Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Vacation

I won't be posting this weekend or next, because we're leaving for a family reunion in Galveston, Texas!  We'll be staying with my husband's extended family in cottages right on the Gulf of Mexico, visiting the Houston Zoo and the Galveston Aquarium, and eating lots of pot-luck dinners.  Also trying to avoid heatstroke, sunburn and stinging jellyfish-- but I'm really excited and happy to get away!

See you all when I get back!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Sir, I Perceive You are a Prophet" - Jesus and the Woman at the Well

I have decided to turn my blog post Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs: Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman into the first of a series I will be calling "Jesus and Women."  It will feature a number of women in the Gospels with whom Jesus interacted, because Jesus' relations with women universally elevated them, challenging the repressive honor-shame social mores of his day.  Today's post, then, is second in this new series.

The text is John 4:1-42, and since it's such a long one, I'll just summarize it.  Jesus passes through Samaria and sits down at the well, while his disciples go into town to get food.  A Samaritan woman approaches to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink.  She is surprised that he would be speaking to her, a Samaritan and a woman, and asks him about it.  Jesus replies, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."  She immediately becomes a little indignant and asks him who he thinks he is.  "You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you, who gave us this well, and drank of it himself?"  The source of friction between Samaritans and Jews is here apparent, because the Jews denied that the Samaritans had Jacob for their father.  Jesus sidesteps this to continue his metaphor of water as eternal life from God:  "Whoever drinks the water that I shall give him shall never thirst."  But the woman misunderstands.  She's tired of coming to draw water every day and, practically, thinks this "living water" sounds like the perfect solution.

Jesus asks her to bring her husband.  Since she is female, this woman probably has little to no education and thus is probably completely unused to thinking metaphorically.  Jesus may be asking for her to bring her husband because of this.  Or, of course, he may simply be communicating in this way that his intentions are innocent.  Or both.  "I have no husband," she replies.  Jesus then says she has told the truth, for "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband."  By this the woman recognizes that Jesus is a prophet.  So (playing, as it were, the game of "what one thing would you ask a Jewish prophet if you had a chance?") she brings up the burning issue for Samaritans in her day: the conflict with the Jews over the proper place to worship.  Jesus then tells her, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshiper shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers."

The woman then expresses hope in the Messiah, and Jesus explicitly reveals to her that he is the Messiah.  She runs back to the village to tell everyone.  Jesus ends up staying two days, and "many more believed because of his word." 

The Women In the Bible website provides some historical background:

There had been a long-running conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. Samaria had been the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel during the period of the divided kingdoms. In 721BC Assyria conquered Israel, and sent most of its people to live in Assyria. The Assyrians replaced the original people with five alien tribes who resettled the area (for information on this event, see 2 Kings 17:13-34).

Eventually many of the original population returned and intermarried with the five alien tribes. By the time of Jesus, Jews thought that the people who lived in Samaria were not true descendants of the great Jewish ancestors, and that their religion was not true Judaism but a mixture of beliefs. . .

[T]he temple on nearby Mount Gerizim had been the central place of worship for the Samaritans, rivaling the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans and Jews always argued over which of the two temples was the true place to worship. . .

Inclusion of the Samaritans among those whom Jesus favored was revolutionary, since there was bitter enmity between the Jewish and Samaritan peoples. 

David A. deSilva, in his work on the cultures of the New Testament, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, talks about this passage as being primarily about "sacred space" -- which and what kind of places are to be considered holy.

"The early Christians radically changed Jewish maps of sacred space, largely depicting the replacement of the Jerusalem temple as sacred space with new configurations of sacred space located in the individual believer, the community of Christians and the presently unseen realms of God.  .  .

In John's gospel. . . Jesus sets aside limited locales of sacred space (the fixed centers both of Jerusalem and Mount Gerazim, the sacred site for Samaritans) in favor of sacred space that opens up wherever people worship God "in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-23)."  (pp. 291-292).

