My Wrestling Match With God

About two weeks ago, I officiated the wedding of two good friends, both Christian ministers. The prospect of officiating a ceremony where pastors were not only a fair part of the audience but also the main participants was daunting to say the least, but in some ways not as daunting as the text they had picked for my homily.

It was Ruth 1:16-17, the passage in which Ruth commits her life - and her being - to Naomi, her mother-in-law. Though it is a prime text for weddings, many people overlook it, perhaps because its potency seems diffused, the relationship between the two women not apparently romantic. I focused on the covenant and all it implied about the nature of the imago dei in Ruth. In other words, I got through it, mostly with a ton of encouragement from my friends, particularly the bride and groom.

But the experience threw into relief a tension within me, a conflict that rages continually in the shadows of my vocation, a dread that always accompanies me as a minister - because I am also a woman. The struggle tugged at me when I began to write the homily and lasted until much later, as I sat down to write this. It is a conflict with the sacred text of Christianity, the Bible. Frankly, I don't think the conflict will ever be resolved. Let's call it the major chord in the theme “My Wrestling Match with God.”

And let's call the first note of this chord “The Silence of Women in the Bible.” And by silence, I mean something very specific. How alienating it is that a book so holy to me contains so few handholds connecting it with my own lived experience. The covenant of Ruth and Naomi is a brilliant example of strong female relationships, and I like to think of it as the only scene in the Bible that passes the Bechdel test. That is why it brings the old tension back into my consciousness: it is one of only two examples I can think of where a relationship between two women is expressed positively, intimate and nurturing. The other is Mary’s visit to Elizabeth when both are pregnant. These scenes are gorgeous in their spiritual scope and their eye toward depth of the human person, and they give me strength, an experience I think I share with many Christian women (and men).

However, their light makes the dark silence of women and relationships between women in the Bible that much more more oppressive. Much more often I hear about Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel, Mary and Martha, pairs of women locked in conflict with a man at the center. Or I hear about some individual woman but only in the context of a man’s relationship with her: Eve, God help us, who is to blame for misleading Adam; Sarah of the bad (and faithless) sense of humor in contrast with the faith of Abraham; Rebekah, who played favorites with her son Jacob; Miriam, Moses’ (the lawgiver) and Aaron’s (the high priest) sister - why was she important again?; Deborah, the only female judge of Israel, meaning the only one in need of a military sidekick, Barak; Hannah, mother of Samuel; Bathsheba, mistress of David, or perhaps Abigail, the good wife; Gomer, who may very well simply be a gaudy metaphor in the mouth of Hosea; so many more; and the nameless women - those (and they are legion) who inhabit the text without the dignity of subjectivity.

This resounding and malignant silence is as far from my experience as east is from west. I don't mean this as an insult to the men in my life, but I have to admit that the foundational aspects of my life and character were laid by women and that most of my abiding, sustaining, and substantial relationships are with other women. Because of the women in my life, I have always known I am complete in myself and at the same time whole only for being loved by another, a paradox that is no paradox at all. My mother, my twin sister, my best friend whom I call sister, and the many women - including ministers - who have encouraged and helped me, all ultimately vital in the I of I am. Why doesn't the Bible burst its seams with these women? If existence depended on the biblical text, my sisters and I wouldn't even be whimsy and dream in the mind of God. If Woman sprang from the mouth of God in the Bible, she did not spring fully formed.

Even more than this, the Bible is and always has been the clearest and most abused stumbling block to my calling as a minister. Let's call this the second note in the chord, or, “Paul’s Encounter with the Fundamentalists.” There is, of course, textual evidence for women in ministry - in Paul and in other places in the New Testament - but why would you bother to sniff it out when culture, tradition, and stone cold Scottish common sense tells you that the Bible states that women shouldn't lead, specifically in the church? “Women should remain silent in the churches,” “for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church,” “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” “a man ought not to cover his head since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man,” and the whole long ticker tape parade of contextually confused Bible quotes used as justifications for why I could not pray aloud or speak aloud or lead a song or know more in front of my male counterparts in church growing up.

These biblical litanies, always with a man’s gravelly gravitas, were the words that echoed in my mind each time I took a step toward ministry during my life. They were there as I read and wrote for hours about Eve for my undergrad thesis, and when I went to divinity instead of law school. They made me break down and weep after my first internship at a progressive Church of Christ failed halfway through. They dogged me up the pulpit steps when I first stood to preach. They sat by me and screamed in my ear as I told my parents I had decided to get ordained. They laughed at me as I wrote six pages, front and back, trying to explain to my grandmother why this was something I had to do. They are still there - and they don't whisper - making me ashamed when I tell strangers (who might be Bible wielders) for the first time that I am a minister, when I justify to hospital, assisted living, and rehabilitation clinic desk clerks why I am visiting. They glare across the table from me now as I type this. And they are poised to destroy me in every moment of self doubt.

The major chord is why the story of Ruth was so hard for me to preach two weeks ago, not only because of the story’s place on the biblical canvas and the painful silence it represents, but also because it reminded me of why I shouldn't be officiating a wedding at all. This is the tension. This is the conflict that I cannot possibly win as a woman and as a minister and as a believer in the Bible.

But here is a strange and wondrous thing: that very struggle has been my salvation. That struggle was the one that finally led me out of my childhood fundamentalist faith toward a deeper and more complex understanding of the Bible, and of faith and life, an understanding that introduced grays and colors where once only black and white existed before. It is that struggle which reminds me daily, as an outsider looking in, that there are other outsiders, other marginalized people, who need support and love and recognition, too. Women are not the only biblical scapegoats (or the only societal ones).This struggle is the reason I discovered that language, words, metaphor, poetry can never be tied down to one certain meaning - and were never meant to be. The Bible was the gateway to a world of words where imagining is stretched to bridging meanings but never breaks totally through. This struggle is the reason that God is, to me, inherently and ultimately mysterious, a Being of our being without ever being fully known.

Ironically, I would never have become a minister if I had not known and loved the Bible as a child growing up. And just as ironically, my ministry would not be nearly as strong without the wrangling and wrestling I do with the sacred scripture. The Bible at once disqualifies me for ministry and at the same time creates the minister I am. This is the conflict I bear in my body and mind as a woman and as a minister. Let's call it faith.

-Shelly Tilton

Shelly is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She graduated with her MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2013, and she is currently enrolled in University of Chicago Divinity School for an MA in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture.