We Have a Solution (But Do We Want It?)
In a recent post I asked us to acknowledge that we have a problem. The reaction to that post suggests that simply saying so touched an exposed, raw nerve. Many are agreeing that we do indeed have a problem, and that their own experience bears this out.
Today I would like to begin to point to the solution. The solution is the biblical gospel, and more particularly a fresh appreciation for the place of the feminine within the biblical and real world of that gospel.
Yes, I understand that this sounds trite. It may even upset some readers for its apparent thinness. But if properly, patiently understood, the biblical gospel considered in these terms not only corrects misconceptions, exposes abuses, heals, and restores. It also discloses who we are and what we are for precisely as male and female human beings, and the answer to those questions - I suggest - is not what many expect. And yet it could hardly be more pertinent to the agonizing questions being asked in and outside the Church in our day.
Consider, for instance, the bitter irony of the Church's response in the 20th century to cultural pressure to recognize male-female equality as it has cascaded, over time, into a weakened grasp of the theological importance of what makes us different. As the literature amply demonstrates, confused speech of meaningful difference alongside meaningful equality has put us in a dramatically impoverished position in relation to fresh cultural pressure to favor homosexual practice. The homosexuality platform is, after all, only the end-point of a distorted notion of gender equality which I suggest the Church has often unknowingly imbibed and commended in a low-level form. In some popular reactions to the challenges of nonbelieving feminism on the one hand and the rise of the homosexual agenda on the other, the Church has imbibed the poison of the world's most fundamental assumptions regarding gender ontology and ethics. And so we often miss how the radical feminist distortion is the same in root as the homosexuality one, and how the world of Scripture severs that root and not only the fruit.
I must ask us, then, that as we reflect upon the Gospel solution to the plight of women and girls in our churches that we consider the obvious key to this whole picture: menstruation in Leviticus.
Ah, I see I've lost you. Bear with me, please. My own journey through the topic began many years ago at the very start of my ministerial labors in another city. It began with the question of the relationship of spousal abuse to the biblical grounds of divorce. I thought and read and prayed and, though I only learned it later on, I came to the wrong conclusion. The session looked to me for guidance, and I failed to deliver. I gave the wrong guidance, and a family suffered greatly. The memory continues to haunt - and prod - me. Neither does it comfort me greatly to learn that I am not the only one.
The journey which began with that ostensibly narrow and specific question quickly pushed me to consider other, necessarily related ones. These have included the nature of "nonphysical" (again, a terrible misnomer) violence or abuse within a biblical anthropology of personhood, the significance of the communal and individual spheres of horror within Scripture, the meaning and scope of "willful desertion" in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXIV.6), the role of "gender" distinctions in biblical eschatology, the rationale at work in the various divorce laws in Scripture, and the place of memory in biblical teaching on forgiveness, repentance, and healing, both communally and individually. (Yes, I am indeed beginning to gesture in the direction of the Supper in relation to the Church's care for the weak and vulnerable.)
And so, yes, at some point along the way, the surprisingly critical importance of the meaning of the menstruation laws in Leviticus forced itself upon me. Of course, Christians are not the only ones disturbed at some level by those laws. I write these lines within only a few minutes of discovering - in an extraordinary providence - a passionate article at CNN's website by a young woman complaining of her Indian culture's embrace of what we recognize as the Leviticus mandate: the exclusion of the menstruating women from the temple precincts because of concerns over defilement. She regards the custom as morally and obviously absurd (one can almost hear the apparently awful and recently renewed accusation of being "medieval" to think such things), and Christian readers can't help but agree and yet... disagree, given those odd Leviticus words. So what about those Levitical laws? Do they really demote and exclude women?
As a thread in an extraordinarily captivating tapestry, I discovered for myself what others in the history of exegesis had intuited: these laws may be embarrassing for many, but we ignore them to our peril. There is gold here. In my experience, the gold is not limited to a series of very many "aha" moments, but also to the important task of a Christian father (yes, a father too) in helping his young daughters understand and appreciate what is happening to them when they reach that magical age. And perhaps our modern discomfort with these passages, and our resulting neglect of them, has something to do with our current malaise. At least this is what I will suggest is part of our problem. Even more ironically, the far more appealing (and marketable) portraits of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, and the less familiar yet irresistibly fascinating woman of the Song of Songs, are in many respects unintelligible apart from that Levitical woman and her plight.
Are you still there, or have I truly lost you? Do bear with me, as I would like to invite you into the biblical solution for a grievous problem - the principled maltreatment of women in culture and too often in the Church - by way of a most intriguing and theologically rich biblical motif: the eschatological ultimacy of the feminine as a kind of sacred space, on account of which a wide range of otherwise strange and confusing biblical themes come beautifully together.
Yes, this has everything to do with our concern with our mothers, wives, widows, and daughters, and arguably even more so with our fathers, husbands, and sons. We may prefer a solution that simply vents angry frustration with men, or spins a series of horrific anecdotes about abused women, or strings together a list of verses about care for the weak and oppressed. But that is not the way. The way is more complicated than that, and it may challenge the oppressed and not only the oppressor. It is, at least in how I am asking us to approach it, a wet and bloody and uncomfortable way, but then this is what we should expect as the way of the cross and the empty tomb. So before you shove me out the door into the world of radical egalitarianism or unbelieving feminism, hold tight. It's not what you think; it's much better than that.