Are We Modern Yet?

Essay by Fred Plumer on 1 June 2017 2 Comments

About ten years ago, I attended a two day conference that garnered a lot of anticipation and excitement about the topics, which were: a new way of communicating our religious beliefs and the discussion of postmodern theology. Near the end of the conference, I was ready for it to be over. It had been a good conference. The keynote speakers were well respected and leaders in their fields. But I was done.

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Why is it that our children can't read a Bible in school, but they can in prison?


Dear Becky,

Not to put too fine a point on it, but where did you get the idea that children can’t read a Bible in school?! Of course kids are allowed to read the Bible in school – ANY tax-supported public school. I’d hope the school would expect the students to complete their other class work prior to reading their Bible, though. Kids are in our public schools for a general education, not religious training.

As I see it, this is one of those trigger questions that usually exists for the sole purpose of provoking a self-righteous tsk-tsk-tsk and a head-shaking “Isn’t it a shame what our country has come to?” response. Most of those who “like” or “share” these intentionally incendiary questions don’t actually follow up on whether the questions are based in reality or not. They’re simply happy to point to another supposed example “proving” their bias that liberals are disrespecting the Bible and ruining the country.

But regardless of whether this is a provocative rhetorical question designed to stir righteous indignation or a legitimate question, it deserves a legitimate answer.

At present, the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment has been interpreted as guaranteeing both the respect of and freedom from religion, so the issue is not primarily about the individual student’s rights as it is about school sponsorship. In practice, Supreme Court rulings basically steer schools toward establishing a non-religious or neutral atmosphere – which is why teachers are discouraged from overt displays of religious paraphernalia at their desks and church groups are not allowed to hand out Bibles and other evangelistic propaganda at public schools.

Why would distributing Bibles at schools be a bad thing? Well, for one thing, not all Bibles are created equal. I wouldn’t want para-church groups distributing The Living Bible, for instance. The Living Bible is a loose paraphrase that, wherever possible, opts for anti-Semitic and homophobic language in its paraphrase – all the better to shore up their pre-existing prejudices.

When I was attending public High School, I took a course that had been intentionally designed as a non-devotional and impartial look at “The Bible as Literature.” This class familiarized us with the text, its origins, and from an objective perspective, analyzed the literary forms and stories in a variety of versions. Extra care was exercised by the teacher to make sure there was no proselytizing and that politically biased translation choices were acknowledged for what they were: theological propaganda. This academic approach to the Bible did not go over well with the more pious students who were not only unable to make the leap to reading the Bible critically, but saw the exercise as an attack on their faith.

And that’s the rub. Many fervently religious Americans just don’t get the fact that the beauty of our civic life together is its intentionally secular nature. This is not an attack on religion but the creation of one of the greatest gifts of democracy to the Western world: an open and tolerant society free from the disruptive influence of religious extremism. Schools and other public institutions must constantly defend against the encroachment of religious bias – or risk the proverbial slippery slope that, unguarded, leads to various worst-case-scenario “Handmaid’s Tale”-style theocracies.

So while Bibles and Bible reading are allowed in our schools, it is with the express understanding that the school is not sponsoring devotional Bible reading. The establishment clause was included in the First Amendment as a safeguard against the tyranny of the religious majority crushing the minority. To that end, it is the obligation of our schools that classrooms remain free of actions or displays by a dominant religious voice that intimidates or discriminates against those of a minority – or no – religious tradition.

Likewise, schools are not allowed to sanction prayer at official events. As a pastor and father, I agree. I am opposed to school prayer on two grounds: compulsion and content. As with Bible reading, I don’t want my kids forced into compulsory prayer and I don’t want to open the door to Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians shaping the content of those prayers.

There are plenty of opportunities to cover the content of various religions and the influence of religious figures in history class, literature, and social studies. But if the Bible reading you do at home and at church is not enough, then you may want to investigate enrolling your child at a private religious school where devotional Bible reading is part of the curriculum. However, be forewarned. Many schools that include devotional Bible reading will often promote doctrinal compliance over critical thought – and may even expect your child to believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed together on a 6,000-year-old flat earth created in six literal days.

