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RELIGION

Swiss “Woman’s Bible” offers feminist theology for #metoo moment

Tired of seeing their holy texts used to justify the subjugation of women, a group of feminist theologians from across the Protestant-Catholic divide have joined forces to draft "A Women's Bible".

Swiss
Geneva theology professors Elisabeth Parmentier (L) and Lauriane Savoy pose under the reformation wall in Geneva with a edition of "A Women's Bible". Photo: AFP

As the #MeToo movement continues to expose sexual abuse across cultures and industries, some scholars of Christianity are clamouring for a reckoning with biblical interpretations they say have entrenched negative images of women. 

The women we know from translations and interpretations of Bible texts are servants, prostitutes or saints, seen dancing for a king or kneeling to kiss Jesus' feet.

Read also: Quiz- How well do you know these key dates in Swiss history

But while many feminists have called for The Bible, Christianity and religion altogether to be cast aside, an eclectic group of theologians instead insists that if interpreted properly, the Good Book can be a tool for 
promoting women's emancipation.

'Feminist values'

“Feminist values and reading the Bible are not incompatible,” insisted Lauriane Savoy, one of two Geneva theology professors behind the push to draft “Une Bible des Femmes” (“A Women's Bible”), which was published in October.

'A woman's bible' contains texts challenging traditional interpretations of Bible scriptures. Photo: AFP

The professor at the Theology Faculty in Geneva, which was established by the father of Calvinism himself in 1559, said the idea for the work came after she and her colleague Elisabeth Parmentier noticed how little most people knew or understood of the biblical texts.

“A lot of people thought they were completely outdated with no relevance to today's values of equality,” the 33-year-old told AFP, standing under the towering sculptures of Jean Calvin and other Protestant founders on the University of Geneva campus.

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about the history of women's rights in Switzerland

In a bid to counter such notions, Savoy and Parmentier, 57, joined forces with 18 other woman theologians from a range of countries and Christian denominations.

The scholars have created a collection of texts challenging traditional interpretations of Bible scriptures that cast women characters as weak and subordinate to the men around them.

Parmentier points to a passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary.

“It says that Martha ensures the “service”, which has been interpreted to mean that she served the food, but the Greek word diakonia can also have other meanings, for instance it could mean she was a deacon,” she pointed out.

Overturning religious orthodoxy

They are not the first to provide a more women-friendly reading of the scriptures. 

Already back in 1898, American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of 26 other women drafted “The Woman's Bible”, aimed at overturning religious orthodoxy that women should be subservient to men.

The two Geneva theology professors say they were inspired by that work, and had initially planned to simply translate it to French.

But after determining that the 120-year-old text was too outdated, they decided to create a new work that could resonate in the 21st century.

“We wanted to work in an ecumenical way,” Parmentier said, stressing that around half the women involved in the project are Catholic and the other half from a number of branches of Protestantism.

In the introduction to the “Women's Bible”, the authors said that the chapters were meant to “scrutinise shifts in the Christian tradition, things that have remained concealed, tendentious translations, partial interpretations.”

'Lingering patriarchal readings'

They take to task “the lingering patriarchal readings that have justified numerous restrictions and bans on women,” the authors wrote. 

Savoy said that Mary Magdalene, “the female character who appears the most in the Gospels”, had been given a raw deal in many common interpretations of the texts.

“She stood by Jesus, including as he was dying on the cross, when all of the male disciples were afraid. She was the first one to go to his tomb and to discover his resurrection,” she pointed out.

“This is a fundamental character, but she is described as a prostitute, …and even as Jesus's lover in recent fiction.”

The scholars also go to great lengths to place the texts in their historical context.

“We are fighting against a literal reading of the texts,” Parmentier said, pointing for instance to letters sent by Saint Paul to nascent Christian communities.

Reading passages from those letters, which could easily be construed as radically anti-feminist, as instructions for how women should be treated today is insane, she said.

“It's like taking a letter someone sends to give advice as being valid for all eternity.”

The theologians' texts also approach the Bible through different themes, like the body, seduction, motherhood and subordination.

The authors say they consider their work a useful tool in the age of #MeToo.

“Each chapter addresses existential questions for women, questions they are still asking themselves today,” Parmentier said.

“While some say that you have to throw out the Bible to be a feminist, we believe the opposite.”

RELIGION

First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church

There was a riot last time St Pierre's cathedral in Geneva hosted a Catholic Mass in 1535, with clergymen chased out and statues and treasures looted.

First Catholic Mass for 500 years to be held in Geneva church
Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the first Catholic Mass in 500 years, poses in front of the St Pierre's cathedral, a bastion of Swiss Reformation, on February 19, 2020 in Geneva. Photo: FA

On Saturday, the first Catholic Mass since that day in what became a centre of the Protestant Reformation promises to be a more sedate affair.

Father Pascal Desthieux, who will celebrate the Mass, told AFP he planned to express “respect and gratitude” to Protestant friends for hosting it.

Desthieux said he would also apologise on behalf of all the Catholics who had “disrespected, misjudged and condemned” Protestants over the centuries.

The Reformation triumphed in Switzerland in 1536 under the leadership of John Calvin and the building — which was run by the Roman Catholic Church for 1,000 years — was taken over by the Protestant Church.

The cathedral, which has Calvin's wooden chair on display, “is a symbolic place for all Genevans”, Desthieux said, adding that nearby Catholic churches would be closed to encourage the faithful to go there.

Pastor Emmanuel Fuchs, head of the Protestant Church in Geneva, said the 6:30 pm (1730 GMT) mass was a way of moving forward “on the path of reconciliation”.

“We cannot remain prisoners of history. History has to elevate us, not keep us in a straitjacket,” he said.

In a city where Catholicism is once again the main religion, Protestant and Catholic leaders said the two churches are already co-operating in many areas — including joint chaplaincies for the sick or prisoners.

'No hidden agenda'

Even with widespread approval in both communities, however, Saturday's Mass remains a sensitive issue.

The Vatican and Protestant Churches still do not recognise each other's legitimacy and many Protestants remain highly suspicious of the papacy.

Religious leaders are careful to play down any suspicion that the Mass is an attempt by Catholics to regain lost territory in the land of Calvin.

“Some people are surprised, some disappointed, some may even be quite angry at this initiative,” Fuchs said.

“But we are a Church that has a habit of debating, a church where we take decisions democratically.

I think a large consensus has been achieved.” Desthieux said there was “no hidden agenda” and “no intention to take back the cathedral”.

“We already have our basilica and we have enough big churches,” he said, referring to the Notre-Dame of Geneva basilica. Fuchs said he was sure the Catholic Church would celebrate the Mass “with the intelligence and subtlety that the place and the moment demand”.

Asked whether the experiment might be repeated, Fuchs said “let's see how things go” on both the Protestant and Catholic sides after the mass.

“We will have time to discuss it afterwards, to see what the fruit of this initiative could be,” he said.

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