scripture in light of Scripture. I can't survey all the possible texts related to the issues raised in Proverbs 31, so I will point out two that I think are often overlooked in discussions, sermons, and lessons taught on this passage.

(The most often referenced passages in connection with Proverbs 31 include Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25; and Titus 2:3-5. All of these passage include instruction to wives regarding how to live as Christians within the households of the first century and because of their language of submission, male headship, and working at home, can lend themselves to complementarian interpretations of gender roles. I'm not leaving these out because they aren't relevant. They are. But, I feel these have been treated over and over again. I would like to add a new dimension to the discussion. Both complementarian and egalitarian interpretations [and everything in-between] of these passages can be found easily on the Internet and elsewhere.)

The first relevant passage in reference to Proverbs 31 is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, verses 27-28. (I've written an extended post about this passage here.) In this vignette from the ministry of Jesus, following the healing of a demon-possessed man, a woman cries out from the crowd: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!" Or, to put it another way, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!" The reference to the womb and the breasts form a figure of speech called metonymy. In this case, the parts are used to represent the whole (i.e., when someone calls a businessman a "suit," or the Executive branch, "the White House"). Therefore, the meaning of the woman's exclamation is: “Blessed is your mother!”

As many know already, in the Judaism of Jesus' day, the value and honor of a woman were almost entirely wrapped up in childbearing and the accomplishments of her children in adulthood (see also Prov 10:1; 23:25; 29:15). If her children grew up to be lazy slobs, she would be shamed. But, if her children grew up to be successful and righteous, she would be honored. So, the woman in the crowd is pronouncing a blessing upon Mary, for producing a son as wise and powerful as Jesus. (Indirectly, of course, this is also a compliment to Jesus himself.)

Despite the fact that this blessing was culturally acceptable, Jesus corrects the woman's exclamation and offers a blessing of his own. He says in reply, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" If one surveys the Gospels, one realizes that this response is not an isolated occurrence, for Jesus very often trumps the cultural norms of family in favor of the new "norms" of the Kingdom of God. In effect, he relativizes traditional notions of family in light of discipleship to him. So, Jesus' response to the woman is in the same vein. While the tradition of Judaism for thousands of years had been that motherhood was the highest calling of woman, Jesus subverts this mindset and offers something different: Faithful discipleship, not biological motherhood, is the highest calling of women. And, in the Kingdom of God, the discipleship community of Jesus constitutes a new family, one in which there is only One Father.

I think this passage is particularly helpful in interpreting and applying Proverbs 31, especially the last few verses, which say: "Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her: 'Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.' Charm is deceitful and beauty is in vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her work praise her in the city gates." Very often, I hear these verses used in a prescriptive way. Because the woman of Proverbs 31 is said to surpass all other women in her excellence, the reasoning goes, then all woman should aspire to her model of life. The thought is that the most excellent thing a woman can do is to bear and raise children, keep her home, and manage her husband's affairs.

While I most certainly do not deny that these things are good and praiseworthy (I'm doing them myself!), I think Luke 11:27-28, puts Proverbs 31 in its proper perspective. Yes, the life of God-fearing motherhood and homemaking is blessed. But, a woman's primary calling is to faithful Kingdom citizenship. Whether married or unmarried, mothering or childless, a woman can be a woman of excellence, virtue, and nobility. In ancient Israel, the way wise woman revealed her wisdom primarily through the life of motherhood and house-management as described in Proverbs 31 (that was essentially her only honorable choice). Today's wise woman has more options. No matter the life chosen by the wise woman, she is blessed if she is a disciple of Christ and citizen of God's Kingdom.

Another helpful text for "balancing" our application of Proverbs 31 is found in 1 Corinthians 7. This chapter contains some very pragmatic instruction from the Apostle Paul regarding marriage--so pragmatic, in fact, that I have never heard a sermon or Bible study lesson preached on it. Why? Because Paul speaks in terms that are not too friendly toward marriage and family. Indeed, his instruction is so surprisingly frank, I think its worth quoting at length.

First he says, "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am" (v. 8). He goes on to say that those who choose to marry certainly do not sin, but "those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that... I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband."

How interesting to read this instruction alongside of Proverbs 31! Certainly, Paul does not denigrate the duties of wife and mother. Elsewhere, he provides teaching on how Christian women may live within these stations in a God-honoring way. But, when given the choice between singleness and married life, Paul says he'd prefer that women remain unmarried so that they can be solely devoted to the Kingdom of God. He calls the affairs of family life "anxious," "world[ly]," and "distress[ing]." And, anyone with children and a household to manage can agree with these descriptors! This is why I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good counterpoint to Proverbs 31. Read together they provide a balanced picture of the roles of wife and mother for the Christian woman. Moreover, they continue the theme begun in the teaching of Jesus mentioned above, that the calling of wife and motherhood is not the highest calling of woman, but that of being a disciple of Christ.

