Sexism and censorship in organised religion
By Flora de Falbe
“Muhammad my friend
it’s time to tell the world
we both know it was a girl
back in Bethlehem.”
~ Tori Amos
I still have difficulty owning up to the immense impact Tori Amos’ music had over my adolescence. Tori fans have a bad reputation: “This is more depressing than a Tori Amos cover band,” quips Big Boo in Orange is the New Black, of a party some of the inmates are throwing. My Church of England school saw no problem playing ‘Blurred Lines’ at the leavers’ prom, but I somehow doubt her harrowing a cappella account of rape, ‘Me and a Gun’, would have been met with the same enthusiasm, despite the arguably similar subject matter.
People lose their faith for a lot of different reasons, but it was her music that, I felt, gave me permission to think critically about the belief system I’d been raised in. It was through songs like ‘God’ and ‘Pancake’ that I started to think about religion and feminism, religion and sexuality: those questions that, as a nice Christian girl, you’re supposed to gloss over (just as I intend to gloss over everything she’s released since 2005 — there’s enough suffering in the world). Or else you discuss it in a safe, monitored environment under well-meaning mentors determined to lead you to the right answer. ‘Is the Bible sexist?’ pondered a poster in the sixth-form centre, hoping to entice at least a couple of people along to that week’s lunchtime discussion group. For the record:
“I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy, 2:12)
Yes, it is.
I have a great deal of respect for women who can grapple with these questions and emerge with a kind of spirituality that doesn’t consign them to a second-class existence or pigeonhole them based on their sexual behaviour. Belief in a higher power is a very different subject and it’s not the one I deal with in my poem sequence ‘God & Friends’, which was published on The Missing Slate a couple of weeks ago. What interests me is how religion influences society and vice versa; the way in which it is used to police how we view ourselves and others. In ‘The Marys’ I wanted to explore the virgin/whore dichotomy embodied through Mary the mother of God and Mary Magdalene:
“Mary is an exemplar of inner beauty:
her eyes are lopsided. She is gawky and ugly.
Mary, however, is profane, and wears
her clouds and clouds of perfumed hair…”
By the Victorian era, ‘Magdalen’ had become a byword for a reformed prostitute, despite there being no indication in the Bible that the original Magdalene was any such thing. Conversely, the Virgin Mary embodies the two traits most valued in women by the Church, virginity and motherhood: a standard we have been consistently failing to live up to for the past two millennia. The Catholic Church likes to come up with conspiracy theories that keep her a virgin even after Jesus’ birth — they don’t really bear repeating.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that for something so ostensibly dogmatic, Christianity is very much a vehicle for interpretation. Here’s another interpretation, from Amos’ deeply weird semi-autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’:
“At nineteen years old I look up at my mom and with exasperation say, “Ma, I got no problem with Jesus, okay? Always dug the guy—still do. Do you really think the Magdalene would have entertained the idea of them as an item if he weren’t for women’s rights and equality in the workplace?””
If the Church had adopted this as official doctrine, the world would be a much better place. But it is an interpretation nonetheless. As the historian A.N. Wilson writes in the opening paragraph to his book ‘Jesus’:
“The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are two separate beings, with very different stories. It is difficult enough to reconstruct the first, and in the attempt we are likely to do irreparable harm to the second.”
Given that he is probably the most culturally influential figure in the world, we have staggeringly little information on the life of Jesus. And the information we do have has been reinterpreted, twisted, ignored so often as to create a whole pantheon of Jesuses for every conceivable purpose, each bearing less and less resemblance to the ‘real’ Jesus — whoever that is.
The Jesus I wanted to depict in ‘The Messiah’ is the one dangled over the heads of Christian women as the ‘perfect man’. Because we’re encouraged to view ourselves in terms of our relationships with men, and because men are one step closer to God on the Chain of Being (“He for God only, she for God in him,” as Milton describes the creation of Adam and Eve), Jesus becomes the ultimate, unattainable example of masculinity. It is not possible for us to emulate him, as men should; instead we can only desire him.
“He will die for you but ignore your texts,
and change the subject if you mention sex.
He has a small Oedipus complex.”
This is the stanza that people who read ‘God & Friends’ tend to remember, and it’s one that is probably quite easy to dismiss as ‘teenage girl employing shock tactics’. There’s a well-established tradition of belittling teenage girls (“I hear you’re a poetess,” I sometimes get from elderly family friends. “What are your poems about? Are they ‘confessional’?”) and I hope I’ve made it clear that that’s not how it was written. The question I want to raise is why it is seen as taboo to sexualise religious figures, especially when, like Jesus, they are explicitly supposed to experience the same physical urges as the rest of the human race. Wilson makes the point that the historical Jesus was, in all probability, married. So why is it shocking for a young Amos to tell her missionary grandmother that she thinks he’s “cute”? Expecting women to idealise one unattainable man, and then to sublimate that desire into relationships with other, fallible men is damaging for both sexes. And of course I’m only talking about heterosexuality here: there’s scope for it to get even more complicated.
Two days after ‘God & Friends’ went online, an amazing thing happened. A young Pakistani writer sent in a poem about Muhammad, which was published under the pseudonym ‘Amna Y. Khan’. Despite coming from opposite strands of the Abrahamic tradition, she and I seemed to be tackling very similar questions: the unknowability of these supposedly perfect male figures; the sense of abandonment in realising that anything you feel towards them will be unrequited. “Muhammad,” she writes, in simple, careful language, “Like every other man I have lost/I do not think you will return to me.” And, later:
“O elusive Messenger
when precisely did you become
another man I had to tear out of my heart
just to be able to breathe?”
When we talk about Jesus, we often find ourselves speaking at cross-purposes. My poem deals with one version of him among thousands — some positive, some negative, all too under-informed to be accurate. It is fascinating to witness the same phenomenon in Khan’s poem, where “the many faces of you” go from “terrifying” to mundane and comforting, a “tree planting volunteer … picking up the litter other people have dropped.” The poem is a masterclass in the creative power of anger; but the anger, unlike the poem, is not directed at the prophet himself. She asks, “isn’t it blasphemy, after all/to call you divine?” and it is this forced deification which, I think, forms the crux of both of our arguments. As A.N. Wilson has already shown us, it is impossible to see these figures with any kind of clarity in a society that will punish you for even contemplating that they are less than perfect. Personally, I like the sound of Jesus the holy man, who never claimed to be the son of God, drinking and cracking jokes with his prostitute and tax-collector friends. Khan likes the sound of “the man/with Muezza in his lap” — but as her closing lines put it so poignantly,
“…that is a poem I cannot write.
That is a cartoon we cannot draw.”
A few weeks ago, it was difficult for us in the West to picture a situation like that in Pakistan, where the penalty for blasphemy can be death. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre it suddenly doesn’t seem like such a distant concept. I can’t imagine the kind of bravery it must have taken Amna Y. Khan to write, let alone publish, this poem — but it is more important than ever that bravery of this kind exists. We should feel able to discuss religion in the way that makes most sense to us, without fear of punishment — whether that’s execution, or even just baleful glances from family members following inappropriately-situated readings (they skipped church to come and support me. Oops.)
Tori Amos and I disagree on a number of issues. I don’t believe in fairies, for example. I don’t believe ‘Original Sinsuality’ is an acceptable title for a song under any circumstances. But for sheer intensity of experience, very little compares to hearing, as a fourteen-year-old girl,
“God, sometimes you just don’t come through.
Do you need a woman to look after you?”
There are countless girls the world over who will never hear anything of the sort. If we pray for anything, let it be for them: because women have minds, voices, and the right to reject any belief system that teaches otherwise.