The Harlot Shall Be Burned with Fire: Biblical Literalism in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Sarah Sentilles

(spoiler alert)

Against my better judgment, this past weekend I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher who’s best known for Fight Club and The Social Network. I didn’t like the book; it unsettled me that a novel filled with sexual violence against women—a novel that seems to take pleasure in the violence, to offer it up for readers to consume—became such a sensation. But I’m a sucker for a trailer and a good soundtrack, and I was curious, so I bought a ticket.

The plot revolves around a missing girl and the serial killer believed to have murdered her who uses the Bible like a handbook. He takes passages from Leviticus—21:9 for example: The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire—and enacts them on women’s bodies. On Jewish women’s bodies.

Please click here to continue reading this article at Religion Dispatches.

Sarah Sentilles is a scholar of religion, an award-winning speaker, and the author of three books including A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit (Harcourt, 2008) and Breaking Up with God (HarperOne, 2011). She earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in theology from Harvard, where she was awarded the Billings Preaching Prize and was the managing editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles religious language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She is currently at work on a novel and an edited volume that investigates the intersections of torture and Christianity.


Categories: Bible, Feminist Theology, Fiction, Film, Rape Culture, Review, Sexual Violence

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. Hi Sarah, have not seen the film but your commentary sounds right. Just heard about your book Breaking Up with God, I too had a love affair with God the Father. Your title made me think that so few feminist theologians write about God, I wonder if others have intense relationships with God like we did, or whether their abillity to stay Christian is because they don’t feel betrayed by “Him” because they never had that sort of relationship with “Him” in the first place.


  2. Hi Carol, Thank you for reading my essay! That’s an interesting observation about the absence of God in some feminist theologians’ work. My book carries the analogy of “love affair” throughout my narrative, a story about almost becoming a priest and then turning away from institutional religion and a male God. In a way I am saying–this is what so much theology/liturgy is asking our minds to do: love an invisible man in the sky who watches you and judges you. And these are the costs of that kind of thinking. Thank you again for your comment. Your work is lifesaving!


  3. Sarah, this is a great article. I actually recently started to read the book and then had to stop halfway through (the rape and violence against women was too upsetting to me… plus I thought the plot was a bit slow). I know I wouldn’t be able to see the movie.

    I go back and forth on it, like you do. The book certainly makes it clear that rape and violence against women are wrong and horrible, but it does almost seem to delight in it as well. Part of me thinks there is something to be said for having a “realistic” depiction of rape in books and movies. If the horrible reality of rape can be conveyed in literature and on screen, then society might become more sensitive to the plight of victims. Then again, the rape and violence against women in this book is so over-the-top that it almost undermines this. Most women are not victimized by sadistic serial rapists and murders. By taking the violence to the extreme, I worry that the book and movie are actually communicating that the only victims worthy of our pity are those who are victims of that level of horrific, sadistic violence.

    Thanks again for the wonderful article!


  4. Sarah, thanks so much for sharing this on FAR! Although I’ve heard of this film and book – I had no idea what it was about and was actually considering seeing it with my husband on date night. I’ll certainly avoid it now.

    This was my first week back to teaching and on our first day we did introductions and mentioned a recent film we’ve seen. More than half said The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and all gave it a good critique. They loved this movie! None recognized any of the issues you mentioned here. This film, the book, and so many other elements we find in pop culture are part of our rape culture – a culture that continuously seeks to marginalize women through various forms of gender based violence. So many of us continue to participate in it and don’t see the harm. That shocks me.

    Thank you for this important contribution that acknowledges the rape culture and how very problematic it is. (And for the warning – glad I’ll be skipping this!)


  5. Hi Sarah,
    I am beyond impressed with this article. I just had a quick question though. I do not know if you know this but much of Steig Larson’s work on this series was inspired by the gang rape he witnessed when he was 15 years old and his failure to respond and help the victim. The story goes on to be that even after he talked with the victim, refused to accept his apology.


    I was wondering, does this change the tone of the books or our perception of them? How do we view Lisbeth now? Although I was continually shocked by the treatment of women throughout the books, I was very intrigued when I read this point.

    Wanted to hear your feedback about it.


  6. Hi John,

    Thank you for your response. I did not know that Larsson’s books were a response to a gang rape he witnessed but did not stop. In some ways, I think that information makes the books/film worse for me! Are any of the proceeds from the books being used to stop violence against women? If he was haunted by this rape, why does he reenact violence against women over and over again in his books? How is naming a fictional character after a real life victim of rape any kind of justice for her? Especially when that victim/survivor did not grant him forgiveness. I find this very troubling . . . I’m interested to know whether this information changed your perception of the film/books.



  7. Thanks for this report. I’m not going to see this movie or read those books. And Larson did witness a rape and did nothing to stop it or report it later. What is this all about? Rape/porn with the fake label of “feminist” on it, that’s all. I really appreciate the warnings that many feminists put out there about this. I get so sick of it all.


  8. And on a more positive note: Sarah, I read your book and found it fascinating. I had this theory that we have adult religions and childhood ones. Since we have no choice about the religion we are born into, or one that we are indoctrinated in as children, we grow up and move on.
    However, as adults or maybe in our early to late teens, we often find a true faith to our liking, and that is the one that is the BIG DEAL. In my case, I consider feminism itself a belief system that is powerful and full of promise and intellectual challenge. The childhood faiths were indoctrination, and once I found a woman powerful woman centric “faith” I was so much happier.

    It’s often hard for me to understand how women can stand these god the father religions, or would want to work in them for a job. But you have to have a faith or a belief system that is true power for each woman. And I think it is about opportunity or incentive. What comes your way…
    anyway, I liked your book and look forward to others down the line.


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