I think the above-mentioned Scripture passages provide a helpful complement to the picture of woman wisdom found Proverbs 31. They do not trivialize or rule out application of Proverbs 31 to Christian women today. That is not my intention at all. Instead, I think they provide a fuller, more complete picture of what Christian womanhood can be. If anything, it rules out the use of Proverbs 31 as "job description" of sorts for Christian women, the way I think many traditional interpreters tend to do.

So, what further applications would I make from Proverbs 31 to the Christian woman today? First of all, I think its important to hear from the text the simple principle that there are wise and unwise ways to manage your household. If, indeed, you do have a husband and children, then there are ways to approach your daily life that are wise and ways that are unwise. (Actually, this is true for all people in all stations of life. There are wise and unwise ways to live. Period.) It behooves Christian women (alongside of Christian men) to seek out the best way to carry out the tasks of family life. Moreover, it is essential that Christian women (married or unmarried) seek to cultivate the good character that gives rise to wise ways of living. Character traits of the Proverbs 31 woman include wisdom, industriousness, faith, generosity, hope, self-control (particularly of the tongue [v. 26]), and kindness. Women cannot choose to believe against all odds, work when sleep and rest are fleeting, or choose kind words in heated moments, if they have not been practicing these things and allowing God's grace to form them into these kinds of people.

Second, I think today's Christian women can draw from Proverbs 31 the truth that they can be a blessing or a curse to their husband and children. This sounds very traditional, I know. I tread lightly here. But, I think it is a truth for human beings, in general, not to mention women with husbands and children, that our words, manner, and choices can be a blessing or a curse to those around us (particularly those dependent upon us). In this way, Christian women, whether of complementarian or egalitarian persuasions, should learn to live wisely in light of the great impact they will have on their immediate family. This is a big part of the Christian life in the New Testament. As Paul says, "Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:15-16). Among other things, I think this means living with intentionality, especially intentionally living in such a way to lead our children into the Kingdom of God.

Third, I think the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 teaches today's Christian women (not to mention men!) that what is traditionally called "women's work" is valuable and significant. Think about it. God chose the ancient Israelite version of the "housewife" to serve as the ultimate illustration of wise living at the conclusion of the book of Proverbs. As this book was used to train and instruct young men in the wisdom of Israel, the picture of wise living was a housewife. If one thinks of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9, where the wisdom of God is depicted in feminine terms, then Proverbs 31 further shows that the "domestic" life of home and hearth is suitable for depicting the things of God, as well. The Wisdom (or Word) of God is found in the cosmic realm (Prov 8-9) and in the earthly, domestic realm (Prov 31). The very earthy, messy drudgery of family life is a fitting place to find the wisdom of God.

With these three "lessons" from Proverbs 31 in mind, I'd like to offer a couple warnings about applying the "woman of valor" today. It should clear by now that I am unwilling to take Provers 31 as a prescription for all Christian women to be stay-at-home moms. Certainly, for those with that vocation, this passage praises their work and honors the many things they do for house and home. Still, the tasks described in Proverbs 31 must not be taken as prescriptive for all women at all times. The New Testament scriptures referenced above (among other things), preclude such an interpretation. Moreover, Proverbs 31 simply does not support that premise. It is a description (in idealized terms from an ancient culture and the life of a wealthy woman) of the tasks associated with wise domestic living. Inasmuch as women have families, they will find the description rings true in a general way: life revolves around the home, where children play and the necessary tasks of cooking, cleaning, and laundry take place. But, to belabor the point, there is no prescription here for housewifry as the only God-fearing option for wise women.

Also, for my complementarian brothers and sisters who want to argue for the universal calling of all women to motherhood and the housewife vocation, I would like to caution against using Proverbs 31 as a literally interpreted standard for life. Doing so, I fear, turns this passage into an unattainable ideal, a grace-less standard against which all women will ultimately fail. For example, just thinking practically, a wife and mother rising "while it is still night" (v. 15) and then staying up so late to continue working that "her lamp doesn't go out" (v. 18), is headed for a breakdown. Particularly in the stage of life with young children, sleep is important. And sometimes, simply getting through the day with the children clothed and fed and free of injury is a victory. (Can I get a witness?!) It is significant, in my mind, that the Proverbs 31 woman had servant-girls. This is not the middle class American woman of today, who labors alone at home from dawn until dusk, with only her small children and their pets as company.

