“Confessions of a Male Feminist Biblical Scholar” by F. Scott Spencer

F. Scott Spencer is professor of New Testament and preaching at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (Virginia) and author of the new book Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel.

F. Scott Spencer
F. Scott Spencer

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What’s a nice, male, middle-aged Baptist seminary professor doing messing around with feminist approaches to studying the Bible? Isn’t there some biblical law against mixing things that don’t belong together (like “not wearing clothes made of wool and linen woven together” [Deut. 22:11])? While I’ll confess that being a “Male Feminist Biblical Scholar” is not the most “natural” identity in the academic world, it’s also not quite as crazy as it may sound.

Feminist Biblical Criticism, or Feminist Biblical Interpretation — dubbed F.B.I., tongue-in-cheek, by some practitioners — is not a single method reserved for a certain “type” of woman.

It starts with

  1. A broad-based commitment to all women’s full equality and opportunity in religious communities and society at large
  2. A deep appreciation for women’s rich and varied experiences, some similar to, but others distinct from, men’s experiences of God and the world
  3. An honest assessment that most of the Bible reflects a male-centered, male-ruled society in which women are seldom featured and given their due

Within this feminist framework, biblical passages have been viewed across a wide spectrum, from hopelessly oppressive to surprisingly liberating for women, with various “double meanings” or “mixed messages” in between. There’s no such thing as one official F.B.I. policy on the Bible. Potential biblical threats to women’s security (to continue the F.B.I. image) are handled judiciously in a variety of ways, often challenging skewed, harmful interpretations of the Bible more than the Bible itself. Of course, the second any of us begins to read and talk about the Bible, we are of necessity interpreting it from one perspective or another. Feminist critics lay their interpretive cards face-up on the table and encourage all of us to do the same in the interest of candid conversation and mutual benefit.

And here’s where men come into the picture. However “objective” we claim to be, we all bring our complex ethnic, social, religious — and gendered — identities to our reflections on the Bible in varying degrees of sophistication. There’s nothing wrong with that — unless we privilege these categories as absolutely normative for “authentic” biblical interpretation and fail to acknowledge our susceptibility to blind spots. The best remedy for blind spots is exposure to other points of view, other ways of seeing the Bible drawn from wells of tradition and experience different than ours.

Through the past two decades of my academic career, I’ve been repeatedly blown away by the insights and inquiries of feminist biblical studies, often responding, “I would never have thought of that. I never considered Eve or Ruth or Jezebel or any of the several Mary’s or Joanna or Martha — or God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit — that way before!” I haven’t always liked or accepted these new perspectives, but I’ve never failed to be stimulated by them. And I’ve been inspired by the insights of these scholars to try a little F.B.I. work of my own — by no means to “show the girls how it’s done,” but rather out of solidarity and sympathy with the primary feminist goal of affirming women’s full equality and opportunity in church and society.

In my recent Eerdmans volume,  Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel, I take seriously a common feminist critique that Luke, for all his featuring of women characters, tends to keep them silent and servile after the grand opening with the very vocal, “spirited mothers” Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1-2. Luke sets up a wonderful paradigm of dynamic women preachers at the start of his Gospel, which by and large doesn’t seem to play out in the rest of the narrative. That’s unfortunate in my judgment, not least because I work in a “moderate” seminary where many of our best students — and preachers! — are women, but where I also ache watching  many of those same women, after they graduate, struggle to find places of ministry in Baptist congregations, most of which still hold a more restrictive “conservative” line on women pastors.

Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows
Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows

But all is not hopeless in the Bible generally and Luke more specifically. Mary and Elizabeth, though dropped after chapter 2, should not be forgotten or muffled. And in the balance of Luke’s story, various women of remarkable capability — occasionally showing undeniable vocal prowess — still make their presence known in an environment dominated by male disciples. For example, I think Mary’s “testy sister” Martha has gotten a bum rap in much interpretation; there’s much that Jesus affirms in Martha’s “much ministry” even as he gently chides her frustrated attitude. I’m struck by the “savvy widow,” spotlighted in one of Jesus’ parables, who leaves her indelible mark on the world as a relentless advocate of justice and a model of how Christians should pray. And I even muster some sympathy for Lot’s “salty” wife, whom Jesus urges us to “remember.”

Finally, I must confess a more personal motivation behind my extended engagement with F.B.I. matters. Part of this relates to my denominational context, as I’ve already mentioned. But it runs deeper than that. I’m fast approaching forty years of marriage to the same woman (we started young!), which has been spent with both of us pursuing doctoral degrees (she in Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies) and teaching careers and parenting two amazing daughters, now in their twenties, trying to make their way in the world. My love for and commitment to these three gifted women shapes everything I do, not least interpreting the Bible. While I’m no feminist saint or women’s dream (I still keep a cot in the doghouse and regularly receive exasperated sighs of “You just don’t understand,” though somewhat less frequently than in earlier years), I remain unwavering in my desire to help the women in my life, in my own halting way, fulfill their abilities and aspirations. Joining the F.B.I. (I’m still waiting for my badge) is the least I can do.

Click to order F. Scott Spencer’s Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel.