One day, as I was wandering around in a Goodwill store, I found a photograph of a stained glass window of the annunciation. I purchased it and hung it above one of my prayer altars. I’m thankful that Advent highlights the stories of some of the women in the Bible. This year, my church used A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, by Wilda C. Gafney. This was done in order to make us more aware of women’s stories, of women’s perspectives, of women’s oppression both then and now. We wanted to explore our understandings of God, including pronoun usage. My priest is a great woman and I love her vision. I did not, however, love A Women’s Lectionary.
I wanted to love it, despite my misgivings. I’m definitely an advocate for better ways of understanding God, of fighting oppression, of affirmation and representation of LGBTQ questions. I came to my parish because of their affimation of my transgender daughter, their loving embrace of me and my family, their vision and passion. I knew that I would have my thoughts and beliefs challenged, and I think that’s a good and valuable thing. Spiritual growth includes embracing changes.
One of the things I did in my anger at Christians when I walked away from the Church was to change some of the biblical narratives to better suit my own prejudices and judgments. I had, after all, walked away with the middle finger on both hands high in the air as I stomped off and told Jesus to pleasure himself. As an addict, I like to control things, and so I set out to control the story of Jesus as I wanted it to be so that I could have reason to walk away from Jesus, and from Christianity, together. I’m a writer, though, and words carry messages and they mean something, and my attempts to change these stories didn’t work, as they were not my stories to tell.
I feel that Gafney used words and ideas that indicated a totally different story than the one the Bible tells. In novel writing, there’s a central story being told, but different characters have different perspectives of it. This is part of what makes a novel worth reading. What Gafney has done is not to show a particular person’s story from their experience, but insetad she’s telling a different story. While I don’t believe the Bible is to be taken literally, it is, after all, not one text but a library of texts of differering genres and authors, I do believe that the story told is the one that we need to tell.
It’s always valuable to discuss the Biblical narratives, but I don’t believe there is value in changing them, and I don’t think that we have the right to do that. One of the phrasings that most bothered me in the short experience of using this book in church is in the Magnificat where Gafney changes the words from my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant to my soul magnifies the Holy One, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own womb-slave. I must admit this change of wording made me want to cry.
I have no problem with changing magnifies the Lord to magnifies the Holy One, as I feel that is still an accurate and respectful representation of God and doesn’t change the meaning. I’m also fine with taking out the male pronoun for God and using “God” instead of a gendered pronoun. I myself do that normally in my writing to be more inclusive. What offends me entirely is the changing of the words his lowly servant to God’s own womb-slave. My first thought was “how dare she,” and I must admit that’s still my take on it. How dare she take something so beautiful and cheapen it with words that indicate rape or the purchase of human beings. How dare she. I’m still angry about it.
Not that I have much room to judge, I myself when I ran away from Jesus spouted off the offensive idea that the Holy Spirit had raped Mary. I said it for shock value, which I feel is one of the reasons Gafney may have re-worded the text that way. I feel there are several textual choices she made that were mostly for shock value and not a lot else. It’s not wrong to try to use different words for emphasis, but she seems to have gone over the top with that. The idea of Mary being a womb-slave not only brings up my own guilt for changing the narrative to insult God entirely for my own unholy purposes, but it also tells an entirely different, and untrue story. A story I myself have told. It was wrong of me then and it’s wrong of her now. The image this wording portrays is grotesque. Slavery is evil, the Christ Child in Mary’s womb with her knowledge and consent is beautiful.
The stories of women are important, but we must tell those stories honestly. I remember also in the prayers we used at church that Mary was called “sister” Mary. She’s Mother Mary. She might be someone’s sister, but not ours, and not Jesus’. She’s Jesus’ mother, and our mother. The stories of these women aren’t my stories to change, or my stories to manipulate to spin a yarn that isn’t in the Bible to suit my own purposes, and neither are they Wilda C. Gafney’s stories to change or manipulate. The stories of the oppressed need to be heard, and told, but they need to be done accurately, without us inserting our own prejudices into them.
While I support the effort and vision of my priest and my church, while I love my parish family, and while I support finding other ways to include all people, and recognize oppressive structures and to change them, I do not support the changing of the stories to do so. There is enough in these stories told in accurate ways to analyze and to learn from. In our attempts to do right by all of God’s people, may we tell the truth while righting wrongs. This is where God will be with us.
Gafney, Wilda C. A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W, Church Publishing, 2021.