(And, don't even try to tell me that dishwashers, stoves, ovens, toasters, washing machines, dryers, irons, and other "labor saving devices" make things easier for women in the home. That's a load of poppycock. The onset of labor saving devices in the modern age has merely shifted the majority of the work needed to keep the homestead running onto the woman, whereas pre-industrial periods would have seen housework more evenly divided between the spouses. You can research and read more about this on your own. My thanks to my friend, Aimee Miller, for pointing this out to me.)

Finally, I could not complete a blog post on this topic without taking a friendly jab at a certain (in)famous hypermasculine evangelical preacher who makes much of women's responsibility to remain physically alluring and sexually "available" to their husbands (while also doing all of the household tasks and raising godly children to boot). If we were to choose to take Proverbs 31 literally, and if we were to understand it as a prescriptive text for today's stay-at-home mom, then we should also heed the words of verse 30: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Another translation of this verse says that "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting."

As any woman knows, beauty (particularly as defined by modern standards on TV and in magazines) is most certainly fleeting. The passing of youthfulness takes with it the elasticity of our skin, the color of our cheeks, and the firmness of our [fill in the blank with your "problem" body part of choice]. (Do I even have to talk about the changes our bodies go through due to childbearing and childbirth?) If nothing else, Proverbs 31 tells us that physical beauty pales in importance to being a person of wisdom and virtue. It is far more important to be a thoughtful and kind teacher of wisdom to your children than it is to have... a sculpted rear end. If you are blessed to have the time to work on your physical features in such a way that "sculpted" is an adjective even remotely possible to describe your body, then praise God and good for you, my friend. But, if not, tell that macho preacher to buzz off and accept the blessing and security of knowing that your character is far more important than your dress size.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1

A friend of mine has requested that I write something about the so-called Proverbs 31 woman, found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 31, verses 10-31. She didn't quite say it this way, but I think my friend's basic question about the "woman of valor" is this: What am I supposed to do with her?

As someone who has known American evangelicalism as her cultural "home" for some time, it seems to me, there are (generally speaking) two types of women in evangelical churches today. There are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an inspiring example of industrious, virtuous womanhood that they admire and seek to emulate daily. And, there are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an overwhelmingly idealistic and romantic picture of domestic life so far removed from their reality that they cringe every time they hear her invoked. Ok, maybe this dichotomy is a little exaggerated! But, I think it speaks to the "mixed bag" that is the Proverbs 31 woman and the way she is used in evangelical churches today. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the woman of Proverbs 31, let me try to briefly explain the issue at hand, as I understand it.

Most evangelical churches give prime place to the Proverbs 31 woman in their teachings about "biblical womanhood" (or, "true womanhood" or what have you). There are Bible studies, countless books and pamphlets, not to mention plaques, paintings, carvings, embroidered pillows, and even T-shirts with Proverbs 31 as the focus. In the evangelical context, more often than not, the Proverbs 31 woman is used to reinforce a very specific view of gender roles, usually called complementarianism, but also aptly labeled traditional or patriarchal. In this model, male headship in the family is held up as a universal principle, which entails (among other things) that men are designed by God to work in the "public" realm, while women raise children and keep house in the "private" realm. Thus, women like my friend who find Proverbs 31 troubling, are usually having an issue with the way the scripture is being used--the model of gender roles that the passage is used to reinforce.

Since gender roles and biblical studies are common topics on this blog, it seems its long overdue that we talk about this passage. So, I'm going to do my best. I will divide this blog into two posts. In the first half, I'll address issues of historical and biblical context and in the second half, I'll address how I feel it is best to approach the passage as a source for instruction of today's Christian women.

I'd like to begin my little exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman with the reminder that the text is in need of contextualization. That is to say, we need to remember that this is a very old text from another time and culture. Besides the obvious fact that it is in the Hebrew Bible, what are the other indications that context is needed? Well, the text describes the "capable wife" or "woman of valor" as assigning tasks "for her servant-girls" and planting a "vineyard" (vv. 10, 15-16). She uses a "spindle" to make clothes for herself and her family and uses a "lamp" to work at night (vv. 18-19). Her husband is said to be known "in the city gates," taking his seat among "the elders of the land" (v. 23). All of these details indicate that this picture of the virtuous woman is drawn from a different time and place. Last time I checked, cities in the US did not have elders gathering at their fortified gates, nor do most women plant vineyards by hand or keep a staff of servant-girls!

What, then, is important to know about the context of the book of Proverbs? First of all, we should keep in mind that the gender roles of the Israelite people during the time period of the book's composition were different from the way complementarians like to depict them. In a pre-industrial, primarily agrarian culture, where the home (rather than the city or office) was the center of economic life, both men and women worked in the home. To put it another way, ancient Israel did not have the public/private distinction between men's and women's roles that patriarchy today (post-industrial revolution) has imagined. Thus, both the women and men of ancient Israel worked in and around the home, accompanied by their children and servants (or even slaves). Granted, men did more public tasks than the women, but women were by no means relegated to the home by an imagined divine design.