So, be not afraid of the zealous but ill-informed Christians who continue to warn of certain apocalypse because Bibles are not allowed in schools. Bibles most certainly are allowed – and are sometimes even studied. They just aren’t allowed as a means of evangelism, discrimination, or intimidation.

~ Rev. David Felten


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: The Attitude of the Bible Toward Women – Part I

Spong“For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman but the woman for the man.” I Cor. 11:8, 9.

“I permit no woman to have authority over men. She is to be silent.” 1 Timothy 2:12.

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:22

These are just a few of the many texts present in the Sacred Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition that have been used over the centuries to denigrate women, to assign them to second class positions, to prevent them from exercising such rights of citizenship as the vote, to prohibit them from being educated, to close the doors on their aspirations to enter the professions and to forbid them from functioning in roles of religious leadership. Assertions are made in the Bible that women are subhuman, that women do not bear the divine image and that women can be considered the property, first of her father, later of her husband. Every advance that women have made in western civilization has had to contend against these biblical definitions.

With the claim being made that the Bible is either the dictated or the divinely inspired “Word of God,” the struggle for equality for women has also been, far more than we would like to admit, a struggle against God. The fact that God was envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition almost exclusively in male terms has only added fuel to the fires of male oppression of women. That oppression has not disappeared even in this 21st century. I think the case can be made, however, that as religion recedes in value, the emancipation of women has grown in direct proportion. The anti-women bias is today far stronger in the dying church than it is in the emerging secular society. Indeed, the Christian Church is today the major bulwark of patriarchy.

Religious negativity toward women, however, is not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition; it appears in other non-western cultures and most of the great religions of the world. This realization points, I believe, to the fact that there is something universal in the human psyche that fuels an anti-female bias. If it is not a human phenomenon, it is at least present in the depths of the male psyche and, therefore, must be assumed to express a mortal fear or to minister to a primal threat. This can be illustrated with an assortment of quotations from pre-Christian philosophers and from the sacred writings of each of the world’s great religions.

Plato, in The Republic, records Socrates as saying: “Do you know anything at all practiced among mankind in which the male sex is not far better than the female?” Xenophon stated that, “the ideal woman should see as little as possible, hear as little as possible and ask as little as possible.”

In the sacred texts of the Hindus, we are told: “It is the highest duty of a woman to immolate herself after her husband’s death.” In another part of the Hindu tradition, we read: “Women are to be debarred from being competent students of the Vedas.” In the laws of Manu, we read: “In childhood a female is subject to her father. In youth a female is subject to her husband. When her Lord is dead, she shall be subject to her sons. A woman must never be independent.”

In Buddhism one is reborn a woman because of one’s bad karma. Buddhist prayers include: “I pray that I may be reborn a male in a future existence.”

From a book of Jewish prayers, Jewish men are taught to say: “Blessed be the God who has not created me a heathen, a slave or a woman.” Talmudic writers added: “It would be better to burn the words of Torah than to entrust them to a woman.”

In the Muslim Qu’ran (Koran) we learn that the woman is regarded as “half a man” and that “forgetfulness overcomes the woman. They are inherently weaker in rational judgment.”

The reasons for this negativity are varied but its reality is consistent. For some cultures it was rooted in nothing less than size and physical competence. The woman generally did not grow to be as large as the man and her ability to run or to compete in various tests of strength, upon which the survival of the tribe depended, was obviously limited. She was thus determined to be something of a second class human being. For others it was the vulnerability of childbirth and the dependency the woman exhibited of necessity, both in the later stages of pregnancy and while nursing, that cast her in the role of “the weaker sex.”

The mother and the child were bound to each other in such a way as to put both out of circulation for long periods of time causing women and children to be thought of similarly. The phase, “women and children first,” which we associate in our own folklore with the sinking of the great ship Titanic, captured this ancient attitude that defined both the female and children as the weak, helpless and dependent ones of the society, who are quite obviously not to be treated as equals. Male children might grow out of this second-class status, but the woman, it was thought by the act of creation itself, could never escape her destiny.

