The indecent Virgin

I’m continuing to broaden my theological reading around the issues which Living in Love and Faith was originally set up to explore. I’m very aware that the approach of those on the various groups is basically ‘systematic theology’, which feels like it’s written from a great height looking down at the Bible, to produce a unified, orderly, coherent whole that incorporates all the different books of the Bible and the texts of the tradition. That feels alienating to me, not least because I think we read – and always have read – the Bible in different ways according to our own perspectives, but also because disruptive challenges from the excluded need to be taken seriously, and ‘reading against the grain’ can be productive. As one critic comments,

The problem with systematic theologies, is that they are systematic. God’s revelation to us in the Bible is not systematic. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it tells the story of people who mess up, of God who gets involved in the life of his creation and redeems it. The Bible narrative is compelling; sometimes exciting, sometimes complicated but it is not systematic. God did not give us a system, he gave us a story.

Following a chat on Twitter around one of the topics on which I’ve written for the project – the clitoris, the church’s dubious 19th-century history with regard to this part of the body, and whether we have a theology that can cope with an organ the sole purpose of which is pleasure – I was directed to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s book, Indecent Theology (2000). This is most definitely not an easy read; it is positioned as both developing and disrupting Liberation Theology and its examples come from the author’s experience of poor urban women in Latin America in contexts where ‘Exchanging money for sex was not that unusual; many women just married in order to eat regularly’ (p.66). Latin American history is not part of the average UK school curriculum, and I first came across Latin-American feminism only when I was working at Gustavus Adolphus College last year because the reading group I joined was studying the work of Cherríe Moraga prior to her visit to the campus. Moraga is another challenging writer and I was pleased to have this introduction to her work, not least because one of my professional areas is classical reception and Moraga wrote her own Mexican take on Medea. However, add theology into the Chicana mix and it becomes even more difficult (if, like me a year ago, you need to know what is meant by Chicana, here is a useful undergraduate-level website).

But back to Indecent Theology (great title, btw). It’s highly relevant to a writing project on which I am currently working, for publication rather than for Living in Love and Faith, looking at religion and medicine as ways of regulating people’s views of the female body across Western history and beyond. From this perspective, I’m thinking a lot about Althaus-Reid’s comment on patriarchy that ‘The womb has been appropriated but not the vulva’ (p.63). Something that resonated with me was when she contrasts the different ways in which characters from the Bible are held up as examples to boys and men, or girls and women: while a boy could ‘be expected to grow faithful as Abraham or repentant as King David … No young girl thinks “perhaps if I am humble enough God will have sex with me”‘ (p.54). She examines the particular ways in which Mary is used as role model in Latin America, where being advised to ‘go and pray to the Virgin Mary’ – something the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were told to do when standing up for human rights in the Argentinian dictatorship – is a way of trying to domesticate women, to ‘make them decent mothers who would educate daughters into decency and not political subversion’ (p.51). She also offers a cutting analysis of the appearances of the Virgin in Latin America, where she always asks for a chapel to be built or for medals with her image to be made and sold, but never asks for a free school or a hospital to be set up in her name (pp.60-1).

One of many things which has struck me in my engagement with the book so far is when Althaus-Reid mentions those images of the Virgin Mary where she is essentially an elaborate dress with head and hands attached (‘the Virgin is just her skirts’, p.61). In my teens I was very familiar with an image of this kind from Brompton Oratory. The hands are convenient for holding the infant Jesus, but not much else.

Image result for brompton oratory mary

Althaus-Reid characterises Mary in these representations as ‘a rich, white, woman who does not walk’ (p.53). The passivity, the immobility, the lack of legs, is striking. I wonder how these images play out with people who physically share the immobility? And I’m not at my most mobile myself this week, due to my first ever attack of vertigo. Perhaps my mind is spinning from Brexit, or from Living in Love and Faith, but my current experience is definitely making me think about the static and the moving in a different way. With Mary, Althaus-Reid picks up the reference to historical models of generation in which the womb is static (and the woman’s contribution to the process is to offer a place in which the seed can take root and grow) while only the male semen is active (p.55). I could add there the ancient belief in the ‘wandering womb’, in which any movement in the female reproductive system – other than the mouth of the womb closing to retain the seed – is emphatically a Bad Thing. Living in Love and Faith includes a group working on what science now has to say on human sexuality, so in that spirit I’d add the point that these older models miss out what we now know about the movement of the Fallopian tubes to pick up an egg, and the journey of those eggs themselves, as described here:

Following ovulation, the fimbriated, or finger-like, end of the fallopian tube sweeps over the ovary. Adhesive sites on the cilia, which are located on the surface of the fimbriae, are responsible for egg pickup and movement into the tube. The cilia within the tube, and muscular contractions resulting from the movement of the egg, create a forward motion. Transport through the tube takes about 30 hours.

While discussing this traditional image of Mary as static, Althaus-Reid draws attention to some paintings I’d met back in that reading group at Gustavus: Yolanda López’s Virgin of Guadalupe sequence, discussed here by Joanna Garcia in a blog post from 2016. López, a Chicana artist, represents herself in her self-portrait as the Virgin of Guadalupe with legs unencumbered by layers of fabric, and running shoes.

Related image

Althaus-Reid’s focus here is on the ‘gigantic vulva’ which surrounds the Virgin of Guadalupe and from which López shows herself emerging. This shape is the mandorla (literally, ‘almond’), something which has been used as a frame for Mary or for Christ himself in Western art from an early period; it represents glory. How far should we read it as a vulva? Well, Althaus-Reid is far from being the only person to notice the resemblance and, as a reminder that the Word only becomes flesh by being born of a woman, the vulval imagery really can’t be ignored.

Indecent Theology introduces the reader to a range of other images of Mary which work at the intersection of the Virgin and Christ (pp.80-1); for example, Santa Librada, who in what Althaus-Reid calls ‘the transvestite theology of the poor’ is a version of the saint I know as Wilgefortis (or ‘Uncumber’). In Western representations she’s often shown with the beard she grew in answer to a prayer that she should be saved from marriage. In this 18th-century representation from Bogotá, however, she is shown as a young woman, with no facial hair. Why? To me, this is so much less shocking than the bearded images, but the position of the saint as the crucified one – prefiguring Edwina Sandys’ Christa (1975)? – may alarm other viewers.

Image result for santa librada


But back to the static womb. Reading Althaus-Reid reminded me of another Madonna in Western art: Salisbury Cathedral’s 1981 Walking Madonna by Elisabeth Frink. Interviewing Frink in 1981, Norman St John-Stevas commented on her female figures, ‘I wonder whether they actually would carry a child; they don’t look to me like childbearing ladies’. I suspect that tells us more about him than about Frink. At Salisbury, Mary is older; tired; post-Resurrection; and at the level of the viewer. When I first saw this bronze statue, what struck me was the obvious point that she has her back to the Cathedral, moving out into the world with her purposeful stride. I know that staying in the church is often painful, and walking away is often appealing; is thinking about turning my back on the church a fair response to a piece of art created by a woman brought up in the Roman Catholic church who, in that interview with Norman St John-Stevas, remarked that she had been left with ‘very strong views on Catholicism and what it does and doesn’t do with relation to human beings’?

Reading Althaus-Reid, however, perhaps the most radical aspect of all is simply that Frink’s Madonna is not static, but on the move!

Image result for walking madonna frink wikimedia commons

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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1 Response to The indecent Virgin

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 30 March 2019 – Thinking Anglicans

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