Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: HOLY MISOGYNY – April DeConick [Vol. 4, #17.75]

** Note: Due to our efforts to get the print issue completed
this week, we our postponing our next full online issue until next week **

Redeeming Our Own
Muddled History Toward Women

A review of
Holy Misogyny:
Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts
in the Early Church Still Matter.

by April DeConick.

Review by Jasmine Wilson.

HOLY MISOGYNY - April DeConickHoly Misogyny:
Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts
in the Early Church Still Matter.

by April DeConick.
Hardback: Continuum, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

In the new book Holy Misogyny, April DeConick is answering two different but related questions: first, “Where is Lady God?” or putting it differently, “Where are the feminine aspects of God’s nature?” The second question she tackles is, “How were women understood in the early church?” These questions are related, because as DeConick concludes, when the female body was devalued, it is no wonder the female Spirit of God did not remain.

DeConick first traces the femininity of God in the ancient Jewish tradition, and how that carried over into the Christian tradition. She talks about how the “Spirit” of God had been understood by its original audience as feminine. Giving the example of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism, when the skies open up and a voice is heard, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” DeConick asserts that modern readers most likely hear that voice as either male or genderless, coming from the Father. She argues the original audience would have heard it as female, coming from the Spirit of God, and that in some places Christians wrote about the Spirit being Jesus’s true mother. DeConick also gives fascinating historical evidence for how the early Christians might have understood their own baptism in more feminine ways, with baptismal fonts in the shape of a womb, and along with consuming the bread and wine during the service, how some would also drink milk, as if from Mother Spirit.

Next, DeConick approaches the views that Jesus and Paul had toward sexuality. While she views Jesus’s teachings on the subject pretty sympathetically, she is not too keen on Paul’s teaching, thinking him quite misogynistic. DeConick’s training is in noncanonical texts, especially the Gnostic and mystic traditions, and because of that, she does not treat Scripture as anything other than a human product. She explains how some of the misogynistic texts of Paul and others in the Bible are a response to cultural concerns. Women in the ancient world only had two public roles: submissive wife, or whore on display. The Christian church, then, when it began having women teaching without a veil in public, gave the impression to their Roman neighbors that indecent acts were occurring between the men and the women. While DeConick does not quote this line of Paul, I think it makes sense in light of this sentiment, “I become everything to everyone—to the Jews I become a Jew…” Although Paul was pretty counter-cultural in terms of things like the Lordship of Christ over Caesar, it does not seem as though he wanted to be counter-cultural in terms of women’s roles, instead encouraging women to be like Roman wives, but even better. The church as a household, then, was a way of keeping women submissive, just as they would be in the Roman household.

Even the churches that allowed women to be in leadership roles did not have a very high view of femininity, argues DeConick. Instead, the women who were allowed to become leaders did so by getting rid of their femininity; by becoming a man, which was understood to be the more superior being, the true image of God, whereas the woman’s existence was a result of the fall. To reverse the fall, in their baptism, some women felt like they became genderless, or could become men, and through that having authority and leadership and power in the church. Some women starved themselves until their breasts shrunk and menstruation ceased, or they would wear male clothing.

Overall, DeConick has a lot of interesting things to say about gender and sexuality in the early church. But, she seems to have a great distrust for Scripture as anything more than a human product, and a distrust toward the institutional church, which she feels has made the misogynistic account a sacred one through poor interpretation of the text. It was unclear at times if she thought the problem was that the Scriptures were interpreted misogynistically, or if they were in fact misogynistic in and of themselves, and there would be no other way to read them. While she gave fascinating examples of the early church and its disagreements on gender, and her commitment to the fair treatment of femininity made me realize my own misogynistic readings of the text, the argument of the book as a whole was confusing at times, and the flow of the chapters, especially the later ones, were disjointed and seemed separate from one another. It seemed she was writing to a wider audience of those interested in gender studies, not just Christians who were interested in redeeming their own muddled history toward women. Because of that, she does not take at face value that the Scriptures have any sort of spiritual identity, and might make some Christians uncomfortable because of that. However, if readers recognize that she is writing toward a wider audience, I do think her account is appropriately dangerous, and can hopefully jar Christians into action to reverse the long tradition of misogynistic interpretation of Scripture and misogynistic action in the church.


Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly digest & choose a free ebook
from the four pictured ------> 


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

One Comment

  1. Thanks for your review of the work. I’ve been wanting to pick it up as a good historical (rather than faith-based) reading of gender in our shared sacred scriptures.u00a0