This is why the Gospel of John, which tends to organize the story of Jesus thematically rather than chronologically, places the cleansing of the temple midway through what is now Chapter 2.  This thematic arc operates like this:

  • It begins with Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, in a kind of prophetic indictment against that sacred space (deSilva, Ibid).
  • It continues through the conversation with religious leader Nicodemus, to whom Jesus speaks of "everyone who is born of the Spirit" as being like the Spirit in having no fixed place of origin or dwelling.
  • It concludes with this story of the woman at the well-- in which Jesus' includes the Samaritans among those who are able to learn to "worship in spirit and truth" rather than in a temple.

Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, points out that in the Gospel of John the nighttime usually symbolizes spiritual darkness while the day represents spiritual light.  These are contrasted in this arc.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, while the Samaritan woman speaks with Jesus in the broad light of day.  Thus the respected religious leader is compared with the despised foreigner in one of the "last shall be first" reversals which are so common in the Gospels.

Bailey also notes that this woman is an outcast even among her own people, for the customary time for women to draw water was in the early morning or at sundown, and they generally come in groups to help one another with the heavy water jars.  This woman comes alone at the "sixth hour," which is around noon.  Tradition has it that this was an immoral woman whom Jesus then "catches" in her sin.*  But author David Lose, in his March 2011 article in the Huffington Post, Misogyny, Moralism and the Woman at the Well, points out that Jesus' words about "five husbands" need not be construed as implying that she was necessarily a woman of loose morals:

"Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced (which in the ancient world was pretty much the same thing for a woman). Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible. Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what's called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband's brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother's wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman's story as tragic rather than scandalous."

Women were not allowed no-cause divorces, as men were.  Nor could a rejected woman support herself without finding another man.  The fact that this woman had had five husbands and was now with a man who wasn't her husband was really more of an indictment on the unjust divorce practices** of her time than any fault of the woman's.  But the fact remains that the stigma of this fell much more on the woman than on the men who had put her in this position.  Jesus doesn't worry, however, about the fact that she has come to the well without friends, at a time when she would not have to face other women.  He simply asks her for a drink.

Kenneth Bailey points out (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 202) that wells in that area did not have buckets attached to them.  Travelers always carried soft leather "buckets" to draw water-- and Jesus apparently had let the disciples take it with them into town.  Bailey states:

"By deliberately sitting on the well without a bucket, Jesus placed himself strategically to be in need of whomever appeared with the necessary equipment.  The woman approached.  On seeing her Jesus was expected to courteously withdraw to a distance of at least twenty feet, indicating that it was both safe and culturally appropriate for her to approach the well. . . Jesus did not move as she approached. She decided to draw near anyway.  Then comes the surprise.

Jesus asks for a drink.  By making this request Jesus does four things:

1.  He breaks the social taboo against talking to a woman. . . In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place. . . 

2.  Jesus ignored the five-hundred-year-old hostility that had developed between Jews and Samaritans. . . [Bailey later explains that Jews and Samaritans did not even drink out of the same vessels, so Jesus could have been considered defiled by drinking from her bucket]

3.  Jesus so totally humbles himself that he needs her services.  Jesus does not establish his initial relationship with her by explaining how she needs him and his message.  That will come later.  Rather, his opening line means, "I am weak and need help! Can you help me?" . . .

4.  Jesus elevates the woman's self worth.  Only the strong are able to give to others.  The woman's dignity is affirmed by being asked to help Jesus out of her available resources."

But Jesus does more than just speak to this woman and increase her dignity by asking her help.  He deliberately moves the conversation from the every-day (give me some water) to the spiritual: (the gift I bring is living water).  He converses with her on the same level as he has just a few verses before conversed with Nicodemus-- as an equal.  There is no real difference in his eyes between a scholarly, male Jewish religious leader and an outcast, lowly foreign woman.  When she fails to grasp his first teaching, he asks her to bring her husband-- but the lack of appearance of a husband does not cause him to shut the conversation down.  Jesus allows her to ask him the kind of question a woman in her position would want to ask a prophet. 

