Monday, November 18, 2013

Women of the Ekklesia

We meant to post this tidbit last week, but time permits us very little these days.  Still, while preparing our exegetical notes for Sunday's sermon, we spent some profitable hours with one of the Lord's many annoying injunctions.

Speaking of what his followers will be called to endure as the end draws closer, Jesus offers them the dubious solace that this will be their chance to offer "testimony," a word that is of course cognate with "martyrdom."  And of this testimony, he says:
So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves. (St. Luke 21: 14)
This is, as we said, annoying, not least to those of us who spend much of our week preparing our own testimony of sorts, a "defense" or "apology" in the classical sense, not of ourselves but of Christ himself.  Is Jesus really demanding that we just wing it, week in and week out?  Some preachers think so, and perhaps they are correct.

In any case, this passage bears a little more attention.  In Greek, it reads:

The key words here -- promeletan apologethenai -- are, so a commentary told us, a technical expression from Athenian forensics, meaning specifically to memorize the speech with which one will defend a person in court or a proposition in debate.

Historically, memorization has been the mark of a skilled orator.  Cicero, we are told, spent many hours memorizing his speeches.  So have preachers through much of history, right up to the present.  (This was, for example, the custom of our own mentor Walter Kortrey).  For that matter, how many church members have been encouraged, in recent years, to memorize "an elevator speech," some sort of capsule account of their faith or the mission of their church.  (Nondenom here, Episcopal here, Orthodox here.  Oh, and atheist here). That Jesus recommends doing otherwise is noteworthy, but takes us into waters deeper than we choose to navigate just now.

Looking for an extra-Biblical use of this term, we were directed by our lexicon to a play we have not previously encountered, by a playwright we thought we knew better.  Aristophanes' Women of the Assembly appears to be a bookend to his more famous Lysistrata.  Both are about women taking charge and upsetting the social order.  In Lysistrata, they withhold sex until their menfolk end an onerous war.  In Women of the Assembly, they go further, and take over the government itself.  They wear false beards, make pompous speeches, and eventually institute a regime of equal distribution and more-or-less-free love, in which men are free to sleep around, provided they sleep with ugly women before pretty ones.  It is all, apparently, a satire upon the excesses of this then-still-new Athenian idea called "democracy."

The phrase in question occurs at line 117, rendered freely here by G. Theodoridis:
Praxagora:  We can make excellent speeches exactly because we are women!  Better than any man can.  They say that buggered youths make splendid orators, don’t they? Now, do we women know about fucking or don’t we?  We’re naturals, right? 
First Woman:  Oh, I don’t know, really.  Lack of experience is a dreadful thing, you know.  I mean about speeches. 
Praxagora: But that’s precisely why we’re here, darling; to get ourselves all prepared with what we’re going to say in there. [προμελετήσωμεν ἁκεῖ δεῖ λέγειν.]  Now, put your beards on quickly and, those of you who are ready to speak go ahead and speak!
First Woman:  Ha!  We’re all ready Praxagora! Who among us is not an absolute specialist in the art of talking, ey? Fucking and talking! We’re brilliant!
Well.  That's ... politically incorrect.

Anyway, here are the women "getting themselves all prepared" as orators do.  Not to mention crossdressing and talking about sex, all of it funnier then than it might be now -- but it would still be pretty funny, if you played it right.  Aristophanes isn't especially nice to women, but then he isn't nice to men, either.  Or to Socrates.

One thing about this play that will resonate with readers now in a way it could not have with its original audience is the title.  In Greek it is Έκκλησιάζουσαι -- "Ekklesiazusae."  The word ekklesia, assembly, has been so taken over by the Christian community that it is a challenge for us now to read it any other way.  If we did not know that this was a play about women in government, we would translate its title as "The Church Ladies."

This, in turn, adds an interesting element to the scene in which the women practice their speeches.  When one of them swears "by Demeter and Persephone," the ringleader berates her for using the names of goddesses, which will give away their identities.  She corrects herself, and swears by Apollo instead.  The implication is that men default to a masculine image of the divine, women to a feminine one.

Is this true?  Probably not, in our time any more than in ancient Greece.  Yet it is not entirely untrue, either.  From the 1970s through the 1990s, there was a lively discussion within American Christianity about how we would speak of God.  This went far beyond merely changing a few pronouns and saying "Lord" less often.  Although it is hard to believe in retrospect, there were serious voices advocating, with some success, a radical restatement of the Trinitarian name -- formulations like "Mother, Lover and Friend" were thrown around freely.  Perhaps we lead a sheltered life, but it seems to us that the dust has largely settled.  If the textual editing of hymnals like ELW and The New Century Hymnal seems heavy-handed, it is worth reflecting that things might well have gone much further.

Not coincidentally, the decades during which God's gender was put up for grabs in the theological community were also the decades during which ordained women came to take a larger role in Protestant church life, and the pressure to ordain women in Roman Catholicism began to mount (at least in America).

We're not sure where to go with all this, except to point out that an ancient pagan playwright neatly predicted a curious development in modern Christianity.  We aren't sure how, if at all, we might bring this insight to bear on the passage from Luke 21.  On the other hand, three years will pass before that one comes around again on the guitar, so we have plenty of time.  Let us know if you think of anything.

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