Monday, April 28, 2008

History Geekery

This reminded me of my first college medieval history class, particularly Bernard of Clairvaux and his sermons on the Song of Songs.

The sermons are an allegorical reading of the Song of Songs, inspired by Paul's metaphor of the Church as the bride of Christ. It's a truly odd combination for modern sensibilities...deeply erotic gestures reinterpreted as metaphors for spiritual virtues. Reading Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the experiences that convinced me that the past was both a lot weirder and a whole lot more interesting than I'd ever suspected.

Then, not long after, I encountered this book which caused a minor stir in certain pretentious Christian circles at about the same time. The author claimed that Bernard's use of passionate bridal imagery had irredeemably pussified the Christian Church, such that the reason there were no "masculine" men in the pews on Sunday morning was because this one metaphor had become so powerful over time that being Christian was now practically synonymous with being teh gay, so this is why women could never be ordained. Because it was bad enough having to imagine taking it for Jesus, but if one had to listen to women in positions of authority as well, no real man would ever darken a church door again. (I'd like to say that I exaggerate here, but really, I don't.)

The problem, of course, with this whole silly theory (or, I should say, a problem, since they are legion) is that the best historical evidence suggests that Christianity from its inception was more attractive to women than men, since it spoke particularly to those lacking in power in the here and now. In fact, there's a trope in accounts of early Roman female martyrs of these women undergoing a masculinization process...rejecting their children in favor of martyrdom, then being described (often in accounts in the first person voice) taking on the armor of a warrior to go out and die for their faith. But as Christianity became increasingly intertwined with secular authority, these radical voices became less favored and those that supported existing gender roles much more so. (Though it's also worth noting that the medieval church harbored a much greater diversity of voices than it is often credited with doing.)

But no history is so weird nor so interesting than someone can't find a way to misread it - especially in a manner hurtful to women. Maybe I should take to calling that Psyche's Law.