Then, by opening "sacred space" to include anyone who worships in spirit and truth, Jesus proclaims  the eternal kingdom open to Samaritans-- and not only that, but by referring to God as "the Father," Jesus implies that God can be Father to Samaritans as well as Jews.  As deSilva puts it (Honor, p. 197):

"The possibility of becoming part of God's family provides the basis for the alternative kinship group that Jesus begins to create within his own ministry.  The most well-known passage in this regard is Matthew 12:46-50. . . in which he redefines his own kin not as those born into his father Joseph's household but rather as 'whoever does the will of my Father in heaven,' that is, whoever is born into his heavenly Father's household."   

The language of being "born" anew into this family is also used by Jesus to Nicodemus in the passage just prior to the Samaritan woman passage.  "New sacred space" and "new alternative kinship" thus are interwoven into the message of Jesus being highlighted in this section of John's Gospel.  It is a spiritual kinship where the place of worship is no longer a physical place, but within every member of the family-- a kinship in which distinctions of Jew and Samaritan, male and female, become irrelevant, and the lowly outcast "gets it" more clearly than the privileged leader.

As author David Lose points out:

"[T]his story is not about immorality; it's about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers --dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus' ministry as she is the first character in John's gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus."

When Jesus' disciples returned from their food-buying expedition, they didn't know what to think.  They'd expected Jesus might have to talk with the Samaritans (hard to avoid), but publicly talking with a woman?  Unheard of!  But though Jesus always cared about doing good, he rarely cared what people thought.  "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and accomplish His work," Jesus said.  In other words, "I know you came back with food for me, and I know you don't like the way I've been using my time while you were gone.  But this is what's really important.  I'm doing God's will, despite what you think."

In other words, "Let go of your traditions and let's make this about people and who they are in God's eyes."

Advice we would all do well to follow.

*The "Women in the Bible" site linked at the beginning of my post speculates that Jesus was actually not talking about this woman's literal husbands at all, but speaking symbolically of the Samaritans as having "five husbands" because of the five "alien tribes" they intermarried with-- but given that the woman has just misunderstood Jesus' symbolic reference to "living water," I think it's unlikely that he would speak symbolically again, or that she would  have understood him if he did.  I believe it's much more likely that the woman actually had been married five times, as Jesus said.  However, the repetition of that number five does serve to make the Samaritan woman representative of her people in this passage. 

**For more on divorce practices in Jesus' day, see my blog post What About Divorce?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Speaking Strongly While Female

I don't generally watch Fox News.  But this discussion hosted by Megyn Kelly at Fox News in response to this Fox News discussion hosted by Lou Dobbs, has engendered a lot of Internet discussion among the blogs I frequent.   It's all about whether women are somehow hurting their children if they are the primary breadwinners in two-parent heterosexual families.

If you listen to the Lou Dobbs discussion, what it amounts to is four men reacting to a recently reported statistic that in four out of 10 married heterosexual families in the U.S., the woman is the primary breadwinner.  I listened to the discussion carefully and discovered that the ensuing conversation was entirely about everything that these men believe is going wrong in society, which they believe this women-as-breadwinners situation is either a symptom or a cause of-- or both.  However, as the men went on to discuss divorce, abortion and deficient public school education, they made no real attempt to connect any of this to the actual statistic they were supposedly discussing.  How exactly women being breadwinners was related to divorce, abortion, or the travesty which they consider public school education to be, was never made plain.  The idea seemed to be simply that the "natural order" of the world was being upended if even 40% of married couples had the woman as the primary breadwinner-- and apparently this supposed disruption is cause for great alarm and despondency.*

One of those involved in the discussion, Erick Erickson, then wrote a follow-up blog post in which he says:

"But we should not kid ourselves or scream so loudly in politically correct outrage to drown the truth — kids most likely will do best in households where they have a mom at home nurturing them while dad is out bringing home the bacon. As a society, once we moved past that basic recognition, we’ve been on a downward trajectory of more and more broken homes and maladjusted youth."

