The underlying principle that links a feminist critique to every other critical lens since the rise of feminist discourse is the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Essentially, a hermeneutic of suspicion identifies the disconnect between rhetoric and a lived reality. The lived lives of women are different than the pontifications espoused directly and indirectly by the traditionally patriarchal social, political, cultural, religious, and educational structures in which individuals participate.
I like to think that I live my life bucking these structures whenever possible because the roles a woman plays in her own life should: 1) be determined by her; and 2) if she negotiates more “traditional practices” (e.g. marriage, motherhood, etc.) then these practices do not limit her to traditionalist practices (e.g. staying at home, spousal servitude, etc.). Granted, I used the two most generic examples of traditional and traditionalist practices, but the point is still valid. When I go to holidays with my extended family there are very few questions or comments about my PhD program, but many comments about the fact that I do not make a plate of food for my husband.
My hermeneutic of suspicion was triggered at a Bible Study last week. I will refrain from listing the denominational affiliation of the Christian church, the ethno-racial configuration of the participants, and the economic background of the community. In this way, the Bible Study does not represent our denominational, ethno-racial, or classist prejudices (and we all have them). It represents a common scenario faced by women and men every day who are hopeful and eager for better religious education.
When the pastor walked into the room he greeted everyone. The room was predominantly female with roughly a 7:1 sex-based ratio of attendees. I was pleased to hear the pastor celebrate the commitment of the women in the room and their commitment to biblical education. His exuberance was invigorating after a long day of work. He advocated that the women celebrate their power in the church by rising up and asserting their voice, which has often been undercut by misguided interpretations about the “biblical” role of women.
I was excited to see where things were headed that evening. I felt like I had walked into the “right” kind of Bible Study environment. (It’s not easy to attend a Bible Study as a participant when most of your day is spent writing and lecturing on the Bible.) What I experienced in that room was nothing short of a disappointment. A Bible Study should be an opportunity for a group of people–self-defined by sex, gender, theme, liturgical calendar, miscellaneous, etc.–to learn more about the Bible. This Bible Study did nothing of the sort. The passage that were read (Gen 9:18-28) served as a launch pad for a larger discussion on the theme of Race, Racism, and the Bible. Although a theme was in place, there was no attempt on the part of the pastor to direct the conversation toward greater awareness of the Bible. Instead, the pastor spent 75 minutes of 90 minutes lecturing (badly!) on the relationship between the passage and assigned reading (I didn’t previously mention the assigned reading because the announcement of the Bible Study at the previous Sunday service only mentioned that this was a new Bible Study and that all were invited. Using assigned readings that are hypertextual in nature seems to fly directly in the face of an “all are invited” invitation.).
One question was posed to the attendees the entire evening: What do you think racism is? This is a good question. It was appropriate for the theme of the Bible Study. It is problematic when: this is the only question asked; when this was the majority of attendee participation; it only lasted about 7 minutes or so; and it does not give the attendees an opportunity to comment, reflect or inquire about the Bible.
I congratulate the pastor for attempting a topic so large and charged at a church Bible Study. I applaud him for encouraging the female attendees to take an active role in their church. I am grossly disappointed that by the end of the Bible Study the encouragement of women felt like lip service. Participants had to be very aggressive to have their questions even heard by the pastor because he monopolized what should have been a more balanced discussion of views. Because the Bible Study had about 22 people and 3 of them were men, statistically more women’s questions went unanswered or ignored by a ratio of approximately 4:1.
With regard to fairness, every good hermeneutic of suspicion should be tethered at some point to a hermeneutic of generosity. There are a number of reasons why a pastor might not answer questions during a Bible Study: trying to cover a lot of information; answered several questions already; doesn’t know the answer to a given question; has already answered that question earlier in the session, or possibly thinks the answer might derail the conversation (if there is a conversation taking place).
What cannot be looked past with a hermeneutic of generosity is the fact that any male leader that goes out of his way to commend women on their commitment to further study and encourages women to rise up in their denomination should also be aware that if he does not give a proper education on the subject matter, then he is still participating in a system of subjugation. Just because Pastor may have exclaimed that women should take a stronger role in their church community does not necessarily mean that Pastor creates opportunities for women to develop themselves accordingly.
bell hooks in her work Teaching to Transgress talks about how education is liberation. If this is true (as an educator I do believe that it is true), to take a horizontal, collaborative and dialogic educational environment like a Bible Study and make it a top-down, vertical, monologic, predominantly single-speaking voice lecture is a crime and an abuse of power. If you want to empower women to have an active voice/role, there MUST be an opportunity to hear women speak!