In other cultures it was the function of menstruation to which the negativity toward women was attached. Ancient peoples reveal enormous fear of and prejudice against menstruation that many suggest was rooted in the qualities attributed to blood. Ancient people tended to identify blood with life, a connection still noted in our language. “The shedding of blood” still means death. Military campaigns are justified by their combatants’ willingness to offer their blood, a synonym for their lives, for the righteousness of their cause. Historic battlefields like Hastings or Gettysburg are said to have been hallowed by the blood that was spilled there. If blood was assumed to be the place in which life itself was located, there must have been enormous speculation and fear, perhaps even jealousy, that women had a magical and mysterious ability to bleed regularly, and yet they did not die. The ideas that developed around menstruation are quite revealing.

Anthropologists, and mythologists like Joseph Campbell, suggest that there was a time in human history when the feminine was the analogy by which the Divine One was defined. The fertility cults of pre-history were dedicated to the earth mother, who was seen as the source and sustainer of tribal life. In time the male deity who lived beyond the sky, who impregnated a passive mother earth with the rains of divine semen, replaced her. This deity was also modeled by the tribal chief, whose strength led the tribe both in battle and in the hunt.

This shift can be discovered in the lingering tension that existed in the ancient world between nomadic people always seeking food and water for their herds, which tended to produce a male deity who governed the wind and the rain; and settled agricultural people always seeking to cause the earth to bring forth a sufficient amount of food to sustain their life, which tended to produce a female deity of fertility. In the nomadic societies, better weapons were developed to fight off predators, both human and animal. It was not enough to hurl rocks and fight assailants with sticks. Long-range projectiles, either spears or arrows sent forth from primitive bows, were better guarantors of success. These weapons reminded these ancient warriors, albeit subconsciously, of their own thrusting male power. After all these weapons were so obviously phallic symbols and they would be developed into more and more overt phallic forms as the years went by. Guns, rifles and artillery were simply erect rods which exploded, hurling their payload at their enemies. On psychological levels surely this identification was clear. The analogy between the male organ being thrust into its partner encouraged, I believe, the growing hostile male definition of a woman. Our slang expressions for sexual intercourse reveal enormous hostility even today. Words like “make,” “screw” or “f–k”, are not gentle, loving words and when males refer to lovemaking as a conquest, the military connections are manifest. More than we seem to recognize, women historically came to be thought of as the enemy of men.

There is also a sense in which women were treated throughout the ages, in male dominated societies, almost as “prisoners of war.” They had few rights. Their freedom was curtailed both by social pressure and by male power. Their mobility was compromised sometimes by a cruel but culturally approved method of binding their feet. The power they had to change their surroundings was minimal, resulting in their acceptance of abuse as both their fate and their due, their inability to talk back without punishment, their vulnerability to beatings, and the fact that men had legal protection no matter how they treated their wives. Men exercised authority over both the bodies and the lives of women. The woman’s only real power was found in her feminine charms, her ability to attract, to seduce and to create in the male a desire and yearning for her body. This power also threatened the male sense of independence and was both enjoyed and resented. Those feminine wiles were a technique learned by women in the school of hard knocks. While the sources of the hostility that men have expressed toward women over the centuries can be debated, there is no debate about the fact that this hostility is real. There is also no doubt that this hostility has been justified as a virtue in religious circles. So it was said that the all-powerful God of the universe, who was predominantly male, at least in the religions of the western world, meant for life to be organized in this male dominant way.

If an attitude finds expression in every prevailing religious system in the world, and in almost every society, one begins to suspect that it has its roots in something very basic in our humanity. Religion incorporates and explains human content far more than it creates human content. The universality of this negativity requires that we look within and beneath all of our social systems for a new understanding. Why is there such a consistent need among men to put down, to conquer, and to oppress half of the human race? What universal fear, hidden inside our masculine humanity, feeds the need to dominate? To press this topic more deeply will be my task in future weeks, when our examination of the “Terrible Texts” of the Bible continues.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published December 3, 2003




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