Erickson links to the Core Beliefs of the patriarchal Christian website Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) at the end of his article.  CBMW then supports Erickson's position in their own article.   But it is noteworthy that Erickson's article never actually cites any studies supporting this position-- and throughout his article he contrasts, not couples where the man is primary breadwinner with couples where the woman is primary breadwinner, but couples where the man is primary breadwinner with single-parent households.  In short, he is comparing apples and oranges.  His point appears to be that because children of single-parent households do not do as well as dual-parent households, therefore children should be raised in households where the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman stays home with the kids.  (Hannah at Emotional Abuse and Your Faith does a very good job at picking apart the arguments both in Dobbs' discussion and Erickson's article.)

But all of this is just background for what I want to talk about today.

My purpose in blogging about this is not to defend the position that women are not harming their children or upsetting the natural order if they become the primary breadwinners for their families (though of course I agree that they are not).  Rachel Held Evans has done a marvelous job of defending that position both rationally and scripturally in her post Why the Church Can Support "Breadwinning" Wives Too, and I don't have much I could add there.  What I want to talk about is what happened to Megyn Kelly when she confronted the opposing viewpoint in her Fox News discussion.

It appears that though Megyn Kelly of Fox News is certainly politically conservative, she is not of the CBMW camp.  She is married with a powerful and highly visible career, and according to this article she and her husband are now expecting their third child.  There is no way I can see that Ms. Kelly could not have felt that the main topic directly impacted her as a woman and a mother.  Her opening remarks, though said with a smile, are a challenge to the two men whose vocally held position is that women like her are harming their children by their life choices.

"What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist in chief?" Kelly asks laughingly -- this last being in response to Erickson's assertion that "liberals" are being "anti-science" in ignoring the natural male dominance supposedly prevalent in the animal kingdom.  She then goes on to point out that the data does not actually support the idea that children in two-parent homes where the woman is primary breadwinner and the man is home with the kids, fare any worse than children in two-parent homes where this is reversed.   Erickson then states that he believes the studies were primarily focused on wealthy couples and could not hold true for the middle class, which "cannot have it all."  Why "not having it all" only applies to women who want to care for their children and be the primary breadwinner, but not to men who want the same, he never actually addresses except to insist rather vaguely that women in general are more nurturing.

Kelly calls Dobbs and Erickson out on their claim that they were "not being judgmental" in insisting that women who make the choice to have careers with young children at home were "imposing a worse future on their children."  She says it is "offensive."  To counter, Erickson states that it is a simple "statement of fact" that it's hard for a woman to work full time and nurture her children. Again, he does not state why this is only true for a woman and not for a man.

Kelly quite calmly states that the blog did offend her.  She holds up the documents showing the studies that support her position and accuses Erickson of claiming not to be judging while actually judging anyway:  "[You're saying] 'I'm not, I'm not, I'm not; now let me judge, judge judge.  And by the way it's science, science, science."  She does not raise her voice while stating this, though she is emphatic about it.  At this point the men begin to smirk, and Erickson chuckles to Dobbs as he re-enters the conversation, "Be careful."  The implication is "Watch out for the angry woman!"

As Dobbs begins the same argument he was making in his original video, listing all of society's ills and then linking them to women in being in the workplace, Kelly calls him on it:  "Why are you attributing that to women in the workforce?"

His reply?  "Excuse me, let me just finish what I was saying if I may, oh dominant one!"  He thus picks up on Erickson's jab and amplifies it.  This seems to me to be a direct attack on her for being a woman while being host (i.e., in charge of the discussion).  Would he have mocked a man in this way?

As Kelly, taken aback, asks, "excuse me?" Dobbs begins to talk about studies supporting the problems in single-parent households. But the fact is that this is not evidence that supports the position that there is any harm caused to children by women in two-parent families being a breadwinner, or even the main breadwinner.  Kelly quite reasonably insists that the statistics for the latter really do not support the point being made against the former, and reminds Dobbs that she had defined the discussion from the beginning as being about two-parent households where the woman works outside the home.  Dobbs then begins to insist that they have to talk about single mothers, that this is absolutely what the discussion is about.  As he attempts to wrest the conversation away from her onto a tangent that Kelly, as the discussion leader and moderator, has determined to be off-topic, she must fight to regain control of the exchange.

