“Remember, there are no right or wrong answers but only right questions.” ~Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
When #metoo broke in the fall of 2017, I was a campus missioner, ministering primarily with women and non-binary people. They had stories to tell, as did I, as did so many others. As we were processing our experiences, we realized that scripture was full of examples of #metoo, but the text often (just kidding, almost always) glossed over the experience of the women in the story, meaning that Bible studies did too. The students wanted more than just the superficial; they wanted to have real conversations about scripture’s #metoo moments. We decided we would form a “#metoo” Bible study.
In Search Of A Feminist-Emancipatory/Socio-Historical Rhetorical Model of Engaging/Interrogating Scripture
At the time, I was a half-time college chaplain with side-hustles and a three-year-old during a pastoral crisis and was unable to find any curricula that would guide us. As much as I wanted to, there was no way I could spend a few hours each week exegeting scripture and writing my own. So I went to the library at Virginia Theological Seminary and sat down with a stack of books about feminist biblical hermeneutics. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Wisdom Ways was unbelievably helpful. She sets out “a feminist emancipatory, radical democratic model of education” which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for; so I shaped these questions from her work. I originally called it “A Feminist-Emancipatory/Socio-Historical Rhetorical Model of Engaging/Interrogating Scripture” to reflect the purpose of the questions but my students quickly redubbed it “Feminist Bible Study.”
How To Lead A Feminist Bible Study
This type of study is best done in small groups with a designated facilitator. The conversation should take about an hour. Choose a text that includes a woman in it (a great place to start is in David’s wreckage: Michel, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Tamar, just to name a few. Hagar and the daughter of Jephthah are also endlessly riveting.) Make sure that everyone has a copy of the text. Start by reading the text aloud twice, reminding the participants to pay attention to women’s experiences in and of the text. Then just keep going, keep probing. Ask hard questions. Ask your own questions. The text cannot be “broken” and God already knows our pain. We did this work together for a whole semester; the more you do it, the better everyone gets at finding illumination in the text.
These steps will guide you through a biblical “consciousness-raising” exercise:
- Start with prayer.
- Set some guidelines for participants:
- Listen closely to one another and the text.
- We begin and end with the experiences of women in the past and present. Her experiences are her experiences; do not interrupt or offer advice.
- There is an expectation of confidentiality; if you would like to share someone’s story outside the group, ask that person if you may.
- Read the text twice aloud.
- Identify the interpreter’s social location
- Where am I located socially? (Think about your gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, social class and geographic location.)
- How could my location affect my reading of the text?
- Where can I see discrimination in the text?
- Ask: “Who says?” (If you don’t know these answers, don’t get stuck, just keep moving.)
- Who wrote this text? To whom did the author write?
- How has this text been traditionally interpreted?
- How have you heard this text interpreted, and by whom?
- Re-member and Reconstruct
- What is actually being described in the text?
- Are women present but not mentioned?
- If the text is meant to teach or to influence behavior, what behavior is the author proscribing, and why?
- Unleash Creative Imagination
- Role Reversal: How does this story read if men are women and women are men?
- Can you construct a text’s point of view from a marginal perspective?
- Update the text to the present day.
- Interrogate the Text
- What kind of text is it? History, poetry, prayer, prophecy, narrative, teaching?
- What is the setting of the story and the sequence of narrative events?
- Where is the tension? Are there discrepancies or contradictions?
- Who speaks? Who acts? Who is left out, submerged or silenced?
- How are the characters drawn? Whose story is told more fully, and whose agenda is fulfilled in the story? Which characters are approved of and which are disapproved of?
- Can you hear a “counternarrative” underneath the text?
- Look for symbols in the text. What is unspoken about them?
- Evaluate: What does the text do?
- What argument is the text making? Can you construct a different argument from the text?
- What agenda is pursued? Is it one that supports the dominant social-cultural or religious order or one that goes against its grain?
- What assumptions does the text make about “common sense” social structures?
- What does the text do to those who accept it at face value?
- Does this text reinforce domination or liberation?
- Take action for transformative change
- What do you wish to change in our society?
- What relationship patterns need to change?
- What structures of domination need to be dismantled?
- What is one thing you can do this week for transformative change?
If you want to do some of your own transformative reading (you know you do!) these books are a great place to start:
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became the Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (2021)
Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Wilda Gafny (2017)
An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation by Nyasha Junior (2015)
Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach by Ilana Pardes (1992)
Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (2001)
A Final Note
Five years after #metoo, here we are again in a place of rage and despair about how women are treated in America. Maybe we never really left that place; I don’t suppose we did. Yet the women of scripture offer us hope in their resiliency and faith then, and now.
A note to my beloved clergy colleagues (especially male colleagues): I love you and your very smart and very shiny words very much. Save them for the pulpit. This is an opportunity for deep listening to the experiences of others and of the text itself. If you listen, what you will hear will be transformative. If you talk, you’ll come away only knowing what you already know. Let the Spirit do the talking. She’s got a lot to say.
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