The Gospel According to Woman
Karen Armstrong The Gospel According to Woman:
Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West (first published 1986)
A review by Frank Hepple
(Reviewed April 2011)
This book looks at the position of women in Christian society over the centuries, the great problems and damage it caused them, the attitudes of men toward women and women’s attempts to overcome these problems.
Armstrong became a nun in 1962 at the age of 17 then left the order in 1969,and thus perhaps has a particularly acute awareness of her topic in this book. She says she feels she has always been, and always will be, a nun.
This book, unlike much theological literature, is lucidly written, easily read, and yet at the same time is scholarly, authoritative and thoroughly researched.
Armstrong sees sex as the major problem. Women have been treated as inferior in all cultures – as men’s chattels – as physically and mentally weaker. She sees this as due to a neurosis of men’s fear of women’s sexuality, leading to a fear and hatred of sex which permeates Christianity today and has done so since the second century. This neurotic fear was significantly promoted by the early church fathers who had a perverted view of women, of the sexual act, of marriage, and of virginity. Their hysterical writings, which Armstrong quotes extensively, reveal the magnitude of this perversion. The particular culprits are Jerome (Latin translator of the Vulgate), Augustine and Tertullian, with Ambrose (dubbed “Doctor of Virginity”), Origen, Luther and others playing less prominent roles. This neurotic fear of sex and sexuality persists to this day and has blighted the sex lives of the majority of Christendom from the second century till now. It also blights the surrounding secular society, but there are some signs of recent improvement. In their attempts to escape oppression women have resorted to various devices, including virginity, martyrdom in its various forms, and mysticism. To be truly saintly she had to combine all three, but there was always the danger of being burnt as a witch if she became too prominent.
The male concept of women’s sexuality was that she was voraciously and insatiably lustful – and the men were terrified. Equally unrealistic was the transformation of these nymphomaniacs into the delicate and sexless angels on pedestals in the Victorian era. The retirement of women into impenetrable virginity, martyrdom and mysticism created independent women who had thrown off the yoke of dependency on the male. This strand within Christianity has assisted the success of the feminist movement today.
Her conclusion is that “when men and women are able to detach themselves from old unproductive patterns of behaviour and cease to define their sex by hating each other, there will be an end of the sex war”.
This book is unfortunately out of print, but easily obtained second-hand on the net. It should be required reading for all clerics, school children and married couples.