It seems to me that Dobbs is insisting that the conversation must include the problems of single motherhood because to him, it's all part of the same thing: the upsetting of the natural order in which men protect/provide and women nurture, and all of society's ills are part and parcel of the same.  Kelly, however, does not start from this presupposition, nor does she buy into it.  Dobbs begins to laugh at her as she forces the conversation back to what is to her the point-- whether women in two-parent homes being the primary breadwinners is damaging to the children.  She then turns the conversation back to Erickson, quotes his article, and then begins to cite long-standing studies that contradict his position.  Kelly is very emphatic by this point and its clear that she is a little ruffled.  Erickson replies that the studies she cites are "politically motivated" (while his own statements presumably are purely objective).

Erickson then cites a Pew Studies poll in which three-quarters of those polled agreed that "the increase in moms as breadwinners makes it harder to raise kids," as he paraphrases it.  Kelly points out that the public majority has been wrong in the past-- in the area of inter-racial marriage being harmful, for example.  Erickson admits to this but insists that it's still better in the majority of cases for the mom to be home.  After the studies that Kelly has cited, this frankly comes off as, "I've made up my mind; don't confuse me with the facts."  He insists that he is not, as Kelly puts it, "denigrating the choices made by others."  But to insist that another person's choice (Kelly's, for instance) is actually harmful to children is a denigration of her choice whether he likes it or not.  His position amounts to "What you're doing is wrong and damaging to the most vulnerable members of our society, but I'm not saying anything bad about you for doing it," which is self-contradictory to say the least.

David Hayward over at NakedPastor has responded to this with a cartoon and comments: Emotionally invested preconceived stereotype of women.  He points out some of the difficulties Kelly faced in that interview which a man would probably not have faced:

"She was the host and yet had to constantly fight to maintain moderating position. She literally had to verbally fight, along with raising her voice, to keep control of the interview. The reasoning of those two men is obviously not based on research but on emotion drenched in traditional mores. But it's typical of people who have issues with strong women to point to their style rather than content. She had content that she used a strong style to try to communicate. They used rudeness, along with a domineering attitude, interrupting, overtalking, to communicate no content."

Now, I'm not saying that Kelly conducted the interview with absolute perfection. But some of the comments on Hayward's blog included the idea that Kelly was "yelling" and had "become aggressive," and that this constituted a "weakness" in how convincing her point of view was.  I don't believe that those making these comments were being consciously sexist.  But the fact remains that according to the entrenched social attitudes that still prevail today despite all the strides forward that women have made in terms of equal dignity, women are expected to always remain "sweet," and any emphatic or passionate behavior is usually held against them.   A man who strongly, even angrily, confronts an injustice is often admired, while a woman who does so is considered "strident" or "aggressive."

But logically, someone's argument is not necessarily weak just because they are impassioned about it.  The question is why they have become impassioned.

The fact is that as a woman, Kelly had to fight to have what a man would be given without a fight-- the right to moderate the discussion as leader and host.   Her  raised voice in this case was related to trying to do the job she had been given-- even if that meant interrupting a participant who seemed determined to take over.

Also, is it appropriate to compare the level of calm of someone who has no direct stake in the issue at hand, with that of someone who is actually one of the subjects being attacked by a position being taken on that issue?  As a woman, Kelly was the only one in the conversation whom the subject of conversation directly and personally impacted.  What these men were saying amounted to a direct attack on the choices Ms. Kelly herself had made in her life.  Should she be faulted for getting upset about that?  Should the male participants be commended for not getting upset when their life choices were not under attack?  No one was telling the men, "Your having a career is hurting your children!" 

It's kind of like looking askance at a person of color for being unable to discuss Jim Crow laws without raising their voice, while a white person is able to remain dispassionate.  

Kelly should not have had to endure the condescension and mocking of those men.  She should not have had to force them to allow her the place of leadership to which she was entitled as host.  She should not have been subjected to laughter and raised eyebrows for using such force.  And she should not have been faulted for having emotions about a topic which could not help but be an emotional one for her.

