Several years ago when the “The Da Vinci Code” was so popular, I wrote a short article about the book that was published on the church website where I was the pastor at the time. I was surprised by the number of people who called and asked if I was going to be doing any speaking on the topic. As it turned out, I did end up doing about six presentations for folks who put something together on their own. The vast majority of them did not attend our church. Most of the gatherings were in private homes and one was in a synagogue. Two of the groups were made up of people from two different synagogues. Another one was made up of mostly women from one of the local Catholic churches. It was fascinating to observe the different perspectives the individuals brought into the discussion with their different backgrounds.
Most of the people who attended these presentations wanted to know what was true and what was not truein Brown’s thesis and “scholarship.” Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene or not? Did Jesus have children or not? Was there really some secret society that was withholding information about the real facts about Jesus? Was there some historical document that could “prove” all of this?
I think some folks were a little disappointed when I explained that most of the so called “scholarship” that Dan Brown used for the foundation of his premise that Jesus had been married and had a family with heirs still living, was poor scholarship at best. (I do believe that one can make the case that he was most likely married, however.) I also made it clear that while the most of the recent search for the historical Jesus has revealed a tremendous amount of information, it has raised as many questions as it has answered. We have learned is lot more about the historical times in which Jesus was living and that has at least been helpful for scholars to reconstruct the roots of the Christian tradition. It has given us a better perspective on what Jesus was teaching.
However, I did note that the importance of Dan Brown’s book was that it has raised the serious issue of how poorly the church has treated women throughout the centuries and frankly, with some rare exceptions, still does. Although that was not my main purpose for being there, I tried to give them a perspective on how the male leadership of the Roman Church and later protestant traditions manipulated, misinterpreted and ignored Christian scriptures to keep women in a secondary or subservient role.
Most of the participants were surprised when I explained that there is nothing in the Christian scriptures that would even suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and that it was far more likely that she was an early disciple of Jesus and a woman of means. I told them that few characters in the New Testament have been as sorely miscast as Mary Magdalene, whose reputation as a fallen woman originated in a sixth-century sermon by Pope Gregory the Great.
Most of the people were fascinated in learning that the mythology of the “virgin birth” was possibly the result of mistranslation of the Isaiah passages that referred to the expected messiah who would be born of an unwed young girl. Or I explained that it may have been an intentional addition to the story since young “untouched” women being impregnated by a god to create a hero/savior was a significant part of the mythology of many religions of the day from Egypt as well as other parts of the Middle East. Either way, it supported the bias that a woman who had sex with a man was somehow unclean or spoiled, especially unmarried woman. I never bothered to get into the issue of the Immaculate Conception that suggests that Mother Mary, through divine grace, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, that was normally passed on from mother to child through sexual impregnation. The belief was and is for many that Jesus’ mother’s mother had been “purified” at the moment of impregnation.
It was also very interesting to see how different people reacted to our conversations about the early Christian interpretations of the creation stories from the Hebrew Scripture, especially the women. A few wondered if I was taking the information I was sharing out of context. Others were visibly upset and a few became very emotional. When the women from the Jewish synagogues heard me explain how the Christian theologians and church leaders had used “their Creation stories” from the Hebrew Scriptures to support their sexist ideas, and what they saw as Puritan Christian sexuality, they were obviously disturbed.
One woman from a synagogue turned toward her friend and asked, “What have they done?”
I believe it is time for progressive Christians to address that question again and again. “What have we done?”
I suppose that we would have to go back to Tertullian and certainly Augustine to find the roots of the blatant misogyny. I remember how shocked I was when I learned that Thomas Aquinas continued to skew the information. “Women,” he wrote in Summa Theologica, “are subordinate in nature and in purpose…they have not sufficient strength of mind to resist the concupiscence.”
Of course some of these issues have been addressed by contemporary, mostly female theologians like Rosemary Ruether (Sexism And God-Talk 1983) and Joan Chittister (Heart of Flesh 1998) but we are still a long way from true equality and a healthy, wholesome, spiritual approach to human sexuality. Sadly, we are short on models and examples for real change.
Referring to some of the early Christian theologians Chittister writes: “Those ideas not only justified the oppression of women; they were also the ideas that by implication, created a spirituality that limited women and anchored men in notions of preeminence as harmful to the men themselves in one way as they were to women in another.”
Ruether, in her classic book, suggests that this patriarchal development of Christianity, “has distorted the original equivalence of all human beings and has created instead hierarchical societies of privilege and deprivation, domination and exploitation.”
Chittister writes: “Revolution happened everywhere in the modern world, but little of it happened for women, and for most yet today, much is still to be accomplished around the world.”
More recently, there have been literally dozens of books written that address the injustices and suffering that the distortions and sexual bias of early Christianity have caused and continues to cause women. Some of the more recent books have pointed out that the net result has been terrible damage to the healthy evolutionary and spiritual growth of our society for men and woman. I do not think that very many people believe that we have a very healthy attitude towards human sexuality in the Western World today, especially in the USA. Twenty minutes of television will generally demonstrate that sad truth.
The great irony of all of this is that while many of the causes of this unhealthy sexuality can be traced back to the church, the teachings from Jesus–that we can learn to experience all Creation as Divine, including women and men–has been lost in the process. Our continued subtle, and not so subtle, patriarchal bias has been a road block for us learning to see and experience all creation as One or Sacred Unity, through our practice of radical egalitarianism. We all lose in the process, especially our children.
Yes there has been some progress-a few females in top corporate and government position…a few female Bishops in the Anglican Church and yes a few wonderful women leading protestant churches. But we have to look deeper, I believe at what we have done to human sexuality by both our ignorance and our refusal to dig deeper. This is not just a private matter as it effects our entire world.
I believe it is time to go back to the question that the woman asked her friend at one of my presentations. We as Christians and as a society need to look carefully at our history and the impact that this history still has on our society. We need to ask, “What have we done?”
I am beginning to believe that until educate ourselves…until we confess…until we repent… we really cannot move to new life and a new perspective. And the world needs that today just as much as it did 2000 years ago.