Church History

Proposition 8 and the discriminatory nature of marriage

RadicalmoiThere are protests nationwide today against California's passage of their Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. Instead of marching, I'm blogging (because it's pouring rain here). I am repeatedly boggled by the need of human beings to deny others their humanity, when those Others have done nothing to directly harm those who would classify them as subhuman. This was the cornerstone of slavery in this country (slaves counted as only 3/5 of a person); of denying both African Americans and women voting privileges; and now of denying gays the right to marry. In a word (or acronym): WTF?

Gw150h150 The argument that two people of the same sex marrying somehow harms the "sanctity of marriage" between two people of the opposite sex is completely illogical, as Spock might say. I'd like to see a demonstration of what this harm is. Does it prevent opposite sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses? No. Does it prevent opposite sex couples from obtaining housing? No. Does it hinder them in exercising any of their already granted rights? No. It merely offends some of them. Too bad. I'm offended by bigoted people marrying and propagating their bigotry by teaching it to their children, but I'm not about to deny them the right to do so. Human rights don't work that way. Either we all get them, or none of us get them.

The idea that the marriage of two people of the same sex is somehow an aberration is also just patently false. Tufts University Historian Gary Leupp has a great capsulized refutation of this idea in an open letter he wrote to Governor Mitt Romney. Here's a little sample of it, with a bibliography:

Continue reading "Proposition 8 and the discriminatory nature of marriage" »


The Lost Female Apostle

LibrariangI just finished reading a couple of books I put in the sidebar a week or so ago about the female apostle Junia. That's right, female apostle. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I. I ran across references to her while looking up something else and was intrigued. One of my biggest problems with the religion I grew up in was that we were supposedly all "ministers," meaning we all could teach outside the church, but only the men could teach inside the church. That's based on the scripture in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, which, it turns out, just may be a non-Pauline interpolation, though it appears in all the texts, though in different places, it turns out. In light of these verses, it seems obvious that there couldn't possibly be a woman apostle, so magically, there wasn't.

But let me back up a minute. The two books are Rena Pederson's The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia and Eldon Jay Epp's Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The first is a general reader's version of the same kind of curious search I'm engaging in. Pederson is a seasoned reporter, not a scholar, but does a good job of outlining the issues and the controversies, as well as describing how other women mentioned as deacons or servants of the church were slowly erased and pushed from view, including Junia. Epp's book is extremely scholarly, and it helps to have a background in both grammar and textual criticism. You can squeak by without knowing Latin and Greek, but that wouldn't hurt either. In 81 very closely reasoned pages, he demolishes the support for the arbitrary and sudden metamorphosis of Junia's feminine name in Romans 16:7 into the masculine and highly improbable Junias. The reasons, it turn out, are almost entirely cultural bias and late 19th and early 20th century cultural bias at that, not those pesky misogynist medieval monks, even. Epp connects the arguments about the possibly interpolated text in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, with Junia's "sex change" quite convincingly, connecting them as part of a gradual move to erase the vital parts in the early church hierarchy that women played, and thus keep them out of positions of similar service in the contemporary church, whether it was the contemporary medieval or modern church. After reading both of these books, the ordination of women seems the only logical step that could possibly be taken.

Shocking, I know. Even more shocking when I realized that the Bible I had used my whole life had been based on this biased text. Junia was a man in the Bible I had always thought of as a very good translation, one that restored the 7,000-some-odd occurrences of God's name that had been replaced with his job title.

In most ways, it is a good translation, careful yet colloquial and easy to understand, unlike the more poetic but problematic King James Version. But one of the things Epp's book did was give me a clearer understanding of just how that Bible translation was produced. I'd always known that the translators of my version had gone back to the original manuscripts and started from scratch, but I didn't understand what "going back to the original manuscripts" actually meant.

There are around 500 manuscripts and papyri (manuscripts made of papyrus reed rather than cotton rag paper or vellum, both of which are far more durable) copied by various scribes throughout history, from the first century through the Middle Ages. There are scribal quirks and variations in the texts, sometimes really significant ones, and it is ultimately impossible to state without a doubt which versions are the definitive ones. Translators and scholars have been able to make a pretty good stab at deciding which are closest, but there's no THIS IS IT! manuscript. Transcription and compilation proceeds by textual analysis, paleography, chemical studies, carbon dating, comparison with archaeological evidence, etc.

The sources used by the translation committee that produced the Bible I grew up with were themselves first collated, transcribed, and printed by other committees of scholars, following in the footsteps of previous scholars of various ability and merit. The real problem arises because languages change over time, and you're talking about 2,000 years of history here, from the time the manuscripts were first handwritten in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic. For the first 700 years after Jesus, for instance, Greek was unaccented, which is one of the ways the gender of nouns was determined. Manuscripts were also written in all capitals ("majuscules") or all lowercase ("minuscules"), often with the words pretty jammed together, so YOURTEXTMIGHTLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS, or somethinglikethis. Good luck with that. No wonder scribes often went blind. So turning these manuscripts into easily usable modern transcriptions (never mind the translation bit yet) is tricky.