Particularly when she was able to back up her position with evidence that the men in the conversation were sorely lacking.

Megyn Kelly is a conservative and I'm a moderate, and we may not actually agree on very much.  But we're both women who have careers and children at home.  And when it comes to having a right to speak strongly while female-- I'm completely on her side.


*I am being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but I don't believe I'm actually exaggerating the emotional nature of the Dobbs video discussion. The men really were very alarmed and despondent about so many women being breadwinners as pointing to the anticipated demise of everything they hold dear.  It seems a bit hypocritical, then, that they would appear to treat Kelly's emotion in her video as if it were a point against her.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

"You're Not Arguing With Us But With God"

A fellow member of Equality Central Forum (a forum for Christians who believe in full male-female equality in society, church and home) recently shared the answer she (her first name is Helen) received from a well-known ministry in response to a letter she wrote them.  Helen has given me permission to reprint and comment here on part of the letter she received.

This ministry (I'll give it a generic name: "Bible Preaching") promotes, among other things, the authority and leadership of males in all aspects of Christian life.   I quote here a few paragraphs of their response to Helen's letter:  

God’s Word and His law is the reason why women should not be in positions of authority over the man. You do not have a complaint against [Bible Preaching] as to this point, you have a complaint against God. For the Bible clearly states that wives are to be subject unto their own husbands, Colossians 3:18, (as opposed to any other man). If she is to be subject under his authority, how than can she rule over others? In Exodus 18:21 we see that it is MEN who fear God, that should be set over the people to rule. . .

You claim that you are a Christian and that you believe in the Bible as much as we do, and yet you have asked us to “focus on John 3:16 and not 1 Timothy 2:12.” Do you despise the command of 1 Timothy 2:12? It is a verse in the Bible which you claim to believe in, and yet you encourage us to disregard a part of it. This is wrong of you to do. You cannot choose which principles and commands that you are going to follow. . .  Please, I ask you, to repent of this mindset, to subject yourself unto God, and to desist from disregarding the verses in Scripture which do not correlate with your chosen lifestyle. Ultimately, as I have said, you are not angry with us for our beliefs and practices, you are angry at God. And from this, you must repent. (Emphasis in original.)

Notice what is being said here.  Helen is accused of "disregarding" 1 Timothy 2:12 simply because she says it should not be focused on in the same way John 3:16 is.  John 3:16 is one of the key verses in which Christ describes the nature of salvation:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believed in Him should not perish but have eternal life."  1 Timothy 2:12, on the other hand, is not about salvation, but is where Paul talks about his own policy with regards to a certain aspect of male-female relations, stating (in the ESV version that Bible Preaching prefers) "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." 

According to Bible Preaching, simply by stating that 1 Timothy 2:12 should not be as much of a focus as John 3:16, Helen is going so far as to "despise" 1 Timothy 2:12.  Are these really the same?  I hardly think so.  What I think is that the "privileging one's position" silencing technique is being used here:  in essence, "you-can't-disagree-because-GOD!" 

In other words, the Bible Preaching writer equates Bible Preaching's position with God's own position, using God's authority to render that position unassailable.  "You're not angry with us, but with God."  But what assumptions are implicit in such a statement?  Three at least: 

1.  "We are not interpreting the Bible, but just telling you exactly what it means."  

The problem with this is that the nature of reading anything not written by ourselves is interpretation.  Anyone who conveys a message to anyone else must encode the message in language and then speak or write it to the listener or reader, who, finally, decodes the message in his or her own mind.  Since pure-thought communication is impossible, the encoding/decoding process of language is the best way we have to convey thoughts to one another, but it is not perfect.   "I didn't mean that the way you took it!' can happen even between two close friends chatting over coffee.  How much more can it happen when the original message must be translated out of its original ancient language and conveyed into an entirely different modern language?

