You Make It Hard to Listen

You Make Listening Hard: An Atheist response to Nathan Gilmoure, Wes Arblaster, and Micah Weedman’s "Response to Christopher Rollston on the marginalization of women in the Bible".

by: Nathan Perry

Numbers 31:13-18-- Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? 16 These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. [1]

Scriptures such as these Christopher Rollston points out in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post about the marginalization of women in the Bible. The above scripture quoted from Numbers 31 shows us an ancient view of tribes conquering tribes.  They would assimilate the young virgin women of the people they conquered while disposing of the rest.  Rollston does not point to this passage in his article, but reveals a similar worldview.  He points out many other passages within the texts that he references from the Bible itself that marginalize women. 

The author’s of this recent blog post entitled, “Listening to the Bible When You’re Hard of Hearing: A Response to Christopher Rollston” lambast in their article, Christopher Rollston who is a seminary professor that holds an M.A. and a PhD both from John Hopkins University, which is among the most prestigious schools when it comes to Semitic studies.  And that is in fact what Rollston studied while there.

The blog post's writers all apparently felt led to write this personal defense against Rollston after he published his article with the Huffington Post (Links to both articles are found at the end of this response, and both should be read).  But as I stated earlier and re-emphasize: Rollston's succinct article presents several basic texts that he believes accurately reflects the dominant ethos of the biblical world based on his own use of the historical-critical method.  

The interesting thing is that Rollston cites the Bible throughout his article, even giving a bit of context and narrative that is appropriate to the article and audience to which he wrote to in the Huffington PostIt is worth noting that the response to Rollston cites no Scripture other than for rhetorical effect at the conclusion. Why is this? If the Bible is so liberating of women, it wouldn't hurt to point out where you get that from in its text.

However, they continue to make general statements that are not supported with any evidence in their post. To get the full effect, one should read their blog post in its entirety, but consdider some of the following statement that are made within their blog response:
Here's one after quoting Sojourner Truth from 1851:

Some may dismiss this as simply one voice crying out in the wilderness, but these are exactly the kinds of voices that the Bible schools its readers to listen to.  The God of Biblical witness is one who hears the cries of slaves, outcasts, and the marginalized and who demands justice on their behalf.

May I point to the phrases ‘the kinds of voices that the Bible schools its readers to listen to’ and ‘The God of Biblical witness’.  Both of those are important statements that I’m sure the blog writers believe. But their personal beliefs do not sum up what the entire tradition of Christianity has either read, interpreted or acted out within history due to their reading of the Bible.  Yet these are the sort of statements used throughout their piece against Rollston.

The Bible does not school its readers in a single way, but in a plurality of ways. It is worth mentioning that a couple of times they point out that people have used the Bible to oppress people as well as to gain liberation.  So, they openly acknowledge that there are many ways the Bible is read, but then they turn around and make a key statement about how  there is one way 'the Bible schools its readers to listen to'.  However, this is not a singular voice, but a very complex and unordered number of voices that dedicated readers of the Bible find within their given traditions and interpretations.

The problem is, that even if this Bible is the grand voice of liberation, these blog writers never actually engage any of the actual words or claims that Rollston makes within his article within the Bible itself.   More than anything, they write about the dangers of such presuppositions and doubts that Rollston's article could cast on the ‘God of the Bible’.  They do not once engage any of the many observable examples that Rollston cites but dance around it, even going to such emotional lengths as charging Rollston at one point with ‘irreverence’, saying:

Reductivism is the modus operandi of the irreverent because it enables them to level their own best attacks against said reductionist reading.

Really though?  Rollston cannot be blamed for not explaining in a single brief article on the Huffington Post the entire historical theological sentiments of texts in the Bible.  And it is not the article that Huffington Post would post because the general public does not care about that article.   They like reading that someone from a ‘Faith’ tradition has enough humility and honesty to admit that their ‘sacred’ book has flaws and any oppression from it cannot be anything but a condemnable ancient viewpoint.  Rollston's post actually helps Christianity gain respect and a voice within the public sphere, and yet these writers can only think to lambast it.  

The blog writers accuse Rollston of reductionism but they reduce Rollston down to this, and I quote:

Rollston’s public attack on the text of the Bible therefore amounts [sic] a radical rejection of his very professional raison d’ etre.

Outside of their rather personal accusations towards Dr. Rollston, their arguments never actually attempt to discredit the claim that the biblical text in its time marginalized women.  They even agree several times that there are numerous examples of marginalization and oppression of women within the text itself and its history of interpretation.  Their ONLY argument throughout the blog was that there have been positive movements, which used the Bible (they also assume that the Bible was a 'key' instrument in those liberations, which is a point that is not supported by any qualitative or quantitative evidence within the article.)

The blog writers wrote their piece leaving words thrown out on the page as if they were easily understood. Maybe there is some really tight knit interpretation of what ‘faith’ and ‘tradition’ and even ‘God’ means, but it is not expressed within their article and it leaves any reader outside of their apparent hermeneutical circle aghast and confused to what exactly they mean when they make any claims of any sort.  They say things such as:

For example, when asking whether ‘the Bible marginalizes women’ certainly it is also important to ask, ‘And what does the God of the Bible charge us to do concerning those who are marginalized?”  The Answer to this is one that anyone who has spent time in Sunday School should be able to answer.

I want to finish quoting that paragraph in a moment, but first, ‘God of the Bible’?  Please tell me that seminary students are privy to the breadth of interpretations and understandings within their own tradition.  Certainly if they are going to lambast Rollston they will acknowledge that there is historically a great and varied understanding of the 'God of the Bible'.  But their use of the ‘God of the Bible’ as if it was an obvious depicted character is uninitiated.

In another part of their post they admit that “[The Bible] is a collection of human writers exposing their souls.”  How do they refer to a God of the Bible then?  It is claims such as this that make this whole article academically preposterous, and because of their ethical attack on Rollston it is completely embarrassing to not only them but also to their tradition and community.  Yet the response by their community seems to welcome and embrace their blog. And I’d say this, I went to Sunday School for 20-some odd years, and I have no idea what the answer is for what the ‘God of the Bible’ charges us to do concerning those who are marginalized.  So I’ll finish their quote to find the answer:

…This response, of course, doesn’t get the Bible off the hook, but it certainly shows that the matter is much more complex than whether the Bible deserves a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” when it comes to women.

What Response!!!??? These writers assume that any reader would understand what 'the God of the Bible' would say?  Funny, they use a rhetorical statement instead of the Bible they are so aggressively defending.  Last I knew, the Bible was a written document that can be studied using certain disciplines that the writers in their blog actually say are important, but since Rollston did it so well and said it publicly, they are upset.  But they are not defending the Bible any better, and in my opinion they mar it while Rollston upholds it.

What value is there in texts such as in Numbers 31 being read in any context other than pure and simple marginalization and oppression towards humanity?  It is not a judgment statement towards the whole of Christianity, it is just working astutely at trying to find a historical-critical understanding of a text at a certain time and place in history.  What is the value in being anything but honest about what those texts say? The public sphere has a lot of respect for people that are honest, and thus why Rollston's article is something that should be embraced in my opinion.

They talk about Biblical Interpretations over the years by slave women and marginalized women.  But in the same breath they admit how it was used by those who oppressed them.  Not to mention, the slave woman they do quote had a different view of God than these authors, but they just use one quote from her to help uphold their point. 

Of course Christianity and the Bible have played a part of revolutions and uprisings.  Any study of cultures and societies throughout history shows the continual evolution of religions across the board to fit their circumstances and understandings.  Slaves and Oppressed Woman in Laos have been using their most basic animistic religion as voices for liberation as well.

The point is this, they make no actual response other than he could have talked about a lot of positive effects the Bible has had with women.  Yeah, we all get it.  But just be honest and say the Bible marginalizes women within its texts too.   The blog writers talk plenty of Biblical Historical Theology, but even so, there are significant historical and systematic theologians that they failed to mention.  These blog writers have no evidence showing why anyone should believe that the early church rose so well above the general public's negative worldview of women at that time.  How could they prove any point though, when they never even pointed to the Bible and what it says about women?  No, they didn't cite their scripture,  but Rollston did. They just didn't like what it had to say. So, they redirected their audience's attention to the voices in their tradition of which they could approve.

Its hard to listen to people that don’t seem to listen themselves.  And honestly, more than anything it seems as though the authors of this  post never really listened to Christopher Rollston while reading his article.  Which is sad, considering they are former theological masters students.  Personally, I hope the future of ministers and theologians has more sense and academic integrity than these, integrity such as that of Christopher Rollston. 


Christopher Rollston’s Article—

Nathan Gilmoure, Wes Arblaster, and Micah Weedman’s Article—

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Nu 31:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.