Of Women and the Freedom to be Holy

There is a story told in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about a young French man and an Arabian woman who fall in love. As Frankenstein’s monster is telling his creator about how he came to understand language, sorrow, love, and human feeling, he retells the love story of Felix and Safie, a young couple who inhabit the cottage into which he is spying. Frankenstein is a rich novel, and the autobiographical tale of the monster is especially moving, but there is a tangent within it that I found particularly interesting.

As the monster retells Christian Safie’s story of escape from her Islamic father, he notes that Safie did everything in her power to stay in Europe, where she, as a woman, would have a fair place and the opportunity to live her life as she saw fit.

“Safie related that her mother was a Christian Arab, seized and made a slave by the Turks…The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion and an independence of spirit…This lady died, but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue…

Remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her.”

This passage shocked me, to be quite honest. I studied English literature at a very conservative school, and still I was taught that Mary Shelley saw herself as an outsider, doomed for her great talent that was viewed as incongruous with her gender; that she perhaps even wrote herself into Frankenstein’s monster: built of broken pieces, and separated from the loving embrace of human understanding.

English: Portrait of Mary Shelley

English: Portrait of Mary Shelley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps this is true (who am I to say), but there is, at least, here in her masterpiece work, an appreciation of what Christianity alone provided women in the 18th and 19th centuries: the freedom to be human. Safie is, after all, seeking only to be allowed to pursue virtue, to learn, to deepen her soul, and to marry a man she loves. She knows that it is only a Christian nation that can provide that freedom for her.

This is a part of the Christian story, a part of the Bible itself, that I think we’ve too often forgotten to tell, bowing, in our own way, to the common modern idea that Christianity is, at its core, oppressive to women. Instead of fighting back tooth and nail we most often answer only that Christian wives and mothers are very happy, or that women want the strong manly leaders our churches encourage. And that’s really not the story we need to be telling.

Perhaps instead we should talk about Mary, not only allowed, but encouraged to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn, instead of being relegated to household chores. Maybe we could talk about Mary Magdalene, one of the great redemption stories of the New Testament. Why don’t we talk about Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, who were given excellent educations and able to devote themselves to a life of rich spirituality, producing important theological contributions to our understanding of the spiritual life. Why don’t we talk about Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Browning, all of whom were able to express their great talent in previously unprecedented ways, not despite of, but because of the Christian society to which they owed what freedom they had, and which would continue to give their progeny ever more opportunities to be as fully human as God made them. This is the story we’re not fighting hard enough to tell—perhaps because we’re not fighting hard enough to see it be ever more true.

When Mary Shelley wrote Safie in 1816, she saw unique freedom and respect for women in Christianity, but somewhere in the following 200 years it became the religion of oppression, leaving it up to our secular counterparts to champion the cause of the marginalized and to cry out for equality, without ever understanding that God had already told us how much he valued every human life, and therefore had given us all the reason we would ever need to free the oppressed.

Christianity is, after all, the religion that teaches its followers to treat slaves as brothers, to adopt the orphans, to set the captives free. It is the religion that teaches that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no distinction between slave and free, between the many races of the earth, or between male and female. Hear me rightly here: This is not a declaration that gender is meaningless; in fact, I think it’s quite possible and most probable that being a holy woman looks different than being a holy man (just as holiness in me will look different than holiness in you). What must be universal, however, is freedom for each and every person, regardless of race, position, or gender, to pursue holiness; we must fight to give everyone the chance to live out of the depths of their own soul and the heights of their God-given talents.  I believe that Jesus shows us how to do this by example when he looks an outcast woman of another race in the eye and frees her to sin no more, or calls a hated tax collector out of a tree and asks him to dinner and a new way of life.

Christianity is the religion that teaches that everyone has an opportunity to be a child of God, without mediation or restriction, and to live an abundant life in Christ. At its essence, this is the story of our faith, and we should consider it soberly and then champion it in every possible avenue and opportunity.

