Wednesday, November 24, 2010

 

Luke, womenfolk and my suspicion of hermeneutics of suspicion

From an online discussion ...

PROFESSOR:

A number of you have remarked that Luke is a gospel that is especially friendly to women. That is a very commonly perceived notion. Jane Shaberg, a respected Lucan scholar and feminist, challenges this view. Below is her summary of her own argument. Read it and consider it and then let's discuss it.

Quote is from Jane Shaberg's introduction to her commentary on "Luke" from The Women's Bible Commentary, Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.

"Warning: The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible. Because it contains a great deal of material about women that is found nowhere else in the Gospels, many readers insist that the author is enhancing or promoting the status of women. Luke is said to be a special 'friend' of women, portraying them in an 'extremely progressive' and 'almost modern' fashion, giving them 'a new identity and a new social status.' But read more carefully.

"Even as this Gospel highlights women as included among the followers of Jesus, subjects of his teaching and objects of his healing, it deftly portrays them as models of subordinate service, excluded from the power center of the movement and from significant responsibilities. Claiming the authority of Jesus, this portrayal is an attempt to legitimate male dominance in the Christianity of the author's time. It was successful. The danger lies in the subtle artistic power of the story to seduce the reader into uncritical acceptance of it as simple history, and into acceptance of the depicted gender roles as divinely ordained. ...

"The author of Luke is interested in the education of women in the basics of the Christian faith and in the education of outsiders about Christian women. The Gospel attempts to meet various needs, such as instructing and edifying women converts, appeasing the detractors of Christianity, and controlling women who practice or aspire to practice a prophetic ministry in the church. One of the strategies of this Gospel is to provide female readers with female characters as role models: prayerful, quiet, grateful women, supportive of male leadership, forgoing the prophetic ministry. The education that the study of Luke offers today involves a conscious critique of this strategy. It is not at all the education Luke had in mind!"

Questions to consider:

1) Why does Schaberg take this position?
2) What is her evidence for her position?
3) How do you evaluate her position?

Let's examine a particular text as a starting point.

Open Kurt Aland, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, to #306, "The Anointing in Bethany." This is a very interesting pericope because it appears in all four gospels, something that is very unusual. Use this text to answer Schberg's challenge.


ER:

1) Why does Schaberg take this position?

Because hers is a hermeneutic of suspicion; she is suspicious of the author; she suspects he is being sneaky with the way he tells his story. The mere prominence of women in Luke gives Luke cover for persisting in portraying woman in subservient roles.

2) What is her evidence for her position?

The roles of women in Luke are subservient, it seems, so Shaberg has a point.

3) How do you evaluate her position?

As a hermeunetic of suspicion, Shaberg's perspective needs to be held to the same light she holds Luke to: Luke had motives; so does Shaberg. Neither is necessarily "bad"; each deserves to be aired out.

My own take: To portay women so prominently, even in non-leadership roles, does go a long way, in my view, toward the "restorative" kind of mission Luke seems to embody generally; readers and hearers of Luke surely were surprised, given the patriarchy of the time, to hear and see so many woman in the Lukan stories; but whether they were pleasantly surprised or shocked is another question. It makes sense to me that Luke, perhaps, was writing to encourage his readers-listeners to continue in the restorative mission, in the face of social reluctance or outright opposition.


PROF'S ASSISTANT:

ER, I'll respond with italics.

1) Why does Schaberg take this position?

Because hers is a hermeneutic of suspicion; she is suspicious of the author; she suspects he is being sneaky with the way he tells his story. The mere prominence of women in Luke gives Luke cover for persisting in portraying woman in subservient roles.

The way you write that it looks like you think Schaberg started with her conclusion ~ her hypothesis is that Luke is sneaky. No. Her methodology is sound. She examines the evidence and arrives at her conclusion.

She brings her question about women to the evidence, not the other way around. Asking about women is her question... a fairly new question.


2) What is her evidence for her position?

The roles of women in Luke are subservient, it seems, so Shaberg has a point.

Her evidence is how Luke modifies his sources.

3) How do you evaluate her position?

As a hermeunetic of suspicion, Shaberg's perspective needs to be held to the same light she holds Luke to: Luke had motives; so does Shaberg. Neither is necessarily "bad"; each deserves to be aired out.

My own take: To portay women so prominently, even in non-leadership roles, does go a long way, in my view, toward the "restorative" kind of mission Luke seems to embody generally; readers and hearers of Luke surely were surprised, given the patriarchy of the time, to hear and see so many woman in the Lukan stories; but whether they were pleasantly surprised or shocked is another question. It makes sense to me that Luke, perhaps, was writing to encourage his readers-listeners to continue in the restorative mission, in the face of social reluctance or outright opposition.

Your conclusion is interesting. I see ambivalence in what you wrote, and that is probably smart. Yes, Luke moves women down from his sources, but when you compare it to later texts he looks much more favorable to women. Did he have a specific agenda in relation to women? If so, it is difficult to pin down with precision. He does include more female characters in his gospel, but portrays most of them in ways that might not threaten his dominant culture. It looks to me like a skillful move to take a "movement" toward an "institution." (My categories, not Luke's)

Luke is not imagining a full fledged institution, but he does move in a culturally conservative direction.

What do you think?



ER:

I confess to being suspicious of hermenuetics of suspicion, and I do not quite understand the difference between looking for something in the text and starting out with certain questions that frame a text in a way to be able to draw certain conclusions about a text. And so, I am ambivalent in my conclusions.

But my best guess is that Luke struggled with the roles that women played in the Jesus movement, and the best he felt he could do in light of his own present circumstances -- under strain with both Rome and the synagogues, which would tend to solidify tradition suspend innovation -- was put a lot of women in his story to give women the attention he thought they were due, but circumscribe their actual roles, again, because stress and strain and sturm und drang are not the best times to give rein to insurgent freedom.


PROF'S ASSISTANT:

Fair enough. Let me see if I can help.

Scholarship always builds on the findings of previously accepted work. So, Schaberg begins by accepting the scholarly finding that Luke uses Mark and Q as sources.

Now, she is asking new questions. She is interested in women. So, she gathers evidence. She looks carefully at a Synopsis, and notes everything she can find about women. Are their differences among the gospels in how women are portrayed? How many women are named in each gospel? How many female characters appear in each gospel? How does each gospel use its sources? Can a trajectory be traced in how older texts are adapted and modified as they are used in later texts?

See? She is asking new questions of the text, using accepted scholarship and basic methodology. You can't ask those questions of Luke unless you already accept Mark as a source for Luke. The methodology is already there. She just brings a new question to it.

The evidence leads to her conclusions. She can see that Mary never has demons in any source prior to Luke. That is a Lukan idea.

Look at how Schaberg writes up her conclusions about Luke. She admits to the whole of the evidence. Luke has more mention of women than its sources, but it moves them out of positions of prophecy, and into more traditional roles. So, the evidence speaks through the methodology.

Schaberg does not start with a bias against Luke. She starts with a question about how women are presented in the gospels. Then, she gathers the evidence. Then, she examines the evidence carefully and notices movement.

Let's look at your question again: " I do not quite understand the difference between looking for something in the text and starting out with certain questions that frame a text in a way to be able to draw certain conclusions about a text."

Did I help sort that out? The questions one brings to a text are open questions. Schaberg did not bring the question, "What evidence can I find to support my hypothesis that Luke was anti-women?" And, she did not manipulate an interpretation to support a pre-conceived hypothesis. Rather, she asked the open question: Are there differences among the gospels? Answer, yes. What is the movement? Answer: toward less authority for women in Luke than in one of Luke's sources, Mark.

It makes no difference to the researcher which way the evidence points. He or she simply seeks to examine the evidence on its own terms. The only way her questions shaped her conclusions is by causing her to notice women in the text. If her question was about bread, she would have noticed every mention of bread in each gospel, and would have looked for movement in how the various authors dealt with bread. See? It isn't possible to know the outcome until the research is done. And, independent researchers will discover the same evidence. The argument, then, is in how to interpret that evidence.


ER:

Excellent explanation. I tend to see what historians call "presentitis" in some ideological hermeunetics, but this very thoughtful explanation helped a lot, especially this: "The only way her questions shaped her conclusions is by causing her to notice women in the text. If her question was about bread, she would have noticed every mention of bread in each gospel, and would have looked for movement in how the various authors dealt with bread." I get that. In my history studies and research, I try to emphasize Native American viewpoints -- and so I see Native Americans, and consider them, where some others don't when they consider U.S. history. Same thing, I think. Many thanks.


CLASS MEMBER:

I don't see an agenda w/ Schaberg and i wonder if that's because I bring a female perspective to it. For me, it's an "of course that's what it says." And the same w/ the text. It's not that she has a pre-proven point that she wants to make and she searches until she proves it. I wonder if there was another sub-set of people that was looking at the text if an agenda would be assumed or is an agenda assumed because Schaberg is described as a "feminist"?


