An important feminist principle is to self-define womanhood rather than defining woman according to men. For example, women whose primary self-understanding is as wife, mother or widow are defined by their relationships to men; sister and daughter are often not very far behind. If women are described positively in masculine terms, not only is this selling out to the prevailing patriarchy of dominant male concepts, but by implication, it suggests that there are not positive feminine concepts to use.
When Katharina Schütz Zell labels hope and trust in God as the “manly faith of Abraham”, she is therefore seen as blinded by her own patriarchal culture or cleverly attempting to work within it. ‘Why is it that such faith is particularly ‘manly’?’ her critics ask. ‘Can’t women also have strong faith?’ Actually, KSZ accessed women’s stories as well, from Mary Magdalene to Hannah. However, she didn’t feel limited to them. (Thank God! I’ve made my frustrations with women’s ministries that do ‘women of the Bible’ over and over again known before!) Rather, she unashamedly takes men’s stories and uses them to encourage women, not to continue to be oppressed but to find strength. I wonder if this is similar to the imagery of Ephesians 6: meant for the whole church, it applies the masculine imagery of warfare to the Christian life. You could read that as reinforcing the dominant male paradigm or you could read it more positively as a radical application of language previously off limits to women.
KSZ’s an interesting case because in other places, she takes vivid maternal language and applies it both to Christ and to God the Father. As she does so, she encourages women that their calling in life is a holy one, reflected in God himself who cares for us as a mother does for her nursling. However, this is a tricky hermeneutical spiral: she takes a cultural concept (mother as nurturer), finds it in God and then encourages women that this calling comes from God! This was one problem I highlighted a few years ago when I wrote on femininity: there is no model of the ‘ideal woman’ in Scripture! I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with the answer I came up with. However, I do appreciate KSZ’s genuine reception of the wealth of the Bible’s teaching for women. Rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion, she assumes that women can learn and grow and be nourished by stories of both men and women and by a God who loves both.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.