Apology to Women: Christian Images of the Female Sex
Ann Brown (IVP, 1991)
The title of this book tells it all. The author explains that the book is an apology in both senses of the word. First, the Bible has been wrongly used to devalue women in Western Christian interpretations of it as well as Western Christian art. The author’s insights are especially brilliant in her survey of Christian art in the Catholic churches of Europe. She illustrates this with ten famous pictures of art including Michelangelo’s ‘The Temptation’.
She begins with the Lucas Cranach’s painting of Paradise which hangs in a museum in Vienna where the biblical view of man and woman has been grossly misrepresented. God is portrayed as an old man with a flowing white beard and a red cloak, and Satan as a fair-haired female snake, a mirror image of Eve, offering the forbidden fruit and tempting the first couple into sin. She admits that it is a beautiful picture, rich in religious symbolism, but she thinks that its charm is deceptive and its message sinister, in that it gives the impression that from the beginning man is more closely identified with God, and woman with sin. While man is painted as innocent, Eve is depicted as Satan’s accomplice, being primarily responsible for the first sin. The author points out that Genesis does not pass a greater guilt on Eve, but biblical interpreters, mostly, if not all, male, are not always able to resist temptation to exaggerate the biblical account. She laments:
The events in the garden have exerted an enormous fascination over the imaginations of commentators. Fact and fiction have been meshed together to defame the first woman and denigrate the female sex. Interpretations of the Old Testament, and of the Apostle Paul’s letters, have often been used to reinforce this negative view of woman, while Mary’s story has been amplified to make her the antithesis of Eve and far removed from the realm of other women. Interpreters have not only been guilty of embellishing the biblical accounts. They have also edited women out of the story; the good women like Deborah, the Old Testament prophet and judge, have been explained away (p.10).
The author goes on to point out that many women are understandably confused. Furthermore, the educated women from the 1960s have been asking the questions: Why is the Bible so anti-woman? Is God male? Is woman in God’s image? Is Eve more guilty than Adam of the first sin? Why does Paul silence women?
Secondly, the book is also an ‘apology’ in the sense of ‘being an apologia or defense of the Bible’. The author is equally brilliant in expounding the biblical view of women and how some feminists — the ‘rejectionists’ who totally rejected the biblical accounts of women as irredeemably patriarchal and misogyny, and consequently biblical authority; and the ‘revisionists’ who want to edit the Bible with inclusive language, and interpret the images of God as involving androgynous nature — were totally misguided in understanding the original intent of the biblical portrayal of women (pp.13-46).
For the author, the Bible itself has a positive and liberating view of women, which is most clearly demonstrated in the life and teaching of Christ in whose ministry women were totally included as disciples like in the rabbinic tradition of the first century, and as co-workers following his itinerant ministry and supporting its needs, which stands in stark contrast to their exclusion in most cultures in general and in rabbinic circles in particular. For the author, Jesus preached liberation for both sexes and made no discrimination in their salvation. She says: ‘From whatever angle we care to look at Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels he is above reproach and bears out his own claim to be God. If we look at him from the point of view of women, we discover that Jesus’ behaviour as God in the flesh is so distinctive in its freedom from any hint of sexism that it is impossible to believe that he has been fabricated by men’s minds in the first century’ (p.28).
The author believes that a careful reading of the Bible reveals that it is not exclusively a man’s book focusing on men’s interests. For her it is not a man-made text in which men are the heroes and men’s religious experiences alone count. She admits that biblical interpreters, commentators, and exegetes have been guilty of bias, but then, through a serious exegesis of various passages of the Bible, especially Genesis 1-3 (pp.74-118), and the controversial Pauline texts (pp.155-181) as well as with a generous survey of the early Christian and medieval art and literature, she goes on to demonstrate that there is no double standard in the way men and women relate to God in the Bible. The book is well balanced and thorough in presenting both sides of the debate, to this end a well-written piece by one of the so-called ‘laity’. Should this not inspire BGST alumni to write stuff like this? Why not first read it? We have a copy in our library (the author is a teacher and the wife of Lindsay Brown, former General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students).