ER:

Re, "I wonder if there was another sub-set of people that was looking at the text if an agenda would be assumed" -- yes, or, what I mean is, that is my kneejerk reaction. ... The whole post-modern thing seems to have swept in just after my undergrad years, and that, I think, has something to do with my default position regarding objectivity. But I am learning to relax my knees. :-)

--ER

Comments:
I am going to be firmly wishy-washy and say that you and your professor are both correct. As a self-proclaimed feminist, Schaberg does indeed bring with her an agenda and a set of received, unstated assumptions, as she reads the text. These need to be highlighted, although by making her own position clear beforehand, I think we can rest quietly that has been done.

On the other hand, the professor is correct in that the questions are specific in regard to the Lukan texts in question. The best science always says, "Is the received wisdom correct?" By examining the texts in this light, we might gain insight, a new perspective on what had previously taken for granted.
 
The hermeneutics of suspicion should, indeed be evaluated by their very own criteria. They provide remarkable insight. They also are as limited as the perspectives they see themselves correcting and critiquing. Incorporating them in to one's interpretive tool-box is important, as long as one does not elevate them to pride of place.

My own position is that they are of limited utility for me considering my own position as a white North American. Simply put, I really have no idea how privileged I am; at the same time, in order to be faithful to my own sitz im leben, I must respond out of it, using the tools of suspicious readers as a corrective to what I would take as normative. Hermeneutics of suspicion keep me honest, and humble.
 
Huh. Perhaps you need to cut the latter-day scholasticism with something with real eschatological grounding:

http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/blog/dr_saturday/post/Video-Broderick-Brown-s-sideline-tip-drill-may-?urn=ncaaf-28966
 
That did, indeed, kick ass.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
Oh, by the way, this also demostrates my predition that China and America will be forced into a comprimise merger withing the next few decades. China's one child policy has created a large surplus of chinese baby girls that are being shipped by the plane load to the United States. In the near future there will be a lot of horney young Chinese males looking for Chinese wives. America will have the supply and thus we practice our version of a secondary conversion process.
 
A more interesting observation is that Luke's treatment of Christian women does not match the extra-biblical data for the era in which Luke was writing. Rodney Stark, a sociologist, in his book The Rise of Christianity, draws on other contemporary sources that put woman in a much different light. Women in that Roman world were a scarce commodity, due to the desire for sons, female infanticide was the rule of the day. As a scarce commodity women had more power and freedom than the bible indicates. Indeed, because the Christian women rescued and raised the female babies left to die outside of Rome, in a very short period, the sex ratio of women to men in Christian populations was much much higher than in Pagan populations.
Thus it was these "extra" women marrying into largely male Pagan Rome that created secondary conversions to Christianity. So none of the biblical "history" of women seems to correlate to the extra-biblical data available for the times. So who has the agenda?
 
i'm with you on this ER. it seems because Luke doesn't come right out and give us our modern definition of feminism then we should consider him suspect. i think this is totally lame. Luke may indeed present a radical view of the role of women for the time, but we've long surpassed that... like in the 1970s. ;-)

i enjoyed reading this yet i'm also happy to be "on the other side" so to speak.
 
The assistant is clever but wrong: "The only way her questions shaped her conclusions is by causing her to notice women in the text. If her question was about bread, she would have noticed every mention of bread in each gospel, and would have looked for movement in how the various authors dealt with bread."

The assistant is wrong because Shaberg is not merely asking questions about bread; she has very firm ideas about bread that lead her to ask those questions and that shape the manner in which she derives an answer from the text. Consider the passage quoted by your professors, which begins with "Warning …" and ends with "The education that the study of Luke offers today."

Like Luke, Shaberg is attempting to position woman with Christianity. Her work is scholarly, in that it asks how a text deals with women; but it is also political, in that it seeks to dictate how we are to regard women in Christianity today.

I dislike the "hermeneutics of suspicion" because I think that mixing scholarship and politics in this fashion is an abuse of scholarship. An honest scholarly treatment of women in Luke should strive to be clear, concise, and impartial; it should be indifferent to the questions of the day.

Shaberg's treatment is not honest scholarship. It weaves her normative commitments into her scholarly analysis in a way that both (1) weakens the clarity, concision, and impartiality of the analysis, undermining the scholarship, and (2) associates the integrity of scholarship with those commitments, which is at the very least misleading.
 
Well, I would not call Shaberg's scholarship dishonest. But the assistant prof should be honest about what Shaberg is doing: bringing certain assumptions to the text.

Actually, I think Shaberg is honest about it; the assistant seemms to want her post-modern cake and eat it too. In other words:

Everybody's objectivity is questionable except those who are trying to overcome lack of objectivity of others, she seems to think.

Huh-uh.
 
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