From Prostitutes to Priests: How We Imagine Women Matters
Updated: Jul 21
Some may question the women in my biblical fiction being disciples, patrons, apostles, or church leaders. Yes, as historical fiction, it is constrained by events in the biblical and historical narrative.
Huge gratitude to the team CBE International for sharing my article about women being portrayed as prostitutes and priests and how our theology is impacted by the way we imagine women.
Art can either include or erase women and people of colour. Truth shown in a story can shift our focus & set a new direction.
Does Imagining Yourself in a Bible Story Matter?
The 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius of Loyola, encouraged praying with the imagination as a form of contemplation. Exploring a scene in our minds engages new ideas and emotions and lets us experience God with us. Taking different roles in the story stimulates critical thinking and reveals new applications.
… the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. – T. E. Lawrence
When my daughters were small, I wanted them to see girls and women in the Bible. In their children’s picture book, I coloured over the picture of three men on the way to Emmaus, changing one of them to Clopas’s wife. A woman on the road is plausible and does not conflict with the biblical narrative. As early as the 14th century, artists portrayed the possibility that it was Clopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus.
Does Gender Representation Matter?
During the Renaissance, the church often commissioned artists and thus controlled the portrayal of biblical scenes to an illiterate population. The church approved The Last Supper, completed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498, which imagines only men were present and lends weight to the idea that only men may be ordained. The church condemned a painting of the last supper by Paolo Veronese in 1573, which showed women and men. This was one of the reasons why the church accused him of heresy, a capital sin. Veronese was only acquitted when he showed remorse and renamed the painting. Recently, Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki portrayed the last supper as a family Passover event, with women and men at the last supper. The biblical account does not exclude women on that occasion.
In another example of women’s erasure, Dr. Ally Kateusz, author of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, explains how ancient art and manuscripts widely portrayed Jesus’s mother, Mary, as a priest, bishop, and officiant of Holy Communion. Later, the church hid or destroyed these and approved new works showing Mary as meek and submissive. Kateusz also shows how manuscripts redacted women’s names and evidence of liturgical authority.
Does Ethnic Representation Matter?
Diego Velazquez portrays a kitchen maid at Emmaus as a Moor, the European name for a Muslim from North Africa. The painting, shown above, reminds us that Jesus revealed himself to Jews and foreigners, citizens and slaves, women and men. He completed this painting in Spain in 1618, while the church tortured Moors and Jews for heresy during the Spanish Inquisition, and the state carried out imprisonment or execution. More here about Velazquez and other art and poetry that lets you Step into Scripture.
Can Drama and Fiction Tell Bible Stories?
Historical and biblical fiction must be framed by true historical accounts. In Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, I dramatize the biblical account of Jesus adopting women and people of mixed ethnicities into the family of faith. My next novel will show how Paul commended and partnered with women like Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia. The church will flourish when it imagines women and men working together as mutual partners.
The arts use the power of imagination to free us from gender restrictions, to see as God sees, listen as God listens, and love as God loves. Fiction representing women in the Bible helps us imagine women and men mutually working together. It can change our perspectives and our relationships, building mutual respect. The arts allow us to imagine change, and once we have imagined it, we may act on our dreams with open eyes to make it possible.
This article first appeared in CBE International’s blog, Mutuality, on 07/20/2023.
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