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Book Review


SCHUSSLER FIORENZA, Elisabeth, But SHE Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), pp.262, hb. ISBN O-8O70-1214-9.

'What does it mean to interpret Scripture as a feminist, and what constitutes a feminist reading?' asks the author in her introduction (p. 6). She immediately sets out to describe nine strategies of critical hermeneutics currently in use by feminist theologians. All, along with the content of the whole book, are set in the context of an indomitable feminist politics that is prepared to yield nothing of its integrity. Indeed the momentum of this book serves to enlarge the circle cast by her earlier works, in particular Bread Not Stone. There, she centred on a liberation for women within biblical studies. Here she places this same theme within general feminist theory.

In her construction of the three parts of the book Schussler Fiorenza uses the metaphor of a dance, whose various movements interweave. A 'dance of interpretation' is exemplified as a critical rhetorical process (p. 75) in the service of liberation; the chapters throughout the book can be understood as a spiralling circle dance. The opening chapters are characterized as 'leading the dance'; the rest describe its movements.

The nine strategies are set out in the first part of the book. The tenth - her own development of the theme - forms the second movement, while the final section comprises discussions of biblical interpretation that may offer solutions to the problems raised. All the material is based within Schussler Fiorenza's own formulation of the 'hermeneutics of suspicion, and of proclamation' whose main focus is an understanding of the androcentric nature of texts, our efforts to free them of this cancer, and our celebration of ourselves and of the reclamation of the forgotten and dispossessed female when we succeed.

These first categories comprise: the revisionist approach, concern with text and translation, imaginative identification, women as authors and biblical interpreters, historical interpretation, sociocultural reconstruction, ideological inscription, women as subjects of interpretation and sociopolitical location. All of these analyse the work of scholars in the field and discuss their implications, strengths and limitations.

The tenth strategy is the one developed by the author. In essence, as I understand it, she draws from the other categories, or perhaps puts them in her cauldron, like that of the Celtic goddess Cerridwen whose final product was inspiration. She then adds her own ingredient, which is rhetoric. Classically we may understand rhetoric to be the art of using language to persuade others. As will be seen, Schussler Fiorenza's use of the term extends it widely. She states that she does not seek to replace strategies developed by other feminist scholars; rather she will 'utilize and integrate them in a rhetorical model of a critical feminist interpretive process of transformation' (p.39). She describes this new methodology in some detail.

Central to her approach is an analysis of feminist attitudes to the Bible. Here the basic dilemma for feminists is well known. To over-simplify, the question is: the Bible - shall we take it or leave it alone? Many find its androcentrism, its misogyny and the history of its use against women and marginalized others so intense that they need to move away from it entirely and create a feminist theology, a woman's spiritual dimension that is totally removed from biblical texts and homiletics. Schussler Fiorenza challenges this position, although she recognizes and agrees with much of its rationale. Nevertheless she defends the Bible as a source of inspiration for liberation in the past and in the present. She declares that as long as such inspiration is found within it, the Bible must not be discarded.

Her tenth and personal strategy requires

"a shift from a hermeneutical paradigm to a rhetorical one... the critical feminist rhetorical interpretation for liberation does not assume that the biblical text is an unclouded window to the historical reality of women... but it sees the Bible as a perspectival rhetorical discourse constructing theological worlds and symbolic universes in particular historical-political situations." (p.47).

Rhetoric, in Schussler Fiorenza's use of the word, can be employed to understand both the oppressive and the liberating values of the Bible. An alternative description occurs to me: Schussler Fiorenza is talking about politics. In old-fashioned feminist terms, it seems to me that she is saying that 'the spiritual is the political'. In particular, she points to the experience of African American and Hispanic American feminists (who often describe themselves as Womanists and Mujeristas respectively). Their sense of liberation possibilities is frequently rooted in the role the Bible has played in their lives and in the lives of their forebears. The author's message of rhetoric is that we work at our feminist research in the context of politics, of which this is an example, at the same time giving prime importance to the hermeneutics of suspicion and of proclamation.

Valuable as is this exercise of bringing these ten methodologies together, she suggests that we must still add some other constituents. They should include 'storytelling, role-play, bibliodrama, pictorial arts, dance and ritual' (p.40). The result will be 'inter-active and multi-strategic', overcoming the splits between various methodologies and showing itself both as 'a complex process of reading and reconstruction and as a cultural-theological practice of resistance and transformation' (p. 40). In fact she follows this practice throughout, by introducing poems at the beginning of sections and chapters.

For me, the crux of the book is process; the same process that reanimates women in their general search for liberation, no matter how difficult it is to find satisfactory solutions. The search and the process are more important than arriving at doctrinal consensus. Thus I find the questions posed and methods used much more satisfactory than some of the answers suggested.