This is the story we should be shouting from our rooftops, and at this time of year in particular, we can.

Truly he taught us to love one another

His law is love, and his gospel is peace

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother

And in His name, all oppression shall cease.

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  • Tara

    You bring up a great point. After hearing a missionary talk about the longing for “relationship” that Arab women have, our culture should give Christianity more credit. Even the so-called despair that many women feel over being single should be celebrated. Western women should be grateful we even have the opportunity to make our own choices about matrimony and the pursuit of romance.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Interesting cultural analysis. Thanks for this piece.

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    This is an especially poignant reminder in the midst of the cultural conversation initiated by the release of Half the Sky. It’s so easy to see gender inequality as an issue of male vs. female, but the truth is that gender inequality is an issue of sinful selfishness vs. Gospel-transformed servanthood. The Gospel is what frees women, the Gospel is what elevates their status, the Gospel is what calls us to respect and value each other. In this sense, the reductionist approach that looks to women as the “solution” misunderstands the essence of the problem, and as a result will not ultimately accomplish the equality we long for. Only the Gospel displayed and at work in the lives of men and women can do this.

  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    Thank you. These are good thoughts, and important ones.

    I can’t speak for Mary Shelley’s experience, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s saying both things at once. As contradictory as they are, in my own life, I’ve found both to be true.

    Sometimes Christian culture tells me that I am a monster. Never in so many words, never on purpose; usually it’s tucked inside a carelessly over-enthusiastic celebration of God’s beautiful design for all women… except for me.

    Christian culture doesn’t mean to tell me that I’m a monster, but it does nonetheless, and I feel it down to the core of this soul of mine, not woman enough to fit their categories, too much a woman not to care.

    But the gospel sets me free.

    The gospel beckons me to a holiness that transcends gender, inviting me to sit at the feet of Jesus. The gospel offers me the better part, and promises that it will not be taken away from me. Above all, the gospel gives me Christ himself, the Way that transforms all oppression into liberty, and all shame into the surpassing honor of kinship with God incarnate.

    The gospel sets me free, but the gospel is hidden thing, and sometimes it can be hard to see. Ever since the apostle Peter stopped eating with the gentiles, Christians have had a long history of temporary amnesia, of forgetting the full power of the gospel. Of slipping back into that old habit of putting too much stock in the shape of the flesh.

    But the gospel sets me free, and it sets before me a fear of God that washes away all lesser fears, making them utterly irrelevant.

    This is what set apart the holy women of old, and this is our calling, now as in every age.

    It’s something no culture has any power to give or to take away, and it’s something all Christian cultures have honored, even if only after the fact.

    It’s the gift–and the command–of Jesus himself.

  • Jessica Snell

    This is so good, Cate. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erin.zoutendam Erin Risch Zoutendam

    I think the Frankenstein passage is an interesting piece of evidence, and I agree with everything you say here about Christianity and the value of women. However, I don’t think this issue is as simple as “championing it in every possible avenue and opportunity.” I don’t think the outside world is going to listen to us say that Christianity values each woman (and indeed, each human being) until we as Christians honestly deal with what is, unfortunately, a tradition not entirely devoid of misogyny. And I say that as someone who deeply loves the church tradition.

    But you’ve got people like Tertullian writing to women, “You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.” And you have Augustine asking why women were created at all and concluding that it was only for procreation. Certainly these viewpoints are not shared by all of the historical church, but many of those who formed the Christianity we know today had views of women that we’d really rather conceal.

    Until we honestly acknowledge and confront this past, I don’t think that any amount of trumpeting is going to be seen as sincere or as a good-faith gesture by non-Christians.

  • Maranatha John

    I believe every woman has a God-ordained purpose, and unfortunately many of them have not risen up to claim it. I love Dag Heward-Mills’ “Daughter you can make it”. It’s a fantastic book that I believe every woman should read.