Plus, unlike English, names in Greek and Latin have cases as well as gender, so their endings vary. This was one of the things I struggled with mightily when I was learning and translating Old English, which is actually way more like, say, German, than modern English. You're constantly asking yourself if something is masculine or feminine and what ending it gets. In this case, the names in Romans (duh!) were originally Latin being translated into Greek forms, and then often back to Latin (like for the Vulgate version).

This is where the problem with Junia's name arose. I won't go into the technicalities of it; you can read the books for that. But suffice to say her name was accepted as female by the earliest of the church fathers, for about the first thousand years. Then her name slowly transformed into the masculine Junias, and then back again to Junia here and there, though in the printed transcriptions used by the committee that translated the version I'm familiar with, it was arbitrarily, against any textual evidence (e.g., that the male name Junias exists nowhere else, though Junia as a woman's name appears at least 250 times) decided that Junia was a man. Why? Well, because it's obvious there couldn't be a female apostle. Just that.

Epp's argument, short as it is, seems definitive to me, not as a woman, but as someone who's done both textual criticism and translation (though not of Greek, and only a little tiny bit of Latin). It must have seemed definitive to the latest revisers of the manuscripts at fault, because they've changed it back to Junia, acknowledging her as a female apostle. The problem is that the original sex change existed in the printed transcriptions (as opposed to the original manuscripts) for the last 70 years or so, and crept into just about every Bible translated from them, including mine, just when the issue of ordaining women was becoming or about to become very hot. Considering how long people hang on to their Bibles, it's liable to remain incorrect for another 70 years, giving the erroneous impression that women were silent and powerless in the early church, when that was not the case.

What saddens me is that I would never have known any of this had I not defied conventions in my church and gone to college where I was introduced to both textual criticism and the shallow edge of Biblical scholarship. Though we were always encouraged to study our Bible deeply and there were plenty of supplementary materials put out by the church to do so, none of them mentioned the wider world of Biblical scholarship except briefly in passing, when it suited them. Certainly, little of that filtered down to the congregations. To be fair, I think most Biblical scholarship happens in fairly rarefied air in the academy; it's complex and requires years of study in dead foreign languages. But I think for years I was under the impression that our supplementary materials were "original" research. I wonder now how much of it was selectively cadged from other scholars. This isn't to say there aren't some smart and learned people in the upper echelons of my former faith. But I'm pretty sure none of them participate in the scholarly exchange of ideas and arguments, and I'm not even sure where some of them were trained, i.e., where or if they went to college or hold degrees.

Now that society is changing enough to accept women in so many other positions of power (albeit still reluctantly), it's a shame that this impression remains in the church. It has robbed itself of the unique viewpoint and skills of half the population. No wonder so many people like me are abandoning ship. Whose truth have we been fed?


How to Keep Us Down

SciencemoiIt's not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion and science, often so antithetical to each other, share and for so many of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the society around them and are carried out and structured by the people in that society who have the power to make the structure. So if men decide women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship with God either through study of the texts or through participating in the mysteries (Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little wonder scientists should think the same way about what many saw (and still see) as a new, improved replacement activity.

The reasoning, though is strikingly similar and you'd think scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we don't do science the way it "should be done," i.e., the way men do it. Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of science and the way men and women approach problem-solving.

And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now that men don't have to deal with, as a report by the American Physical Society I recently helped edit shows quite admirably (it's still in production so I can't link to it, but APS has a great reading list). This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.

There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge (see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I think this is because guys like secret societies and all that. They're forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us. (Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerous blind itself. In both cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions: "Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?" (see sidebar) or, "Wait, why should we give you taxpayer money for that science project?"

All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins's selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced details that chase people away, rather than broad interesting ideas that draw them in. My science writer pal Jen waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations. The advanced details are important, but you don't start out with those for people with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of "can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the public, particularly in their own subject.

And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin, a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow, who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow, who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it, but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science: supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.

Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead? I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers, though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few.

Hawkins's selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise), physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any of the so-called soft sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already. He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two, scientist or not.

Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he dragged out a lot of the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle, Haldane, Snow. That's fine in an anthology like this. You need to include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if you're going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (whom I used to work for), then you need to include some contemporary women scientists too, dammit.

Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women are systematically pushed out of history, in exactly the same way we were pushed out of recognition of our rightful place in the early church. Simply by excluding us from memory. By being ignored by the big shot males. That's all it takes.