In her search for solutions, Schussler Fiorenza struggles with difficult questions posed by racism and Christian anti-Judaism. She points to the latter in New Testament texts and in current Christian feminism, providing an understanding and a warning which for this Jewish reader at least is extraordinarily healing. The suggestions for meeting Black and Hispanic and other challenges, including those from religions other than Judaism and Christianity, appear less satisfactory.

To resolve these, she returns to the idea of the ekklesia gynaikon, translated as 'woman (or women) church'. This, she writes, 'constitutes the practical centre and normative space for the hermeneutical circle-dance of a critical feminist rereading of the Bible for liberation' (p.75), and from this the possibility is outlined of changing 'biblical religion and cultures in the interests of all women, and other marginalised people' (p. 75). Such changes can inspire, challenge and bring about transformation towards a more just world.

I feel strongly that the term 'woman/women church' is not acceptable to non-Christians; both the word and the concept 'church' exclude me as a Jewish woman, and others who come from backgrounds in which Christianity is or has been experienced as the oppressor. Using ekklesia might help, but its meaning would have to be explained and reiterated constantly. The problem is that such an imposed universalism appears precisely to contradict Schussler Fiorenza's own stated aims, while in no way dealing with the challenges of particularity posed by Womanists and Mujeristas, among other marginalized groups. These are hard questions and solutions are difficult, although I feel confident that the methodologies described in the book, if applied, would take us a long way towards success.

In the meantime, there is great joy in following the author's exegesis of the narrative concerning New Testament women. Understanding the strength, importance and status that such women may have had in circumstances usually portrayed as detrimental to them lifts our hearts and sets us to re-examine both texts and our own prejudices. A good example of the methodology described and the vistas it opens is contained in the story of the Syro-Phoenician (Canaanite) woman (Mt. 15.21-28, Mk 7.24-30) which gives the book its title and which Schussler Fiorenza discusses at length. This woman interrupts Jesus - 'But she said' - and demands healing for her daughter, observing that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master's table.

I see a dimension of this narrative that Schussler Fiorenza has not mentioned. Because the woman's ethnic origin is emphasized I suggest that we are entitled to take into account the widespread worship of the goddesses of those areas, so familiar from the accounts of the Hebrew Bible (see for example 1 Kgs 11.5; 2 Kgs 23.13). These cults include references to the qodosot and qodosem (literally, holy women and holy men) who served in the temples both of the Hebrews and the surrounding cultures. While these terms are usually translated by 'harlots' (women) and 'male prostitutes' or 'sodomites', the writer of Deuteronomy goes further and, in this context (23.18), refers to the latter as 'dogs' (culturally designated as unclean and defiling). The widespread hostility of the Hebrew Scriptures to goddess beliefs and cults was of course well known to their Jewish readers at the time the New Testament was written, and would presumably have been shared by them.

The scenario could be viewed thus: a female cultic representative of a goddess-oriented religion challenges the new preacher (cf. the narrative of Elijah versus Baal's and Asherah's priests [1 Kgs 18.2-4O]). Because of her elevated status in her own culture, she would have no hesitation in speaking to Jesus with authority. He, as a practising Jew, would certainly react by rejecting her. Her persistence and possibly her use of the pejorative word 'dogs' to describe her own status as temple servant, priestess or holy woman causes him to pause, to change his mind and take up her challenge. Such was her power then that she convinced Jesus to overrule conventional antagonism to her gender, her status and her religion. This power has endured so strongly that her intervention has given Schussler Fiorenza's book its title and its incentive, even though no reference to the goddess aspect is made.

Earlier I used the metaphor of a cauldron, perhaps one like that of Cerridwen, in which the ingredients of inspiration and the renewal of life itself were brewed. The book is an enormous resource of energy, information and practical method which can indeed reanimate our courage and hope on our own journeys. We are informed, shaken, taxed, exhausted; in the dancing we have experienced numerous possibilities of advance, of retreat, of pitting ourselves against the impossible and somehow staying on our feet. We have upended biblical narratives, bringing to the centre from the margins such heroines as Martha (Lk. 10.38-42), the woman bent double (Lk. 13.10-17), the Syro-Phoenician woman. Schussler Fiorenza has taken us through a vast span of scholarship and energy, showing us numerous paths towards liberation. The questions she poses animate the process of discovery.

I would be happier if she had transformed the technical language which pervades the whole book into simpler forms. But for those familiar with the jargon, those prepared to work at it and those willing to 'translate' it for the benefit of others, the book provides an outstanding intellectual and liberating experience.

© Asphodel P. Long (Feminist Theology 7, September 1994)

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