David A. deSilva, in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, puts it this way:

The readers of the New Testament shared certain values. . . and ways of ordering the world. . . Modern readers, too, are fully enculturated into a set of values, ways of relating and so forth.  Without taking some care to recover the culture of the first-century Greco-Roman writers and addressees, we will simply read the texts from the perspective of our cultural norms and codes. . . This task is essential as a check against our imposition of our own cultural, theological and social contexts onto the text. (p. 18, emphasis added.)

It's a mistake to think that we ourselves have no social/cultural perspective through which we decode the messages of the New Testament.  As theologian and minister N. T. Wright says in his essay How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?"  :

"There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply na├»ve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’" (Emphasis added.)

To decide that we are not interpreting the Bible, but just "reading it straight," as Wright puts it, is to close our eyes to the nature of our own humanity.  It is to assume for ourselves an objectivity that we are actually incapable of holding or sustaining.  In fact, it is a kind of blindness, a "log" in our own eye that we have no way of seeing past in order to remove the "speck" from the eye of another (Matthew 7:5).

Bible Preaching's letter writer thinks he (or she) sees a speck in Helen's eye.  But in asserting that he or she is not interpreting the text being used to find the speck, the letter writer is unaware of the log that must be removed from his own eye before the presence of any actual speck in Helen's eye can be verified. 

2.  "Disagreeing with us is sin against God."

Notice how much shaming is going on in Bible Preaching's statements above.  Helen is accused of not subjecting herself to God, of disregarding God's commands, and of being angry with God.  And she is told-- twice! -- that she needs to repent. 

The writer of the Bible Preaching letter has taken it upon him- or herself to determine Helen's spiritual state, and then has set himself up as her spiritual authority by telling her she "must" repent.  This, in fact, is spiritually abusive behavior:

When religion, God or the Bible are used to uphold a person or movement's real or perceived authority in ways that control or coerce, bringing shame, harm or misery to those perceived to be under that authority, this is spiritual abuse.

The Bible Preaching writer answering Helen's letter actually has no authority over Helen of any kind.  But the letter assumes authority* and then uses it in an attempt to shame and silence.  And this leads us to the third and most damaging assumption of all:

3.  "We are God's spokesman; we know God's mind and speak with God's voice."

Perhaps Bible Preaching's writer didn't intend this implication.  But to say "You are not arguing with us but with God, and you need to repent," does in fact imply that Bible Preaching is God's spokesman on earth.  It implies, "We could not possibly be wrong about what we believe God is saying in this text.  We know what God meant, and we have the right to take it upon ourselves to enforce that meaning."  The Old Testament prophets spoke for God, but Hebrews 1:1-2 says:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

There are no Old-Testament-style prophets in the New-Covenant kingdom which Jesus came to bring.  Instead, Jesus said, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (John 16:13, emphasis added.)   All believers have the Holy Spirit.  Bible Preaching is not the final arbiter of God's truth or God's message in the Scriptures.   Jesus's life, words and actions are God's ultimate message to us-- and the Holy Spirit is our ultimate Teacher of that message.

This is why Helen said that John 3:16 should be given greater focus than 1 Timothy 2:12.  She was doing nothing more than placing the emphasis of Scripture where Scripture itself places it.   This is not disregarding 1 Timothy 2:12, but seeking to put it in its proper place within the overarching message.  And that overarching message really doesn't have much to do with women being silent or not having authority.  Instead, it's about what Christ has done in and for His people, setting them all -- men and women alike-- free from bondage to become a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9).

God did not, to put it in schoolyard vernacular, "die and leave Bible Preaching in charge."  God sent His Son with this message:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

If Christ did not come to condemn, who are we to communicate shame and condemnation to our brothers or sisters in Christ?  We Christians should bow in humility before the Son and His message, not turn ourselves into policemen to enforce what we think the message is about, on everyone else.

Particularly when the message is coming across as more about restricting women than about setting human beings free.

*Assuming and then abusing authority is probably actually much closer to what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 2:12 when he used the Greek word "authentein" to describe what he didn't want a woman to do to a man.  When Paul said it shouldn't be done to a man, did he mean it was ok to do it to a woman?  Is Bible Preaching's insistence on the letter of 1 Timothy 2:12 actually a violation of its spirit?