This is the major reason why the work being done by the "woman of valor" is so alien to today's woman and why the Proverbs 31 woman seems more appropriately identified as a household manager rather than simply a "homemaker" (although both terms are appropriate in their way).

Furthermore, it is also important to realize that the description of the Proverbs 31 woman includes elements that strongly suggest she is a woman of wealth and prosperity. That is to say, the "virtuous woman" is depicted in terms that reveal she is not the wife of a simple tanner, carpenter, or subsistence farmer. She is a woman of means. This is why she can dress her household in crimson and herself in fine linen and purple (vv. 21-22). This is why her husband has a prominent place among the city's elders and she is depicted as charitable to the poor and needy (vv. 20, 23)--she is not among their number. This is in keeping with the tendency of the Old Testament to associate wisdom with wealth. The Deuteronomic view of providence was such that those who are wise were thought to be rewarded with wealth and those who are fools were thought to have it taken from them. So, it is appropriate in terms of Israelite culture and the themes of the OT Scripture that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 would be a woman of wealth. Indeed, Proverbs 8:18 portrays Woman Wisdom (to be discussed in more detail below) as saying, "Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity."

Also, it is important to understand that within the book of Proverbs, the woman of chapter 31 is the second symbolic female figure depicting wisdom. The first feminine image for wisdom appears in chapters 8-9, where wisdom is depicted as a woman of cosmic proportions. Woman Wisdom is said to have been created by God "at the beginning of all His work" and she was present "when he established the heavens" (vv. 22, 27). This feminine image of Wisdom is said to have children who are invited to join her in her home, where they can find insight and instruction in righteousness (8:32; 9:1-9). Woman Wisdom is contrasted with the "foolish woman" who is enticing passers-by to turn-in and enjoy stolen goods with her in "Sheol" (9:13-18). In this way, the book of Proverbs uses women as metaphors for wisdom and foolishness (much as the rest of the OT uses women to depict the people of God and other groups in a metaphorical way).

Why does the book of Proverbs do this? Why are women used to portray wisdom and folly? There are many layers to an answer to this question, but I think the simplest explanation comes from what we know about the original composition and use for the book of Proverbs. Most scholars agree that the teachers of Israel finished compiling and editing the book of Proverbs in its present form during the Persian period of Israelite history. In this period of colonization by a pagan nation, the preservation of Israelite culture and religion was vitally important. As a result, the book of Proverbs was used as the primary way to instruct young men in the ways of Israelite wisdom. Indeed, just a cursory read of the book reveals that the original intended audience is definitely young men, referred to as "sons" of the fathers imparting wise instruction. So, if young men are the first audience for the book of Proverbs, then it makes sense culturally to portray wisdom and folly metaphorically as female figures. These young men would be as yet unmarried and the pursuit of a spouse would be of major interest to them. To think of wisdom as a woman to pursue, dine with, and learn from is a very vivid picture for young unmarried men.

So, we have established that women in the book of Proverbs are used to depict wisdom and folly, respectively. And, we have established that the book was originally intended for the instruction of young men. All this leads me to say that within the context of the book of Proverbs, the Proverbs 31 woman is not only a model for women and wives. Indeed, if Woman Wisdom in chapters 8 and 9 is a depiction of wisdom on a cosmic scale, then the virtuous woman of chapter 31 is a depiction of wisdom on a domestic scale. If Proverbs 8-9 is wisdom writ large, then Proverbs 31 is wisdom writ small (so to speak). This means that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 is an example intended for women and men of a God-fearing, industrious, and wise life. Despite the way she is used in evangelical churches today, the woman of valor was not intended to be a "job description" for the aspiring godly homemaker, but a compelling picture of wise living in the domestic sphere. This a is an important distinction, I think.

Moreover, thinking contextually (in light of what I've described above), if the Proverbs 31 woman was intended to be used as a "job description" at all, it was for young men to use in order to know what kind of wise woman they should take as a wife. That is, it was a lens by which to judge the women of their day. This is even more obvious when read in light of the whole chapter, which is said to be from "King Lemuel" and "an oracle that his mother taught him." Along with instruction about avoiding the perils of too much wine (v. 4) and (presumably) loose women (v. 3), King Lemuel's mother exhorted him to speak for the underprivileged and destitute, to judge righteously and defend the poor and needy (vv. 8-9). In light of these exhortations regarding wise ruling, the words regarding wise living in the home make good sense. In order to rule wisely, surely King Lemuel would want a wise women by his side, as well--as would any other young Israelite man receiving instruction from the book of Proverbs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next few days...