The death of any human being has to come with a sense of sadness, and especially, especially in the case where there is the kind of theological despair we must have when it comes to someone such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. By the time she had concluded her work, she was really not just repudiating what she considered to be a conservative Christian tradition, she was really repudiating the very doctrine of God as revealed in Scripture.
Even as almost all the mainstream media and most of the cultural conversation is attuned to the 2020 presidential election — and frankly, little else — today on The Briefing we’re going to look at some ongoing issues of Christian concern that are also reflected in contemporary headlines that should have our attention.
The first comes from Tuesday’s print edition of The New York Times. It’s an obituary. The headline, “Virginia Mollenkott, Who Rooted Her Feminism in the Bible Dies at 88.” Now, for anyone who has been for the last several decades following the trajectory of American feminism, add to that the interaction between American feminism and American religion, add to that the LGBTQ revolution, well, the name of Virginia Mollenkott or Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, as she has also been known, it would be extremely well known.
And of course, something has to explain why The New York Times would give almost a half page in the print edition of Tuesday’s newspaper to someone who was considered a feminist biblical scholar or theologian. Why was she important? Well, she was important because she was herself a symbol of the great moral revolution and the great revolution in biblical interpretation and the interaction with feminism that emerged in the last half century.
Let’s just consider one of the first paragraphs in the obituary,
“Raised in an evangelical household that disavowed her lesbianism, Dr. Mollenkott became a scholar of the Bible whose books on feminist and gay spirituality offered an expansive, inclusive theology that embraced not only women as equals to men, but gay, bisexual, and transgender people too.”
Now that’s a very interesting paragraph in and of itself, but the paragraph actually is an understatement of what would follow. Consider the very next paragraph, speaking of the late professor Mollenkott,
“She pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely. She noted biblical passages that argued for the eradication of all sorts of categories like race, class, and gender. And she wrote about how gay people could use the experience of oppression to find compassion and empathy for those who might be hostile toward them.”
Now, Virginia Mollenkott is indeed one of those names that jumps out at us from recent American Christian history and in particular from recent American evangelical history, because she in herself became a test case for evangelical identity, and at the very same time that many American evangelicals were trying to wrestle with the questions that were posed to us by the emergence of second-wave feminism. But when it comes to Virginia Mollenkott, she was way past second-wave feminism.
She eventually would argue for the elimination of gender as a meaningful category. But looking at how the mainstream media covers the story, let’s go back to that sentence where we’re told that Virginia Mollenkott had “pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely.” I’ll just pause there to say, that’s not actually what the biblical text says. In fact, the biblical text emphatically does not tell us that Adam was not male or for that matter, as it is put here, was both male and female before the creation of Eve, before he got lonely, as the passage says.
But actually, looking to the Scripture, the Scripture tells us something very different. As a matter of fact, looking at Genesis 2, after we are told that God made human beings in his image, male and female, we are told that Adam went through the exercise assigned to him by the Creator in naming the animals. And he named them. And the animals came by two-by-two — wouldn’t be the last time, by the way. The same two-by-two pattern will show up in the history of Noah and the ark. But going back to Adam and the naming, Adam gave all the creatures their name, and whatever name he gave that creature, that was its name.
And then the Bible tells us there was no complement, there was no helper found that was fitting for Adam. That tells us that he was male, but there was yet no woman. And then the biblical passage in Genesis 2 tells us that God put Adam into a deep sleep and, out of Adam, he formed woman. And then Adam made the declaration when he saw Eve and was fully conscious, he declared, “This is now flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. She shall be called woman because she came out of man.” And thus Genesis 2 tells us exactly how God, having already created Adam, then created Eve, and they were created male and female.
Adam did not become male only with the creation of Eve, the female. He was male from the very beginning. But of course it didn’t have a great deal of meaning until the entire meaning of the human species was completed with the creation of Eve, with the woman. Thus then you had Adam and Eve in the garden, and of course they were naked and not ashamed. There was no shame because, after all, this was God’s perfect intention.
But then you’ll notice also, as The New York Times summarizes Mollenkott’s narrative, “She pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely.” But the Bible doesn’t say actually in Genesis 2 that Adam was lonely. It’s kind of implied. But the actual fact is that the Bible tells us that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam didn’t say, “I’m lonely. Give me a wife.” It was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The Bible points to the fact that it is God who is sovereign throughout. It is not even Adam who asks for a wife. It is God who nonetheless provides him with one.
The obituary in The New York Times tells us that Virginia Mollenkott died on September the 25th at her home in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. She was 88. Deborah Morrison, a long time friend and former partner, said the cause was respiratory failure and pneumonia. Dr. Mollenkott, The Times tells us, had already made a name for herself in evangelical circles in the 1970s as the author of five books about feminist theology when her sixth, entitled Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View, appeared in 1978.
The Times then tells us, “It quickly changed the conversation around gay people and evangelicals, and helped usher in a new era of gay spirituality.” Well, that’s pretty much the way The New York Times would like to see the story, but the backstory is this. By the time you get to the 1960s and the 1970s, American Christians in general and American evangelicals in particular are struggling with some of the questions presented by the larger society. And the society was struggling with the questions of feminism.