Posted by: aboutalbion | March 8, 2015

Mary as a mouthpiece of masculinity

A few days ago, I travelled to London to hear the Ethel M Wood Lecture at King’s College given by David Clines (Emeritus Professor at Sheffield University) under the title “The Scandal of a Male Bible”.

Clines spent most of the lecture identifying eight features of male ideology which he claimed saturate the many texts in the Bible.  These eight male values are (1) strength, (2) violence and killing, (3) size, (4) honour, (5) holiness, (6) womanlessness, (7) totality thinking, and (8) binary thinking.

All in all, “the Bible is a male book, written by men, for men.  …  It everywhere esteems men above women.  It portrays a deity infused with male values.”

Towards the very end of the lecture, I appreciated Clines’ demonstration “of how widespread male language is in the Bible”.  He applied his gender analysis to the well-known text of the Magnificat [Luke 1: 46-55].

magnifies the Lord’  Clines comments, “God is big, his voice is big, his deeds are big.  Whenever you see the word ‘magnify’, it means ‘regard as big’ … it is only those who are already big that are magnified in the Bible, and all the big people in the Bible are male”.

my Saviour’  “The deity’s role as ‘saviour’, while it is a welcome activity on behalf of humans, is an aspect of his strength and power, [which are] male qualities”.

he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden’  “Mary describes herself as [of ‘low estate’], which cannot refer to the social disapproval that attends a married woman who has had no child [because she is not yet married], but [rather refers to] the low status she has in being a woman, who expects to be overlooked and disregarded., but in this case has been [‘regarded’] ‘looked upon’ by a powerful male”.

behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed … he who is mighty has done great things for me’  “[Mary] will be called ‘blessed’, she believes, realizing that her own worth [in the form of ‘great things’] will arise from no quality of her own, from no desire (that she has had) or no effort that she (has expended), but from an event not of her own making.  [Mary] will be praised by future ‘generations’ solely because she has become, [not by her own choice], a mother.  [Mary underlines her ‘low estate’ by her understanding of] ‘herself [as] a female slave of the deity.  Considering how female slaves of all cultures may expect to be used by their [‘mighty’] masters, [the title ‘blessed’] is not exactly an honorific title.  …  She is a victim who has accepted her divinely imposed lot, … but a victim nevertheless”.

holy is his name’   “Holiness is also a gendered term … in the Hebrew Bible … women cannot be holy, sanctified or consecrated.  …  The sphere of holiness is, on the whole, exclusively male … since holiness is the essence of the male deity.”

he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’  “… binary thinking … the division of humanity into two groups, ‘us’ and ‘them’, … is well represented by the [far-fetched] idea of putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of low degree”.

his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever’  “God’s most important characteristic is strength (the ‘Mighty One’).  His ‘mercy’ … means … covenanted or promised support, which differs from sheer strength since it has an interpersonal dimension.  [‘Mercy’] is normally the action of a superior towards an inferior, almost everywhere it is males who exercise it, and possession of [‘mercy’] implies strength”.

In this way, Clines shows that “hardly a word of the Magnificat fails to reflect male language.”

When these male sentiments are set aside, the Magnificat becomes simply “My soul … and my spirit rejoices in God …”.

I don’t think this lecture is the last word on the subject, but I shall find it difficult in the future to read the text of the Magnificat as representing a genuine female voice.

PS  In Clines’ view, the scandal of a male Bible is twofold.  First, the use of the Bible as a witness to universal religious values is problematic to any person sensitive to gender inequality.  And second, the masculinity of the Bible is for the most part invisible, hardly ever noticed or mentioned …


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